The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

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As your sometime guide to Japanese culinary culture, I would be remiss if I let another summer pass by without talking about Calpis.

Calpis is a sweetened fermented milk beverage. The label says:

"CALPIS" is a cultured milk drink, a refreshing gift from nature.

People tend to either love or hate Calpis. It tastes somewhat like very sweet, thick yogurt syrup with a dash of buttermilk. It is similar to Yakult, which seems to have been introduced more successfully around the world. However unlike the "gut-friendly" Yakult, Calpis makes no claims about containing active-bio-friendly-Dr.-Something-flora and things. In other words, it's basically bad for you, as a sugary beverage should be. (It does have some half-hearted blurbs about being a good source of calcium, but then there's all that sugar.) The ingredients are listed as cane sugar, milk and 'dairy products' (lactose), maltose and soy derived sugar.

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It is sold as a carbonated drink (and labeled Calpico or Calpis soda, depending on where it's sold), non-carbonated Calpis (or Calpico) water, and as a concentrate. There are fruit flavored versions too, but I like to stick to the original, unadulterated flavor. Derivative products include a premixed alcoholic cocktail called Calpis Sour, Calpis flavored candy, and frozen ices.

To English speakers in particular, the name is somewhat unfortunate, especially for a beverage. This is why Calpis has been marketed as Calpico in various overseas markets.

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Originally Calpis was only sold as a concentrate, in a heavy glass bottle. The bottle did not have a label stuck on it. Instead, it was completely wrapped up in textured white paper patterned with blue polka dots. The paper was pleated like a summery dress of the 1950s, the decade in which the bottle was designed. (Think Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch.) You can still get the concentrate in this elegant bottle (mostly in boxed gift sets), sans the pleated paper, but nowadays the concentrate is mostly sold in boring paper cartons. They have kept the blue-polka-dot-on-white design though.

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Calpis concentrate also makes a great syrup for shaved ice (kakigouri). When I was in Hawaii in November, I kept looking for Calpis as a flavor choice at the shave ice places, but never found it. I was disappointed. In Japan Calpis is ubiquitous.

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I've always preferred the concentrate over the ready to drink Calpis, because you can put in as little or as much Calpis as you want. My mother used to scold us if we put too much Calpis in our ice water. Even now I get a small guilty thrill when I make my Calpis nice and thick. I become a 10 year old again, sneaking into the kitchen when my mother wasn't looking, to add a big extra dollop of the stuff in my glass. I would stir it well, but there would always be a bit of full-strength concentrate at the bottom of the glass. I would tip my head back, letting the thick syrup glide slowly down the glass into my mouth, the last, sweet treat.

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Unlike mugicha, my other favorite cold summer beverage, I do not indulge in Calpis that often these days. Mugicha is zero calorie and supposed to be good for you. 100ml of Calpis diluted to 'regular strength' contains 48 calories according to the official Japanese website. To compare, 100 ml of regular cola has 43 calories. (There is an artificially sweetened concentrate now with '60% less calories', but it's hard to find outside of Japan. Besides, what's the point of artificially sweetened Calpis?) I would have to burn it off the way I did when I was 10, by playing Kick The Can for hours on end, to be able to handle more than an occasional glass. I tell you, growing up is highly overrated.

Calpis (Calpico) Water and Calpis (Calpico) Soda are available in many Asian grocery stores. Calpis concentrate is available at well stocked Japanese groceries especially in the summer, such as Japan Centre.

(Note: When I tell Swiss people about Calpis, they nod sagely and say "Ah, it's like Rivella". Well Rivella is also a cultured milk based drink (soda), but to me it tastes nothing like Calpis. Neither does the Migros knockoff Mivella.)

How to use Calpis concentrate

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The recommended dilution for Calpis concentrate is 4:1 or 5:1 water to Calpis. I have gone up to as high as 2.5:1, but that is a bit extreme. The concentration level of pre-bottled Calpis/Calpico water is about 5:1.

To prepare, just fill a glass with ice cubes, pour in concentrate to your desired level, then fill up with cold water. Stir well. Since the concentrate has a tendency to sink to the bottom, it's best to serve this with a straw or muddler to stir it around with. For an extra hit of Calpis, finish off the glass with a swirl of extra concentrate.

Use the concentrate neat as a topping on snowcones or shaved ice.

Calpis Sour

This is a cocktail. I use vodka instead of shochu, since shochu is not easily available in Europe.

Pour 1 finger of vodka and 2 fingers of Calpis concentrate into a glass. Add ice cubes. Top up with water and stir well. (You can also shake it in a cocktail shaker.) Garnish glass with a slice of lemon. Serve with a straw.

Use soda water instead of still water for a bubbly version.

Photo credits: Calpis Water bottle - luisvilla; Calpico bottles - samk; Calpis vending machine - jpellgen; Calpis closeup with ice balls - chidorian; Calpis giftset from my mom. (Other photos are by me.)

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