The seven-story Don Quijote megastore in the Shibuya district of Tokyo is open 24 hours a day, but it’s hard to say when it’s rush hour, because there’s always a rush. A labyrinth of aisles leads to one soaring, psychedelic display after another presided over by cartoon mascots, including the mascot of Don Quijote itself: an enthusiastic blue penguin named Donpen who points shoppers toward toy sushi kits and face masks soaked with snail excretions and rainbow gel pens and split-toe socks. The candy section is vast, with cookies and cakes printed with Gudetama, Sanrio’s lazy egg character, and shiny packages of dehydrated, caramelized squid. It’s one of the few places where an extensive array of Japan’s many Kit Kat flavors are for sale. Though the chocolate bar is sold in more than 100 countries, including China, Thailand, India, Russia and the United States, it’s one of Japan’s best-selling chocolate brands and has achieved such a distinctive place in the market that several people in Tokyo told me they thought the Kit Kat was a Japanese product.
A Kit Kat is composed of three layers of wafer and two layers of flavored cream filling, enrobed in chocolate to look like a long, skinny ingot. It connects to identical skinny ingots, and you can snap these apart from one another intact, using very little pressure, making practically no crumbs. The Kit Kat is a sweet, cheap, delicately crunchy artifact of the 20th century’s industrial chocolate conglomerate. In the United States, where it has been distributed by Hershey since 1970, it is drugstore candy. In Japan, you might find the Kit Kat at a drugstore, but here the Kit Kat has levels. The Kit Kat has range. It’s found in department stores and luxurious Kit Kat-devoted boutiques that resemble high-end shoe stores, a single ingot to a silky peel-away sheath, stacked in slim boxes and tucked inside ultrasmooth-opening drawers, which a well-dressed, multilingual sales clerk slides open for you as you browse. The Kit Kat, in Japan, pushes at every limit of its form: It is multicolored and multiflavored and sometimes as hard to find as a golden ticket in your foil wrapper. Flavors change constantly, with many appearing as limited-edition runs. They can be esoteric and so carefully tailored for a Japanese audience as to seem untranslatable to a global mass market, but the bars have fans all over the world. Kit Kat fixers buy up boxes and carry them back to devotees in the United States and Europe. All this helps the Kit Kat maintain a singular, cultlike status.
The Kit Kat first came to Japan in 1973, but the first 100 percent, truly on-brand Japanese Kit Kat arrived at the turn of the millennium, when the marketing department of Nestlé Japan, the manufacturer of Kit Kats in the country, decided to experiment with new flavors, sweetness levels and types of packaging in an effort to increase sales. Strawberry! A pinkish, fruity Kit Kat would have been a gamble almost anywhere else in the world, but in Japan, strawberry-flavored sweets were established beyond the status of novelties. The strawberry Kit Kat was covered in milk chocolate tinted by the addition of a finely ground powder of dehydrated strawberry juice. It was first introduced in Hokkaido — coincidentally and serendipitously — at the start of strawberry season. Since then, the company has released almost 400 more flavors, some of them available only in particular regions of the country, which tends to encourage a sense of rareness and collectibility. Bars flavored like Okinawan sweet potatoes, the starchy, deep purple Japanese tubers, are available in Kyushu and Okinawa. The adzuki bean-sandwich bars are associated with the city of Nagoya, where the sweet, toasted snack originated in a tea shop at the turn of the 20th century and slowly made its way to cafe menus in the area. Shizuoka, where gnarly rhizomes with heart-shaped leaves have been cultivated for centuries on the Pacific Ocean, is known for its wasabi-flavored bars.
The most popular kind of Kit Kat in Japan is the mini — a bite-size package of two ingots — and Nestlé estimates that it sells about four million of these each day. In any given year, there are about 40 flavors available, including the core flavors — plain milk chocolate, strawberry, sake, wasabi, matcha, Tokyo Banana and a dark-chocolate variety called “sweetness for adults” — plus 20 to 30 rotating new ones. In August, Nestlé was preparing to release a shingen mochi Kit Kat, based on a traditional sweet made by the Japanese company Kikyouya, which involves three bite-size pieces of soft, squishy mochi packed with roasted soybean powder and a bottle of brown-sugar syrup, all assembled to taste. It seemed almost presumptuous for Nestlé to flavor a chocolate bar like shingen mochi, which is rooted in traditional Japanese confectionary, then stamp its brand on it and produce it en masse.
A sales clerk was restocking the Kit Kat display in Don Quijote when I asked her which were the most popular flavors. She shook her head. “They’re all popular,” she said. She gestured at the empty tunnels of matcha-, grape- and strawberry-flavored Kit Kats that she was filling as a small group of Chinese tourists carried armloads of glossy snack bags and boxes back to their shopping carts, undoing her work. An Australian father and son rushed by in a panic, their cart heaped with gifts to take back home. “Which one, Dad? Which one?” the child asked desperately, pointing to all the varieties. “It doesn’t matter,” the father shouted, as if the timer on a bomb were running out. “Just take one!”
The Kit Kat was first produced as a crisp, four-finger chocolate wafer bar in the 1930s, in Britain, by the chocolate manufacturer Rowntree’s. The company was named for Henry Isaac Rowntree, who bought a small grocery store in York that also operated a cocoa foundry. In the 1860s, the foundry was known for its finely ground rock cocoa, but the business grew quickly into candy- and chocolate-making. From the beginning, the Kit Kat was self-consciously packaged as a kind of workingman’s chocolate — as if the break of the bar could be aligned with the break the working class deserved from the monotony of their day. The Kit Kat was meant to be plain, unpretentious, cheerful. The stars of its commercials were often construction workers, cops or commuters taking five hard-earned minutes to enjoy a moment of sweetness in an otherwise bleak day.
In Japan, Kit Kats were first licensed by the Japanese sweets company Fujiya, which capitalized on the chocolate’s general association with Britain and the West. Early Japanese TV commercials for the candy drew on the chocolate bar’s British roots to promote it as a foreign product, depicting British soldiers breaking for a treat. But in 1988, Nestlé acquired Rowntree’s and took over manufacturing and sales in Japan, eventually changing strategies. Since 2010, sales in Japan have increased by about 50 percent. Japanese Kit Kats are now produced in two Nestlé-owned factories in Himeji and Kasumigaura.
There are three ways for a new Japanese Kit Kat flavor to make its way into the world. The classically trained pastry chef Yasumasa Takagi, a kind of Kit Kat maestro, was brought in by Nestlé as a collaborator in 2003, after the success of the strawberry Kit Kat. He may decide he wants to make a special bar and propose the new flavor to Nestlé — his first was passion fruit in 2005. The marketing team may also build a partnership with a brand, like Tokyo Banana, the locally famous cream-filled cakes on which the Kit Kat flavor is based, then ask a product-development team to experiment so they can bring a sample bar to the pitch meeting. Or the product-development teams themselves may feel inspired on a late night in the test kitchen after one too many cups of green tea and vending-machine sweets.
Only the fanciest bars are devised by Takagi, made with higher-grade chocolates and other ingredients, like dehydrated seasonal fruits, and sold in Kit Kat Chocolatory stores, the boutique-like shops for luxury versions of the bar. In some cases, they are decorated like plated desserts at a fine-dining restaurant, the Kit Kat logo entirely hidden by tiny, delicate, colorful crunchies, or individually wrapped like a gift — a single Kit Kat finger in a crinkly plastic wrapper, tucked inside a box. After Kohzoh Takaoka, now chief executive of Nestlé Japan, persuaded Takagi to work with the company, Takagi decided he wanted to make the bars more sophisticated, to play with the form and sweetness levels. He wanted, as he put it, to make Kit Kats for grown-ups, like the Chocolatory Sublime Bitter, a long, cigarillo-like bar of 66 percent dark chocolate, packaged in black and gold. (The marketing team uses the word “premiumization” to describe this part of Kit Kat’s strategy.) Now Takagi runs the brand’s Japanese Chocolatory shops, including the one where I met him, in a particularly posh part of the Ginza neighborhood in Tokyo.
“Japan is No. 1 in terms of sales and profits, compared with Nestlé’s other markets,” said Ryoji Maki, Nestlé Japan’s marketing manager at the time, who was dressed in a beautifully tailored suit and eating a tiny pudding cup. Nestlé did a market test after its strawberry flavor caught on in Hokkaido in 2000, to see how much production would be required for sales to go national. What it found was that the strawberry Kit Kat was especially popular among tourists, both Japanese tourists and those from abroad. Subsequent market tests suggested that Kit Kat had potential not just as a candy but as a kind of Japanese souvenir. The company looked to Kobe, Tokyo, Kyoto and other cities and wondered how to develop a chocolate for each that consumers might associate with the places themselves. Now Nestlé’s most recent flavors focus on regional Japanese products — maple-leaf-shaped cookies, plum wine, roasted tea.
There are also carefully chosen collaborations that capitalize on Japan’s culture of omiyage, which can be loosely defined as returning from travels with gifts for friends, family and colleagues. The Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat, which would go on sale in mid-October, would be sold right alongside the real Kikyou shingen mochi at souvenir shops and in service areas along the Chuo Expressway, a major four-lane road more than 200 miles long that passes through the mountainous regions of several prefectures, connecting Tokyo to Nagoya. With any luck, people would associate the Kit Kat with the traditional sweet and snap it up as a souvenir. But for this to be a success, for Kit Kat to expand into the souvenir market, consumers would have to believe that Kit Kat, originally a British product, was Japanese, and that although it was manufactured in a factory far away, it somehow represented the very essence of a region.
Before I could enter the Kasumigaura factory, northeast of Tokyo, I had to zip up an all-white coverall and place a white plastic skullcap under a hard white helmet, tucking in all of my hair. I had to wrap the exposed skin of my neck in a white scarf. I had to change out of my sneakers into the provided white slip-ons and take a fully clothed air shower with Takeshi Iwai, the factory’s production manager, in a sealed room the size of a linen closet. Afterward, side by side, we sticky-rolled our entire bodies for dust and lint and eyelashes and any other invisible debris that might still have been clinging to our clothes, to avoid contaminating the chocolate.
It smelled strongly of cocoa and toasted almonds on the other side of the doors. Iwai assured me that this scent changed daily, often more than once a day, according to what was being made. He also warned me not to run, because I might slip in my new shoes. Iwai studied microbiology at university and has been working for Nestlé since 2001; he has managed the Kasumigaura factory for the last three years. Wafers were the beginning of the line, the beginning of every single Kit Kat.
I stood mesmerized for a few minutes under an archway of uncut wafers, like edible golden window panes, which were being cooled by ambient air before they reached an actual cooler. I heard almost nothing Iwai said over the sharp clanging and drone of the machinery. The factory is large and open, loud and clean, its production lines totally transparent. But the wafers had been baked out of sight, most likely between engraved, molded plates. Now they looked like thin, delicate altar breads, floating above us. They formed a continuously moving line, the sheets traveling up and curving toward pumps of cream in the distance.
What makes a Kit Kat a Kit Kat? A Nestlé executive told me it was the shape of the connected pieces: those long, skinny ingots with their recognizable, ridge-like feet of chocolate surrounding each base. A few people said it was the logo itself, in big blocky letters, embossed on the top of each bar. But when I spoke with Takagi, the pastry chef, he didn’t hesitate. “The wafer,” he said. “The wafer!”
Wafers are an art form within the food industry. And although plenty of companies make decent wafers, there is something about the Nestlé wafer, Takagi said, that is quite extraordinary. Not that he knew exactly what it was. The wafer was the corporate secret, the heavily guarded soul of the Kit Kat. But like many lightweight, low-fat industrial wafers, the Kit Kat wafer is, very likely, mostly air and gelatinized wheat flour. It is crisp but not brittle. Crunchy but not dense. It is fragile but still satisfying to bite into. It is totally and alarmingly dry to the touch, like packing material. But after it has been touched with a little saliva, it doesn’t even need to be chewed, and you can swallow it with no effort. Plain, the wafer is almost but not entirely tasteless. It has a very gentle sort of toastiness, barely there, but with an almost bready flavor. A sort of toast ghost. Not that it matters. A wafer’s highest purpose is the nuance of its crunch.
When a wafer doesn’t meet standards — when it is cracked, broken, improperly embossed — it is tossed into a tall plastic bin next to the factory line. The company recycles these substandard wafers as local animal feed. “This is the countryside, so we have farms,” Iwai said with a shrug. The good wafers — smooth, intact, deeply and evenly embossed — move along the line. They are covered with cream, then sandwiched with another wafer and more cream. The arms of a huge, gentle machine with extraordinary fine-tuned motor functions do all the work of building the Kit Kat, smoothing the cream and pressing the wafer on top of it, then pass the large, sheet-cake-size sandwiches along a slow conveyor belt through a massive cooler. After they’re cut, four sheets at a time, the Kit Kats begin to look familiar, like ladyfingers.
On the molding line, the chocolate depositor fills empty Kit Kat molds with tempered chocolate, and the fingers are dropped in and covered with more chocolate. A scraper removes excess chocolate and smooths the surface. When the chocolate is cooled, the bars are popped out and whipped through a wrapping machine. On my visit, the mostly automated factory was making several types of Kit Kat, including chestnut — a seasonal flavor for the fall — made with white chocolate and a mix of chestnut purées from Europe and Japan. The production line was a barely interrupted blur of white, like dotted lines rushing by on the highway, becoming indistinguishable from one another.
I learned that Kit Kats were slightly, subtly different all over the world. In Britain, Nestlé uses milk crumb, a sweetened, dehydrated milk product, to make the bars. In the United States, Hershey uses nonfat milk and milk fat, while in Japan, the factories work with whole-milk powder. In Japan, Nestlé buys most of its cacao beans from West Africa. In the United States, a mix of beans from West Africa and Latin America is favored.
Almost everything changes, but the wafers? The wafers never change. The wafers have a fixed standard that needs to be maintained, and deviations are not acceptable. Standing beneath the fresh, moving wafers, I asked Iwai if I could hold one, as if it were a newborn, and I did not expect him to let me. But he reached into the line and pulled one out, passing it toward me with two hands. The breeze created by his movements seemed to curve the wafer inward with pressure, but it didn’t break. What I wanted to know was if this wafer, the one in my hands, would pass Nestlé’s standards, but Iwai wouldn’t share many details about that. All I knew was that the wafer was huge, golden, marked with square cups and totally weightless. That if it hadn’t been still warm from the oven, I wouldn’t have known it was there. That if this was the soul of a Kit Kat, then holding the soul of a Kit Kat was like holding nothing at all.
Kikyouya, originally a small, family-run sweet shop that specialized in kintsuba, a Japanese sweet filled with red-bean paste, has been making shingen mochi since the late 1960s. A single package of Kikyou shingen mochi is complex, but it’s also small — small enough to fit in your palm — and contained in a flexible plastic box that’s wrapped in a soft sheet of pretty, floral-printed plastic and sealed with a topknot. It’s messy to eat, or at least it can be, but the clever packaging considers this: The wrapping itself doubles as a tiny tablecloth to prevent stains and spills. Before I knew this, I ate shingen mochi in my hotel room, as Tokyo was being soaked by the outermost edges of a passing typhoon. With my first bite, I sent a little cloud of roasted soybean powder into the air and coughed with surprise. The rice cakes were soft, chewy, delicious. And where the brown-sugar syrup trapped the powder, it turned into a gorgeous caramel sludge. I couldn’t quite imagine how a sweet like this, one defined by such varied textures, and by such a distinct form, could ever be transformed into a chocolate bar.
Tomoko Ohashi was the lead developer on the Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat. Ohashi, a soft-spoken woman from Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture, ate shingen mochi when someone brought it for her as a souvenir from Yamanashi, the prefecture where it’s still made today, and she knew how beloved it was. What she didn’t know was how the mochi texture could translate into a chocolate bar. “I was also very worried about replicating the flavor,” she said, standing in the test kitchen of the factory in Kasumigaura, wearing the factory’s all-white uniform with its white hoodie pulled tightly across her hairline.
The kitchen didn’t look like a lab. It was more like a real pastry kitchen, full of dehydrated fruit powders and matcha organized in tubs, chocolate molds and serrated knives and a marble counter for tempering chocolate. The challenge with shingen mochi, Ohashi said, was finding the balance between the soybean powder and the syrup. Because the sweet is so adaptable, everyone who eats it calibrates it obsessively, adjusting the ingredients so it tastes the way they like.
Ohashi started work on the new flavor last September, and she finished it in May. In tests, she would make about 50 pieces of four to five different versions by hand, tempering chocolate on the marble table, and then taste them side by side, looking for the right balance of soybean powder to sugar syrup. The rice was the shingen mochi itself, but it couldn’t play such a big part in the chocolate bar. “There’s no device or machine for putting a rice cake in a Kit Kat,” Ohashi said sadly. She knew, from the start, that it wouldn’t be possible to replicate the texture of fresh mochi — tender, almost slippery in the mouth — in a chocolate bar. She did, to be true to the mochi, end up putting sticky rice in the Kit Kat’s cream filling. Did the sticky rice in the Kit Kat help to mimic the mochi texture? “No,” Ohashi said, bursting into laughter because she had made an uncomfortable kind of peace with what she could and could not do within the boundaries of her form. “Actually not at all.”
After all the testing, Ohashi concentrated all the flavorings in the cream filling: the sticky rice as well as soybean powder and brown-sugar syrup. The bars went on sale on Oct. 15, with packages of nine selling for 780 yen, or about $7. Standing in the test kitchen, I unwrapped the new flavored Kit Kat and broke into it with a crack. The bar was a mini, two tiny connected ingots. They were ivory, eggshell, the off-white color of a rich lady’s kitchen, and the fine cream filling inside appeared a light brown.
Just a few days earlier, I had made a pilgrimage to Kikyouya’s factory in Yamanashi, where workers wrapped thousands of pieces of fresh shingen mochi by hand each day, to see exactly what Nestlé was trying to capture. On my way, I stopped for lunch at a small noodle restaurant and sat by the window, eating a pile of salted plums. I could see busloads of tourists filing out in the parking lot, their floppy hats secured with strings, their shirts wet with sweat. They were fruit hunters. Yamanashi is green, dense with red pine and white oak forest and beautifully kept orchards that cut deep into its slopes. Fruit hunters pay to eat as much ripe, seasonal fruit as they like in a short span of time. Say, 30 minutes of thin-skinned peaches, or fat pink grapes, or strawberries, warmed from the sun, dipped into pools of sweetened condensed milk.
Unlike apple-picking in the fall in the United States, the fruit doesn’t really function as a souvenir, carried home in baskets to commemorate an idyllic, well-documented visit to the countryside. Fruit hunters travel to eat the fruit on site, right off the trees, in their allotted time. When the concept was explained to me, I thought the time limit seemed embarrassing. But seeing the fruit hunters of Yamanashi, I realized that it wasn’t embarrassing at all. It was practical, it was beautiful and it acknowledged that souvenirs were, like memories, at best only approximations of the moments they represented. That it was, in fact, completely impossible to remove a taste from its origin without changing it in the process.
“How is it?” Ohashi wanted to know. The Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat was smooth to the touch, shiny. It had a brilliant, crumbless snap, which gave way to a pure white chocolate and caramel flavor and a lightly savory note. It was sweet, it was good. It was in balance. And it recalled fresh Kikyou shingen mochi, vaguely, like a memory gone soft around the edges.
Tejal Rao is an Eat columnist for the magazine and the California restaurant critic for The Times. She has won two James Beard Foundation awards for restaurant criticism.
Whenever I land in a new country, before I’ve even left the arrivals hall, my mind turns to shopping. Not the boutiques or cosmetics counters, no duty-free sunglasses and designer perfumes for me. No, the pressing calculus as I make my way to baggage claim is driven by drugstores, kiosks, supermarkets and vending machines. In a new port of call, I like to know what sort of candy I’m dealing with.
As with breakfast foods, I believe candy is often tastier the less expensive it is. I like my confections approachable. Low-rent. Basic. Shot through with a skosh of hoi polloi-ishness. Wrappers with cartoon mascots are promising. So is branding that testifies to soccer hooliganism as a respectable pastime. I’d sooner crush a Quality Street (except the strawberry crème ones; barf) or a crumbly puck of Mexican De La Rosa than a morsel of marzipan molded by human hands to resemble a carrot on a dinky doily. If a wan man in a toque has ever loomed over the thing with tweezers, no matter how storied its provenance, I would enjoy its bootleg cousin more.
Park me in front of any country’s pick ’n’ mix, penny-candy bins, Aji Ichiban, the part of the five-and-dime where jelly hamburgers live, and I will go to town. And I’ve learned some tricks in my travels. In any Scandinavian country, you’ve got to watch out for salted licorice; there are at least a dozen different kinds, and all of them taste to me like old spoons. But don’t let that dissuade you from sampling the fruity stuff. Shake your selection in the bag as if you’re crumb-coating chicken, so that you get an even citric-acid distribution.
Russian bulk-candy bins are feasts for the eyes, with trillions of variations on the individually wrapped chocolate bonbon. The art direction on each tiny canvas is a marvel, featuring oil-painted landscapes, shiny-eyed squirrels, polar bears and swans — even the occasional camel. The thumb-size rectangular one, featuring a startled-looking infant in a babushka, is my favorite. (It’s called Alenka.) British Smarties beat American Smarties, because candy-coated chocolate buttons are superior to chalky pressed pills; of the former, the orange taste delicious. Any flavor of Ritter Sport is crucial whenever you can find one (milk-chocolate cornflake in particular). The green Haribo gummy frog is peach not apple (common misconception); clear gummy bears are the best bears. But the best Haribo by my standards is the sour cola Balla Stixx (sometimes dubbed Zig Zourr) with a mallowy interior that I’ve only reliably found in Italian gas stations. Still, Asia’s flavorings are unrivaled. Hi-Chews lay waste to any other fruit taffy experience. Milkita melon is a singular delight — creamy honeydew drops — while Kasugai gummies in mango, muscat grape, lychee and yuzu (in that order) are a necessary part of any convenience-store run in Tokyo.
When it comes to the United States, my opinions are more calcified. Red Vines over Twizzlers. Easy. The best M&M: peanut butter. Hands down. Milk chocolate over dark; white is not right, and the only correct way to eat a Kit Kat is to nibble off the enrobed edges and pry the wafer layers apart. Fight me. Candy is controversial. As with a beloved sports team, your affinities and fealties have been ingrained since your prelinguistic days. Such innate belief systems defy reasoning. Your mom loved herself a Goetze’s Cow Tales or maybe a milky White Rabbit, so you do, too. How else could you explain how Circus Peanuts are still a going concern? Or those gnarly monstrous mint-leaf gel slices, the dial-up internet of candy?
No one’s madeleine will be exactly the same. But no matter your brand, it will always deliver similar things: the rose-tinted pleasure of nostalgia, a brief respite from adulthood and, well, whatever else it is that sugar does for morale. Despite all our differences, candy speaks to a fundamentally shared humanity; we like a lot of the same stuff. Most of us have some version of Fun Dip. Or Pop Rocks. Fruit leather. Caramel. A Tunnock’s Tea Cake is a Mallomar is a Whippet is a Krembo — a cookie with marshmallow dipped in chocolate — except of course it’s never that simple. One’s kosher, one’s Canadian, one appeared in “When Harry Met Sally” and one’s in a kilt.
If you think my selections are particular to Western Europe, America and East Asia, you’re right. It’s the shortcoming of the international candy marketplace that even Jeff Bezos can’t deliver you the deep cuts. You’ll have to travel for the choicest morsels. And while candy may not be the chief reason I visit a country, it’s a solid tourist attraction. Bodegas, newsstands, dagashiyas and tuck shops rarely require selfie sticks. That in and of itself should inspire fondness and warmth.
As a Korean kid who grew up in a former British colony, I might not ever be able to go home. But I’ll kill a stack of Haw Flakes and chase them with Wine Gums, and the rush will remain the same.
Mary H.K. Choi is a writer whose work for Wired, GQ, New York and The Atlantic focuses on culture. She is the best-selling author of “Emergency Contact,” a young-adult novel about texting, and host of the podcast “Hey, Cool Job!”
As she passed out paper bowls, Beth Kimmerle smiled broadly at the dozen or so employees of Long Grove Confectionery Company seated around the conference table. Each bowl contained a slightly misshapen caramel of unknown origin. “I can train anybody to taste,” she declared. “It’s just about focus.” Kimmerle peeled off her rubber gloves and gestured at the candy in the bowl. “Let’s start with this product. What do you notice about its appearance?”
“It’s glossy,” someone called out from the back of the room.
“O.K.,” Kimmerle said in a tone that made clear it wasn’t exactly O.K. She turned to a graphic designer. “You’ve got the Pantone matching system,” she said. “Is this a special kind of color?”
The designer’s eyes widened. “Caramel color?” she said, unsure.
It was, in fact, caramel-colored, but Kimmerle, a 48-year-old native Chicagoan who has written four books on candy and helps companies develop new recipes, was after something more specific. Someone else suggested “bronze,” which seemed like a great adjective to me, but this didn’t satisfy Kimmerle either. She pressed on: “We want to come up with a standard language for describing everything about this candy.” It felt as if the group were in the midst of a middle-school pop quiz and no one was prepared.
Kimmerle pulled her long hair away from her face to prevent the distraction of any scented products, lifted the bowl to her nose and demonstrated taking several “bunny sniffs” to avoid overwhelming the nasal cavity. “Your turn,” she told the group. “What do you smell?” Closing my eyes and sniffing, I picked up the distinct aromas of caramelized sugar and butterscotch, but kept quiet, curious to hear what the others were noticing.
“Sweet?” someone said timidly.
“Sweet is a taste, not an aroma,” Kimmerle replied briskly. “Find other words for what you’re smelling. And if you can’t place an aroma, let your memory guide you there.”
Other suggestions included buttery, burnt, caramel — language that Kimmerle approved. Now she was ready to move on to flavor. She told everyone to write down any words that came to mind, whether they were one of the five basic tastes or any of the trillions of aromas the nose can detect. “Remember,” she added, “taste is what our taste buds sense. Everything else is a texture or an aroma, a volatile, airborne scent.” The semantics of taste are a little finicky. The folks at Long Grove were tasting the candy, but now their task was to describe its flavor, which exists at the intersection of taste, aroma and even feeling (like the burning heat of a chile or the icy chill of menthol). Confusion radiated from their faces.
The tasters began taking tiny bites and closing their eyes, chewing intently and rolling the caramel around on their tongues. “Take your time with it. And if you feel like you’re getting satiated, or what we call burnout, feel free to spit,” Kimmerle offered gently, pointing at the plastic cups she’d set out for everyone. “It’s weird and a little creepy at first, but it can be helpful to reset. Just swish with water and try again.”
Someone let out an audible sound of delight. “Did someone say ‘Mmmmm’?” Kimmerle asked disapprovingly. “Remember, this isn’t about likes and dislikes. It’s about what is.” After a few more long, quiet minutes, she started calling on each person to list his or her adjectives, writing down the responses on a whiteboard: sweet, salty, creamy, buttery, vanilla, maple, burnt. “Powdered milk,” someone said.
“So is it like that lactic sour that somebody once described to me as ‘baby vomit’?” Kimmerle asked with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes. “Because that is actually incredibly appealing in certain foods.”
Everyone in the room laughed uncomfortably. Yet it did make a certain amount of sense. Sweetness often needs to be balanced with a little tang, and so “baby vomit” wouldn’t be an entirely unattractive quality in a caramel.
Kimmerle was coaching the group through its first attempt at Sensory Evaluation (or “sensory,” as it’s called in the industry), a form of analysis used to measure the human response to any particular food or drink. “Sensory is all about using your five senses to make an assessment about a food product,” Kimmerle explained to me. “While it’s considered a scientific discipline, it’s really about using our human perception to describe and evaluate something.”
I’d traveled to suburban Chicago to observe Kimmerle’s workshop because I wanted to know if learning to taste candy like a professional — which is to say, as attentively and objectively as possible — could teach me how to better describe what I cook and eat. Putting language to flavor isn’t easy, because we’re rarely taught that it matters. As children, we learn the names of all sorts of shapes, colors and sounds. But when it comes to the way things smell or taste, the only language we ever hear is qualitative — good and bad, yummy and yucky, delicious and disgusting. And in adulthood, we learn that taking the time to describe the things we eat and drink is the pretentious domain of foodies and wine snobs going on and on about flavor profiles and horse-sweat bouquets.
Once you start trying, you notice how difficult it is to assign language to taste and smell. The sense of taste is simultaneously public, because we come together to eat; and private, because we must put food inside our bodies in order to taste it. This paradox creates tension. Your experience of flavor is unique and unspoken; the mere act of describing it entails exposing something incredibly intimate. What if you share a bar of chocolate with a loved one and describe how it tastes, only to discover your companion disagrees? It’s a remarkably vulnerable feeling, knowing that your most private sensual experience could differ so considerably from those to whom you’re closest. Perhaps it’s why we shy away from talking about flavor at all.
Even though I’d come to Kimmerle to learn, I found myself battling snobbery of my own. I struggled to assign her much credibility. I learned to taste from chefs who trained in the finest restaurants in France and Italy. Kimmerle received her Sensory Expert certification after taking an online course from the University of California, Davis. Could she really know more about how to taste than I did? In fact, there are entire industries devoted to taste, from the forecasters who predict what we’ll want to be eating three or four years from now to the food scientists and innovators who develop new flavors and products to the sensory scientists and experts like Kimmerle who are trained to conduct research to figure out what we, the candy-eating public, really want to eat.
Sensory evaluation is an evolution of the “flavor profile,” a standardized method developed by 20th-century food scientists to help manufacturers achieve consistency as they ramped up production in the postwar years. Myrna Fossum, a 77-year-old former home economist, is often credited as the mother of a simplified version that she marketed as “the Best Approach.” After years in the test kitchen at Nabisco and Mars, Fossum realized there was a basic suite of easy-to-use tools that she could train others to use. A result was the relatively straightforward method of evaluation I’d observed: less reliance on jargon, more on the senses.
“Flavor itself is a language,” Fossum told me over the phone from her home in Plymouth, Mass. “And like any language, it takes years to learn.” Throughout her time at Mars (the manufacturer of M&Ms, Twix and Skittles), Fossum traveled to production plants around the world giving sensory trainings like the one I sat in on. “Whether they were in Waco, Texas, or Hackettstown, New Jersey, they were speaking a common language,” Fossum recalled. “Mr. Mars could pick up the phone and call any plant and ask, ‘How is the chocolate?’ and get an answer in plain English. He’d tell me, ‘You know, dear, this is my mantra: The most important thing is taste.’ Even at age 84 he sat in every single training with a spoon, ready to taste. And if you think about it, it worked, because when you eat an M&M, it tastes the same wherever you go.”
It makes sense that, within an industrial setting, the primary value of sensory evaluation is consistency. But why should nonprofessional tasters care about slowing down to describe the experience of eating candy? “At the end of the first day of training, I say to people: ‘Go home tonight and taste your dinner. Come back and tell me about it tomorrow. Come tell me about your first cup of coffee,’ ” Fossum answered. “They come back and say, ‘I never knew it tasted like that.’ Until they do sensory, they don’t pay attention to what things really taste like. They just drink and eat. So they learn, and they learn to appreciate.”
While companies use sensory evaluation to engineer better candies and meet bottom lines, anyone can learn from careful, thoughtful tasting; putting language to the experience can lead you closer to knowing what you like and don’t like. It’s why, as snobby as it can seem, wine tasting is an incredibly useful tool: The more wine you taste attentively, the more words you learn to associate with the kinds of wine you like, so the more easily you can choose bottles that will please you regardless of price. In this age of $12 chocolate bars and artisanal, well, everything, there’s great value in knowing your own palate and letting that, rather than labels or prices or marketing, guide you in the store or through a menu or wine list. The point of candy is joy — pure, unadulterated joy. And that joy shouldn’t be compromised just because you feel as if the “right” chocolate is the one that comes wrapped in hand-painted paper that looks as if it was trimmed by apprentices in Matisse’s workshop.
In fact, matters of taste are highly personal, and often colored by past experience. Both genetics and childhood exposure shape our earliest culinary preferences. And for adults, nostalgia — a literal longing for home — can also affect the flavors toward which we orient ourselves. This is why there’s no one candy bar or bottle of wine that is universally beloved. And yet, because we’re human, we can’t help devoting ourselves to the pursuit. Sensory offers a reprieve from such futility; instead of encouraging the quest for a singular “best,” it allows you to define, in plain terms, what sits before you, and determine how it makes you feel.
I’m a cook and a writer. Practically all I do professionally, in either capacity, is describe the experience of preparing and eating food. Yet I’d left Kimmerle’s workshop befuddled. I tend to rely on metaphor — fireworks in my mouth! — and flowery, emotional language when describing how things taste. But sort of like my therapist does, Kimmerle, who was mentored by Fossum, had me set aside what I thought and narrow in on what I felt. The sensory practice became almost meditative, offering me an entirely new way to experience taste. I wanted to keep practicing.
The next day, Kimmerle suggested we try more varied sweets. We headed out on a tour of international markets near her home north of Chicago. At an Indian sweet shop, the shopkeeper told us we had to try aflatoon, a soft brown bar wrapped in greasy wax paper, because it’s “the most popular sweet in Mumbai.” At the Swedish-American museum, we were persuaded to buy Bilar, a popular car-shaped fruity marshmallow gummy. But what I really wanted to taste with Kimmerle was the Mexican candy Pelon Pelo Rico. All throughout the ’90s, I curiously watched my Latino classmates in California suck the pastelike candy from a plastic tube. No one ever offered me any, and I’d never worked up the courage to ask for a taste. Twenty-five years later, I still had no idea what it might possibly taste like.
By the time we sat down at Kimmerle’s dining table, with clean knives and plates, paper and pen, water and spit cups, we had collected dozens of candies — everything from sesame brittle to Turkish delight to my Pelon Pelo Rico. We sorted through everything and decided on a tasting order. Just as in a wine or cheese tasting, we wanted to save the strongest-flavored candies until the end to keep our palates from being overwhelmed. We agreed that the aflatoon, probably on the milder side, was a good place to begin.
First, we noted the appearance: a speckled slice the color of brown sugar. Next, we sniffed. “Now, remember, we can’t smell ‘sweet,’ ” Kimmerle said, “but do you smell any fruit notes? Like brown fruit? Or baked notes?” All I could sense was browned butter or ghee, some caramelized notes and cardamom.
“Think raisins, or dates, or plums,” she hinted after another sniff.
I didn’t, for the life of me, smell any fruit, and I didn’t know why she kept bringing it up. Was she posturing? I started to feel the way I do at wine tastings, where I often wonder if everyone else is just making up descriptors to sound as if they know what they’re talking about. Even once we had tasted the aflatoon, I felt at a loss for words.
“Well,” she gently began, “the first thing that you sense when you put it in your mouth is that it’s overwhelmingly sweet. Then, there’s a dough. It could be wheat flour, or almonds. And I still really get the brown fruit. It could be date, date syrup. I’m not sure.”
Kimmerle’s 11-year-old son, Cliff, arrived home from summer camp, and Kimmerle invited him to join. We tasted the aflatoon again. “It tastes sweet,” he said. “Definitely sweet. And there’s a spice.” Apparently Kimmerle could even train children to taste. I took another bite, this time noticing a gritty texture and the slightest tang as the aflatoon melted away. “It does kind of taste like raisins,” Cliff added. I started to feel impatient. We’d already spent at least 15 minutes on just this one candy! I feared at this rate I’d be tasting candy for the next eight hours. Eventually we settled on a taste description in the order of “sweet,” “caramelized,” “cardamom,” “dough” and “light tang,” which was as close as I could come to admitting to tasting any raisins.
We moved on to Limon 7, a packet of white powdered candy we found at the Mexican grocery that didn’t look or smell like much. “Well, it’s not really a powder,” Kimmerle corrected. “It’s more granulated.” As Cliff ran off, she and I closed our eyes and tasted it, looking up in unison with surprise. It tasted like pure citric acid and salt. “Citric-y. Not citrusy, but citric-y,” I ventured.
“It’s not sweet at all!” she exclaimed. I looked at the ingredients, surprised to find sugar and a host of artificial colors listed. Neither of us could have identified the presence of either until I rolled another pinch of the powder around on my tongue, searching for a grain of sugar. “I found a little sugar!” I said excitedly. Even though I wouldn’t have thought to call Limon 7 candy, I found it inexplicably enjoyable. Each taste was so unbelievably salty that it made me wince with something between discomfort and pain. Yet my mouth kept watering. I couldn’t stop eating it. Or smiling.
Eventually it was time for Pelon Pelo Rico. Pushing up on the base of the tube made the paste move through the holes at the top like noodles. The paste was glossy and brownish-red. We agreed that it smelled like some sort of fruit leather and tasted sweet, salty, with tamarind and chile and a little grit to the texture.
“Of all the things we’ve tasted,” Kimmerle said, “let’s say the tamarind has umami, which it might, this is the closest to a five-star confection. Meaning, I wouldn’t be surprised if this hit on all the basic tastes.” I tasted it again. She was right — every single taste bud in my mouth was firing simultaneously. The sensation was utterly delightful. “There’s a reason those kids were sucking on this,” she said with a grin.
As we made our way through the massive pile of candy, I started to feel more confident about my ability to notice nuances. Every once in a while, I’d even catch something before Kimmerle did. We started to move through each evaluation more quickly, easily arriving at consensus. At one point I even wondered, Is this what it feels like to be good at meditation?
Days later, I found myself thinking of that aflatoon again. I looked up recipes for it. Nearly every one called for semolina flour and raisins.
Back home in California, I found myself craving tamarind candy, so I went to my own Mexican grocery in search of several varieties, including my new favorite, Pulparindo. On the front of its package was what looked to be a cartoon-character version of the candy: a bar of tamarind paste with a jolly face and a tongue sticking out of its seemingly salivating mouth. “Mouthwatering” is often thought to be synonymous with “delicious,” but the term refers to a physiological response to eating acidic foods. Acid corrodes the enamel on our teeth, so we only need to think about eating something acidic and our mouths will begin to produce saliva to neutralize the acid. Clearly, the Pulparindo guy knows that sour things make our mouths water.
En route home with my haul, I bumped into a couple of friends. I excitedly doled out Pulparindo, certain they would love the salty, spicy, sour, sweet treat as much as I did. They were both suspicious. One carefully opened the wrapper, sniffed the bar and took a minuscule bite before recoiling. He might have even grimaced. The other took a bigger bite and then told me, diplomatically, “I like it, but I wouldn’t call it candy.” There was apparently a vast gulf between our experiences of the same sweet.
It turns out I love sugar best when it’s thrown into stark relief by acidity, which perhaps makes sense. I wasn’t allowed much candy as a kid, but I did eat a lot of lavashak, the relentlessly sour fruit leather my grandmother made from plums in Iran each summer and smuggled to us in California. Pulparindo bears a striking resemblance to it. So does my absolute favorite candy, which is any sort of Haribo sour gummy — it’s what I invariably sneak into every movie theater and ballgame. I love biting through the crunchy coating of sugar and citric acid on the way to the gummy center. I love the almost punishing wave of sourness that lingers for a second too long on my tongue. I love the silly shapes, colors and names, like Sour S’ghetti and Fizzy Cola. I love that, unlike every other part of my food-related work, there’s nothing local, seasonal or organic about these candies. It doesn’t have to mean anything. There’s nothing but fun.
And yet I remember being a young cook in a fancy restaurant, where admitting that my sweet of choice was chock-full of corn syrup and artificial colors and flavors felt potentially disastrous. The chefs I worked for instructed me to slow down and think about everything I ate, even when it was just a deli sandwich or a slice of pizza or a scoop of ice cream. (A version of sensory, though no one would have called it that.) Dutiful young student that I was, I took the time to thoughtfully taste even my secret gummy candy, and for the first time I noticed that the sourness was only on the surface. I realized it was the same granulated white powder I used to can tomatoes: citric acid. Almost immediately, I thought of the candied orange peel I’d learned to make and how the last step was to toss the cooked peels in sugar. What if, I wondered, I added citric acid to the sugar in my next batch? I could make my own natural sour gummy candy! And I did.
Recently, I bought a bag of candy — Haribo sour gummy bears, of course — and brought them to my desk to conduct a quick, informal sensory evaluation. I pulled out one bear of each color: red, clear, yellow, orange and green. They didn’t smell like much, so I skipped straight to taste. Clear, my childhood favorite, was pineapple, tangy and tropical. Yellow was lemon; orange orange. Red was some sort of generic artificial berry. But my first taste of green, my least favorite, which I’d always called lime and often thrown away, caught me off guard. I fished a second green bear out of the bag. Then a third. I put them in my mouth and let the sour coating dissolve away. Then I chewed. As the unmistakable aroma of artificial strawberry flavor flooded my mouth, I couldn’t help bursting into laughter. I’ve been eating gummy bears since elementary school. But I’d never really taken the time to taste them until now.
Samin Nosrat is an Eat columnist for the magazine, a chef, a teacher and the author of the cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” which has been developed into a new Netflix show.
We need to hide this paragraph.
Elise Craig is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Pop-Up Magazine. She has written for Wired, Marie Claire, The California Sunday Magazine and The New York Times for Kids.
In January 1940, in the pages of this very magazine, a writer by the excellent name of Hudson Strode published an article with the headline “Sisu: A Word That Explains Finland.” A Finnish concept that’s tricky to translate into English with any real precision, sisu represents something like a deep well of inner fortitude. The Wikipedia entry includes links to “stiff upper lip,” “cojones” and “chutzpah,” but none of those phrases or words quite capture it. A “special kind of strong will” is the definition Strode goes with, something drawn upon by the stoic in order to persevere in the face of extreme adversity — say, winter, if you live in Lapland.
At one point in the article, Strode visits a Finnish town near the Russian border and meets the local sheriff. For sentimental reasons, this sheriff carries around a dagger, which he hands to Strode. Apparently a previous owner used the blade to fend off six attackers. “They fought for an hour,” the sheriff says. “He cut the six to pieces. I saw the finish of the fight — it was a glorious display of sisu.” Strode doesn’t record his own response, but he seems impressed. The sheriff slips the knife back into its leather holster and gazes to the east. “We shall have need of sisu,” he observes gravely, “to face what may come shortly.”
Reading about Strode’s journey — which took him to Finland at the start of World War II, only months before the Soviet invasion — I thought about my own rapidly approaching trip to the same country, for the same magazine, 79 years later. I smiled at the pleasing symmetry. Granted, my surname does not double as an active verb, not even in Italian. Also, I was going to Finland to report an article on salty licorice. But otherwise, our tasks were not dissimilar. Strode had introduced his readers to a word that explained a distant country and its underlying values. I would try to do the same, only with a really weird flavor of candy.
There would be need of sisu to face what might come shortly.
Throughout much of the world, licorice remains one of humanity’s most divisive confections. Hervé This, one of the food scientists who coined the term “molecular gastronomy,” likes to use licorice to attack the notion that humans possess four basic tastes. You might reflexively think of licorice as sweet, but it’s not, really, nor is it salty, sour or bitter. (Or umami, for that matter, This adds.) The confounding nature of licorice’s flavor has given rise to a sharp partisanship. Licorice candy has been compared, astutely, to the Grateful Dead, by none other than the Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia, who allowed in an interview: “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
To extend Garcia’s simile, albeit imperfectly, that would make salty licorice — salmiakki in Finland, where they consume the most potent flavors — the candy equivalent of a 47-minute version of “Dark Star.” Meaning, for superfans only.
With salmiakki, that fan base is clustered almost entirely in Northern Europe, in what Jukka Annala, the author of a book on salmiakki and the founder and president of the Finnish Salty Licorice Association, refers to as the seven “salty-licorice countries”: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany (in its north). I should explain here that if you read “salty licorice” and think, “Well, I enjoy a sea-salt chocolate-chip cookie; how bad could this stuff be?” the salt used in salmiakki is not sea salt or even iodized table salt but ammonium chloride — sal ammoniacum in Latin, salmiac in English — an astringent, extremely bitter chemical compound formed, like all salts, by mixing a base and an acid, which in the case of salmiac are ammonia and either hydrochloric acid or hydrogen chloride.
At this point, you might wonder, “How is this different from the deeply unpleasant sour candies my own beloved children torture themselves with?” The thing is, in salty-licorice countries, salmiakki is not some niche product marketed exclusively at kids. It’s a respectable treat option for all ages and demographics. In fact, some packages are marked “not licorice for children.” In Helsinki, I scouted at least a dozen convenience stores and groceries, and every candy section therein contained at least one full display rack, sometimes several, dedicated exclusively to salmiakki. Certain brands packaged themselves like breath mints, in stylish cardboard packs, to appeal directly to adults. Your classic Finnish salmiakki comes in the shape of a black diamond, but you can also find salty-licorice dragster wheels, pirate coins, farm animals, “witch whistles” (which look more like gray cigarette butts), pacifiers, pastilles, skulls, hockey pucks, octopi, long flat strips resembling squid-ink fettuccine and, of course, traditional Swedish fish.
Amid the set of country-themed emoji released by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in late 2015, there’s one for salmiakki — an ecstatic woman clutching a pair of black diamonds — described on the English-language website as “something Finns can’t live without.” “It’s sort of the national candy,” Annala told me. Which is saying something, because tiny Finland tends to punch far above its weight when it comes to candy appetites over all. A 2017 study by the London-based market-research firm Euromonitor International ranked the country fifth worldwide in per capita candy consumption. Three other salty-licorice countries, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway, placed third, ninth and 10th. (The United States didn’t even crack the Top 10.)
Here’s another interesting statistic: Finland just scored the top spot on the 2018 World Happiness Report. It’s produced by a United Nations initiative based on global polling data from Gallup, and you can make of the methodology what you will, but Finns reported themselves happier than any other nationality on earth, and they were followed on the list by three Nordic neighbors: Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Americans, meanwhile, came in at a dismal 18th. Correlation does not mean causation, but come on, this is totally causation, right? All those salty-licorice countries clustered at the very top? Maybe it’s not so crazy to think about reported national happiness in relationship to something like a favorite national candy, because what is candy, after all, if not an elemental signifier of happiness and also something extraordinarily culturally specific and wrapped up in nostalgia and childhood memories and, by proxy, national identity?
So when considering the romanticized notion of Scandinavia that’s taken hold of the non-Nordic imagination in recent years — a land of a happy citizenry, of generous social-welfare programs and prisons nicer than our schools and schools nicer than even that, a land of hygge and Noma and Björk — could examining their love of salty licorice be one small but crucial means of unlocking a secret to living that the rest of us, particularly those of us all the way down at No.18, gorging ourselves on king-size Snickers bars like overgrown children unable to handle complicated flavors, haven’t figured out?
Annala had offered to arrange a salty-licorice tasting for me in Helsinki, as well as convene a meeting of the F.S.L.A.’s Salmiakkikonklaavi (Salmiakki Conclave), the ruling body that awards a Salty Licorice of the Year honor at the group’s spring gala. The first gala took place in 1998, shortly after the founding of the F.S.L.A., whose membership numbers about 80. One year, Annala told me, “some people misunderstood that the word ‘gala’ was an ironic thing and came in gowns.”
I was grateful for Annala’s offer. Though it’s no longer especially popular in America, I happen to enjoy black licorice, or at least I used to as a boy, when it came in the shoestring-length “whips” more common back then. (These had the added bonus of really stinging if you managed to snap, say, a younger brother’s arm or cheek just so. What can I say? “Indiana Jones” had just come out. We dug whips.) By Nordic standards, however, my licorice palate lacked sophistication. In the United States, our favorite licorice snack, far and away, remains the crimson middle finger that is the red Twizzler, which is technically not even licorice — those Twizzlers are strawberry-flavored, not licorice-flavored, contain no licorice extract and offer all the masticatory pleasures of an edible candle — and which I’d imagine for licorice purists is akin to stuffing a loaf of Wonder Bread into a poster tube and calling what comes out the other end a baguette.
Annala, diplomatically, made no mention of Twizzlers when we met for lunch at one of Helsinki’s most venerable restaurants, the Ravintola Sea Horse, which has been around since the 1930s and is still a haunt of artists and cultural figures. The house specialty, fried Baltic herring, comes stacked like kindling on an oversize plate. Annala greeted me from a booth. In picturing him, a middle-aged professional obsessed enough with his favorite candy to start a fan club, I expected some combination of zany and plump, but he turned out to be a trim man with a neat, graying beard, pale blue eyes and a slight air of Nordic melancholy. He apologized for his low energy: He was just recovering from the flu. By day, Annala works as an editor at the Finnish News Agency S.T.T., the main wire service in Finland. “Salmiakki,” his handsome and lavishly researched coffee-table book, was published in 2001.
In the book, Annala traces the origins of salty licorice to early-20th-century pharmacies, when chemists in Finland and parts of Scandinavia began selling salmiakki as a cough medicine. (Ammonium chloride acts as an expectorant, which adds credence to the commonly cited theory that the people in certain colder climates were initially drawn to salty licorice for health reasons.) The salmiakki most often came in powdered form in little envelopes, though syrups and diamond-shaped lozenges were also available. Salmiakki, like traditional licorice, is made from licorice root, which is mixed with wheat flour and turned into a paste that is generally dyed black. (The natural color of licorice-root extract is closer to the ocher shade of powdered salmiakki.) Additional flavors can be added to the paste — ammonium chloride in the case of salmiakki, but also anise, toffee, menthol — before it’s molded into candy shapes.
Even before the addition of ammonium chloride, licorice root had been used as a respiratory and digestive aid for millenniums. It turns up in the “Charaka-Samhita,” an ancient Hindu medical text, and in Theophrastus’ “Enquiry Into Plants.” And at least according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “lycuresse” is both “good for the voyce” and “doth loose fleume.” (The O.E.D. also quotes the English writer R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel “Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor:” “I cough sometimes in the winter-weather, and father gives me lickerish.”) Sometime around 1760, an English apothecary named George Dunhill receives credit for being the first to add sugar to the licorice lozenges he sold at his shop, in the Yorkshire town of Pontefract, cementing the herbal medicine’s off-label use as a sweet. So-called Pontefract Cakes are still sold in the United Kingdom, though now they’re manufactured by the German candy giant Haribo.
After our meal, Annala unzipped his backpack and removed a jar of salty licorice produced by one of his favorite salmiakki manufacturers, Namitupa, a small-batch label out of Ilmajoki, a town in southwestern Finland. The licorice was in powdered form, in the old pharmacy style, which Annala adored. The F.S.L.A. named it Salmiakki of the Year for 2012. Annala unscrewed the lid, instructed me to hold out my hand and tapped a modest pile into the center of my palm. “It’s a bit messy, but this is the traditional way to do it,” Annala explained. Then he shrugged, apologetic. “Not so hygienic. Not so aesthetic.”
I glanced around anxiously, feeling as though we should have maybe skulked off to a toilet stall before getting into this part of the interview. The powder was extremely fine and looked like ground cumin. I’ll note that before my investigations into salmiakki, I had never tasted it, and my original plan had been to meet Annala in a virginal state. But then a friend heard about the article and ended up bringing some Dutch salty licorice — a gift from a Scandinavian ex-girlfriend — to a bar one afternoon, so I broke down and tried it. Having seen a series of YouTube videos involving non-salty-licorice-country children being tricked into eating salty licorice, I have to admit: I expected worse. The Dutch candy, a coin-size black disc, had a mild saltiness that canceled out the licorice flavor, but just barely, leaving me feeling as if I were gnawing on a savory leather button. So, not my first choice of things to put in my mouth, sure, but also not the makings of “Jackass”-style reaction videos.
“This is different,” Annala assured me. “This is real Finnish salmiakki. Quite strong stuff.” Heaping some of the powder into his own palm, he said, “Now you lick it.”
Had I expected things to proceed more in the fashion of a genteel tasting at a Lexington whiskey distillery and less like, say, a scene from a William S. Burroughs novel in which the characters ingest weird, made-up drugs? Yes, I had.
Anyway. I licked it. The salmiakki tasted as if someone had made a bouillon cube out of a briny licorice stock, then crushed it into a powder. My tongue immediately tingled. After my experience with the underwhelming Dutch licorice, I hadn’t been prepared for how — what’s the tasting note I’m looking for? — ammonium-chloride-forward Finnish salmiakki would be. It was pungent, in a saltier-than-salt way that brought some heat. The licorice had an aggressive presence as well, which might sound like a good thing, a potential balance, but it seemed only to intensify the curdled chemical aftertaste, some combination of diet cola, fennel toothpaste and MSG that multiple sips of water wouldn’t flush.
Across the table, Annala seemed lost in a reverie. “Mmm,” he murmured, closing his eyes for a moment, as if to shut out all senses but taste. “So delicious.”
Over the course of the next seven hours, at multiple locations, we consumed a considerable, perhaps unhealthful, amount of salmiakki. I tasted brittle black tokens strong enough to make my eyes water. Annala happily crunched several at once, as if he’d just plucked his favorite bits from a sack of trail mix, announcing, “It’s like eating iron!” We drank shots of salty-licorice vodka, a popular spirit throughout Scandinavia. (In “The Nordic Cookbook” the Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, whose restaurant Faviken Magasinet is an internationally lauded purveyor of New Nordic cuisine, writes about teenage friends making bootleg versions of the stuff by packing salty licorice into a three-quarter-filled bottle of vodka and running it through the dishwasher.)
We met two members of the Salmiakkikonklaavi, Juha Hellsten and Kaija Collin, at a bar with red carpeting and white plastic-laminate bistro tables that felt like someone’s idea of the future in 1967. Annala placed a mixed bag of loose salmiakki in the center of the table and tore down its sides so they looked like the petals of a giant flower, the pile of licorice now a teeming black bulb. Choosing a subtly flavored Swedish fish, Annala twisted it between his fingers, then took a bite and nodded approvingly. “It’s mild, but has just enough salty licorice to make it acceptable. And the structure is very good and playful.”
Hellsten, who works in management at the telecommunications company Ericsson and has been known to partly fill a suitcase with salmiakki when traveling to non-salty-licorice countries, agreed: “It’s not a top scorer. But a reliable defender on the team.” Annala said one thing he loved about salmiakki was the “drama of the candy,” by which he meant that the flavor evolved as you experienced it, like different acts of a play. “Sometimes there is a shock effect on the surface, then it is sweet inside,” he explained. “What’s happening changes from the first to the middle to the end to the aftermath.”
Collin, who works at her family’s asbestos-removal company, bit into a black alligator with a white belly and frowned. “This is not salmiakki,” she said.
Annala tried one and determined that the belly was, in fact, marshmallow. “It’s a crime to call this salty licorice!” he said, throwing down the candy in disgust.
Collin handed me a black lump and said: “Now I want you to try this one. No one else does it. Tar candy!”
It was a Tervapiru (“Tar Devil”), and it did, indeed, smell like a black-market cigarette with the filter torn off. I felt as if it also tasted strongly of tar, though I can’t say for sure, not having knowingly tasted tar before. (Finns add tar, derived in their country from wood rather than coal, to various foods as a smoky flavoring agent.)
“I remember tasting pure ammonium chloride,” Hellsten said. He had pushed up the sleeves of his cardigan and was rooting around in the licorice pile.
“Did you like it?” Annala asked.
“ ‘Like’ is perhaps not the right word,” Hellsten said.
At a certain point, I hit a wall. When someone shook a couple of strong salmiakki mints into my hand, I popped only one of them, palming the second and slipping it into my shoe while pretending to scratch my ankle.
Someone brought up a 2012 move by the European Union to sharply curb the allowable per-gram amount of ammonium chloride in food, which would have effectively banned salmiakki and possibly triggered a Finnexit. A Finnish E.U. bureaucrat helped intervene in the end, and candy was exempted from the rule. Annala invited the bureaucrat to the F.S.L.A. gala, but she never responded.
Fazer is the unofficial candy brand of Finland, the national equivalent of Hershey or Cadbury. Its founder, Karl Fazer, was born in Helsinki in 1866, one year after Jean Sibelius. His father, a Swiss immigrant, worked as a furrier, but Karl, the youngest son of eight children, always loved baking with his mother, and after an apprenticeship in St. Petersburg, he opened a French-Russian confectionery shop in Helsinki in 1891. By 1922, Fazer had begun mass-producing the milk-chocolate bars upon which he would build his fortune, their patriotic “Fazer Blue” wrappers a nod to the cross on the Finnish flag. (The country achieved independence from Russia five years earlier.) The company remains in the hands of the Fazer family, with 15,000 employees worldwide. Some of the products introduced in Karl’s day are still on the market, including Mignons, handmade Easter delicacies that require deyolking actual eggs, then refilling the intact shells with hazelnut chocolate.
Fazer is also the largest producer of licorice in the country. In 1927, the company bought a British-Finnish biscuit-and-licorice company and released its signature line of sweet licorice the following year. The wrapper design featured a racist “golliwog” caricature, the British equivalent of a Sambo doll, which, depressingly, was not uncommon in itself — you can find historic examples of noxious candy packaging throughout the world — but which Fazer failed to jettison until 2007, in part under pressure from the European Union. (Why the company took so long to act is a “good and hard question,” a Fazer spokeswoman, Liisa Eerola, told me in an email. “Culturally, Finland was quite isolated for a long time. ... Looking back, it is easy to say that we moved far too late.”) Fazer has been making salmiakki since 1938, and its portfolio of salty offerings now includes products like Super Salmiakki, Pantteri (“Panther”) and Tyrkisk Peber (“Turkish Pepper”), so spicy that it’s ranked like hot sauce, with a flaming-star rating system.
All these treats are made at the Fazer complex in Lappeenranta, two hours from Helsinki by train and about 16 miles from the Russian border. The factory is a century-old redbrick building with a series of modern additions, built along the shore of the largest lake in Finland. It has 300 employees and runs three to five shifts, depending on the candy needs of the nearest holiday. In 2017, the factory produced 19,200 tons of candy: Mariannes (white peppermint pearls with chocolate centers), Tutti Fruttis (variously flavored gummies), Avecs (petite “French”-style pastilles), Amerikans (much larger “American”-style pastilles, which my tour guide enjoyed teasing me about) and all manner of salmiakki. Fifteen percent of Lappeenranta’s output is salty licorice, translating to roughly 3,000 tons of the stuff last year.
The factory was very much a typical factory in certain ways (vast, noisy) and more specifically a candy factory in others (my shoes stuck to the floors from the sugar, and there was a pleasant, lingering odor of fruit more or less wherever I went). As thoroughly automated as any car plant I’d visited in Detroit, the place felt, as those factories did, like both an extraordinary human achievement and an allegory for human redundancy in the form of a mechanical tableau vivant. Stamping presses pounded candy shapes into sheets of starch powder; licorice or sugary fillings were squirted into molds; robot arms hoisted trays onto drying racks. In one room, a lone human employee manually plucked misshapen candies from a conveyor belt, tossing them into a plastic hopper at his feet. I found myself hoping the belt would accidentally speed up and force him to begin gobbling candy, Lucy-and-Ethel-style. But apparently there’s an optical scanner also checking the candy shapes, and if anything goes wrong, an alarm will sound.
As the tour continued, I couldn’t help wondering how future international demand might affect the facility. After all, we’re living in a time when fashionable omnivorism and a growing hipster monoculture have conspired to make even the most previously obscure regional delicacies available, if not everywhere, then at least far from their natural habitats. Hawaiian poke is no longer served solely on the Big Island; Detroit-style pizza has migrated well beyond Eight Mile Road. Nashville hot chicken, East Harlem chopped-cheese sandwiches — we could go on. Why not salmiakki?
But when I met Petri Tervonen, Fazer’s marketing director at the time, he smiled when I asked if the company had made any big push to export salty licorice outside Northern Europe. Salmiakki’s “taste profile,” he explained, was “much more intense” than the average consumer in a non-salty-licorice country was accustomed to. “So you have a natural kind of barrier.”
We were eating bowls of salmon soup in the cafeteria of a different Fazer facility near Helsinki, a building whose curved glass walls and blond wood ceiling made it look like a U.F.O. conceived by a team of Scandinavian designers. Tervonen had moved to Fazer eight years ago from another of Finland’s iconic brands, Nokia. He told me Fazer was planning to introduce a line of premium dark chocolate called Nordi in the United States next year and gave me a sneak preview of the bars. The sleek packaging nodded toward chic, aspirational Scandinavian lifestyle trends, featuring scenes of Nordic splendor: pristine mountain rivers, the candied glow of smoke from a cozy sauna. “Here, our brand awareness is 100 percent, but if you were to rank all confectioners worldwide, we’re probably No.40-something,” Tervonen said. “So we’re competing with giants. What is typical for the category as a whole is it’s an impulse decision. Not many people write down ‘Buy chocolate’ on their shopping list. So how do you get people to stop in front of what you’re selling, make them curious and then get them to try it?”
I kept pushing on salmiakki. Wouldn’t a shopper at Whole Foods at least be curious? Secretly, I pictured a series of alternate sleeves for a Nordi brand of premium salty licorice, scenes that might reflect the darker side of Scandinavian culture, thus preparing potential buyers for what they might be getting into. A black-metal band burning down a church? Max von Sydow playing chess with Death?
Tervonen said the trend forecasters they worked with in the States had tasted salty licorice in the past and found it “interesting,” which Tervonen pronounced in a way that did not sound promising. He shrugged. “Salty licorice is a taste that divides opinion, even here.” He said he had two sons: The 8-year-old loves salmiakki, but the 11-year-old can’t stand it.
The worst licorice I tasted during my epic night with the Salmiakkikonklaavi turned out to be a candied heart. I’d instinctively reached for one, the color (red as a raspberry) and shape tricking my brain into momentarily believing I’d selected something sweeter. It turned out to be the saltiest and most abrasive item on the menu, a flavor assault only heightened by the dissonance of the delivery mechanism.
A plastic twist-bag of those hearts has been sitting at the foot of my desk since I returned from Helsinki, buried within a larger grocery bag of salmiakki I’d hauled back to my apartment. Reijo Laine, the founder of Namitupa, the producer of the hearts, had recommended that I make a present of the candy to my wife. “She will be happy with you for six weeks,” he added, with a mysterious precision.
That had struck me as a poor idea. But back home, as I struggled to account for the appeal of salmiakki, I thought, again, about sisu. Was the defining Finnish attribute really as noble as Hudson Strode made it out to be? What if, in fact, it merely represented a national tendency toward masochism, some understandable but aberrant quality born of endless winter nights that wound up manifesting itself in a fanatical love of saunas and Turkish Peppers?
Yet I couldn’t shake my memory of the blissful expressions on the faces of the members of the Salmiakkikonklaavi. To pathologize such a love felt narrow-minded, unfair. So maybe the answer hinged on flipping the question. Forget about the salty-licorice countries for a moment: Why does salmiakki feel like such a category error to the rest of us? And was the answer to that question right in front of my face? Could one of the secrets to Finnish happiness simply come down to not always expecting hearts to be sweet?
Dumping the bag of licorice onto my desk, I began to dig around, pushing aside a Super Salmiakki lollipop, a packet of Dracula Piller (salmiakki with a creepy vampire mascot), a box of peppered salmiakki pellets (actually called Sisu!), before finally extracting what I was looking for. And what do you know? With the foreknowledge of what was coming, it didn’t taste all that bad. I mean, certainly no worse than any of the rest.
I resealed the bag of hearts and replaced them in the shopping bag. I haven’t touched any licorice since.
Mark Binelli is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Detroit City Is the Place to Be.” He last wrote for the magazine about the Australian author Gerald Murnane.
Like any good immigrant, I know on which bodega shelves to find the food portals to my childhood. I know where to turn, where to crouch, where to bow before the ready-made boxes to make Colombian buñuelos, pandebonos, pandeyucas and arepas. But the one food item I cannot find in San Francisco is the candy of my childhood.
I grew, as we say in Colombia, a punta de Bon Bon Bum. The strawberry lollipop was such a central part of my diet, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was made of equal parts Valle del Cauca sugar and red dye No.40. Bon Bon Bums (pronounced like the French bonbon and the English “boom”) are lollipops with a gum center made in tropical flavors commonly found in the country (maracuyá, watermelon, lulo, pineapple, mango). They are the star product of Colombina, the nation’s beloved candy company. Bon Bon Bums are exported to 90 countries, including all of South America, the Caribbean and even Papua New Guinea and China. In much of Latin America, the phrase has become shorthand to describe a body type (big butt and skinny legs), and all lollipops, no matter the brand, are known as bon bon bums. They are as central to growing up Hispano as receiving your first merengue lessons on New Year’s Eve from a drunk tío or tía who insists your life depends on your ability to sway your hips with swing. Shakira has been known to carry a few Bon Bon Bums at all times in her purse.
For nearly 50 years, Bon Bon Bums have been produced in the Colombina factory in La Paila, north of Cali. At the start, 20 workers were responsible for the production of four million lollipops per month. Today, in that same factory, 200 workers produce more than 40 times as many.
Bon Bon Bum is not Colombina’s only candy. The first candy was a flat sucker made out of cane sugar and natural juices. My father liked them, but his absolute favorite was the caramel drop infused with Colombian coffee. He sucked on them while driving and waiting in line, the two inescapable activities of living in Bogotá. For my older sister, Francis, the palm-sized plastic tray of chocolate-hazelnut and vanilla spreads was a necessity. She spent half an hour with the tiny spatula, meticulously eating and selectively mixing the halved creams. My grandmother, who lived in a small town near the Venezuelan border, bought large quantities of pâte de fruit wedges with the intention of reselling them to her neighbors, but I often caught her eating them on her own, squeezing them in her hands, making the colorful gelatin bulge, the tips of her fingers covered in a dusting of sugar. For my little cousins, the powdery marshmallows that looked like soft, pastel corkscrews were the most fun. They waved them in front of us like fishing poles until we caved and took a bite.
Colombina was born in the Cauca Valley, where the land is hot and humid. The air smells of sugar cane and pineapple, which grow abundantly in the region. The vision for Colombina came to the founder, Hernando Caicedo, in the 1920s as he tended his small sugar-cane mill. Caicedo’s mill, powered by the circumnavigations of yoked oxen, produced hardened blocks of unrefined cane sugar, which Colombians have long thought of as medicine, using the blocks to make aguapanela, a concoction of honey and lemon believed to cure everything from a hangover to a mother’s low breast-milk supply. It was at this mill that the idea of candy with a tropical flair took hold. In just a few years, Caicedo rounded up the funds, readied a warehouse and traveled with a flat lollipop machine from the United States to the town of La Paila.
Today Colombina is a multinational company, but it is also a family one, run by the founder’s grandson, César Caicedo. The factory in La Paila has become perhaps the largest hard-candy plant in all of South America. Two thousand three hundred people work there, and it is not uncommon to find families where three generations have worked on the factory floor. Colombina provides day care for its workers, offers student scholarships and even holds a national soccer tournament where, this year, 34,000 young players had the chance to be scouted by the professional clubs. When the company bids the old year goodbye, it does so in a nearby coliseum, with the help of a salsa brass band, a generous spread of nourishments and refreshments and much dancing and revelry.
A look inside the Colombina plant shows how this old-fashioned corporate philosophy extends to the factory floor. In part to keep more workers employed, many of the hard candies at Colombina are still mixed and prepared by hand. The large vats, where workers stir cane sugar until it boils and takes on a glowing amber color, date back to before Bon Bon Bums had been created, as do the iron caldrons where the fruit extracts and amber sugar combine into highly pigmented neon globs. Workers in white aprons and brick-red rubber gloves hand-turn the candy — called caramelo at this stage — with long rods in order to cool them. The neon goo will be used to make Bon Bon Bums and Fruticas, candy drops sometimes shaped like hearts and lemons.
Machines — a mix of old and new — take over once the caramelo has set. One of the new machines might churn out small armies of bright red gummy bears, injecting them with candied syrups and bathing them in hot chocolate that will dry into a soft shell in seconds. This is the process for the Grissly ChocoSplash, a favorite among the workers on the factory floor. But even the old machines keeps precise, hypnotic movements, spitting out strings of molded candy at regular intervals. The candy fresh from one set of machines will then travel down moving belts, awaiting hand inspection. In gloves and protective glasses cinched over their hooded jumpsuits, workers add the final touches, discarding flawed specimens or steering the candies into the best position on the belt, almost ready to be packaged.
It had been 10 years since I last had a Bon Bon Bum. When I turned 24, I deemed I was too old for them. Recently, the hankering returned, and I deemed I was old enough to have them again. I scanned the bodega shelves in San Francisco one more time before placing an order online. We all have our rituals for consuming candy, but I had forgotten what ceremonies I performed when consuming a Bon Bon Bum. Holding the stem in my hand, though, the rote motions emerged in spite of myself: I observed my hands unwind the cinched wrapper by twirling the lollipop head, I noted how I pulled the wrapper’s flared ends down so that it looked briefly like a cape before slipping it off the stem altogether. Soon my mouth became full of familiars — the sweet and tart making my tongue surge, the accidental clack of the hard candy against the back of my teeth. I remembered that I used to try to make the orb perfectly round, sucking selectively, taking the Bon Bon Bum out to check my progress. I continued the old task, until the very first champagne-pink edges of the gum broke through the surface. Then, the sensation jolted childhood memories from me I did not know I still possessed.
We whiled away the time by sucking Bon Bon Bums, my sister Francis and I. The ruby globe shrank and shrank until all that was left was the heart of gum. This was the metronome of our childhood. Once the Bon Bon Bum was gone, we ironed out the wrapper, and I held onto one end and Francis held onto the other. We would make a wish, then pull. Whoever got the longer wrapper got the wish. I wished for peace on earth, the survival of all whales, my first kiss. My first kiss came at night in the middle of the street. It was bookended by my taking a Bon Bon Bum out of my mouth and putting it back in. At slow hours, I held my Bon Bon Bum to the sun, watching the translucent red planet glow from within. There were air bubbles trapped inside, in the dazzling undersurface of the lollipop, which itself was striated like the radial veins of a banana leaf.
I remembered how on New Year’s Eve I lay on the floor of my grandmother’s house. Nona pushed against the balled-up masa in her kitchen, and I on the floor used the slow and steady force of my tongue to eat away at the candy. Come midnight, a bouquet of sparklers would flash gold in my hand, the sky would be jeweled with fireworks and Tío Víctor, nostalgic and happy, would come out to celebrate with us. He would stand with his rifle at the edge of the jungle and fire just once up at the sky toward the palm trees, just as my grandfather used to do. And then, in the startled silence after the shot, I would unwrap another Bon Bon Bum.
Christopher Payne is a photographer who specializes in architecture and American industry. He previously photographed one of America’s last pencil factories for the magazine.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a Colombian writer based in San Francisco. Her debut novel, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” was published this summer.