Monday, April 23, 2007
Asian snack attack
A world of whimsical munchies in the aisles of your local ethnic grocery
TASTE BUD TRAVELS EMILY PARRINO
One of the magical places of my childhood was a hole-in-the-wall grocery in Chicago’s Chinatown. While my mom and aunt scouted out the deals, I lingered in the center aisle filled with whimsically designed packages of Asian snacks.
It was enchanting. A smiling, white cat waved from the boxes of Botan rice paper candies. Cuttlefish crisps swam in a bag with cartoon squid. Shiny pouches of dried peas, rice crackers and peanuts usually included some absurd slogan like “Enjoy happy present from the earth.”
Chinese snacks offer a variety of flavors and textures absent from American snacks. Seafood like squid and shrimp, or root vegetables like yams and taro, are popular in salty snacks. Asian junk food is often lighter textured than American chips and crackers (though by no means lighter in calories.) Also, Asians seek the sweet and savory in one bite. Most products get a dusting of sugar as well as salt.
Sweets are dressed up with exotic fruits. One of my favorites, the pineapple cake, folds a generous block of dried fruit into a pastry that resembles an overstuffed Newton. Pureed mango and lychee find their way into gummy candies. My cousins were crazy for gelatin cups that could be eaten in one slurp.
Such fantastical snacks in all their playfully packaged glory seem more fit for a child than for an adult. But I still get a craving for the flavors of childhood from time to time. So I recently scoped out the snacks at one of several Korean grocery stores surrounding Fort Campbell. Not all my Chinatown memories were on the store’s shelves, but I snapped up a few purchases.
If you’re interested in noshing on something new, consider munching these foods:
Many flavors of crispy chips come and go. But these French fry-shaped snacks with a hint of shrimp have been around for decades. And they are favored by my Japanese, Chinese and Filipino friends alike. I liked the kicked-up spicy version even better than the original.
Several different brands make these crunchy snacks. They are slightly salty, but finer in texture than pretzels. Some have chocolate, others strawberry or nut coatings. Most come in a rectangular box with a flip-top lid. All are addictive.
Look beyond the grass-green food coloring, and you will realize these legumes are actually chickpeas, the bumpier cousin to the common green pea. Fried and smattered with a salty batter, these peas get some kick from the spicy green mustard that usually accompanies sushi.
Not all Asian snacks are super-processed. In Taiwan, eating snacks that involve a little work, like wedges of fruit or nuts in shells, is a popular way to pass an evening with friends. Chinese peanuts are smaller and more intensely flavored than the peanuts sold at the ballpark. They are also easier to shell.
Another bit of Taiwanese culture is handing out individual paper boxes for guests to discard nut shells and fruit rinds. See the example below to make your own paper boxes from used computer paper.
Emily Parrino is a New Era copy editor. She can be reached at 887-3298 or firstname.lastname@example.org.