x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

When it comes to snack foods, I'm very serious

From trail mix to pretzels and nuts, I take finding the perfect snack very seriously.

Every morning, my father ritualistically scatters a few chunks of stale bread for a waiting flock of friendly birds. It’s a habit so established that, at home, “for the birds” is a label informally applied to any uneaten bread or pastry products past their prime. “Is this rubbish?” I might ask, shaking an unlabelled Ziploc bag filled with shortbread crumbs. “No! It’s for the birds!” someone might yell back. “Leave it alone.”

The double entendre is unintended. “For the birds”, a phrase used colloquially to sum something up as worthless, is used with lyrical innocence.

The truth is, I would gladly swap the birds a muesli breakfast for chewy feasts of stale toast. Muesli, which has always reminded me of the stuff I use to fill my bird feeders, is not my cup of tea. And though there must be 50 kinds of trail mix at the Whole Foods Market where I live, I’m blind to its charms. My main gripe with trail mix is that it isn’t salty. But also, if I’m going to buy something that brings words such as “livestock” and “feedbag” to mind, I’ll stick with rodeo tickets.

Salty snacks are a different story. On my last flight home to Abu Dhabi, British Airways served little bags of Tyrrell’s Thai chilli rice crackers, which were so incredible that I went on a frantic crusade in search of more almost immediately after landing. I found them at Abela supermarket where, at almost Dh40 per paltry bag, the mark-up seemed so exorbitant that it almost broke the spell. As a compromise, I allowed myself two bags – “one for now and one for later”. Neither bag made it home. (Also delicious, I’ve since learnt, are Tyrrell’s habas fritas, which are dried spiced broad beans.)

The snack aisle of any reasonably stocked LuLu is a heavy-duty danger zone for a snack addict, but if you steer clear of overpriced American and British imports, you can end up with an amazing bounty for very little money. I adore roasted nut mixes from Lebanon, but unfortunately they always seem to include too many bizarrely puffy, coated peanuts to make the odd buttery cashew worthwhile. I’ve found my fantasy afternoon pick-me-up in salty, fried tapioca chips, which have a starchier and more substantial crunch than potatoes. Imported from India, they run about a dirham for a large bag. I also load up on sev mamra, crunchy, dried haystacks of spicy, dried noodles, puffed rice and fried nuts.

Yesterday, I disgusted friends by picking all the giant toasted corn kernels out of the “Spanish cocktail mix”, before moving on to the nutty dried chickpeas and deliciously oily Marcona almonds. Normally I am not discriminating about snack mixes, although I have always especially loved sucking on pretzels.

I keep good company, though. Recalling her childhood fondness for salty foods in a short story called Without Salt, the late, great Laurie Colwin wrote: “I was happily licking the salt off the pretzels and leaving their sticky bodies on the rug.” In our defence, everything good about pretzels coats the outside; notes of malt and caramel, golden brown toastiness and the crunch of the salt crystals. Start to chew, and most commercial hard pretzels taste like the floor of a carpenter’s woodshop, with the texture of sawdust to match.

 

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico

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