Lost in the 24-Hour Japanese Supermarket
A man bearing a basket full of kawaii candies walks into a bar…
November 28, 2013 | Cake | December 2013
On a drunken romp one evening in October, I wound up roaming the aisles of a 24-hour Japanese supermarket in Honolulu. Through the many aisles filled with items ranging from small electronics, hair products, fresh produce, and plumbing equipment, I came upon a medley of Asian snacks and candies—a diverse spread of colors and sizes in different paper boxes and plastic wrappers. I bought two things and left, ambling home and chewing on what I thought were old Starburst chews and a big bag of cashews.
The next morning, as I got ready to leave my house, I noticed the empty, crumpled food wrappers sitting next to my wallet on the table. One was for some sort of deep fried soy sauce crackers. The old Starbursts turned out to be butter-flavored caramels. Both had little mascots on the front of the package—the crackers with two round, gasping beans and the caramels with a square-headed angry little baseball player. What the hell did I buy?
I opened the wrappers to see if there was anything left inside but there wasn’t, and the closest I got to tasting butter caramels that morning was by sniffing the wrappers and trying to remember the night before.
Later that day, I evaluated my situation. Part of me never wanted to take a drunken stroll through a grocery store at midnight ever again. But a bigger part of me wanted to go back through and try all the candies. Were all the snacks that bizarre or had I just picked out two terrible choices? Perhaps the soy sauce crackers and the butter caramels were actually the best options on the shelf. I had to know for sure.
I called a buddy of mine, Rich, and asked if he’d be free a few evenings later to taste-test a variety of Asian snacks and he said sure, that he didn’t have plans that weekend. Donna, a friend of his, asked to tag along. I was initially suspicious, but Rich explained that she had gone on previous excursions trying Mexican candies made with rock salt and chili pepper, which seemed to qualify her more than either of us combined.
We arrived at the store—Don Quijote, pronounced the same as the Cervantes novel but with no apparent relation—a few evenings later, and headed straight for the snack and candy section. There they all were, dozens of them spanning three aisles, six rows tall, most just two or three dollars. I found the cashew/soy sauce crackers instantly, with their gasping bean wrappers.
The butter caramels were harder to locate, nestled in a corner. They sat amongst an assortment of other caramels, with flavors ranging from the conventional (melon, strawberry, chocolate) to the unconventional (corn, potato), and each with a different disgruntled mascot.
The chocolate varieties had twin girls with matching green afros and alternating skin tones (for milk and white chocolate, respectively), while the potato caramels were embodied by some sort of plantation owner, complete with wide-brimmed hat and pitchfork. I grabbed the butter caramel (of course), as well as the corn, melon, and potato variations.
With the previous evening’s flavors assembled, we searched for new options, deciding on what to purchase based on size, price, and name. The Fruity Pudding and Lunch Box Jelly were tempting but ‘family sized,’ big containers filled to the brim with small gelatin shots. We considered it, but passed.
Across the aisle, we found smaller objects, like chocolate ‘everyburgers,’ and a bag of Banana Kicks. Colored tubes filled with Teddy Bear cookies. Sumo wrestlers deep frying crackers. Jagabee Happee French Fry salad. Hot chili and seaweed medleys. All of it, into the shopping basket.
Crunky chocolate bar? Yes, please. And how spicy are these noodle wheat crackers? Mexican spicy? We’ll take it. By the time we got to the cash register, our shopping basket was sagging, full of sausage-flavored rice cakes, green tea Kit Kats, and dried wasabi peas.
At the checkout counter, we asked the neutral cashier whether or not she had tasted any of these delicious cultural treats. She said no.
With our big bag, we thought of places to go and I decided on the Irish Rose Saloon on the outskirts of Waikiki. Thursday night meant rock and roll music and discounts on whiskey and the Rose didn’t care if customers brought in outside food. Jackpot.
Twenty minutes later, we’re there, sitting near the rear with a vodka tonic for Rich, and beers for Donna and I. Rich readied a notebook and competed with Donna on rock-paper-scissors to see what we’d try first. Donna won and selected the banana-flavored cheese doodles.
The Kick sticks were pasty yellow and resembled a cross between puffy Cheetos and packing peanuts. To their credit, they smelled and tasted like banana, left no residue on the hands, and seemed to vanish instantly in the mouth as if we were eating hard foam. The back of the package warned that the products were “manufactured in a facility that also processes wheat, soy, peanut, and crustacean shellfish.” Unusual, but not terrible, and after a few more samples, we cleared our palette with beers and moved on.
Next we tried handfuls of arare, a Japanese cracker flavored with soy sauce consumed fairly commonly in Hawai’i. They’re thick and crunchy like compacted Funyuns but with a richer, sweet/salty teriyaki flavor. Good.
Rich suggested the next item: the mini chocolate “everyburgers” that came on a little tray in a fold-up box.
I expected some kind of beef-flavored chocolate bites, but pleasantly discovered them to be straight silky milk chocolate in-between two burger bun-shaped wafers, complete with actual sesame seeds.
Jesus, she says, and then asks if this is what we do for a living.
Sort of, I say, and we offer her a mini cheeseburger. Still balancing the tray of empty drinks, she shrugs, tries one, and agrees that they’re pretty good. She refuses the Banana Kick though. Oh well.
The night goes on. We continue, moving through Jagabee Happee dehydrated French Fry ‘salad.’ Hash brown-style, deep-fried breakfast biscuits. “Crunky” crunch chocolate. Semi-soft jelly candy in an edible rice paper wrapper. More snacks, more beers. Another buddy, Raul, joins us midway through the evening and we make him cycle through all the snacks to catch up with us.
It comes time to try the butter-flavored caramel and Donna orders a shot of tequila straight up. I open the package, sealed with plastic wrap and a pull-tab like a cigarette box, revealing a long tray filled with individually wrapped square chews. I pass around the box and we each take one, glancing at one another to see who goes first. They point to me.
It does taste like butter, sort of, in the same the way that butter-flavored jellybeans do. Rich disagrees, comparing them more to finding an un-popped popcorn kernel at the bottom of a bag at the movies. Donna disagrees with both of us and says they just taste terrible. We move through the rest of the caramels, all of them different oily versions of their listed flavors (melon, corn, and potato), and go back to the Mexican noodles and our beers.
We take a break from the snack marathon to chat about our favorite childhood snacks and to muse about the assortment of foods we had selected. I thought about the process that went into creating all these sweet and salty snacks—the factories overseas that produced Banana Kicks or the Everyburgers by the thousands, and the employees dedicated to their creation. The advertising team (or the lonesome graphic designer) who developed the little mascots on the side of the boxes. The delivery truck driver. Who were these good people who had worked to bring us these snacks? And who did they imagine their consumers were? Certainly not the four of us, munching on Crunky chocolate amidst beers and vodka tonics and tequila. For a moment, I felt terrible, washed over with shame and guilt. Had I desecrated these treats by creating a buffet?
Suddenly, a stranger appears in front of our table. He looks like a bad John Belushi impersonator and appears very drunk.
“You look like the most interesting people here,” he says loudly, tilting on his feet unsteadily. Rich thanks him.
“What do you all do?” he asks quickly, and just as loudly. Raul tells him he’s a photographer, I say I write. Donna’s a director. Rich writes too.
“Woah,” Bad John Belushi says. “Are you going to write about this?”
Maybe, I say. The waitress comes by and asks us quietly if this guy’s bothering us. Rich says he thinks we’re okay. She nods and leaves. Bad John Belushi watches her go.
“I’ve tried to ask her out so many times,” he declares.
How many times have you tried to ask her out? I ask.
You should ask her out one more time. Lucky number four.
“You think so?”
“Okay, I’m gonna do it.” He squints at me, nods back, and stumbles away. The waitress is sitting with the bouncer near the bar, she’s fine, and before the ingenious gentleman can even get halfway to her, a wild-looking woman with a big tattoo on her back grabs him and they spin around and onto the dance floor.
Nice, Rich says. Redirect. We clink our glasses, cheers. A few minutes later, the waitress re-appears with fresh drinks and we ask her if that guy’s a regular. She shakes her head. Has he really asked her out three times? I ask. He’s never asked her out, she says. He’s just been going around the bar making an ass of himself all night.
Oh, the four of us say, glancing around at one another. The waitress leaves and we return to the food. We’ve run out of things to test, so we’ve shifted gears to straight snacking, mostly on the better food items, like the noodles and the wasabi-flavored peas.
Suddenly, Bad John Belushi is back and he’s brought with him the wild-looking woman he was grinding with on the dance floor.
“This is my sister,” he declares. Burps.
Hi, we say.
“Oh my God,” Bad John Belushi’s Sister says, staring at Donna. “Oh my God, I have to talk to you.” She comes around to the side of the table, next to Rich and starts muttering something to Donna. Raul and I are left with her brother, who’s still standing in front of us and staring, lips weirdly pursed. I have a moment of clarity.
“Hey,” I say to him. “Do you want to try some of this candy?”
“Candy?” he asks loudly, eyes wide. “Hell yes I want some candy.”
“Good, try this one,” I say, handing him the box of butter caramels. “In fact, try a bunch.”
“All right,” he says, grabbing the box. “What are these, Starburst?”
I nod. Raul glances at me. Bad John Belushi opens four of the caramels and pops them in his mouth, chewing enthusiastically. His jaw slows a few seconds later.
Uggnnhh, he says. UGGNNHH.
“No? You don’t like them?” I ask. He shakes his head, no, he doesn’t like them.
“Are you sure?”
He shakes his head no again. He doesn’t know what to do with the caramels so he keeps chewing on them. Drool runs down his chin. UGGNNHH.
“Okay, spit them out,” I say, pointing to the trash bag open on the seat next to us. He leans over and spits them out and comes up gasping for air. He takes a few steps backward and ambles away confused, like a cat that sneezes and becomes disoriented and fearful.
The four of us decide to leave. When the waitress returns, we pay the tab, thank her, and amble out to the street. Once outside, we nod and laugh and say our goodbyes outside the bar. It was an enlightening experience, but we agree to never do this again.
I go for half a block before realizing that I’m still holding the grocery bag, filled with the partially eaten candies. The packages have opened up, a medley of sweet and salty snacks intermingling and sticking to one another and when I make it to the trash bin at the next block, I dump the entire bag.
Before I do, I gingerly remove the small box of butter caramels and slip them into my pocket. For later.