Over the years, a great many A.V. Club taste tests have focused on cheap, artificial foodstuffs (using that term very loosely) meant to taste like better foodstuffs: popcorn flavored like alcohol; Combos flavored like hamburgers; chips flavored like buffalo wings, macaroni and cheese, pizza, and french fries; and of course everything flavored like bacon. And that’s without even touching on the many Jones Sodas flavored like ham or latke or whatever sounds festive and holiday-ish and like a brutally sadistic anti-customer gag during a given year.
Why so many foods that taste like other foods? Perhaps because Americans are a complicated, bipolar people. We love novelty, but are threatened by change and new ideas. We love food, but hate to be fat, so we tell ourselves a bag of burger-flavored chips is at least less greasy than eating an actual burger. We love convenience, but… well, there are no internal contradictions there. Buying a bag of Bacon-Flavored CheeZie Whatevers at the 7-Eleven on the corner is easier and faster than going home and actually frying (and then cleaning up after) real bacon.
But lazy, food-obsessed, diversity-fearing Americans have nothing on the Japanese, who have found any number of ways to cram familiar flavors into unlikely foods, whether it’s grape, cheesecake, or watermelon KitKats, Tuna Mayonnaise Doritos, or Consommé Pringles. Yet somehow, thanks to the country’s much, much wider array of real-food-flavors-in-convenience-foods, what seems indolent and unimaginative in the States (seriously, how many pizza-flavored products does one country need?) starts to seem ambitious, albeit slightly crazed, coming out of Japan. Face it, here in America, we’d never think to find ways to make a wide variety of candies that taste like fermented soybeans and fish.
Meanwhile, Japan is ready to teach us how it’s done. The country is currently experiencing a boom in “candy drops,” the little tins of hard candies familiar to Studio Ghibli fans from the film Grave Of The Fireflies, a beautiful but heartbreaking animated film directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s partner Isao Takahata. In that movie, a tin of fruit-flavored candy becomes almost a fetish object to two starving, desperate Japanese children in the wake of World War II. That’s an odd association for a harmless candy to carry, but given Grave’s status as an enduring classic of Japanese cinema, it’s an association that’s bound to continue.
Unless, of course, the new candy-drop fad sets up a new set of associations, possibly between candy drops and candy-maker psychosis. Or more positively, between candy drops and regional food specialties. The import website J-List.com currently sells more than 60 flavors of candy drops, many of which are limited-edition attempts to reproduce region-specific foods like Okinawa’s awamori (a distilled rice alcohol), Hokkaido’s ika-meshi (stuffed squid), and Kyoto’s yatsuhashi (sweet bean wraps). And then there’s the “world food drops” line, which includes flavors like tacos, spaghetti, and cheese fondue. When J-List.com recently contacted us to see if we wanted to taste-test anything on their site, we of course went straight for the meat candies. They couldn’t get us all of the most interesting flavors—many of those were seasonal or out of stock—but they obligingly sent over tins of Sapporo Beer, Sake, Sasebo Burger (Sasebo being an area of Nagasaki known for its hamburgers), Sushi (never mind that “sushi” isn’t actually a single flavor in the real, non-hard-candy world), and Katsuo-No-Tataki (seared fish cutlets). Also a tin with no English wording, which depicts two people kissing atop a series of pink hearts; the website translates this flavor as either First Love or First Kiss.
The taste: One consistent reaction Taste Testers had when sampling Japanese candy drops was surprise: The individual candies come coated with fine sugar, likely to keep them from sticking together, so it takes a while to get through the sugar coating and actually taste the candy itself. “This tastes like nothing—whoa!” was a fairly common response.
Sake does taste like a very mild, dry sake. (J-List.com assures us that these drops are made with “the same ingredients as sake,” but that they contain no alcohol.) It’s slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so, and without that throat-searing sake burn. The Beer drops aren’t as assertive; various tasters suggested they got a hint of lemon or banana off them, but not much else. If there were such a flavor as “generic yellow hard candy,” that’s what these would taste like.
The two fish-related flavors prompted a much more powerful reaction. Sushi drops do in fact taste more than a little like sugar-coated tuna sashimi, which is to say mildly fishy and more noticeably meaty, but sweet. It’s a complicated flavor, as though the candy itself were layered, or whatever flavor agents are in these things are unevenly distributed: Rolling one around on the tongue produces little moments of stronger fishiness, like licking ice cream with fish-food flakes embedded in it. It isn’t unpleasant, if you happen to like sashimi, but it’s fairly strange.
Katsuo-No-Tataki (or “tuna,” as most people called it, though bonita usually refers to fish in the mackerel family—though it’s sometimes tuna in Japanese cuisine, just for confusion’s sake) is a meatier, richer flavor, as befits the mostly raw cutlets seen on the tin. There’s no more than a hint of fishiness here, unless you slide the candy all the way to the back of your tongue: It’s a full-bodied, meaty flavor, lacking the sweetness of the sushi candies. The grilled-meat taste, on the other hand, isn’t detectable at all; it’s all raw red fillet flavor.
Burger drops, on the other hand, taste distinctly of the grill. These are by far the most startling of this batch: They taste exactly like seared, low-quality hamburger meat, fresh off the grill and just a bit burned. It’s more a thin, low-quality McDonald’s burger taste than anything else, but it’s distinctive and recognizable, and not at all bad—though likely to launch cravings for ketchup, french fries, and a Coke.
First Kiss drops, of course, taste like strawberry. Not like embarrassment or excitement or spontaneous inappropriate erections or regret or “the crawlspace under the stairs of my Aunt Francie’s yard” or any of the other things our Taste Testers complained that they failed to accurately reproduce.
Where to get it: J-List.com carries these and a frightening array of other candy drops, from roasted corn to—ugh—natto (fermented soybeans).