Seasonal Sakura

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Seasonal Sakura

Christmas can start as early as September in the UK, with decorations going up and seasonal specials on sale. Cadbury’s crème eggs have even been spotted in October, many months before Easter…

It’s not quite as bad in Japan, but still – despite the February snow – the spring time cherry blossom is hotly anticipated with posters, decorations and products submerging Tokyo in pink.

There are even seasonal brews from the big beer companies, with the limited edition cans adorned with shiny flowers.

Starbucks coffee shops also prove to be no exception, with these delightful if very creamy sakura flavoured specials on sale already. Daughter #1 was persuaded to sample the latte, which came with festive pink sprinkles, but not the sakura chiffon cake complete with blossom bud.

Her verdict: who can tell what cherry blossom really tastes like? The best drink by far was a regular hot chocolate topped with pink blossom shaped marshmallows.

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Lavender Tea

Would it have been unreasonable to hope this tea was actually lavender in colour?

Probably… although I was a bit disappointed to discover there was very little by way of lavender in the smell and taste, either.

The flower fields of Hokkaido in summer are as gorgeous and famous as those in Holland, with lavender in particular a major crop. Farm Tomita at Naka Furano is one of the biggest producers, and over the years have managed to turn their flowers into a range of fascinating products ranging from bath salts to candy and flavoured sodas.

It’s a while since I visited the actual farm, but they have a handy outlet at Sapporo’s New Chitose airport, where I snapped up a few new things to try. As tea goes, this is perfectly refreshing, but nothing out of the ordinary – you have to focus hard to detect a glimmer of lavender flavour. But it makes for an interesting souvenir and (especially since Hokkaido was knee deep in snow at the time) brings back happy memories of summer.

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Sweetcorn Tea

Another Hokkaido speciality, from the Tsuchikura company which is based in Sapporo, this corn tea looked like a suitably unusual item both to snap up as a souvenir and also mail easily to daughters who were not lucky enough to be out in the wilds of Japan.

A bit of background research revealed that corn tea is thought to have all manner of health-giving properties, from weight loss to blood sugar stabilisation. It is even said to be a powerful diuretic, so that no more than one cup a day is recommended… None of these things appeared to be mentioned on the back of the packet, however.

Having been appalled by the sweetcorn ice cream which is very popular up here, I was expecting the worst with this, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. The tea had a nice roasted smell and the sweetness of corn, whilst still retaining a distinctly ‘tea’ flavour. It reminded me very much of other (non green) Japanese teas like barley and roasted rice, which I enjoy once in a while.

I won’t be buying more any time soon, even if I do go back to Hokkaido, but this was fun to try.

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Collagen Coffee

Category : Food

There’s a growing number of food and cosmetic products laced with collagen, all of which promise to slow the aging process by boosting the production of this structural protein in your body. I know you have to take these claims with a pinch of salt, but then I see something new and feel I have try it out…

So here is collagen coffee, fresh from Thailand and apparently containing goji berry extract as well for added anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Careful perusal of the packet reveals that each sachet of instant coffee contains 7% collagen and 5% goji, which is actually more than I was expecting. More than 65%, however, is dairy creamer, as this is one of the 3 in 1 instant drinks so beloved of SE Asians.

There are scientific studies out there which delve into the helpfulness or otherwise of consuming collagen, and the general consensus seems to be that your average female would need to eat around 10g a day to see any effect on their skin.

There is so little collagen in these sachets that you’d have to drink more than 50 cups a day to achieve that amount, which is plainly ridiculous. But maybe every little helps…

Anyway, facing up to one of those days where there was more to do than energy available, plus a deadline looming, I decided the moment had come to give this product a go.

And it was not half as bad as I was expecting, for the first half cup. Then a strange after taste began to creep up on me, which I suspect was more to do with the artificial sweetener than anything else, and in the end, I had to pour the rest away. The packet is still in the cupboard, but I am keeping it for emergencies only.

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Drinking Ants

Singapore is currently in the throes of a cocktail revolution, with bars doing their best to outshine each other with ever more unusual offerings.

One of the latest openings is Native, which aims to source as much as possible from local or at least Asian manufacturers. This means fresh ingredients foraged from nearby, including coasters cut from leaves, ceramic drinks containers and batik edged aprons made by local artisans, and spirits originating in Asia rather than international brands. Think Thai whisky, Indian rum, and Sri Lankan arrack…

There are also the ‘shock’ additions to capture your attention. Like the TCM performance enhancing tongkat ali root whose extract is a key part of the Red Light District cocktail. Or the crunchy ants on a leaf which tops the Antz – this one served in a ceramic ‘anthill’ and including a nitro component which gives you ‘dragon’s breath’ to contend with as well as the actual ants.

Native is also a ‘secret’ bar, more or less invisible from the street unless you know which door to try and that there really is something exciting at the top of the stairs. I suspect I will be going back until I have tried everything on the menu!

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Weasel Coffee

Currently giving Jamaican Blue Mountain a run for its money as the most expensive cup of coffee you can buy, ‘weasel’ coffee is something that divides the men from the boys.

I have lost count of the people I know who have recoiled in horror from the thought of trying this, which is a shame although understandable.

The problem is that the coffee beans have been through the digestive tract of the weasel, which in certain SE Asian countries has learned to steal the ripe berries from the coffee bushes as a delicious and stimulating snack. The beans inside the berries are deposited later and have to be ‘harvested’ from the weasel poo before going through the usual roasting and grinding process.

I have no idea what prompted the coffee farmer who discovered this to actually try it in the first place, but it has become a premium product. And I guess the high price is justified by the trouble you have to go through to retrieve the digested beans, which – even if you ‘farm’ them by feeding the berries to caged weasels – is still fairly disgusting.

Also, however you get your hands on the beans, there are never very many of them so they have a rarity value, not to mention that they need extra treatment to make them fit for human consumption.

In the end, is it worth it apart from the shock value? I would say it is. The flavour of the resulting brew has a richer, mellower taste, which makes it a better drink.

Mind you, as weasel coffee tends to come from Vietnam and other SE Asian countries where the beans often have a more sharp, sour flavour then the classic S American varieties, this is probably an important improvement.

You can now get weasel coffee in all sorts of forms, from the beans or basic grind to the fancy ‘origami’ coffee filters which balance over your cup as they drip. It also comes in varying grades and strengths, and even from specific areas. (My most recent purchase of’ kopi luwak’ – not the one pictured – is sourced from the slopes of the Kintamani volcano in Bali, which makes it even more interesting.)

As I first had this in Vietnam, where coffee comes sweetened with a big dollop of condensed milk, I tend to drink it this way at home, too. And when they have it in the supermarket, I can use the ‘stay fresh longer’ tubes of chocolate flavoured condensed milk to make myself a weasel mocha. Perfect!

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Hospital Coffee

For such a tiny island, there is a great deal that is unique about Singapore. The city state, barely 50 years old, has managed to blend a diverse collection of races, religions and cultural heritages into something spectacular and instantly recognisable.

Often, I take this for granted, then something unexpected will catch my eye and bring it all home again.

So I present the free coffee machine in one of the waiting areas at Singapore General Hospital, where I spent a fair amount of time over the recent holidays (husband with dengue fever, daughter needing minor surgery…).

Some of the drinks on offer are standard – coffee, cappuccino, latte, mocha – but look more closely and you’ll see some decidedly local options there as well.

Teh Tarik means ‘pulled’ tea, and in street-side stalls you can see the tea being poured from a great height between 2 containers to improve the flavour by mixing the tea and milk really thoroughly. The smoother texture and frothier top are an added bonus. Heaven knows how they achieve this through a machine, but many Singaporeans are addicted to 3-in-1 packet mixes of both tea and coffee, so this is presumably very similar.

Milo is a chocolate malt drink which is ridiculously popular here, especially when served topped with a great heap of the undissolved powder, making it a milo ‘dinosaur’. Obviously this isn’t going to be possible here, but full marks to Nescafe and SGH for providing a spot of extra comfort to bored and worried locals.

(The mocha, incidentally, was really very good.)

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Hot Can

This name makes me laugh, because it describes exactly what you end up with when you try this product. Essentially, it’s a self-heating can that can give you a hot coffee or cocoa, or even a comforting soup, however far you are from the nearest café or kitchen.

There’s a fairly simple science behind it – the insulated aluminium can is made in two parts, with the drink in the outer shell and the chemicals which create the heat in the inner compartment. Although when I say chemicals, these are actually just water and calcium oxide. Pressing a button on the bottom of the can then shaking it for 30 seconds allows them to combine, which creates enough energy to heat the drink by 50 degrees C.

The chemicals never come into contact with the drink, and the bi-products of the reaction are non-toxic and non-flammable, which means that they are not going to harm either you or the environment. The only thing you need to be careful of is the temperature, but there is a heat indicator label on the can which will not only tell you when your drink is ready but also warn you if it has become too hot.

The range here includes tomato and chicken soups as well as tea, coffee, cocoa and mocha, and although the cans are fairly heavy they are probably ideal for long walks and picnics in remote (and chilly) places.

You may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned the taste. There’s a reason for that. They aren’t actually that nice, but the cans do what they say and sometimes you really need a hot drink, so for that reason I am going to cut them some slack.

These are made in Malaysia and currently only available there.



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Sensorium Menu

Cocktail bars are such fun, especially here in Singapore where everyone is trying to outdo each other with new and unusual ideas.

This is from the Tippling Club, and gives you the chance to order by smell rather than from a more conventional menu. A collection of tiny, scented, strips is served up to the table stuck into a cocktail strainer, which is amusing enough in itself.

Each strip is printed with a generic description, and is embedded with the scent of the cocktail it represents. If you need more clues, some outline of the ingredients is on the back, but in fairly vague terms. You will, however, be able to tell what the base spirit is going to be (handy if you don’t for example, want to end up with gin).

The premise is that scents can trigger strong flashbacks, as they travel down the olfactory nerve near those parts of the brain which store memories and emotions, and which are linked to associative learning. And as about 80% of the flavour we experience comes from what we sense with the nose rather than the tongue, all this makes perfect sense as a concept to play with.

This series of cocktails, which are served with humour and style, have apparently been created in collaboration with International Flavours and Fragrances, a company which specialises in innovative sensory experiences.

Here we had a ‘grass’, which was based on tequila with citrus and herbs, plus a ‘caramel’ in which the rum and salted caramel were marvellous in themselves, but thoroughly enhanced by the addition of an old fashioned lollipop. I will be back for more of these!

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Dwaejigamja Tea Filters

Category : Food

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Dwaejigamja looks like it might be sunroot or earth apple, alternative names for Jerusalem artichoke, which is sweeter than you would expect from a tuber. In Korea it is a very popular vegetable which crops up in salads, as a pickle, and here – as tea.

None of which I knew at the time, I was just fascinated by the packaging. Each bag contains 6 mini filters packed with dried dwaejigamja, attached to the sort of screw caps you find on the large size of mineral water bottles.

The idea is you replace the original cap with one of these, leave it to infuse, then enjoy your special tea. I did try to find instructions in English online, without any success, so had to leave the bottle (upside down, to encourage infusion) until it looked like it might be ready to drink.

Jerusalem artichoke, incidentally, is supposed to be good for you because it has lots of antioxidants which fight free radicals, and is packed with minerals and electrolytes such as potassium, iron and copper. On the other hand, consuming too much can also apparently lead to digestive problems.

I did not drink enough of this to experience any untoward effects, as the flavour – whilst not unpleasant – was not quite nice enough to warrant finishing the glass. It reminded me a little of Japanese mugi-cha, which I have to be in the right mood for. Never mind, it was fun to try out and perhaps some of my Christmas visitors might like to give it a go.

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