Almost 70 years after they were first made in the UK, Japan released the very first non-chocolate flavored Kit Kat and things were never the same again. Now, there’s officially over 400 Kit Kat flavors — giving lovers of the famous Japanese candy an abundance of options to choose from.
How did Japan come to take over this popular snack item anyway? And just how ingrained is it in today’s Japanese food culture? Here, we’ll take a look at the decades of history packed inside each and every one of these small but sweet wafer treats.
From its origins tracing back to the 1930s at a Northern England chocolate company, Kit Kat bars have gone through quite the journey to become a distinct part of modern Japan.
The history of Japanese Kit Kats began in 1973 when they were first imported here by the original manufacturer, Rowntree’s. Around a decade later, the Swiss food and drink company, Nestlé, took over the product, and during the early 2000s, their Japanese division started experimenting with all sorts of flavors.
The very first Kit Kat flavor that was developed specifically in Japan was strawberry. They were initially sold in Hokkaido and ended up becoming a big hit. Because of their popularity, the Japanese Kit Kat team conducted a market test, and found out that they were popular not only with locals, but with visiting domestic and foreign tourists as well.
After this discovery, they had the idea of strategically targeting a common Japanese tradition: the gift-giving custom of omiyage. An omiyage is essentially a small gift or souvenir that you give to family, friends or coworkers after you’ve gone on a trip. Traditionally, omiyages are chosen to be representative of the place or country you visited.
This led to them releasing unique flavors to appeal to other parts of Japan, and by doing so, Nestlé didn’t just make Kit Kats a staple of Japanese souvenirs, but they also helped foster a hometown connection between the snacks and Japanese people. Some examples of these regional Kitkat flavors include the Ocean Salt Kitkat, which uses sea salt from the Seto Inland Sea in southwestern Japan, the Uji matcha flavor inspired by a special type of tea that grows in Kyoto, and the purple sweet potato flavor representing the island of Kyushu.
As they grew in popularity, Kit Kats also adopted more luxurious style, and incorporated their brand into the everyday aspects of Japanese people’s lives.
Back in 2003, Nestlé hired pastry chef Yasumasa Takagi to collaborate with them to develop a series of gourmet flavors. With each new flavor, Chef Takagi and other collaborators always conduct a taste test.
The taste test can last from a few weeks to more than a year, depending on when they feel like they’ve perfected the taste and texture. In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 — two years after he was hired by Nestlé Japan — that Takagi came up with his first contribution, the Passion Fruit Kit Kat.
Since then, Takagi has added more flavors to the line-up, many of which are exclusive to the Kit Kat Chocolatory — the “luxurious” side of Japanese Kit Kats. The Chocolatory is a series of specialty stores all across Japan that offer more high-end ways of consuming the snack. You can buy limited edition Kit Kat flavors and enjoy luscious cakes and desserts, all of which, of course, features a type of Kit Kat bar.
For further proof of how Kit Kats have become more than just a snack in Japan, one only needs to look at entrance exams, arguably one of the biggest turning points in a Japanese student’s life. Because of how Kit Kat is pronounced in Japanese (“kitto katto”) and its similarity in sound to the phrase for “You’ll surely win” (“kitto katsu”), students in Japan often bring a Kit Kat bar with them to serve as a good luck charm for the exams. Conveniently enough, it can also double as a quick snack in between answering the tests.
When they were first introduced to the country in the 1970s, it’s safe to say that nobody back then anticipated what a big role Kit Kats would eventually play in Japanese people’s lives: from giving tasty souvenirs to loved ones, to becoming a fine dining experience and even becoming symbolic of wishes for good luck to a test-taking Japanese student.
And so, despite not originally coming up with the now-famous chocolate wafer bars, Japan turned the seemingly simple Kit Kat and transformed it into a snack that’s full of depth and endless flavor possibilities.
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