I recently returned home from what I'm calling a wildly successful trip to South Korea. For two idyllic autumn weeks I explored the restaurants, food stalls, and open markets of Seoul and its environs with my friend Seong, a fellow Culinary Institute of America alum, as my intrepid and generous guide.
We slurped springy noodles from spicy, steaming bowls of jjigae, or stew, wrapped slices of soy-braised pig's trotters and ssamjang (seasoned soybean paste) in crisp lettuce leaves, and rigorously examined the untold virtues of marinated beef short ribs. Between refreshing bites of cabbage kimchi and calming sips of soju, my sense of self as an overworked, overfed, and over-analyzing American faded ever so slightly. I was traveling.
Now home, I've begun the process of unpacking and readjusting and am pleased to find my bag full of delicious souvenirs. Here are four of my favorite snack foods, laid out for your viewing and salivating pleasure.
1. Angry Birds Puffed Snack
This is the kind of chip where you take your first bite and self-righteously think, "Well (ahem) I won't be eating any more of these—they're simply not flavorful enough," and then proceed to hoover half the bag. They're a super light puffed chip seasoned with a subtle mix of sweet tomato, salt, and MSG. I bought them for the angry bird on the front, but I'd buy them again for the chips inside.
2. Smoky Bacon Chips
I'm a sucker for any chip that tries to look like the food it's mimicking and so I of course ended up with a bag of these smoky bacon chips in my carry-on luggage (too precious to risk in a checked bag). Like the Angry Birds, these are ethereal, puffed chips. What stood out to me was their surprisingly restrained, yet satisfying, mix of smoke and pork.
3. Tteokbokki Tubes
Tteokbokki is a hugely popular South Korean street food of chewy-tender rice cakes bathed in a sweet-spicy chile sauce. They are best eaten with a toothpick from a styrofoam plate while standing in front of the food stall—nothing to get in the way of their steamy, comforting simplicity. The dish is addictive, as is its snack food counterpart. These guys look like fried rigatoni, feature a substantial, tooth-sticking crunch, and offer the most beguiling mix of spice, sweetness, and salt. It's difficult to conclude with any certainty whether they're sweet or savory, and the upshot is that one ends up sampling an entire bag trying to figure it out.
4. Honey Puffs
Not much mystery or fanfare here, just perfectly crisped rice puffs coated in a candied layer of honey and just enough salt. They didn't grab me with flashy packaging, a unique appearance, or a good story. They're just darn good.
About the author: Dan is an associate editor of Cook's Illustrated and an on-screen test cook for America's Test Kitchen. Dan cut his culinary teeth as a young apprentice in rural Hungary, and has the paprika-stained gut to prove it. He likes food, he likes science, and he likes you. Follow him on Twitter @testcook.