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Bar-snackology: What are we munching on?

From Bavaria's obatzda cheese to Thailand's khan mu, check out this international menu of noteworthy nibbles.
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Let them dismiss us. Let them mock our interest in the science of global snackery. 

My own critically important work in this area began years ago in Brussels, as I sat in a cozy cafe sipping something strong, and wondering just what in the hell kip-kap was⎯even as I ate the cold, squishy, pinkish cubes happily. Some not-so-rigorous research revealed kip-kap to be a sort of lunch meat made from pig cheeks suspended in gelatin. Mind you, the name and style of the stuff (a.k.a. preskop) changes somewhat from region to region—tiny Belgium has a limitless capacity for variations and names of snacks—but in the U.S., we’d probably call it head cheese or in the U.K., brawn. In Belgian bars, it might arrive alongside your beer as cubes in a small bowl with a few toothpicks for skewering and some gherkins or cocktail onions.

Kip-kap may have been the catalyst for my attention to bar snacks. In every new place, with every new beer, there seemed to come new beer nibbles: Kölscher kaviar, pork scratchings, obatzda, patacones, pickled eggs, pickled cabbage, pickled pig’s feet. But please understand, here in the “International Think Tank on Bar Snacks,” we don’t seek to judge. Leave that to the small minds. We only seek to understand. And the best way to understand a foodstuff is to eat it, given the chance.

In our grand foyer, we pin photos and recipes and question marks written on post-it notes upon a giant world map with a string of yarn to make connections between ingredients and themes. Then we step back and contemplate it all. We seek the Unified Theory on Bar Snacks, that elusive Rosetta Stone of intercultural nibbling. Our work has barely begun. For now, we settle for a taxonomy: a way to classify or organize these nibbles.

Below are some examples of my research. In looking for similar traits, I’ve decided to organize various snacks into loose families. The borders between them are not strict; they are changeable. There is plenty of overlap. Also, it’s not only the snack ingredients that matter. The way that different regions serve and prepare them is at least as important, possibly more so. These snack families are designed by traditions and cultural habits, more than ingredients.

Common salty nibbles: The nuts, chips and crackers family
This is the most obvious category. These are the wee bowls of salty nuts⎯beer nuts, corn nuts, peanuts as well as potato chips (crisps), corn chips, crunchy pretzels, little crackers, wasabi peas, and so on that might be complimentary, or bought cheaply, or scooped into a bowl from that bucket over yonder.

We might call them common but their flavors are myriad. Twentieth-century advancements in industrial seasoning (such as Buffalo Blue Cheese, to name one example) have opened up near-infinite vistas of flavor. And it’s easy to imagine many sub-families here, such as “legumes,” “fried,” “spicy,” “unleavened,” and so on. I’d prefer that we delineate them more scientifically later; that is to say, debate them over beers and scribble diagrams on napkins.

Also, common doesn’t mean boring. Few dive bar furnishings are more exciting than a popcorn popper with a scoop, a stack of baskets, a salt shaker and a sign that says “FREE.”

The bigger-carb family: Fries, breads, baked pretzels and more
I don’t group these with the previous family. What does a big, fresh, crusty Bavarian or Swabian pretzel have in common with a Rold Gold? It’s like the similarity between a BMW and a Hot Wheel: not much.

So the bar snacks in this family are more filling, happy to serve as non-nutritious meal substitutes for thrifty students or pub crawlers on the go. A pile of fries—loaded? Sweet potato? Waffle? British chips in newspaper? Cone of frites? Cheese? Poutine? All can be very pleasant with beer. But they do not serve the same nibbly purpose as a small bag or bowl of potato chips, for example.

Breads include the toasted and garlicked sort, naturally, as well as the fried sort—like the delicious fried dark rye kepta duona of Lithuania. Plain old fresh bread isn’t usually a bar snack per se, though it can be. More often, it accompanies something else, like cheese, sausage, or a pot of lard (Schmalz, a traditional Berliner beer snack often with fried onions and a few slices of brown bread).

Speaking of lard…

Fat, skin, trotters, lips and assholes
This one might sound a bit specific, but it includes a wide enough range of traditions from various countries to merit its own family. 

I’d put pork rinds/scratchings/crackling here, for starters. Among drinkers, these might be best known as an important British pub snack or the forlorn stepchild of the American chip aisle. But a quick-and-dirty global survey finds that these appear virtually anywhere that people both eat pork and drink beer. In much of Latin America chicharrón can refer to meaty fried pork belly or crispy pork rinds⎯often for munching with cold beer. The Philippines have their own variant that might be dipped in a sauce of soy and chilies. In Thailand, they eat khaep mu, often served crispy with chili paste. In the Czech Republic, it’s called skvarky and might be mixed up in a pot of lard for spreading on bread, or sprinkled with caraway.

I think this is a key moment to mention those amazing jars of pickled pig’s feet that can still be seen on some bars in the American South. Or, how about pickled pig lips? Apparently, the thing to do is put them in a bag of mashed-up potato chips so that the crumbs coat the outside. We might also make a place for the potjevleesch of French Flanders, or the kip-kap I mentioned above. Norway has its syltelabb, salt-cured pig’s feet. Pork leads the way here, but it’s not only pork. In Turkey and the Balkans there is kokorec, a roasted roll of lamb offal often eaten late with the last beers of the night—usually an Efes, I reckon.

And a question for the group: Do we include bacon here? Or are bacon treats within their own family because, well, bacon? I’m undecided. Examples would include angels and devils on horseback, bacon-wrapped anything, candied bacon on skewers and so on.

Eggs
This is not about breakfast, which—as you must realize—is a meal, not a snack. This is more about those big jars of pickled eggs that were once American dive bar staples, or so the old movies would have you believe. I’ve seen them in the U.K. too, as at the Southampton Arms in London. This family also includes the boiled eggs served with anchovies and drinks in Venice, probably as part of a plate of cicchetti … ah, but we’re getting there.

Tapas, mezes, bocas, aperitivo, and other not-dinner spreads
Spanish tapas and Greek or Turkish mezes are well-known; there is a Mediterranean spirit in this family. But the concept travels farther abroad, as with the Argentine picada. In Costa Rica after playing fútbol cinco, we’d overcompensate for calories burned with ice-cold lager and bocas—fried snacks that included pork belly, crispy plantains (patacones) with black beans and salted wedges of yuca.

Italy’s aperitivo (or variants like the Venetian cicchetti, for example) is not just a drink or a nibble but a ritual among companions, to socialize and snack and activate a pleasant buzz before dinner. There might be olives, nuts, cured meats, little sandwiches and so on. It’s not a meal; it’s meant to stimulate the appetite for a bigger meal, later⎯and to soak up some of that alcohol. And maybe Dutch borrelhapjes belong here, too?

Mini-meats
Think hot wings, sliders, mini-corn dogs, mini-pizzas or flatbreads, taquitos. I’ll be honest⎯I struggled with this one. Our mission here at the Think Tank is bar snacks, not meals. For me, hot wings are best eaten as a meal, as the main attraction, not as a snack to accentuate the beer. But then I remembered our motto: We document, we do not judge. There can be no denying that these have gained status as bar snacks, particularly in North America. Big burgers? Fried chicken? Whole pizzas? No. These do not belong to the tradition of bar snacking; they take center stage at mealtimes. So in the U.S., we tend to make them work as snacks by shrinking them into cute sizes. It’s a practice that deserves recognition.

Cheese
Thanks in part to Garret Oliver’s book “Brewmaster’s Table,” many American beer lovers have known the joy of Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog cheese with a barley wine or imperial stout. But cheese with beer need not be highfalutin’. In Belgium, simple gouda cheese is cut into cubes, sprinkled with celery salt and given as freely as peanuts in some cafes if you’re drinking beer.

Also, think of Wisconsin’s deep-fried cheese curds, or even the fried mozzarella sticks that appear in many bars equipped with deep fryers. Bavarian brotzeit (bread time) often includes the obatzda cheese spread with crusty pretzels or rolls, a cousin to Austria’s Liptauer cheese spread. The Czech Republic also has its spreads as well as breaded and fried hunks of cheese called smazeny syr.

Of the Sea
Fried sardines appear next to beer in many cultures, especially around the Mediterranean but also in places like Japan (as iwashi senbei). Dried fish and squid are popular with beer in Korea. Portuguese salted cod (bacalhau) belongs to this family, too, if presented as a snack. In Russia, salt-dried vobla fish is a popular snack with beer; I’ve read that it’s as much about the busy work or scraping out the small bits of meat as it is about the food itself. It reminds me of Maryland-style Old Bay-sprinkled crab boils. You might make a meal out of it, but there is more work and drinking and talking than there is eating of actual crab.

Pickles and preserves
Olives, cocktail onions, pickles of various sorts. We could throw in the aforementioned pickled eggs and meats, and add other pickled meats like the Czech utopenec—pickled sausages with onions⎯and always one of the cheapest things on the menu. If a foodstuff can be pickled and served with beer, some people somewhere are probably already doing it. Spicy pickled cabbages like Korean kimchee and China’s Szechuan pao can fit in here, too.

Common threads
Small, savory, inexpensive and preserved. Those are themes that run throughout many of these treats. Taking a cynical view:

  1. Patrons who are full of food will not drink much more beer, so give them nibbles.
  2. Salty foods will make them thirsty and they will drink more beer.
  3. If they’re cheap, they’ll stick around longer and drink more beer; also, beer in most places is the working people’s beverage, so the beer and snacks shouldn’t be expensive.
  4. Preserved means no cooking necessary, or very little preparation; it also means cheaper, since many are the excess left from harvest or slaughter.

Or we could take a more hedonistic view: It is fun to snack, especially when drinking beer.

So, what might you serve to guests in a small bowl after you’ve poured them a beer? Let them nibble, they are innocent. They need not know the depth of scheming that went into keeping them in your clutches. Ahem.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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