Pocky isn't so much a snack as it is an equalizer, a Japanese common denominator. They arrive in bouquets of as many as 15 individual sticks, designed to be shared with anyone and everyone. For years, commercials ended in slogans like "Anata mo watashi mo pocky! (You and me and Pocky!)" or "Ebibadi Pocky! (Everybody Pocky!)"
It's natural, then, that there are Pocky varieties for every palate, over 300 types encompassing every shape, color and flavor. Though the original is a thin pretzel stick covered in chocolate, there's also Chestnut Pocky, Crème Brulee Pocky, and Kobe Wine Pocky. Some have larger cookies or more icing. In the winter, you can buy purple Sweet Potato Pocky. In the summer, there's pale green Kiwi Pocky.
After tasting every variety at our local Nijiya Market, here's what we learned:
Proper Pocky pronunciation: Pocky does not rhyme with rocky. Derived from the sound it makes when you snap it with your teeth, it's POH-small pause-KEE.
Where did Pocky begin? Glico had been manufacturing Pretz, a pretzel stick product that continues to this day, and in 1965 they decided to cover Pretz in chocolate, except for an inch of the end so that the the chocolate doesn't melt in our hands. With its huge success came Almond Pocky six years later, followed by Strawberry Pocky after another six years. Now, a new flavor is released each year, and some are only available in certain regions, reflecting local produce: grape in Nagano or yubari melon in Hokkaido, for example.
Surprisingly, our trips to Nijiya revealed that they've left many of the more obscure flavors back in the homeland. Instead, we faced a wall of variations on chocolate, strawberry, and almond. But when we actually tasted each variety side-by-side, we learned that there are profound differences in each.
11. Milk Chocolate Pocky looks the most elegant in its pale gold box, but beware a lingering aftertaste of butter.
10. Chocolate on Chocolate is a line of big-is-better snacks that features more cookie and more chocolate in crisscrossed patterns. The Chocolate on Chocolate Praline flavor is big on hazlenut but restrained in sweetness.
9. Though simply labeled Strawberry Pocky here, this variant is called Strawberry Tusubu Pocky in Japan. Tsubu means "grain," referring to the grains of sugar that cover the surface. Their texture resembles pop rocks without the fizzle, adding sourness.
8. Maybe Winter Pocky's thicker layer of chocolate is supposed to keep us warm in the snow. A dusting of cocoa powder adds a pleasant bitterness but changes the texture to be much rougher.
7. Gokuboso Pocky is extremely thin, the Virgina Slims of Pocky. More surface area means more chocolate intensity.
6. Giant Pocky has the same chocolate as the standard chocolate variety but is instead 10" long and over three times the diameter. Pocky resembles shortbread here, the choice when we'd like something hearty.
5. Almond Crush Pocky has an intense smokiness that reminds us more of peanuts than almonds. The focus is on the nuts here, not the chocolate.
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4. Milk flavors are incredibly common in Japanese snacks. Sweet Milk Pocky here tastes of sweet condensed milk.
3. Strawberry Pocky tastes hardly like real strawberries, but after four decades, it's become its own recognizable and easily-loved taste. So floral that you can smell it from several feet away.
2. Cookie Crush Pocky combines chocolate cookie bits and melted milk chocolate. It's what Nestle's Crunch bar would taste like if it had subtlety and good chocolate.
1. In the store, the thought of buying the elaborate Pocky felt like more of a treat. But back home, it was the original Pocky we preferred above all others. Its ingredients read like any other mass-produced snack -- wheat flour, sugar, cacao mass, hydrogenated vegetable oil -- and yet we found a balance of flavors altogether surprising. Though sweet, it was also smoky, fruity, slightly acidic and bitter. In its simplicity, it felt like the most adult flavor of them all.