Japanese candy surpasses American in many regards. The candies feature exciting, unusual flavors (musk melon, kabocha pumpkin, soy sauce), packaging that’s covered with animated figures and enthusiastic graphics, playful shapes and colors—qualities not often associated with, say, Raisinets.
And then there’s the taste. Japanese candy is, on the whole, more delicious. The orange is tangier, the lemon is more mouth-puckering, and the caramel is creamier—the chocolate is about the same, but it comes wrapped around interesting things, like toasted barley. Take that, Kit Kat!
There’s also a lot of it. To assemble a representative testing sample, we scoured candy aisles at stores like Sunrise Mart, JAS Mart, Katagiri, and Mitsuwa in Edgewater, New Jersey, and called two major importers (Daiei Trading and Central Boeki, who sent us giant, Willy Wonka–like crates). We created four categories: CARAMEL/MILKY, HARD, CHOCOLATE/CRUNCHY, and GUMMY. Our panel was led by the expert taste buds of Nicole Bermensolo, who lived in Japan for two years and is now co-owner of the Japanese dessert café Kyotofu.
Japanese gummies not only come in more interesting flavors than their Western counterparts, they’re double the intensity without any of the teeth cling. Kasugai’s muscat and grape gummies were potent and perfume-y, while its litchi was “uninteresting.” Vitamin C–enhanced grapefruit jelly beans (also from Kasugai) were tart and addictive. The aloe-yogurt flavor of Morinaga’s Hi-Chew was “intriguingly tart,” and the mango flavor “superior to Starburst.” Shigekix’s cola-flavored variety got mixed reviews (“battery-acid dusting on an air-dried Jujube, but addictive”).
Winner: Kasugai’s melon gummy ($2.49 at M2M), for its uncannily realistic summer-fruit taste. “Like a cross between a cantaloupe and a honeydew,” said one taster.
The most frequent comment in this category was how multidimensional Japanese candy’s flavors are. The pink, ume plum-flavored E-ma Nodo Ame, for example, “start out hard and sour, and wind up chewy, like a Sweetart with a minty burst halfway through.” We had high hopes for kuromame— a black soybean–flavored candy—but nobody liked it. “It tastes like ketchup,” said a panelist. Cucu’s green tea and milk candy was a beautiful, opaque marbled square, but the green tea flavor didn’t come through strongly. Two soy-sauce candies from Kanro and Nisshin were not popular. “Like something from Grandma’s candy dish,” said one. Samplers went for seconds on Sakura’s flower-shaped hard candies, in flavors like cherry, apple, yuzu, and grape. “Less sweet and much cuter than Jolly Ranchers,” said a taster.
Winner: E-ma’s plum candy ($2.79 at Sunrise Mart). “It keeps changing as you suck it,” said one taster.
The Japanese excel in combining starch and sugar (although the chocolate-covered potato sticks weren’t so great), and at first, the widely loved Pocky (a species of candy-dipped skinny breadsticks) was leading this category. Then we opened the bag of Mugi-Choko—milk chocolate–coated puffed barley. “Chocolate and barley: Aren’t those both superfoods?” one panelist asked hopefully. “Perfect movie food,” said another. Bourbon Choco-Zutsumi—small mochi balls filled with creamy chocolate—were seductive, but too pastry-like to be candy.
Winner: Teicalo’s cocoa candy ($3.05 at Sunrise Mart), with its dusting of bitter cocoa over a hard center. It delivers an intense but not overly sweet, long-lasting chocolate experience.
Japanese milk candies have an appealing, tongue-coating sweet-creamy texture that gives a mouthfeel similar to eating vanilla ice-cream. Bermensolo pointed out that the packaging on the milk candies often mentions Hokkaido, a region in Japan associated with “wholesome milk and butter”—in other words, a Japanese Wisconsin. Fujiya Peko pineapple milk candy “was like a bite-size smoothie,” one taster said. Morinaga Black Sugar Caramel had “a taffy texture and a dark molasses taste,” and Glico Gaba Milk Chocolate (GABA is an amino acid supposed to reduce stress) made tasters wonder why domestic candy makers aren’t experimenting with this. Bermensolo liked the toasted soy flour in the Tokachi Kinako Caramel. “We use this flavor in the restaurant a lot,” she said.
Winner: Meiji Chelsea Yogurt Scotch ($1.29 at Mitsuwa), which was called “tangy, creamy, unexpected.”