My father once reminisced that as a five-year old kid, he’d walk with friends to school in Rawalpindi, with a wipe-able slate-board and chalk in hand. His pockets bulged with chilgozas (pine nuts), which he’d peel and eat as and when he pleased. The visual stayed with me, and I began noticing what people around the world carried to munch on. When I asked my friends in a handful of cities such as London, New York, Mumbai, Johannesburg and Tokyo, they had surprisingly similar responses. They’d likely carry a reusable water flask, coffee picked up at a local specialist or perhaps a nourishing smoothie. In their pocket or carry-bag they’d slip-in sugar free gum or mints, perhaps a protein or granola bar, or a piece of fresh fruit, dark chocolate, rye crackers, raisins, apricots, carrot sticks or seeds and nuts. While this selection is immensely popular amongst a vast swathe of urban folk, it by no means represents the contents of all the pockets and pouches out there. Goodies that go in pockets are consistently dry, packed with energy, and often decidedly sweet or salty. Here’s a peek into some of the unexpected nibbles people cannot imagine leaving home without…
Mexicans love their tart tucker. From office workers to schoolkids, they’re hooked onto dried tamarind or mango-based treats laden with chilli powder and sugar that make the taste-buds sing. While tortilla chips, peanuts and pastelitos (mini empanadas) are also popular, Mexican candy is addictive. I’ve long been hooked on Pulparindo (tamarind) Dots.
Packets of namkeens, (salty and spicy snacks) such as crunchy bhujia, daal-moth, spicy masala channa, with hot chai from a stall are enjoyed by many an Indian on the go. Easily found in small stalls all over the cities, villages and roadsides the vertically strung foil-packs are also the endearing décor and shade-curtains of the kiosks. Tangy boiled sweets, pan-parag and saunf (aniseed) are sold in impossibly small packets that sadly end up swirling like leaves in the breeze afterwards. In a memorable moment on a train in Rajasthan an elderly woman sitting next to me undid a knot on the free edge of her sari, took a few cardamom pods and handed me a couple, instantly striking a friendship.
Jóhannus Hansen, our guide in the Faroe Islands by the Norwegian Sea glided my friend and me smoothly on the roads that connect the country’s eighteen, closely set islands via bridges and tunnels. He’d been telling us stories of puffin hunting with long poles and nets with his father. His grandmother later served heaped puffin cheeks on a plate for dinner. The Faroes beat to their own rugged and windblown tune. On a particularly long stretch, he pulled over so we could drink from a stream and have a snack. Out came our almonds and dried apricots. Jóhannus, popped open his triangular snack box. Inside it, there were neatly cut squares of whale blubber, smoked whale meat, flaky dried fish and boiled potatoes. He made mini stacks and ate them with relish.
Yemeni men use their cheek as a pocket. In it is parked a wad of qat (catha edulis) a mildly narcotic leaf to which they’re massively addicted. Their mouths move constantly. A cheek-bulge and slurred speech go hand in hand. The qat (a rare scrabble word where a u is not needed with a q) is uplifting and it boosts energy levels. It’s also a wonderful lubricant for male bonding, especially at qat parties where hookah and branches of fresh leaves are passed around. While other folk in the Arabian Peninsula and the horn of Africa, such as the Somalis use it too, many more Yemeni masticate their wad as they go about farming, trading, hunting, taking an exam, or attending prayers a mosque.
Paan, a combination of betel leaf and areca nut is chewed across a vast swathe of Asia, from Pakistan to Papua New Guinea where it has long been an addiction of epic proportions. There, areca buai (the local name) is had with a mustard stick dipped in slaked lime powder. The mouths and teeth of men, women and even children are often blood-red. They’re traded, shared and gifted everywhere, in the highlands, lowlands and seaside.
I was astounded to see markets full of stalls that sold nothing but buai on innumerable small tables, all at the same price. I was deeply uncomfortable with the driver’s constant habit of opening his door—even as we sped on highways—to lean out, tilt down and spit out the liquid.
All along the Andes in South America, coca has been cultivated for several millennia, especially in Peru and Bolivia, where the indigenous folk brew and chew raw coca leaves to raise their energy levels, stave off hunger and combat the effect of high altitude. For the latter, I was offered coca tea upon arrival in Cuzco, a historic Andean town at the height of 3,400m. I noticed people dipping into their ‘chuspa,’ a pouch dedicated to carrying coca leaves, and chewing it several times a day. Once available only to the upper classes, the Spanish conquerors increased production so everyone could buy it. It turned out to be the most profitable product, enriching them enormously.
A stylised way of consuming coca is sharing yerba mate, a drink that is passed around in a group. Argentinians, Uruguayans and Brazilians often carry a decorative gourd with a metal straw with them, which everyone sips from.
Peruvians were on to dried food early on. In the highlands they freeze-dried potatoes, prolonging their shelf-life, and hydrating them as needed. They also dried and salted strips of protein-rich llama meat called cherki, which came to be known as jerky. In southern African countries, dried bush meat such as reebok and impala jerky known as biltong are the favoured everyday snacks along with plantain chips and dried mango pieces.
The indigenous Sami people who live in the northern Europe keep small hunks of dry reindeer meat which they carve with their handcrafted knives to munch on as they follow their vast herds on their annual migrations.
Once, driving six hours from Tozeur to Tunis, in Tunisia, my friend and I had a bet on how our driver, Najeh would break his fast as it was a day of Ramadan. I imagined he’d want to drink water first, and my friend said he’d eat first, as he’d proudly shown us a box of the translucent Deglet Noor dates he was carrying. Dates are a matter of spiritual import in the Middle East. All three of us tuned into the radio at 5.30 as the call to prayer commenced, and he stopped for his iftar (the breaking of the fast). Neither my friend nor I won. Najeh sighed with relief and lit up his cigarette first.
The market stalls of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are heaped with white balls of kurut, made of dried yoghurt, an enormously popular accompaniment on any journey, especially for schoolkids.
A Kyrgyz nomad once told me, when he’s on the move on horseback for days, he carries a pouch of dried meat. When hungry, he boils some water from a stream on his mini burner, stirs in the powder, adds salt, and enjoys a delicious stew.
The world remains a delightfully diverse place. French baguettes, Bhutanese yak-cheese blocks, Iranian dried fruit lavashak, Japanese rice crackers, Georgian candle-like churchkhela, Chinese White Rabbit candy with edible rice wrappers, German butterbrezels (buttered soft pretzels) British chocolate digestive biscuits, Inuit muktuk (whale blubber) Lebanese sesame seed halwa, Zimbabwean amancimbi and mopane worms are favoured snacks. The selection is endless and amazingly varied.
Pulling out a small treat and having a momentary picnic with oneself, or sharing it with someone, is indeed one of life’s little uplifting pleasures, and despite the amusing quote, “I didn’t mean to gain weight, it happened by snaccident,’’ which sheds light on the dangers of over-snacking, the pulse of bolstering a moment with a nibble beats right across the planet.
You can follow Geetika Jain’s travels through her Instagram