6 South Asian Snacks I Buy on Repeat
On a recent excursion to a Sri Lankan grocery store, I scoured the shelves with one thing in mind. At last I spotted its label, shining like a familiar blue and yellow beacon: my beloved Kraft Cheddar in a tin, more “cheese product” than cheese, its own uniquely creamy, bouncy, Velveeta-y entity. I nabbed a can, eager to relive the childhood memory of eating a schmear squished between two slices of buttered white bread, famished after an afternoon of swimming under the Sri Lankan sun.
This tinned-cheddar treasure hunt was part of my mission to revisit favorite South Asian snacks for the scientific (and delicious) purpose of compiling a list to share. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and my Sri Lankan roots*, I’ve gathered six of my favorite South Asian snacks. Some make me feel nostalgic, others I’ve encountered through recent years of dedicated nibbling. These between-meal bites provide just a small sampling of the virtually endless variety of South Asian snacking delicacies, thanks to continuously expanding online offerings and specialty grocery stores. Let’s take a look!
*Sri Lanka is currently facing a serious humanitarian crisis. If you’d like to learn more and find out how you can help, visit this link for useful resources and information.
1. Deep Food’s Hot Mix
This zippy, crunchy medley takes me back to my days as a kid, grasping to stuff enough fried bits into my mouth at once with my greedy little paws. Crispy nubbins of rice flakes, slivers and twists of chickpea batter, salty-sweet sultanas, peppery peanuts, cashews, green gram, and delicate lentils compose this satisfying and spicy assembly. We often kept a bag of Hot Mix in the house growing up, and I remember the delight of picking through the pieces to find the golden raisins.
As an adult, I’ve found that this take on a traditional Indian snack makes a great complement to a cold pint and adds exciting texture to a charcuterie board. If you want to raise the stakes, I’d suggest the Extra Hot variety for a little more kick. Fun fact: Hot Mix was the first packaged Indian snack to be made in the U.S., according to the Deep Foods website.
Buy: Deep Food’s Hot Mix, $9.99 for 12 ounces at Amazon
2. Maliban Lemon Puff Biscuits
As a former British colony and one of the world’s leading producers of tea, Sri Lanka follows the tradition of serving a strong, milky afternoon cup with sweets and “short eats” (small, often fried, savory snacks). Sri Lankan biscuit company Maliban showcases a tempting line of crackers and not-too-sweet cookies for dipping at teatime.
The Lemon Puffs hold a special place in my heart (and stomach!), reminding me of visits spent lingering over plates of biscuits, spicy cutlets and spring rolls, and cups of the aforementioned tea with my aunties and uncles. The fluted, flaky, rectangular biscuits are filled with a pucker-y lemon cream, perfect for virtually any time of day. Other scrumptious Malibans include Chocolate Creams, Hawaiian Cookies scented with coconut, Ginger Biscuit, and Spicy Crackers, available in 35 countries, including, thankfully, the U.S.
Buy: Maliban Lemon Puff Biscuits, $6.98 for 7 ounces at Amazon
3. Indomie Mi Goreng Noodles
A nationally treasured comfort food of Indonesia, served in coffee shops (warkops) and homes throughout the country, Indomie Mi Goreng Noodles have found internet-viral popularity across Asia and worldwide. No wonder. These Mi Goreng are not your average packaged noodles, featuring five separate flavor boosters in each envelope — bumbu (spice seasoning), bawang goreng (fried shallots), minyak bumbu (seasoning oil), kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), and sambal (chili sauce) — to create a full-fledged taste explosion.
Upgrading the noodles with a fried egg, extra veggies, spring onions, sliced cheese, and even corned beef can turn this dried-to-stir-fried affair into a bona-fide meal in a flash. Or enjoy the noodles unadorned for a near-instant journey into spicy, sweet, umami bliss. A package can be a snack or a meal!
Buy: Indomie Mi Goreng Noodles, $3.99 for 5 (3-ounce) packs at H Mart
4. Kimbula Banis
Kimbula banis, the pillowy, sugary crescent rolls also known as “crocodile buns,” are another Sri Lankan tea snack that truly makes my heart sing. I’m not alone: Children and adults alike love crocodile buns for their fun shape and name and their European-influenced, lightly sweet enriched dough. And these unassuming buns have even inspired the catchy “Kimbula Banis Song” by Sri Lankan recording artist Melissa Stephen.
Unmistakably yeasty in flavor, topped with crunchy sugar crystals, and served fresh from the local bakery, crocodile buns are one of the first foods I truly remember eating, and I’ve required them on every subsequent trip to visit my family in Sri Lanka. As Stephen says in the song, “It’s the KB man, it’s the KB man. Can’t get enough of the KB man. As a kid growing up this was the jam. Who am I kidding? I still chase the man.”
Kimbula buns (also known as Vienna rolls) are available frozen, but if you have the time or the inclination, I’d definitely recommend trying your hand at making some from scratch! (This soothing YouTube video will guide you.)
Buy: Kimbula Banis, $6.99 for 6 frozen rolls at Grocery Lanka
5. Seasonal Tropical Fruit
No list of South Asian snacks should be considered complete without mentioning the truly ambrosial array of fresh seasonal tropical fruit. The opulent flavors of mangosteen, rambutan, and manifold varieties of mango suggest sheer decadence. Durian, with its creamy, fragrant flesh, may be one of the world’s most expensive, coveted fruits. Fleshy papayas sprinkled with lime, tingly pineapple flecked with chili, and passionfruit and tamarind juices grace snack tables throughout Asia.
Roadside stands sell king coconuts, cracked open for their refreshing water. Finger bananas, persimmons, guava, dragon and jack fruits, and countless others abound in South Asian markets during their season. Absolutely seek them out if you’re lucky enough to travel. But if you want to experience these fruits here in the States, canned and dried varieties have become more readily available, stores like H-Mart specialize in imported tropical fruit, and, although a splurge, online retailers will send in-season baskets straight to your door.
Buy: Fresh Rambutan, $79.99 for 3 pounds at Etsy
6. Kraft Cheddar
The first time I tasted this unique cheese on a trip to visit family in Sri Lanka, when I was 3, I fell in love — and I’ve hankered for the flavor ever since. Kraft Cheddar, primarily available throughout Asia and the Middle East in tins or wrapped in foil in a cardboard box (like cream cheese), brings to mind a cross between Laughing Cow and Babybel. With its wobbly, semi-firm texture, pale color, and mellow, buttery flavor, Kraft Cheddar can rightly be categorized in the same shelf-stable group as Cheez Whiz, Velveeta, or Easy Cheese, with an equally loyal following.
There is really nothing cheddar-like about it: It has none of the sharpness or crystalized texture of its fine-aged clothbound namesake. Yet, Kraft Cheddar stands on its own as a delicious example of cheesy, non-perishable goodness. In Sri Lanka, Kraft Cheddar can often be found on the breakfast table, among a delectable spread of fresh-baked bread, butter, jam, fried eggs, pol (coconut) sambol, and various spicy curries. I still like it best on white bread with butter, imagining drying off from a swim with the sun on my face, wind whispering through the palm trees, in my father’s homeland.
Buy: Kraft Cheddar Cheese, $3.99 for 6.7 ounces at Phoenicia Specialty Foods