We are living in interesting times, as the apocryphal Chinese expression would have it, and there’s no better proof than the supermarket aisles, where French’s and Hellmann’s sell ketchup, and Heinz offers mustard and mayonnaise. Condiment contradictions aside, abundant evidence can also be seen in what we Americans do to our foods—perhaps most notably with regard to Oreos.
Introduced in 1912, the staid and venerable Oreo was held intact and sacrosanct for nearly a hundred years. But lately, Oreos have been causing a stir, like a dapper widower at a retirement home who’s decided it’s never too late to get a little crazy.
Since 2010, the cookie brand’s custodians have released a barrage of creative but comestibly questionable Oreos. Since I’m a sucker for the unusual, I’ve tried many of them: Kettle Corn Oreos were surprisingly good, while Oreo Mint Thins, Pistachio Thins, and Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie lived up to my high expectations. But there were plenty of misfires.
For example, Cherry Cola Oreos might merely have featured a strange yet acceptable cherry cola-flavored creme. But that apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy its creators, so the cookies also include “popping candy”, a rather explosive palate cleanser that failed to deter a forceful and regrettable aftertaste. Red Velvet Oreos disappointed too, and for every bad Oreo flavor I’ve tried, there are many more varieties that I don’t even dare to sample—Limeade Oreos, for instance, or Apple Pie.
The problem with Oreos going flavor-crazy is that it’s kind of like opening Pandora’s Box and breaking the Seventh Seal simultaneously—whether it’s good or bad depends largely on the interpretation of the observer, and there aren’t a lot of options left after it’s done. But maybe those perceived limitations are just the result of thinking too small. In the past, whenever I’ve written about food (however loosely defined), I’ve typically confined myself to local offerings. This time, I had a chance to introduce an international flavor to this column—actually, several international flavors.
A few months ago, it was announced that China would soon see on its market shelves a wasabi-flavored Oreo, along with one that tasted like chicken wings. My first suspicion, that this was a salvo in the Trump-China trade war, was proven incorrect—these were legitimately expected to appeal to the average Chinese consumer. I had to try them.
Since they were only available in China, I looked to eBay for someone who would ship to the United States. I found a seller, negotiated a deal, and within a couple of weeks, had a box each of Wasabi Oreos, Chicken Wing Oreos, and Matcha (Green Tea) Oreos, with each box including eight individually wrapped packages of five cookies. Also shipped were a few boxes of “combo” Oreos, featuring two kinds of creme, each allotted one half of the cookie. (The practice of “splitting” creme might be construed as an admission of guilt, or at least a disguised warning, with neither flavor judged capable of carrying a full cookie alone.)
The much-anticipated taste test began with Chicken Wing Oreos, which tasted like someone took some chocolate cookie crumbs and mixed them into the sauce of your chicken wings. One couldn’t claim their marketing material was dishonest.
Since the labels were in Chinese, I had to use visual clues to distinguish the Wasabi Oreos box from the Matcha (both feature green filling); luckily, the former had a picture of a cookie emitting green flames, so there was no mistaking it. If the Cherry Cola Oreos were like fireworks in your mouth, Wasabi Oreos were like plain old fire. The introduction of milk, drunk or dunked in, only added another unwelcome component to a miserable mixture.
I imagined variations on the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials, taking place in a Japanese restaurant: “You got your chocolate in my wasabi!” “You got your wasabi in my chocolate!” Or substitute “chicken wings” for wasabi, and set the ad in a sports bar. Alas, in this case the accidental combinations would not be cause for celebration—both Chicken Wing Oreos and Wasabi Oreos were, in my opinion, pretty gross.
The Macha flavor was slightly less bad, but at this point I was pinning my hopes on the combination cookies, also tuned to Chinese tastes: Blueberry/Raspberry Oreos, Mango/Orange Oreos, and Grape/Peach Oreos. Blueberry and Raspberry seemed like a sensible combination, and the same with Mango and Orange, but Grape and Peach stood out like the last two people at singles event: neither of them traditionally attractive, but thrown together by necessity and circumstance. Strange artificial fragrances emanated from these fruit-inspired cookies, and while these Oreos didn’t exactly taste bad, they smelled much better than they tasted.
Evaluating the Chinese Oreo experiment, I pronounced my judgment: utter failure. These were cookies best eaten on a dare, less mouth-watering than eye-watering—and I had a lot of them left.
Luckily, I was involved in not one, but two “White Elephant” gift exchanges each year, in which the goal is to offer a gift that proves interesting, entertaining, or humorous, for a relatively small amount of money. (Note that the word “delicious” is not used in the previous sentence.) Baskets filled with an assortment of Chinese Oreos fit the bill nicely, and maybe, I thought, just maybe, they’d find a home with someone who appreciated their unique sapor.
As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to Wasabi and Chicken Wing Oreos, flavor is a foreign concept.