A Tour Of Korean Snack Foods
by Aaron Gilbreath
Recently, I visited H-Mart, a Korean grocery store chain headquartered in New Jersey (that ‘H’ stands for “Han Ah Reum,” which means “arm full of groceries”). I went in for laver seaweed, fermented rice booze and doenjang paste. I left with nearly fifteen dollars’ worth of snack crackers, sweets and chips — eight shinily packaged, savory examples of Korea’s contributions to the international junkfood industry. I’m not normally a chip eater. I didn’t grow up on Cheetos or Fritos, and I never cared much about Doritos one way or the other. But I do love a taste test, and all eight of these products were new to me. Findings: some of these treats were fun, some were failures, and others I now find myself craving again and again.
1. CARAMEL CORN PEANUT
Although “Caramel Corn Peanut” might be the snack’s literal translation, I like calling these “Cowboy Peanut.” The front of the bag features a cartoon peanut in a green cowboy hat, wielding a six-shooter, but the back of the bag is where the real action’s at: him roasting crackers in a skillet, the way cowboys did back when peanuts still ruled the range and a single corn puff could spell life or death.
Beware: these taste so good they will make every snack hereafter taste lackluster.
A mix of savory and sweet, Caramel Corn Peanut combines the texture of Cheetos cheese puffs with the taste of Capt’n Crunch. Although admittedly experiencing a carbohydrate euphoria, I mean it when I say that the Crown Confectionery Company has created a snack even more deserving of a cult following than Snickers and Twinkies. No exaggeration: these are perfect. A light and airy interior with a sturdy crunchy outside. The peanut flavor is rich but not overpowering. The corn flavor is subtle but strong enough to register. And despite the word “caramel” in the name, these aren’t as sweet as an American version would be. The caramel flavor just adds another delicate layer of nuttiness, and possibly the puff’s faint glaze.
For whatever reason, Korean cuisine involves a lot of corn: corn tea, corn cakes, roasted ears of corn, even corn starch in some flavored rice wine. Native Americans introduced European explorers to corn in the late 15th century, and Europeans introduced corn to the rest of world. Corn, like chilies, arrived in Korean in the 17th century, and even though it isn’t as central to their cooking as chili or fermented soy, it’s hard to image Korean food without it. I love their enthusiasm for corn. It’s partially responsible for renewing my own appreciation, since I’d been overexposed during my Arizona corn tortilla, corn chip, corn masa tamale, hominy childhood.
Korean snacks seem to frequently involve peanuts, too. Take Ttangkong yeot, for example, the traditional nut-covered dessert, and this, the modern Orion Korean Peanut Cracker. All of which is to say: corn + peanut flavor = delicious. An American student named Natasha put it another way. While studying at Yonsei University in Seoul, Natasha kept a detailed blog of her experiences, one of which involved a Caramel Corn Peanut encounter: “The name describes this snack perfectly. A mix of peanut butter and caramel taste. Never would you think that these two flavors go together… but they do! I actually got these today, they are SO good! Korea has such good snacks! I don’t know how they stay so skinny here!” The post is titled “Caramel Corn Peanuts are haunting my dreams.”
Caramel Corn Peanut armada
Side note 1: It turns out, there’s a Japanese version of these heavenly puffs, too, called Caramel Corn, by Tohato. Or maybe the Korean version is an imitation of the Japanese version. Based on the two nations’ tense history of invasion, cultural cleansing and expulsion, I shouldn’t draw those sorts of comparisons. Although they’ve been written about on this site before, I only recently discovered these Tohato snacks on the rack at a Japanese grocery store, attracted by a glimpse of a caramel corn puff picture.
Frankly, they’re not as good as the Korean version, smaller in size and tasting primarily like heavily buttered movie popcorn, so no matter which brand came first, I know which I prefer. If you’re into snacks with creepy circus clown faces on them, or just want to read more about Japanese packaging design, you can do so here and here.
Tiny, inferior, shrimp-like.
Side note 2: There’s a German version as well, called Brentwood Peanut Flips. As we would expect from the efficient, technologically innovative Germans, these — the package tells us — are not fried, but rather “produced by combining pressure with hot air cooking to create a unique and light peanut experience.” Similar in texture to the others, Peanut Flips taste like a saltier version of Capt’n Crunch, favoring the peanut flavor and salty side of the spectrum, and sparing us the sweet. They’re delicious. They’re also “a new way to satisfy your peanut craving that your entire family will enjoy!”
2. KIRIN CORN CHIPS
$2.19 for a 2.79oz (79g) bag
Kirin is a big name in the snack game. They make crackers, ice cream, baked goods and rice sticks, and have been in business, in one form or another, since 1969. Kirin also makes various types of chips. Nested on a rack near the Nongshim Pizza Snack was the most generic-sounding snack of them all: Kirin Corn Chips.
The bag advertises these as having “roasted corn flavor,” with each chip containing “63% Corn and 4.5% Roasted Corn Seasoning.” 4.5% — I respect that commitment to accuracy. Even more, I like the idea of this flavor. Unfortunately, if asked to do a blind taste test, and fed these chips by an unseen hand, I wouldn’t describe their flavor as “roasted corn.” I would say they tasted like “whey chips.” There’s a distinct milkiness to them, a soft, silken, creaminess that my tongue and nose register as sweet, though not in a white sugar or saccharine sort of way. Maybe it’s more of a “sweet milk” flavor. The bits I picked from my teeth moments after closing the bag even had a faintly buttered, cheese popcorn taste. Popcorn is popped, which, although not the same as roasted, is possibly close enough to roasting (in the way that microwaving is close to barbecuing) to assume maybe that was what the chip’s designers were confusing with the flavor of roasted corn. Whatever these smelled and tasted like, the gestalt included hints of something familiar that I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but not corn. Maybe fried corn. The more I sniffed the bag, the more confusing the smell became. It was almost dizzying. Only after reading the ingredients did I realize that what I was tasting was a mix of coconut powder, palm oil sugar and milk.
What’s so interesting is the way that humans living in uber-developed countries break down one ingredient — a single grain, say — reconfigure it into something that no longer resembles its old self, and then have to re-flavor it to make it taste “more” like the original thing it did before we started tinkering. Plump domestic strawberries that aspire but fail to taste as intensely strawberry-like as a wild one. Grape juice made mostly from juiced apples that contains grape flavoring and beets for coloration. A chip made with 63% corn that needs to be doctored to taste like what someone thinks roasted corn tastes like, but actually doesn’t taste like at all. Then again, what are they going to do, shove a bunch of roasted ears of corn in a bag and send them to market? No. We want crunch. We want fat. And we want that to taste like roasted friggin’ corn. Nature doesn’t give us that, so we have to make it ourselves.
3. KIRIN SOFT CORN SNACK (or, as the H-Mart receipt calls them, “Kirin Corn Puffs”)
One huge bag of this was only $3.49, and it’s full of puffed corn — 63% full, if I’m reading the type correctly. An American audience might find these kernels visually comparable to Kellogg’s Corn Pops cereal, but one bite reveals a world of difference. These have a firmer texture and a more satisfying crunch. Corn Pops barely have a pop at all. They only crunch because they’re shellacked. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘soft’ in the name. These hefty, substantial, close-to-nature kernels both crunch and pop, which makes them, of all the snacks on this list, the only one that remotely resembles the original form of its main ingredient. Soft Corn Snack’s flavor is also better: it’s stronger, with a more rounded, roasted taste, and less sweet. You can taste the roasting. On some bites, you can taste what seems like butane, as if the kernel had just been licked by an open flame. Somehow these factors combine to make the kernels seem more alive, less processed, even though you know they probably came into the world tumbling off a conveyor belt, just like other processed snacks.
Besides being actual kernels, the other difference between these and Corn Pops: these are huge. People think things in America are always unnecessarily, pornographically, boastfully large? These could be called Texas Corn. Or Giant Corn. Gorn.
Soft corn on the left, Kellogg’s Corn Pops on the right.
According to the ingredients, the gorn gernals have been flavored with sugar, malt syrup, margarine, butter, peanut butter, salt and butter paste, but you won’t taste any of those individually. In Japan, you find a lot of rice crackers with what, to American sensibilities, seem “unusual” flavoring agents: mushroom powder, bonito extract, little neck clam powder. Clam powder? In a cracker? Then you eat them and nothing strikes you as clammy or like muck-under-the-pier. You expect Clamato. You get savory, salty, deep. In Soft Corn Snack’s case, you mostly taste fire and corn. Cavemen would approve, even if they couldn’t figure out how to open the bag.
I’ve been chowing on these for three straight days and there’s still some left. At $3.49 a bag, that seems like a steal. Is it? What do stores charge for a bag of Doritos nowadays? Whenever I buy noodles, candy and frozen foods at grocers like H-Mart, I often wonder how imported items sold at such a low prices can generate a profit. Isn’t importing an expensive process? Maybe it’s a volume game. It is when I eat: how many can I fit in my mouth at once.
That’s one problem with trying new snacks: you want to try them all at one. At least I do. The mugwort tea, the fermented paste with mustard in it, the corn chips, rice chips, banana chips, banana milk drink and chestnut-peanut-black bean porridge&mash;all of it calling out to you from the plastic grocery bag and, later, its space in your pantry. What to eat first? I pick one and taste it, then think, I wonder what that’s like? I open the package and sample a few bites. I think, that was tasty; now I want to try those. It goes on forever.
The other problem with snacks like this: They’re so good you can’t stop eating them. They’re designed to be scooped by the handful. And then the company puts them in an enormous feedbag with a deep bottom and you’re screwed. I’m glad the nutritional information is listed in such small print that I have to strain to read it. I don’t need glasses to see my distended belly. It looks like a corn puff.
4. KIRIN RICE STARS, WHEAT FLAVOR
$2.99 for a 5.15oz (146g) bag
Let me just say it: being gluten-free sucks. This is drawn into particular relief when you’re either (a) near a French bakery, or (b) doing anything else in your waking life. Yet I still didn’t expect my dietary restrictions to present such a problem while selecting Korean snacks.
Browsing the rack, I flipped over bag after crinkly bag only to find wheat as the main ingredient. So I had to limit myself to the rice- and corn-based things, which, even though it shrunk my sample pool, still thankfully left me with an overwhelming number of options. Granted, it also meant I had to skip some of the most delicious-sounding ones: Orion Cuttlefish Peanut Snack (ingredients: Wheat Flour, Corn Syrup, Peanut, Glucose, Starch), Nongshim Honey Flavored Twist Snack (Wheat Flour, Corn Starch, Sugar, Palm Oil, Rice Powder, Rapeseed Oil, Honey, Salt), Orion O! Potato Chilli Chilli snack sticks (Potato, Vegetable Oil, Soy Bean, Milk, Wheat Flour). Despite my urge to break what I hate but have to call “my diet,” I returned the Cuttlefish Peanut Snack to the shelf and bought one whose description sounded just as beguiling: “Rice Stars, Wheat Flavor.” You can still be gluten-free and eat wheat flavor, right?
And a non-rhetorical question: why wheat flavor? Couldn’t you just make it a wheat cracker? With all the wheat around, dressing up corn to taste like wheat seems as unnecessarily complicated as making water-flavored Coke. But no matter. Maybe it’s a textural thing: corn might impart a superior crunch for this cracker’s particular shape and physical specifications, because we all know that this kind of snack food is designed in some kind of laboratory involving blueprints, computer layouts, test groups and specifications. If this were a product from an American company, I’d assume it was a marketing ploy: wheat flavor for the gluten-free. In this case, it becomes one more thing to ponder while shoveling chips in my mouth.
And yes, even though these are rice crackers, they do contain a little wheat starch, which can contain trace amounts of gluten, depending on the type. They also contain “starch syrup,” which sounds as cool as “butter paste,” and surprising and effective flavoring agents such as pea protein and tomato juice. Because I didn’t want to think about the wheat starch issue, I didn’t Google it. I just ate the crackers in my own unlit Hof of ignorance.
5. BANANA KICK, BANANA FLAVORED SNACK
$.99 for a 1.58oz (45g) bag
These initially seemed like a score. A cartoon banana in a safari hat leaping in the air while holding up a cocky “we’re number 1!” gesture? I felt like a grocery-store Lewis and Clark discovering culinary territory as yet unmapped in my provincial mind. Banana Kick’s producer, the Nongshim company, also makes a sweet potato-flavored chip in an eye-catching purple bag, but I had to skip those because they contain wheat. (Tiny-violins aside: Thanks to my clichéd, West Coast eating restrictions, I also no longer eat two of my old favorites: Nongshim Tako Chips (briny Funyons) and Bin-Bin’s angel white cloud coconut milk flavor rice cracker. The coconut flavor is overwhelmingly fake. It comes in the form of a power. It’s intense. And it’s delicious. Unfortunately, it contains MSG.)
Which, you ask, is the actual banana?
The idea is simple: a corn puff, crunchy yet light as air, flavored like banana. They’re even shaped like a banana — kind of. They have a nice sugary glaze on top that reflects light in a way more akin to dried slug slime than that of crème brûlée, and they have a crunch similar to that delicious hippie cereal Gorilla munch, though Banana Kick’s insides are much lighter in texture.
Although these contain actual banana in some form and quantity, the overwhelming flavor is of fake banana. You know how some fake fruit flavors sometimes taste better than the real fruit they’re impersonating? (Saying that feels like a sign of the coming robot apocalypse.) If you’re a hardcore fake banana fan, then you might feel that way about these. I don’t. I’m more a fake strawberries ’n cream Mexican lollipop guy. Maybe my problem is Pavlovian: this banana flavor reminds me of a certain medicine I briefly took as a kid, minus the gagging that ensued every time that chalky, powdered glop oozed down my gullet. Don’t get me wrong. Banana Kick aren’t all bad. They’re sweet. They’re crunchy. A fan in an Amazon.com review said, “We lived in Korea for two years and these were our FAVORITE snack of all time. We’d buy them at the 7–11 (really!) just beyond the gate of our housing complex. … They can be addictive, though. You’ll find your bag empty long before you’re done eating them.” My problem is the flavor: it lingers in your nose and on your tongue in a perfumey chewing gum kind of way. Or like a bad date that won’t get the hint: Please, you want to say, go home already. This has gone long enough. Why can’t the flavor of steak or vanilla ice cream linger like that? I guess it’s because those are natural, and where Nature says, “All good things must come to pass,” industrial agri-chemistry says, “All things good or bad must resist decay and linger in top soil and your fatty tissue for millennia.” Over ten minutes later and I’m still burping up banana flavor.
6. CROWN CORN CHO
I hate to use a cliché, but this one is true: these things taste like Styrofoam packing peanuts. You put them in your mouth and they resist mastication. They start to melt, but then, want to stop, instead sort of flattening there on your tongue like memory foam waiting to resume its shape.
This whole snack is confusing. First, the name. “Cho” is short for chocolate, but that’s not immediately clear. Cho could mean “Chosen,” as in, “Corn Chosen for Its High Quality.” Choc could be a phonetic misspelling of an abbreviated “choke,” suggesting a corn flavor so strong that we’re going to choke on it. Or maybe comedian Margaret Cho makes these. It’s that kind of world. Anything’s possible. Even with the graphic on the bag of a dark-banded yellow puff, the fact that it’s chocolate band isn’t clear. You look at it and think, Is this supposed to be a hotdog flavored cracker or something?
Then there’s that texture. It’s the kind of thing you eat and wonder, “Is this stale?” I hope so. If not, then the scientists at the Corn Cho laboratory need to rethink their entire concept. In the service of consumer education, let me say: unless you like the taste of spun polymers, $1.99 for these is too much. But once you open that bag and eat a few, what are you going to do, return them? You could just suck the chocolate off to get your money’s worth, but the chocolate’s so weak and thinly applied that it’s hardly worth the effort. I’m officially rechristening these “Corn Suc.”
7. CORN SNACKS, CONE SHAPE
What else to call these?
As the ingredients say, these include “corn snack seasoning,” and for once, that’s accurate. They taste like corn, lightly salted, grainy corn. To American palates, they taste like Bugles. Which means they suck.
Admittedly, they’re the most oily, too. They’re the only snack on this list that leaves a faint oily film on your fingers — nothing major, just a slight sheen no worse than that left by a potato chip or French fry. Even though they’re fried, they’re light. The meal isn’t really dense, so they have a nice airy crunch.
They’re the fun shape of a witch’s hat, which makes you want to put them on your fingers and other things. As food, though, they’re unappealing.
How do people do anything with long nails?
Trying to get another bag of Caramel Peanut puffs
8. BASEBALL CREAM PUFFS
Sports themes — they’re fun, even for people like me who don’t like sports. Because no English name graces this snack’s cover, I’m calling these “Baseball Cream Puffs,” following in the taxonomic tradition started by Banana Kick. My weak eyes were barely able to read the tiny print on the back label, but I think it’s accurate to trace these to a Korean snack company called Calbee.
It’s foolish to ever completely trust the image on a carton or menu, but sometimes the inconsistency between the photo and the item are so great that you can’t help but feel ripped off. This carton promises cream filling. Bite after bite leaves you wondering when it’s gonna come. To borrow a line from that old Wendy’s TV commercial, I ask: where’s the filling? If you collected the cream from every puffball in this carton and pooled it in a dish, it wouldn’t fill a single puffball.
Which brings up another issue: the cream is hardly cream. It’s more like congealed dairy creamer. Or lotion. Maybe the stuff cardiologists scrape from the walls of people’s clogged arteries looks like this stuff, I don’t know, but its consistency certain demands we use a term other than “cream puff” to describe these. The carton lists the ingredients as: “Vegetable creamer, sugar, sweet whey powder (milk), whole egg liquid (egg), margarine, wheat flower, corn starch, salt, monoglycerides (soy bean).” (You have to love anything whose first ingredient is vegetable creamer.) It’s also interesting how the filling pools inside each pastry differently: sometimes it’s collected on the bottom. Sometimes it’s frozen to the top like a butter iceberg. Other times it’s congealed sideways, creating a vertical band along half the side. Yet the filling never fills.
Adding insult to injury: the pastry is stale. Like if you crunched into the spider egg casings you find on tables stored in your garage — brittle and empty. I know. We have to be reasonable: no food gets manufactured on one side of the Pacific Ocean, shipped in some enormous boat, processed in a distributor’s warehouse, shipped to a grocery store and set on a shelf, and then still arrives to consumers fresh. Technologically, that scenario is within our abilities. It just doesn’t consistently happen.
I’m not saying I expect the supple, pliable pastry dough of a fresh croissant. I’m not even saying I expect the springiness of those godawful chain grocery store bagels that are like circular white bread. I’m only saying that I want something more than what these are: a cool-looking container full of spider egg sacks filled with solidified fat.
The box says, “Premium Since 1981.” It’s a mystery how these have remained this shitty yet still on the market for over three decades.
Or maybe this particular batch was baked in 1981.
Aaron Gilbreath has written for The Paris Review Daily, Oxford American, The New York Times, Tin House, Yeti and The Threepenny Review. He lives in Portland, Oregon.