When it comes to classic Japanese snacks, chewy mochi and matcha Kit Kats are probably some of the first examples that spring to mind. However, one of the most popular and iconic snacks in Japan today is in fact a far more simple creation: umaibo. Umaibo was first created in 1979 and sold in traditional Japanese candy shops called dagashi-ya.
Today, with dagashi-ya on the decline, umaibo can be found in convenience stores and supermarkets across Japan. But what makes this snack so special? Besides being a delicious staple of Japanese snack food, umaibo are famous for being affordable, fun, and versatile. As a result, many Japanese people today have fond memories of eating umaibo growing up, helping to establish umaibo’s reputation in Japan as the ultimate nostalgic snack.
Umaibo, (which literally means ‘‘delicious stick’ in Japanese), is a puffed corn snack in the shape of an airy, puffed cylinder. The texture is crispy, similar to Cheetos, and generously seasoned with flavoring powder. The end result is a crunchy, addictive snack food that’s both tasty and light. Plus, while not exactly healthy, each umaibo ranges from just 25-50 calories, making it a great alternative to potato chips.
In order to appeal to children, umaibo is sold at an affordable price and wrapped in fun, eye-catching packaging. Each stick is sold individually and sometimes includes a toy to further entice young customers. Umaibo’s bright, colourful packaging is instantly recognisable thanks to the snack’s mascot, a cat named ‘Umaemon’. Umaemon’s name and appearance are a reference to the iconic mascot from the popular children’s anime Doraemon, which aired the same year that umaibo launched.
The popular Japanese snack comes in a variety of flavors that can be divided into three distinct categories. First, there are the regular flavors, the core set of umaibo that can be found whatever the time and wherever the place: common varieties like cheese, teriyaki, and chocolate. Many of these are long-running, well-established flavors, in circulation since the 1980s.
Next, there are regional flavors, which are exclusive to certain parts of Japan. In Tokyo, for example, monjayaki-flavored umaibo can be found, while the okonomiyaki flavor is only available in the southern Kansai region. This is because monjayaki—okonomiyaki’s less known, more liquid cousin—is said to have originated in the Tsukishima district of Tokyo, while okonomiyaki comes from Osaka, the largest city in Kansai.
Wondering what a beef tongue flavored snack really tastes like? Give it a try! Umaibo is just one of the many tasty dagashi available in TokyoTreat’s monthly snack boxes.
Finally, there are also limited edition flavors, which are only produced for a brief time and may never reappear. In fact, there are already more than a dozen umaibo flavors that have been completely discontinued since their initial release, including intriguing options such as red lobster and American hot dog. While it’s a shame that these charmingly odd varieties no longer populate the shelves, new flavors of umaibo continue to hit the market regularly.
Luckily, many of the tastiest, most interesting flavors of umaibo are still readily available in Japan today.
On the more traditional front, you can find salami, salad, and sugar rusk umaibo, along with other uniquely Japanese classics such as with tonkatsu sauce and shrimp mayonnaise. Finally, there are the more experimental flavors, with options such as corn potage, natto, mentai, beef tongue, and chicken curry.
Some of these, like corn potage and mentai, are familiar flavors in Japan, while others, like beef tongue and natto, are likely to be just as confronting at home as abroad! What’s more, umaibo has a reputation for uncannily accurate flavorings! From the tangy, BBQ flavor of beef tongue to the infamously slimy texture of natto - make sure to prepare your palate before you give one of these flavors a try!
No matter your taste, the best thing about umaibo is that you’re sure to find one you’ll love! Cheap, cheerful, and seriously tasty, umaibo is the ultimate Japanese snack food—and the constant rotation of flavors only makes it better. Let us know what flavor you’re most curious about below!