We pledge allegiance to the potato chip. And to the republic for which it stands.
What’s more all-American than snacking? We are the land of abundance. Also the land of instant gratification.
We have cravings: whether it’s Cheetos, pretzels, or other, more dubious things. And as Americans, we are defiant in the face of tyranny. “Don’t eat between meals”? Them’s fighting words.
Yet in 2022, we are forced to reassess American exceptionalism. Can we be so arrogant as to think we have a monopoly on fatty, salty, and generally ill-advised treats? A trip to the nearest East Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern or Latin American supermarket tells a different story.
Every culture has its potato chip.
“I like stuff that’s hot,” said Dally Rovles, whom we recently met up with at La Nueva Mercedes Supermarket in Paterson. Takis hot chili pepper & lime tortilla chips are her fave. “Fuego,” the bag is marked. “Fire.”
“I eat these any time during the day,” said Rovles, a Paterson resident. “I eat these when I’m having sandwiches.”
We all have something like that.
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Whoever we are, wherever we come from, there is some crunchy tidbit we just can’t get enough of.
“The human desire for starch and salt and calories, that’s the same everywhere,” said Chinese cultural historian Miranda Brown, who teaches a course on the food and drink of Asia at the University of Michigan.
“The specifics are different, but human beings are the same,” said Brown, who grew up on the Asian snacks in San Francisco’s Chinatown (her mother was from Singapore and China).
“Refined carbs — everyone likes those,” she said.
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To be clear: when we say “everyone,” we mean developed, industrialized nations. If you don’t have meals — and alas, there are many in the world who don’t — you can hardly eat between them.
And when we say “snacks,” we are not referring to “street food” — those characteristic fast-food items like samosas (India), meat pies (Jamaica), shish kebab (middle east) and hot dogs (America) of which each culture is justly proud. What we mean are munchies — processed, pre-packaged, out-of-the-bag stuff you grab thoughtlessly when you’re watching TV, and continue to thoughtlessly, compulsively, endlessly eat.
Every culture is — or should be — proud of those, too.
“There’s this idea that real Chinese food or real Asian food is not junk food,” Brown said. “That we eat only steamed, hand-made traditional foods, passed down by mother.
“But a lot of Asian moms have a job. Some of them have to deal with children. The reason we go to junk food is the same as everyone else. I know there is this myth of the Tiger Mom, and the Wisdom of the East. But what we’re dealing with is working parents who struggle with kids, with hobbies, with screen time. It’s all very familiar.”
In short: everybody nibbles. It may be the one universal trait in an increasingly divided world.
Could it bring us all together? Perhaps.
But first we will need to develop a taste for the flavors, and food habits, of cultures other than the the ones we grew up in.
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Happily, those things are as close as your nearest international food market. In addition to specialty stores that cater to every culture, from Korean to Chilean, there are stores that specialize in bringing all the cultures together.
At World Market in Shrewsbury, for instance — one of 242 in the U.S. — you can find snacks from over 50 countries. “We’ve got something for everyone from everywhere,” said Stacie Krajchir, World Market lifestyle curator.
Want to take a trip around the world, without leaving the Northeast? Let the snacking begin!
Hot, hot, hot
Blandness doesn’t play in Mexico City, where Karla MacDonald-Ramos grew up. Lime and salt are key ingredients in a lot snack foods. “There, it’s normal to eat something that is very hot,” said MacDonald-Ramos, a clinical nutritionist who has taught at Universidad Anáhuac Norte in Mexico City.
“We would get lime and salt peanuts,” she said. “Also something called pepitas, which are the equivalent of pumpkin seeds.”
Fried pork rinds — chicharrones — are popular there, as they are in many parts of the U.S. “There are two kinds,” MacDonald-Ramos said. “The fake kind, which is flour, and the authentic chicharron, which is really good. There are two major brands in Mexico: Sabritas, which has flour chicharrones, and Barcel’s, which has the real one.”
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As important as the snack is what you dip it in. Guacamole is the go-to: but not the mild stuff we have in the U.S.
“We use chili serrano, and we also put in white onion and tomato,” she said. ” A special kind, saladette tomato. It’s long; it has a very different taste from the regular round tomato here.”
Mexico City is of course not synonymous with all of Latin America, or even all of Mexico. When friends from Argentina visit, she says, they find the flavors of her country entirely novel.
“These are comfort foods,” MacDonald-Ramos said. “And they have a social component. We all like to eat them when we are surrounded with people at a party, or snacking in front of the TV.”
But there is one thing these crunchy treats have in common with processed snacks the world over. They are, from a health point of view, problematic.
Mexico City moms, like mothers everywhere, slice up cucumbers and carrots for their kids. And there are also munchies available with a little more nutritional heft, such as jicama.
“Snacking over there is one of the major problems in the prevalence of obesity and overweight,” she said. “Diabetes is off the charts. The industry has tried to make ‘lighter’ versions of these snacks, but that’s generally just a reduced size.”
The traditional American palate is not geared toward fish. Certainly not as a casual snack — other than the odd sardine here and anchovy there.
But fish flavor, in many Asian cultures, is a commonplace in their savory snacks as BBQ flavoring is to potato chips in America.
Shrimp chips — generally made with tapioca flour and shrimp flavoring — are as commonplace in Asia as Doritos are in New Jersey. Sometimes they’re shaped like crinkly French fries. Sometimes they’re enticingly multi-hued: yellow, pink, green.
“They’re kind of designed to entrap children,” Brown said. “Shrimp chips were really popular when I was a kid. You don’t know what’s in them, really.”
They are a close relative of the prawn crackers common in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the “krupuk” or “kerupuk” crackers, sometimes made with wahoo or other fish flavors, that can be found in may parts of Southeast Asia. Rice, wheat and tapioca are the starch component of these snacks, as corn starch is for Americanized snacks.
“Packaged, processed snacks are a big thing,” Brown said. “If you go to a train station in China, there’s a ton of that. Any pharmacy, there’s a lot of these snacks. I grew up eating a lot of the Asian equivalent of potato chips.”
Seafood figures in other East Asian munchies — dried squid and seaweed are popular, and we found crawfish chips at a local Asian supermarket. Other flavors are, to the American palate, even more unusual. “The big thing that’s coming in now is this salted duck egg flavor,” Brown said. “That’s a new craze.”
Wasabi peas, melon seeds, coated peanuts all have their fans. Then there are the sweet, or sweet-ish snacks. Candied walnuts. Salted, or sour, plums.
“I gave a sour plum to a Puerto Rican friend as an immigrant kid thinking she would like it, and she spat it out,” said Record columnist Mary Chao, originally from Taiwan, who went to elementary school in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Mention must also be made of the ubiquitous Pocky, the coated biscuit sticks introduced in Japan in 1971, and now pretty much everywhere.
“There some overlap between Taiwanese and Chinese and Hong Kong foods, because everybody is going to the same groceries,” Brown said.
Mixing it up
The potato chip is — let’s admit it — a cumbersome thing. Its unwieldy, irregular shape takes up a lot of space in the package. Half of a potato chip bag is air.
No such problem with bhuja, the go-to snack of South Asia. This spicy mix, made of puffed rice, dried peas, crackers, noodles and other delights, is all tiny morsels, nestled snugly together in a bag or bowl. It’s popular in India — and wherever Indian expatriates get the urge to have something with their beer. “Bombay mix,” it’s called in English pubs.
“My mother would probably eat all of this stuff,” said Saad Hussain, surveying a long aisle full of packaged snacks at Bhavani Farmer’s Market in Old Bridge. Bhavnagri Gathiya, Madras Mix, Chukry Sticks, Chana Jor Garam, and on and on.
“You could say it’s like Chex mix, but really spicy Chex mix,” said Hussain, whose family is from Pakistan. “You have chips in there, peanuts in there, curry leaves. Most of this stuff here is pretty popular.”
What Hussain really remembers from his childhood is Namak Para — fried, flavored wheat flour bites that look, in the package, a little like Chinese noodles. “Kids love it,” he said. “The flavor is good and it has that crunchy taste.”
Like they say — in English or Urdu — You Can’t Eat Just One.
“I’m trying to lose weight, so I try not to eat too much of this stuff,” Hussain said.
Bringing up baby
In America, we have Chester, the Cheetos Cheetah. In Israel they have Baby Bamba — the precocious little toddler with the red cowlick who is the mascot of Bamba peanut butter puffs — by leaps and bounds the most popular snack food on the Israeli market, accounting for 25 percent of sales.
Bamba is a sort of peanut-flavored Cheez Doodle, made by the Osem company, that kids in Israel can’t get enough of. “That, for me, is the most characteristic snack,” said Yanay Israeli, an academic who grew up near Tel Aviv and now divides his time between America and Israel.
Part of its appeal was the adorable Baby Bamba, whose commercials have been drummed into the heads of several generations of Israeli children. In 2020, Osem launched a female Baby Bamba in honor of International Women’s Day. “That baby became an icon in Israeli commercials in the ’90s.” Israeli said.
Unlike the Cheez Doodle, of which it was originally a knockoff (the cheese flavor apparently didn’t fly with Israeli consumers, so the flavor was changed to peanut) Bamba is vegan. That’s made it a favorite, not only with kids, but with conscientious adults. “It’s one of the main snacks popular with vegans,” said Israeli, who is vegan himself.
And — rare among so-called junk foods — Bamba may actually have health benefits. Israeli kids, raised on Bamba, suffer from peanut allergies at one-tenth the rate of their Western counterparts, a 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found.
The other popular Israeli snack is Bissli, a pasta-shaped snack that comes in such flavors as “barbecue,” “pizza,” “falafel,” “Mexican,” and “hamburger.” It is also made by Osem, and is the second most popular snack in Israel.
“As a kid or teenager, you’d go to parties and events,” Israeli said. “And if there were snacks, there would be Bamba, Bissli, and Pringles.”
Yes — those. “They sell Pringles in Israel,” he said.
There are, needless to say, parts of the middle east where Bamba and Bissli haven’t penetrated. They, and most other processed snacks, were not part of the upbringing of Sonya Ozbey, Israeli’s partner. She came from Turkey.
“I came from a generation that didn’t eat a lot of snacks,” said Ozbey, also a scholar. “Our moms wouldn’t buy them for family consumption. We would have fruits, or dried fruits. Raisins. Nuts maybe. I’m sure the situation has changed. For a young person now, there’s probably more consumption of processed food.”
In college, she does remember eating potato chips and corn chips with local spices. And Doritos. “Those taste pretty much the same as here,” she said.
But the snacks that were most characteristic were not massed produced. Tulumba — fried dough with syrup — was one. There were others.
“We had this combination of grape molasses mixed with tahini,” she said. “You’d dip your bread in that. It’s a sweet snack, and it’s supposed to be healthy.”
Across the pond
“I want HobNobs…I want Maltesers, and I want Twiglets!” complained Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Scotsman-out-of-water, in a season five episode of the Marvel TV franchise.
Even Marvel heroes, apparently, need culture-appropriate snacks. “I want proper British junk food,” he shouts.
Had he taken the trouble to look, he might have been able to satisfy his cravings with some U.S. substitutes.
Maltesers are malted milk balls, similar to America’s beloved Whoppers. HobNobs are oat biscuits — cookies, we would say.
But Twiglets resemble nothing but themselves. They are indeed twig shaped — and they have a distinctively piquant, yeasty flavor that resembles nothing on the American market.
“Psst — are you a nibbler?” asked a 1932 ad from cookie manufacturer Peek Frean, which introduced them (they are now made by Jacob’s). “These crisp, crunchy biscuits have such a thrilling savoury flavour!”
Thrilling, but possibly an acquired taste for Americans.
For that matter, British “potato crisps” are not quite like their American counterparts, said Trudi Gilfillian, an Asbury Park Press editor who was born in England and still has family there.
“Crisps taste very different from American potato chips,” she said. “My favorites are Walkers crisps, particularly cheese and onion, smoky bacon and roast chicken flavor.”
Alas, even these days, not all forms of instant gratification are instant.
“There was a British shop in Absecon that used to sell them,” she said. “They are closed, so occasionally I will order some on Amazon.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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