Practically every culture has its tempting snack foods, and Japan is no exception! Umaibo – literally, “tasty stick” – are particularly popular in the country. Made of puffed corn and coming in unique flavors, they have a suggested retail price of 10 yen (less than a dime) – easily affordable by and appealing to kids. Many Japanese likely have warm memories of when they were children and would go to a neighborhood dagashiya (candy shop) and grab either a mentai aji (walleye Pollack roe flavor) or a corn potage flavor and gobble it up on the spot!
Umaibo is sold in many different flavors which adds to its popularity. Currently 19 different flavors are offered. We were curious to see how non-Japanese would find this famous, inexpensive tasty national treat of Japan!
So, we gathered four visitors of different age and nationality and asked them to taste and compare five popular Umaibo flavors.
Introducing our guest panel!
Here is an introduction of the four guests selected to conduct the taste test.
Sara is from Italy. She gave high marks to the Umaibo Cheese Flavor because, simply, she likes cheese.
Lim (19) is from Malaysia and had tried Umaibo before, but couldn’t really tell much difference in the flavors.
Sena (19) comes from Canada. She had previously tasted the mentai (cod roe) flavor and was very interested in the many other flavors, too!
Finally, Kaku (25) is from Taiwan. He is not one for sweets.
We went to the official website of Yaokin, the vendor of Umaibo, and selected the top four flavors listed in their Popular Dagashi Ranking: Mentai, Cheese, Corn Potage, and Takoyaki – and to them added the Natto flavor because it seemed unusual. We then asked our four volunteers to taste and compare them!
We began by having people try the most popular Umaibo flavor: mentai. What do you suppose our volunteers’ reaction was to this cod roe flavor—a Japanese favorite?
Lim: “Oh! It really does have the aroma of mentai…I never had it before, but it tastes good! The mentai flavor is not that strong, it seems. How can I describe it…it tastes like a cheese rings snack to me.”
Kaku: “It definitely tastes like cheese. I like the slightly piquant flavor. When you said it was mentaiko, though, I imagined it would be saltier, but actually it is rather sweet.”
Sara: “It tastes like cheese flavored chips I had when I was little. I never tasted mentai before, but it really is quite good. It has a slight fishy flavor. So this is what mentai tastes like.”
Sena: “Mentaiko really is delicious! We have a snack in Canada that has a similar taste and it has a chili sauce flavor. The piquant flavor goes well with it so it is easy to eat.”
All except Kaku thought the mentaiko flavor was delicious. We were also surprised that they all also thought it had a cheese flavor. It seems that this mentaiko flavored Umaibo, so popular among Japanese, is similar to snacks in their home countries like cheese rings and chips which they are accustomed to.
#2 Most Popular: Corn potage flavor
We next had them try the corn potage flavor. It is definitely one of the top flavors that come to mind when Umaibo is mentioned. Actually this corn potage flavor almost made the number one spot. It has a slightly sweet, gentle flavor.
Lim: “Hey, this is super delicious! It has the sweet aroma of corn and the deep rich flavor of actual corn potage; gentle and easy to eat. I like its simplicity. This is my favorite so far!”
Sena: “It’s not just the flavor of corn, but the taste of real corn potage that is so amazing. But it’s sweeter than I imagined. I think it could do with a bit more salt.”
Sara: “This is a neat flavor! What should I say…it’s like actually eating corn potage. It tastes exactly like bread made with corn that we have in Italy.”
Kaku: “Wow…it’s pretty sweet, isn’t it? Actually, I have seen the corn potage Umaibo sold in Taiwan before. I often bought a snack similar to Umaibo called Daguo juan. Maybe Umaibo is also popular in Taiwan.”
The corn pottage flavor was really popular with the ladies. Its realistic flavor was one reason for its popularity.
#3 Most Popular: Cheese flavor
Next we had them try the cheese flavor. This has also been a standard favorite among Japanese for many years. We were interested to see how this snack made with cheese would appeal to people from overseas.
Sara: “Honestly speaking, I think kids would love this flavor. It’s delicious, but the cheese flavor is a bit subdued. Maybe that is just because I have tasted so many different kinds of cheese before…but this is a good snack for kids, I think.”
Kaku: “I don’t particularly like sweet snacks, but this is easy to eat because it is not all that sweet. It has a clean cheese flavor so even people who aren’t partial to sweets would be able to eat it easily.”
Sena: “Hmm…it tastes good, but the cheese flavor is rather subtle. It tastes more like grilled cheese or the kind of cheese found in sandwiches, but still has a refreshing flavor.”
Lim: “It’s not harsh and it definitely has a cheese flavor, but…how should I say, it doesn’t taste like real cheese; more of an artificial taste. Sort of a weird sweet cheese flavor.”
Aside from Kaku who said it was delicious, the reaction of the other three seemed to indicate that the cheese flavor lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
#4 Most Popular: Takoyaki
Takoyaki was the next one tasted. It sits high in the rankings because of its flavor. Let’s see how everyone reacted to it!
Lim: “I really like this sauce flavor! But, I think a better name for it would be ‘a flavor that makes you want to eat takoyaki.’ It’s too powdery and hardly tastes anything like octopus.”
Kaku: “It definitely makes you want to eat takoyaki. The slightly bitter sauce flavor stimulates the appetite, but the flavor is weaker than I imagined it would be. I thought the sauce flavor would have more kick to it.”
Sara: “I think it tastes good. I think this sauce flavor is a real Japanese flavor. I don’t know whether it is the sauce coating, but it is different from the other Umaibo. It has a chewier texture and flavor.”
Sena: “So far this Umaibo has the richest flavor of all the ones we’ve had today. But, it tastes more like yakisoba to me than takoyaki. Wouldn’t you agree? Maybe because the sauce flavor is so strong.”
The reaction to the takoyaki flavor was more subdued. Perhaps the sauce flavor so familiar to Japanese seemed slightly strange to our panel. As Sara said, “it has a Japanese taste” so maybe it is one that would be eaten more out of curiosity.
Final Flavor: Natto
The final flavor to be tasted was the dark horse Umaibo Natto flavor. Natto is a breakfast staple in Japan, but is it something non-Japanese would like?
Kaku: “It’s not as bad as I thought. The texture was a surprise. Sometimes I eat natto, but giving a snack that ‘sticky’ sensation is pretty amazing. Also, it has a refreshing wasabi-like aftertaste to it.”
Lim: “It definitely has a wasabi aftertaste to it! I don’t particularly like the smell, but the sticky flavor is interesting. It’s not as bad as I had imagined. I thought it would be more like natto, but was surprised to see how easy it is to eat!”
Sena: “It definitely smells like natto. But don’t you think it tastes more like the sauce you put over natto than natto itself? It tastes more like soy sauce or a broth-like flavor. You guys said it has a wasabi aftertaste, but it seems spicier to me.”
Sara: “First I thought it would have a definite natto flavor, but it wasn’t that strong. I like the spicy accent, though. I think even folks who can’t eat natto would be able to eat this.”
The natto flavor went over better than we had imagined. Even among Japanese there are those who can’t eat it, but our panel seemed to like this one.
Wrapping up: The tastiest Umaibo!
The most popular Umaibo in this taste test comparison was the corn potage flavor that received votes from two of the four. People liked the sweet, simple flavor and said that once you tasted it, you couldn’t stop eating it. It has a flavor easily liked by everyone regardless of nationality.
This taste test produced some interesting expressions such as the mentaiko flavor was like cheese rings and the takoyaki flavor was of a “flavor that makes you want to eat takoyaki”.
We expected there to be differences in favorite flavors due to the food cultures of their home countries, but the most popular corn potage flavor in Japan being selected by two seemed to indicate that it would be a universally accepted flavor with its popularity likely to spread throughout the world.
Aside from the taste test flavors, any personal favorites?
We asked everyone to try the top-ranked Umaibo, but we also were curious to know if people had any other favorite flavors. In addition to the five flavors we used in the taste comparison test, we prepared a total of 14 flavors including vegetable salad flavor, chicken curry flavor, and salted beef tongue flavor.
Lim: “I liked the chicken curry! There is a popular chicken curry dish in Malaysia that uses coconut milk and spices. The Umaibo chicken curry flavor, though, has a definite Japanese curry taste, which is of course natural (laughter), but I was hoping for a flavor that would have been closer to what I am used to in Malaysia.”
Kaku: “I like Japanese yakitori so that is why I tried the yakitori flavor, but it was much sweeter than I imagined it would be. It didn’t taste all that much like yakitori, if anything, I felt it tasted more like yakitori sauce. I can’t remember the product’s name, but it has a taste closer to a squid flavored snack back in Taiwan. But this tastes good.”
Sara: “I chose the pizza flavor! Yeah, there definitely is an aroma of pizza when you first open the bag. One bite and the cheese flavor emanates in your mouth and there is a wonderful basil aftertaste. It’s not bad overall, though it’s not all that much like a pizza…”
Sena: “I wanted to try the ebi mayo [shrimp mayonnaise] flavor, but it tasted more like a McDonald’s Shrimp Filet! When I first came to Japan I had a McDonald’s Shrimp Filet and this tasted a lot like it, so I really like it. It has a slight mayonnaise flavor, but it is not very strong.”
The four flavors they chose were chicken curry, yakitori, pizza, and shrimp mayonnaise. Lim, who is from Malaysia, and Sara, who is from Italy, made their selections based on flavors which seemed to remind them of dishes in their home countries.
The results were slightly different than we expected, but some were surprised by the flavors they tried. Currently there are 19 flavors in the Umaibo lineup. When visiting Japan, be sure to give some of them a go!
Takahashi the Pomeranian (Pomehashi)
I'm a canine writer that only eats ramen and beef bowls. Male / body height 30 cm / body weight 80 kg. I recently started Twitter → @pomehashi
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