Cherry blossom, green tea, and red bean are popular flavors in Asia used in a wide variety of snack foods from bubble tea to cookies, and even KitKat bars. The core ingredients of some of these snack foods were not native to Asia. The bubbles in bubble tea come from tapioca, which came from South America. Chocolate in KitKats originated in Mexico and mostly comes from Africa now. But global trade spread access to non-native plants and ingredients, enabling other countries to put their own flavor spin on new products — like green tea matcha KitKats — that can be found in grocery stores all around the world.
Break me off a piece of that wasabi KitKat bar
Americans will spend an estimated $2.49 billion on Easter candy this year, according to the National Retail Federation. One candy associated with American holidays like Easter or Halloween is the KitKat bar, but this iconic chocolate wafer has a much bigger international footprint.
The KitKat bar was invented in York, United Kingdom in 1935 under the name Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp. In the 1970s, Rowntree licensed the rights to sell KitKats in the United States to Hershey and in Japan to a confectionary company called Fujiya. In 1988, Nestle acquired Rowntree but not the U.S. KitKat business, since Rowntree already had an agreement in place with Hershey. Nestle would eventually buy back the Japanese business in 2000.
Today, KitKats are sold by Nestle in over 80 countries. While Hershey has largely stuck to the traditional chocolate variety in the United States, Nestle has experimented with over 300 flavors of KitKats. In Japan, you can find uniquely flavored KitKats like green tea, cherry blossom, soy bean, white peach, yubari melon, red bean paste, wasabi, and more. There are even specific flavors that serve as souvenirs for each region, like the Itohkyuemon roasted tea version from Kyoto and the purple sweet potato variety local to Okinawa.
KitKats are an art-form in Japan. Across the country, you can find a number of high-end KitKat Chocolatory boutiques where customers create their own personalized KitKat bar using touch screens to pick custom flavors, design the candy’s packaging, and then watch as an expert KitKat chocolatier makes the bar in front of their eyes.
KitKat’s story shows the true interconnectivity of the world’s products today. Invented in the United Kingdom, KitKat is now owned by a company in Switzerland that sources its cocoa from South America and Africa, then incorporates unique Asian flavors like green tea and cherry blossom to appeal to its retail fans in Japan. Even Americans can get in on the action by ordering Nestle’s Japanese KitKat flavors from online sellers like Amazon.
Bubble tea puts a sweet twist on cassava
Bubble tea shops seem to be popping up in every mall and neighborhood. Bubble tea, or Boba tea as it’s also called, was created in Taiwan in the 1980s. It combined three popular snacks into one refreshing drink: milk tea, shaved ice and tapioca balls. It’s since evolved to include a number of different unique toppings like grass jelly, egg custard and red beans. But the stars of the show are still at the bottom of the cup — bite-sized tapioca pearls made from cassava and boiled to reach peak chewy texture.
Despite its newfound popularity in Boba tea, cassava has played an important role in developing countries for centuries. Cassava is a starchy root native to South America that is packed with carbohydrates, easy to grow and resistant to pests and drought, making it a staple crop in developing regions, especially in Africa. As of 2014, Nigeria was the number one producer of cassava, followed by Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil. Flavor innovators from Taiwan have given this Brazilian root a hip makeover adorning trendy Boba drinks everywhere.
Pocky’s big break
We can’t talk about Asian snacks and not mention Pocky – the iconic, coated biscuit sticks produced by the Ezaki Glico Company of Japan. Pocky debuted in 1966, getting its name from the Japanese onomatopoeia for the crisp snapping sound made while eating the snack.
But 40 years before Pocky became an international sensation, its parent company got its start by combining two unlikely ingredients: oyster broth and caramel. The company’s founder, Ri-ichi Ezaki, discovered that oyster broth contained a lot of glycogen, a source of energy we use in our bodies. He started combining this with caramel, an Arab creation in 1,000 AD that became popular in the United States and Europe in the early 1900s. Infused with glycogen, Glico Caramels were advertised as a “healthy” candy, claiming they could help fuel runners up to 300 meters. The packaging still features a marathon man with his arms raised in victory.
Ezaki Glico produces a wide range of other snacks including Pocky, which is now available at most Asian markets and Asian food aisles in big grocery chains like Kroger, Target, Safeway and Walmart. While expanding its overseas presence, Pocky also has an expanded flavor profile, ranging from matcha to cookies and cream.
While Pocky has reached international snack status, it all started with combining local ingredients with caramel to produce a unique product that put Ezaki Glico on the map.
Expanding our flavor horizons through trade
Trade with other nations allows us to expand our horizons and understanding of other cultures. It also puts a fun spin on the flavor profiles of some of our favorite snacks. While customizing snacks with flavors like green tea and wasabi may be originally aimed at targeting consumers in Asia, their popularity at home has often translated to popularity here in the United States and elsewhere in the world. As you order specialty KitKats on Amazon, pick up a bubble tea in Chinatown or crunch on a box of Pocky from Walmart, you can say #thankstrade.
Feature image credit: Nestle Japan
Lauren Kyger is Associate Editor for TradeVistas. Prior to joining TradeVistas, she was a Research Associate at the Hinrich Foundation focused on international trade issues. She is a Hinrich Foundation Global Trade Leader Scholar alumna, earning her Master’s degree in Global Business Journalism from Tsinghua University in Beijing. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.