When Mrs M and I were in the UK, we trawled London’s Oriental supermarkets for genuine Choco Pie, but without success: prospective consumers of Choco Pie be warned, as there are numerous products from China, Korea and elsewhere that call themselves Choco Pie but are merely cheap imitations. The original and best Choco Pie are made by a company called Lotte, and they truly are a wondrous creation.
A packet of Choco Pie* can be purchased at most reputable Japanese supermarkets for about four hundred yen (£2 in old money, £3 since the GBP went on the slide), and as well as temptingly luscious close ups of Choco Pie in their wrappers, in the altogether and in cross section, the packet depicts in its bottom left-hand corner a rural scene that exudes a wholesome, home-style, Mom’s apple pie, picket fence, American dairy farm, sunshine-y, cows-grazing-in-the-fields kind of vibe. Indeed, one can imagine a fair-haired, freckle-faced young boy in the down-home, old-style, God-fearing Mid-West of the good old U.S. of A. running home from school to be presented with Choco Pie and a glass of milk by his mom.
And how happy that child would be! For having torn open the packet, he would find either six or nine individually wrapped Choco Pie, neatly arranged in a cardboard carton or plastic tray to avoid crushing during transit. Upon opening one of their crisp packet-style wrappers, each with the Choco Pie logo printed in discreet burgundy on its silver foil background, he would hold in his hand a disk of perhaps three inches in diameter and three quarters of an inch thick, its chocolate coating shiny and rippled on top in a manner reminiscent of polished mahogany, with a rough groove around the outer edge that hints at its layered interior, and an ever-so-slightly textured underside to enable an ergonomically non-slip grip on the surface of a plate.
A plate, I have discovered through many happy hours of Choco Pie-eating trial and error, is essential if one is to avoid making a mess, because once the chocolate coating has been breached, the outer layers of the sandwich inside are distinctly crumbly: halfway between sponge cake and a scone, but not dry in the slightest. The most glaring error made by unscrupulous forgers is to render this part of the Pie too dry, and biting into a fake is akin to eating a spoonful of cinnamon or a mouthful of sawdust. In such cases, the filling of the sandwich singularly fails to compensate, which is surprising when you consider that Chinese Choco Pie and their ilk have marshmallow in the middle, and are therefore reminiscent of an old favourite from my childhood – one that I ate at numerous birthday parties, and which is still being manufactured – namely the Wagon Wheel. The precursor to Choco Pie in Japan was called Angel Pie, and so long as I am prepared to overlook the fact that both contain gelatine, and technically speaking are off-limits for vegetarians such as myself, Wagon Wheels and Angel Pie are perfectly edible. But the genius of whichever boffin at Lotte it was that first came up with a Pie prototype was to replace the marshmallow with cream, and this, I believe, is what elevates Choco Pie into the sweet snack stratosphere.
You might think that such a mass-produced product would use cream from a can – ie. one of those cans with a plastic lid moulded into the shape of a Mr Whippy – but the cream in a Choco Pie has none of that horrible artificial-ness. It doesn’t taste of a mixture of gas, aluminium and cardboard for one thing, and it somehow manages to remain firm, which brings me on to the most enigmatic and mysterious feature of Choco Pie, a feature that still has me doing a double-take each and every time I eat one.
There, in the very centre of the cream filling, is a hole about two or three millimetres across: a hole that was clearly not placed there by accident; a hole that doesn’t draw attention to itself like the hole in a Polo or a douhgnut, but merely exists, discreetly and unpretentiously; a hole that hints at the unfathomably scientific; a hole that for some reason reminds me of the hole in the middle of an old LP record; a hole that gives Choco Pie something symbolic – poetic, even – something to ponder as one simultaneously revels in the deliciousness and sheer edibility that surrounds it.
My own theory about The Hole is that it equalises the air pressure within the Pie: that during research and development, it was deduced that without The Hole, the Pie would become unstable and collapse in on itself, or the cream would be squeezed out by its spongy surroundings and burst through the chocolate coating. But can you imagine the process that led up to such an innovation? For something so modest and at the same time so essential, Team Lotte must surely have put in hundreds of hours of overtime and undertaken many months of experimentation.
It was all worth it, of course, because Choco Pie are something to savour: a little like Shredded Wheat, it is inadvisable to eat more than two at the same sitting (although I did once wolf down an entire six-pack during a break from a particularly long day’s cycling). They are easy to enjoy and yet difficult to define (are they a cake? A cookie? A dessert?). They are delicate, moist and fluffy, and despite the hot weather in Japan they are impressively resistant to melting.
Every now and then, Lotte will come up with a limited edition variation on the Choco Pie theme, so there have been banana Choco Pie, mini Choco Pie and even ice cream Choco Pie, but in my opinion, the original and best can’t be beaten, and shouldn’t be restricted to just being eaten in Japan. Food importers of the world, I hereby urge you to bring the gift of Choco Pie to the masses!
*The Japanese language does not use plurals, and it feels wrong to talk of Choco Pies, so I shall refrain from doing so.