Most people have heard some of the wacky Kit Kat flavours that exist in Japan – more than 300 varieties, actually – but there is so much more to its snacking scene.
Danny Tang got a taste for Japanese snacks during his four-year stint in the country. While traveling the nation, he stuffed his face with the likes of mango chiffon cakes in Kyushu and Fukuoka’s mentaiko senbei – fried and roasted rice crackers blended with shrimp and a spicy fish roe that are akin to “spicy caviar” and go well with beer.
When Tang returned to the US, he threw a housewarming party where a suitcase full of Japanese snacks was emptied entirely by his friends in one night. But with his stocks depleted, he discovered many of his favourites were impossible to find in American stores.
It planted the seed for Bokksu, a monthly subscription box filled with premium snacks sourced from up to 200 Japanese producers, which launched May 2016. The UK is the fourth largest market worldwide for Bokksu, which also sells snacks individually.
Since starting, the company has unloaded 2m snacks, with items rarely repeated in the boxes – why bother, when there are over 3,000 snacking products that are popular throughout Japan?
Tang says Japanese flavours are trending in countries like the UK due to changes in consumer attitudes.
“Everyone is done with really traditional, sugary-sweet snacks that exist in our countries. They want to discover new interesting flavours and experiences and things that are potentially healthier,” he tells Food Spark.
“I would argue a lot of Japanese snacks are healthier due to lower sugar and the use of more natural ingredients, and it’s also gluten-free as many are rice-based. People bite into these delicious snacks and they are not as heavy. Japanese culture worldwide is also very on trend.”
A taste for tea-infused flavours
One of the most popular snacks Bokksu sells is a white chocolate strawberry, described as “technologically brilliant” by Tang.
“It’s made from an artisanal snack maker, where they take organic strawberries and freeze dry them to remove all of the water content, and then rehydrate them with liquid white chocolate and let it cool. It looks just like a normal strawberry, but when you bite into it you get this smooth, crunchy, tart chocolatey-sweet flavour and texture – it’s really delicious,” he explains.
“It’s the only one in the whole world – there are plenty of white-chocolate-covered strawberries but not white-chocolate-infused strawberries. Every time I give someone a sample their eyes always pop open.”
On the savoury side, Tang says that Japanese rice crackers called senbei, which come in many flavours and are often vegetarian and gluten-free, are also popular, along with fried seaweed snacks. Seaweed tempura with sudachi citrus is a particularly exceptional one, he adds.
“It’s a special type of citrus that is only native to southwestern Japan. It has a very unique tart flavour, but it’s not too sour – it’s a great seasoning for fried things – and people are buying it by the dozenful.”
Bokksu also stocks a snack that Tang says is a good introduction to the adzuki bean, which is common in Japanese desserts. The bean is first stewed in sugar, then coated in white chocolate and matcha.
While matcha has become a common flavouring for desserts in the UK in recent years, Tang predicts that another tea is going to be huge here soon, too, as it is currently taking off in Japan: hojicha, a roasted green variety.
“A lot of people know matcha, but the next big boom is hojicha,” he reveals. “It has a toasted nutty flavour to it, and it’s really delicious and quite good for your digestive system as well. It’s been making the rounds, like in a hojicha latte, and has also been in snacks with tea-infused flavours. We’ve also sold a hojicha chocolate butter cookie, so I think a lot more tea-infused flavours will be coming on board.”
In fact, Bokksu is preparing to launch its own private-label tea in a few months: a green tea with roasted brown rice that has an earthy flavour. The Japanese traditionally eat snacks with tea and the business always does a tea pairing with each box.
Craftsmanship and seasonality
Two aspects make Japanese snacks unique and different to anything you would find in Western countries, says Tang.
The first is their “borderline obsession” with craftsmanship, which is reflected in every detail – from the taste, texture and quality, to extending shelf life without artificial preservatives and employing tech that keeps snacks fresher for longer.
“The second reason is Japan is big on eating seasonally. In the spring you have strawberries, in the winter you have melons, in the summer you have citrus, in fall you have chestnuts, and this influences their snack culture,” he says.
“Pretty much every single season there are new limited-edition snacks, so there is just always this great variety which makes our job a bit easier, as then there are always new things that we have that we can share with members around the world.”