Growing up, my mother religiously believed that grades mattered most; I was the kid who went to Saturday schools instead of the park. And I managed to keep myself awake through those interminable classes by eating seafood snacks. Yup, seafood snacks—those dried-up squid and mystery fish that are sold out of bulk boxes in Chinatown or wrapped-up and shiny on supermarket shelves. They're what you might call an acquired taste, but I find them addictive and flavor-packed, not mention stealthy; no loud crinkling or crunching to disrupt the class or alert my instructors. To this day, a whiff is enough to perk me up.
From kimchi-flavored dried scallop gills to vacuum-packed salted fish slices, there's a wide variety of seafood snacks out there. But in my book, it all boils down to two: shredded squid and dried fish. We tasted our way through Chinatown's available brands in a search for the very best of each.
Dried squid has long been integral to the cuisines of coastal Asian, where it remains a popular method of preserving seafood and delivering concentrated flavors to soups and stews. But it wasn't until the 1970s that shredded iterations became a popular snack in Hong Kong.
Beige and shredded into strips, the squid may look like tangle of torn string cheese, but that's where the resemblance ends. Good squid snacks are on the chewy side, but softer than beef jerky; sweet-and-spicy, salty, and decidedly fish-forward, with a somewhat creamy finish.
Some brands veered toward the overwhelmingly sweet or exhaustingly dry. For a mild, rich flavor and tender, chewy texture, we recommend Jane-Jane's Hot Prepared Shredded Squid.
Unlike their tentacled brethren, dried fish snacks aren't typically used in cooking. You'll find them similarly packaged, though—chewy, wrinkled straw-shaped strips that taste like sweet smoked sole. That said, they're not simply dehydrated fish; the meat is typically blended with spices and taro root, baked into thin sheets, and then shredded and packaged.
Plain, they have an odor similar to bonito fish flakes, but flavored varieties carry notes of spices and hot peppers. Of all the brands we sampled, we liked North Sea Fish Snacks best. Balanced, with enough sweetness to stand up to the salt, they have a hint of spice that keeps you reaching back into the bag for more.
But, as with beef jerky, you'll find fish snacks with varying ingredient lists. For a package that doesn't read like a chemistry textbook, try Jia Ten Codfish Silk Jerky—it contains nothing but fish paste, wheat starch, sugar, salt, and chili.
A fish snack newbie, or just plain turned off by fishy flavors? Give the Hot Chili Flavored Taro Fish Snack a shot—these guys smell and taste like barbecue chips!