August 22, 2012

12 Min Read
Ethnic Snacking Inspirations

By John Csukor, Contributing Editor

Snacking is a mainstay in street food and the bar and restaurant culture in various countries, making these little meals an opportunity to make cultural connections between people. Although a snack is sometimes a personal treat, in the case of a tradition like tapas, its often a ritualistic sharing of a few calories to bind trust and camaraderie among friends and family.

During my travels, snacking becomes critical to the success of my days. Out of professional (and personal) curiosity, I have an inherent desire to hunt for snacks and other foods throughout my host country, particularly since meal times on the road tend to be haphazard compared to my regimented schedule back home. I oftentimes find myself waning between meals, only to discover that dinner doesnt start until 9 P.M.

Snacking through Latin America

Spains fertile landscape provides countless natural resources that all score high on the ethnic snacking scale. Consider the venerable mini sandwich known as the bocadillo, literally translated as something small for the mouth," a small, snack-sized sandwich generally made with barra de pan (like a baguette). They are filled with everything from fruit marmalades to cheeses and thin-sliced meats, or even a small omelet. Various merchants, from high-end retailers to small, local markets and grocers, have little stands where the sandwiches are available. They are not nearly as large as our American sub sandwich, but rather intended as a true tide me over" until dinner or the next impending meal.

Close cousins to bocadillos are Spanish pinchos or pintxos, originating in Spains Basque region and similar to tapas. These are generally small pieces of bread with olive spread, dry-cured meats, cheese, fish or roasted vegetables, presented on platters in a marketplace or bar. They are almost always served skewered with a toothpick so that the ingredients stay together. Pinxtos are considered more akin to finger foods than tapas, which tend to lean more toward knives and forks.

Snacking on tapas has already begun to take hold in the United States. These small, two- to four-bite plates are intended to be combined to create a larger, sharable meal, while single servings make a quick, flavorful snack. They are categorized as hot or cold, with types differing due to key ingredient influences in different regions. Spains coast is known for seafood tapas (like gambas al ajillo, garlic shrimp with pepper, chiles and/or paprika) and central regions for jamón ibérico (dry-cured ham, served simply on bread or by itself). Other areas might show some signs of French influence, such as the Basque region, where pinxtos, like bites of various cheeses, might be more common, or perhaps gildas, pickled, mild, green chiles skewered with anchovies.

My maternal heritage is deeply rooted in Chile, andlike SpainChilean culture has a propensity for snacking and socializing. In Chile, breakfast might be something light at home. Then, shared snacking enters the picture with something called las onces (the elevens," referring to the time, although this break can sometimes come after lunch, around traditional tea time"). Before and/or after lunch, there is a little time, usually a half hour, when areas like the town square fill with people seeking a little pastry and coffee, some freshly roasted nuts, fresh-picked berries, and small sandwiches.

Seasonality often plays a role in snack offerings, especially in Chile. Winter brings warm items, such as empanadas and roasted nuts (chestnuts, peanuts and almonds), to street-food snacking. Summer brings little bags of red murtilla berries (sometimes called Chilean guava), a tart-sweet, indigenous, high-antioxidant berry eaten fresh and often made into jam.

Empanadas de pino are often made with ground beef (seasoned with various mixes of cumin, oregano, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper), onions, raisins, black olives and hard-boiled eggs, all wrapped within slightly sweet dough and baked. The German immigration to Chile weighs in with the completo (completed one"), which looks a bit like a Chicago-style hot dog, but often made with pickled vegetables (sauerkraut is common), chopped tomatoes, avocado and mayonnaise.

Lets not forget the small bites and snacks of Mexico, which display various flavor influences from Spain, including the prolific use of corn and pork. Some notables are tacos al pastor, with rich flavors of dried and roasted chiles, slow-roasted pork, and corn. Sopes have a creamier version of a thick taco shell, hand-formed into a little pie shape and grilled, often served topped with roasted meats and cotija cheese, and perhaps some salsa. Crunchy, salty chicharones are pieces of pork skin that fry up completely devoid of moisture so the fat layers and solids in the skin puff up like crisped rice and deliver an amazing crunch, as well as rich, meatyand sometimes spicyflavor.

The streets of Asia

Asia is another snacking Meccafrom some of the very curious street foods of Vietnam, where juicy beetles are skewered and fried into crisp delicacies, to the sweet, salty Japanese combination of dried fish and toasted almonds.

In Taiwan, day or night, the time is always right for a few bites of food. The average person might start the day with a hokkien (fried bread twist), followed by a mid-morning bowl of noodles, and then have a cong you bing (an onion pancake, but more akin to flatbread) or a couple of cubes of stinky tofu in the afternoon. The days grazing is often topped off with a late-night serving of grilled sausage. Dried sausages are also grilled on the streets of Korea and the Philippines and make excellent snacks. On the street of Taipei, sausage, corn, squid and pork hit the barbecue, sold from street hawkers and carts all over town, not dissimilar to the street-side hot dog, kebab and other stands in American cities.

Koreas love of sausage is plainly seen the entire day long in open-air markets, with hawkers waiting for hungry snackers to choose from varieties skewered with a stick and accented with assorted glazesand sometimes fillings. Yes, fillings in sausage! Usually, one would see a snack of a sausage-filled pastry or meat pie, but it is not uncommon to see a hollow sausage filled with seasoned sticky rice or pickled cabbage. Bulgogi (translated as fire meat"), another Korean mainstay, is certainly seen on the streets, sometimes in snack-sized portions and usually on a stick, cooked over an open-flame grill.

Long before western nutritionists began telling people to eat smaller meals and more snacks, the Chinese were already snacking daily on a variety of small, tasty dishes we have come to know as dim sum. Chinese dim sum brings a wide variety of snack-sized dumplings to the table, including steamed har gow (shrimp) and cha siu bao (barbecued pork), which can be steamed or baked. Jiaozi, filled with ground meat or poultry (beef, pork, chicken, duck, etc.), along with cabbage, scallions or leeks, can be steamed or pan-fried. Shumai are steamed and generally contain pork. The wide variety of dim sum dumplings distinguish themselves via regional differences regarding the wrappers (made with rice, wheat and/or tapioca flour), their shapes and wrapper thickness, styles of preparation (steaming, baking, pan-frying, etc.), seasonings and other ingredients in the fillings, garnishes and dipping sauces, and other touches.

European selections

Think about the French term amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule and its meaning. These bite-sized hors doeuvres are sent out to restaurant patrons by chefs, gratis, to prepare the guest for the meal and offer a glimpse into the chefs approach to cooking. Though technically not a snack, it certainly fits the bill by design and intentsomething to amuse your senses before meals.

The flavors and forms of snacks my family grew up on are seen throughout the streets of Hungary, and particularly in Budapest. If youre visiting Budapest, you will quickly follow your nose to the fresh, frying aromas of the definitive Hungarian snack and street food: lángos, a flour and potato, yeast-risen fried dough, not unlike Native American Indian frybread. Growing up, we enjoyed lángos two ways. The first was fresh from the hot oil, salted and rubbed with a fresh garlic clove (yes, in that order, relying on the abrasiveness of the salt to create micro shreds of garlic, and allowing its juice and oil to season the fried bread). The second form was much less meal-like and more of a snack. The morning or afternoon after making lángos, we reheated and ate them slathered with fresh plum or apricot jam and sour cream. These approaches are still common today via the street hawkers of Budapestor on the second floor of the citys Central Market Hall (an inexpensive place for lunch).

Another prominent street snack you will find in Hungary is pogásca, a yeast dough that plays on the palate like a savory scone. The flaky dough will usually have crisp pork cracklings folded throughout. Kürtoskalács (chimney cakes") resemble a rustic, elongated version of German Baumkuchen. Gundel palacsinta was our crêpe, filled with sweet, dilled cottage cheese or apricot jam. Then, of course, there are the kolbász, Hungarian sausages. Most are made from pork, smoked and dry-cured. Flavors are smoky, with high notes of paprika and garlic. It is very common to sit and snack on a piece of bread cut into little cubes, topped with sausage rings and slices of freshly picked hot Hungarian wax peppers, a preparation known as soldiers" thats very much in line with Spanish pinxtos.

Most recently, trips to Germany made me aware of the fervent sausage culture throughout nearly all areas of Europeand what a great way it fits into the style and mannerism of snacking across the land. Bretzel (pretzels) are the definitive German snack, accompanied by some really good Senf (strong mustard), little slices of cured meats (like Knackwürste or Bockwürste) and occasionally a slice of cheese.

Northern Germany, where the border meets Belgium, is home to the region where American GIs landed during World War I, heard people speaking French and, perhaps, decided that those skinny, fried potatoes must be French! What would it sound like today if, when ordering a snack of those omnipresent potatoes, we asked for Belgian fries"? Although Americans tend toward regular ketchup with their fries, in Belgium, aioli (garlicky mayonnaise) or sauce Andalouse (like a cross between ketchup and mayo) is more common. French fries have caught on as a street food here in America in recent years, with various food-truck operations dedicated to their creation, often serving up their fries with interesting dipping sauces, such as curry mayo and mango chutney.

Upon arriving in Liège, Belgium, one would have thought every corner would have been populated with waffle makers, but we had to travel further west to Brussels, Ghent and Bruges to find that definitive Belgian street snackthe Liège. Far from our notion of Belgian waffles, with thick waffles slathered with whipped cream and strawberries, this version is a sweet, heavy, yeast dough that features small balls of pearl sugar that caramelize during baking. Theyre formed into an oval, always random in shape and sizesometimes seasoned with cinnamon or vanillaand served wrapped with a piece of parchment or napkin. This is a snack thats intended to be eaten while walking, and its fantastic when paired with a cup of strong, Belgian, fresh-brewed coffee.

Interconnected via snacking

So what is our common thread? Snacking is for sustaining and socializing. Wherever we travel, we see some form of dedication to snacking. Another common thread is that snacking is fusing flavors and approaches from all over the world. Mexican street stands are using Turkish doner kebab rotisseries to create carnitas. Middle Eastern falafel is sold in Brazil with chimichurri sauce. And even Japanese dried fish is mixed in a ready-to-eat snack with roasted California almonds.

Our cultures need snacking to extend our energy, andoftentimesbridge the gaps between people. Food is personal and, when we share with others, it is sharing a little bit of ourselves. How many dignitaries do you suppose Queen Elizabeth II of England has created strong bonds with over tea, and perhaps some scones with jam, an imperial high point and definitive snack?

We are a world of snackers, and that world is smaller than we think.

John Csukor is founder and CEO of KOR Food Innovation, Ashland, VA, and the Almond ACEAlmond Culinary Educator" for the Almond Board of California. He received his culinary degree, with honors, from Johnson & Wales University, with all continuing education through the Culinary Institute of Americas St. Helena and Hyde Park campuses. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association. For more information, visit

Nutty Ethnic Snack Influences

Ethnic flavor influences are starting to show up in nut-centric snacks in this country, with sweet Mexican notes like cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate flavoring lines, in addition to the spicier side of Mexico with chiles like jalapeño, chipotle and habanero getting play. Japanese and Indian flavors are also accenting products. Here are some recent examples of note:

  • Planters (a division of Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL), carries Chipotle Peanuts, along with Cocoa Cinnamon Almonds, Chili Lime Almonds and Jalapeño Pistachios from its Flavor Grove line;

  • Fisher Nuts (John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc., Elgin, IL) offers almonds in Honey Cinnamon and Vanilla Bean varieties;

  • A line of seasoned, dry-roasted, Texas runner peanuts from Rickys Lucky Nuts, Durango, CO, includes flavors like Bombay Curry Coconut, Spicy Chile Chipotle and Cocoa & Vanilla Bean;

  • Peanut Shop, Williamsburg, VA, sells hand-cooked Virginia peanuts flavored with wasabi;

  • Wasabi is also used to season the Wasabi & Soy Sauce almonds in the Bold Flavors line from Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, CAand Blue Diamond goes south of the border for three other almond products in the line: Lime & Chili, Jalapeño Smokehouse, and Habanero BBQ.

The Editors

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