The electric green and pink box contained a candy bar like nothing I’d ever seen: a green tea and cherry blossom Kit Kat bar from Japan. This exotic gift came courtesy of my friend Susan Heeger, who had recently returned from a trip to the island nation. I marveled at the package and its contents: How could the Kit Kat inside the box, with its verdant pink and green cherry blossom wrapper and its playful Hello Kitty sensibility, dare to differ so wildly from its American cousin? Why did it have its own box, pre-printed with a mailing label? Uniformity is prized in the mass-marketing of candy bars, so I wondered why Kit Kat, the crunchy, milk-chocolate drenched wafers sold in a wrapper as red as the stripes on the American flag, would contain green tea and cherry blossoms in Japan. And why was it adorned with a Nestle label when it’s a Hershey’s product in the States?
In America, the Kit Kat brand of candy bar is licensed by Hershey’s, and flavors are only modest variations of the classic — a little peanut butter here, a little dark chocolate there. Each “finger” of the traditional four finger bar can be snapped off one at a time, thus inspiring its new tag-line: ”Break Time, Anytime.” Yet this Japanese version seemed to be a wild mutation of the classic. Made of green-tinted white chocolate with a faint hint of green tea flavor, it offered a satisfying sweetness like the American version, but with the pronounced sugary notes of white chocolate and cherry fruit anchored by the undertones of bitter green tea.
A sweet good-luck charm
My friend Susan explained that Kit Kats are tokens of good luck there. They have become popular because of the similarity between the bar’s name and the Japanese phrase kitto katsu, which roughly translates to “You will surely win!” This inspires parents to send school children a Kit Kat bar as a good luck charm on a school day. Or, kitto katto can be understood to bestow Kit Kat with the less positive significance of “you will surely miss the cut.” Gifts of a single Kit Kat are a running joke for senior high school students taking university entrance examinations, according to Wikipedia.
Daring flavors of Kit Kat have been released for short periods of time in Japan: maple syrup, melon, vanilla bean, grape, apple, banana, caramel, kiwifruit, azuki, green tea, yuzu and cherry blossom have all appeared on shelves. Further building on the teen market, Nestle created a music label in 2005 and bundled Kit Kats with CDs, which has propelled the Kit Kat to become the No. 1 selling candy bar there.
In the States, the candy bar has a much more conservative stance as one of the great classics of American childhood. It has changed little since its early days. Kit Kats were first developed by Rowntree in England in 1935 as Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp. The formula of chocolate-coated wafers stacked an inch tall to form a “finger,” combined in a hand of four, drenched in milk chocolate and wrapped in a bright red wrapper changed little in the course of a century and was a bestseller. Nestle bought Rowntree in 1988 and licensed the brand to Hersheys for U.S. distribution. Aside from a few stylistic changes to the label and variations such as the “chunky” textured option, it is still the same crispy, crunchy confection it has been for 80 years.
Want to get your hands on one of the Japanese varieties? Many of the adventuresome flavors of Kit Kat are available online through a quick Google search. Or try this recipe for white chocolate and green tea cherry truffles, inspired by my Japanese gift.
White Chocolate and Green Tea Cherry Truffles
These truffles make a powdery first impression as you bite through sweetened green tea powder and crispy rice coating. Next, you‘ll discover the smooth sweetness of white chocolate and cream, interrupted only by the occasional morsel of dark cherry.
Makes about 30 truffles.
- In a double boiler, slightly melt the white chocolate over simmering water. Place the cream, tea bags, salt, and cherries in a heat-proof measuring cup and heat for 1 minute. (Alternatively, heat these ingredients in a small saucepan just until they simmer. Allow to cool for 1 minute.) Remove the teabags. Add the cream mixture to the melted chocolate and stir. Add the vanilla. This will form a lumpy mixture at first; keep stirring and it will smooth out into a white chocolate ganache.
- Place the bowl of ganache in the refrigerator and allow it to cool for at least 1 hour. If it becomes too hard to work with, just heat it up for 30 seconds or so in a microwave oven on low.
- Use 2 spoons to scoop 1-inch balls onto a baking sheet or tray. Using the palms of your hands, roll the balls into smooth, uniform shapes.
- Sift the matcha and confectioners sugar together in a small bowl. Mix in the powdered Rice Krispies cereal. Dip each white chocolate ganache ball into the matcha mixture, shake off the excess and set aside. Repeat until the desired number of truffles have been made.
- Store at room temperature in an airtight box for the first day, then in the refrigerator after that to preserve the fresh cream.
Susie Norris is a chocolatier, TV producer and author of the book “Chocolate Bliss.“
Photo: Japanese Kit Kat. Credit: Susie Norris