Unlike Mexican snack foods, where most of the flavors are similar (hello: salt, lime, and chili!), Thai snacks run the gamut. Many, like dried squid and prawn crackers, are seafood-based, while others—particularly those on the sweeter side—are similar to what you'd find in an Italian bakery. Here's an introductory lay of the land with our tasting notes, a look at some of Thailand's most popular snacks, from peanuts and dried bananas to coconut cookies and instant soup noodles (eaten dry!).
Crispy Seaweed Strips
Tae Kae Noi, the brand pictured, is the largest seaweed manufacturer in Thailand, whose young founder has drawn comparisons to Mark Zuckerberg. (The 30-year-old, who launched the company in 2004, was even the subject of a film called "The Billionaire.") The thin fried strips of seaweed are seasoned with palm oil, salt, and white pepper powder—plus a pair of "flavor enhancers" that up the umami factor. Unlike many seaweed snacks, the rough surface of these strips is covered in tiny bubbles, which provide a light-as-air crispiness.
Prawn crackers aren't primarily made from shrimp—the base of the cracker is a starch like tapioca with some shrimp for flavor. These toasted, ridged prawn sticks add in some good old MSG (the bag helpfully notes they're made with "ingredients which are nutritious"). The pungent shrimp aroma is stronger than the taste, and they're not as salty as you'd expect. In addition to the original flavor, Hanami's dense, crunchy, and addictive crackers come in Hot Chili, Garlic and Pepper Shrimp, Nori Seaweed, Shrimp Curry, and Seafood Chili Paste.
Crispy Rice Cookie
This sweet treat—called kra ya sart—is the Thai version of peanut brittle, but with the chewier texture of a Rice Krispies treat. Puffed-up rice, whole peanuts, and sesame seeds are mixed with coconut cream and sugar to create a flat, square snack best eaten by pulling bite-sized pieces off with your fingers. It's typically prepared during the Sart Thai festival, which takes place on the new moon of the tenth lunar month (usually in September) and celebrates the fall harvest.
Thailand's number one peanut snack is reminiscent of the Mexican cacahuates japoneses, in that a crackly outer shell of batter gives way to a peanut nestled inside. This shell is thinner, and coated in a tom yum-flavored powder that's spicier than it is sour, but still near perfect, with a balance of lime, coconut, chili, and sugar. (You'll probably want to hide the container lest you eat the entire thing in one sitting.) The company extensively touts the quality of its peanuts, which are grown by local farmers with bio-fertilizer.
Thai Coconut Roll
Like a Thai version of wafer rolls, these tubular cookies are crispy—and extremely crumbly. You will end up with pieces all over your desk (or yourself). They're made mostly with coconut milk and rice flour (plus sugar, egg, and taro), so they satisfy a sweet craving without being too sugary. Seen here is Srifa's mango version, though the flavor was so subtle that if it hadn't been written on the bag, I never would have known.
Taro Fish Snack
Baked and cut into long strips, these shoestring fry lookalikes are from Thailand's self-proclaimed top brand for fish snacks. Made with 80% fresh white fish, they're a handy source of protein. But beware: they're tough, incredibly chewy, and the flavors (spicy in the photo above) barely register. Consider it extra-chewy fish jerky.
Packaged like Pringles, Mr. Squid baked squid rolls—meant for snacking on like chips—are touted as "crispy and fun." They're definitely the former, though only the latter if you're a fan of incredibly pungent squid-flavored food. For some, opening the can may be too much to handle. In other words, once you pop, you may be able to stop.
These small, pudgy whole bananas, which are a little more dense than the larger ones ubiquitous in the West, have only one added ingredient: sugar. When dried, their dark surface glistens, and they take on the texture of excellent fruit leather: chewy, moist, not too sweet, and—similar to plantains—starchy and dense.
These flower-shaped cookies—just labeled "Thai snack" on the box—look like what you'd find in an Italian bakery. And frankly the taste isn't far off. It's the perfect texture combination: a crumbly cookie sandwiching an extremely dense and tart pineapple fruit jam. And there's quite a lot of jam on there for such a small cookie.
Instant Soup Noodles
This is like Cup Noodles soup—only to eat it the Thai way, don't add hot water. Just take the dry, crispy noodles, break them up, mix them with the included soup seasoning, and snack away. The original Wai Wai flavor is mostly garlic powder, pepper, and dried chives, and has a nice spicy kick. I actually preferred eating the Wai Wai noodles without spices since they're salty and flavorful on their own. But the Mama brand noodles alone are relatively bland, so you'll want to stir in the flavor packet; shrimp creamy tom yum is one of the best, with a pleasing balance of lime, chili, and sweetness.