Some Americans have fond childhood memories of nibbling on a spoonful of chocolate chip cookie dough.
Growing up with my Thai immigrant mother in the Chicago suburbs, we never had cookies or brownies around the house. Instead, I was handed a mango pit to suck pulpy juices from, or a bag of crispy dried river sprat to munch on.
Eating more sticky rice than burgers in my younger years formed a solid foundation of loving all types of Asian cuisine — a love I carry everywhere I go.
In Lincoln, I’ve been happy to shop at Asian grocery stores, where I find all the ingredients I need for making Pad Thai or panang curry at home.
But for busy days where I don’t cook, I tend to snack a lot. And to find tasty Asian snacks, I usually hit up one of my favorite stores: Vina Market, 611 N. 27th St., suite 4.
Tucked away in an unassuming strip of businesses — including Pho Nguyenn next door — Vina Market isn’t a flashy place.
There are community fliers taped on the door, and when you walk in, it’s a little cramped.
Owned by a Vietnamese American family, Vina Market also sells products from other Asian countries, including plenty of Thai foods I grew up with. About 40 percent of customers are of Vietnamese descent, store manager Hanh Vo told me.
Inside are about eight aisles filled with vermicelli and rice noodles, fish and oyster sauces, soup seasonings, canned quail eggs, tamarind paste, giant bags of dried shiitake mushrooms, fresh produce and fresh fish.
Snacks are in the middle aisles of the store, by the register. Here are some of my favorite go-to snacks and quick foods. Vo said most of these items are bestsellers.
Nagaraya cracker nuts — Cracker nuts are just as they sound: peanuts coated in a cracker shell. The Nagaraya brand, from the Philippines, has cracker nuts in garlic or spicy. I always go for garlic. If you’d prefer to forgo bold flavors, the shelf above is stocked with a Thai brand called Koh-Kae, which are milder coconut-flavored cracker nuts. $1.19 for a 5.64-ounce bag.
Pocky — These skinny Thai biscuit sticks dipped in chocolate, strawberry or matcha green tea flavors are most popular with kids, Vo said. I think they’re great for adults, too. The chocolate flavor is usually a crowd pleaser. Pair it with coffee. $1.29 for an individual-sized box.
Dau Phong Hap, or steamed peanuts — Bags of steamed peanuts arrive at the store weekly. They taste as though they’re steamed in salt water. Very addicting and healthy, and lower in calories than roasted peanuts. One bag is usually enough to share with a friend for an afternoon. $2.29 for a snack-sized bag.
Banh Khoai Mi Nuong, or Cassava Cake — This Vietnamese baked good comes from a California bakery. Made with cassava, a root vegetable, this cake is dense and gently sweet. It’s different from your standard frosted, fluffy grocery store sheet cake. Cassava Cake goes well with a cup of hot tea. Plus, you can feel less guilty about this cake because technically you’re eating a vegetable, right? $2.29 for round, flat cake about 4 inches in diameter.
Ligo Sardines — Stacked beneath canned mackerel and above Thai chili paste are Ligo Sardines in tomato sauce. A product of the Philippines, these sardines require no cooking. Open, pour on top of steamed jasmine rice, and voila, you’ve got a meal.
Canned sardines are a good source of protein, calcium and iron. Plus, they’re tasty with a slightly smoky flavor. The bones are soft and meant to be eaten, as well. The tomato sauce goes well with the fish and on rice. There’s also a spicy option — with chili added — but I prefer non-spicy in this case. $1.79 for a 15-ounce can.
Dried squid — There are so many brands that make shredded dried squid that I usually don’t pay attention to it. In my experience, they’re all good. I go for the “hot” flavor, which is actually just mildly spicy. Chewy, salty, sweet. It’s one of those food that if you ate it blindly, it’d be hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. Jerky lovers would enjoy this. $1.49 for a 2-ounce bag.
Mama instant noodles — Dump the rice noodles and seasoning packet into a bowl, then add hot water and boom, you’ve got a quick little meal. The packaging boasts your soup will cook in three minutes. I’ve never like Ramen or other instant soups, but Mama — a Thai brand — is pretty good. 50 cents for one individual-sized packet.
Tamarind Candy — It’s a tree, it’s a fruit, it’s a legume, it’s a seed, it’s … tamarind. Not so easily defined, tamarind grows in pods off a tree, and its fruity paste is an ingredient in some well-known Thai dishes, including Pad Thai. Tamarind candy are chewy, bite-sized and coated in salt and mostly sugar. If you like crystallized ginger, or candied pineapple, Tamarind Candy may be for you. $1.49 for a 4-ounce box.
Dau Hu Chien, or fried tofu — Perfect for throwing into a stir-fry or mixed into a brothy soup. Or go even simpler: dump it on rice with a little soy sauce. Good outside texture and great meat alternative that’s ready to go. $3.50 for a box.
Oshi Prawn Crackers — The checkout clerk told me this was his favorite snack in the whole store. Shaped like French fries, I think of prawn crackers as the Asian version of potato chips. 99 cents for a 2.12-ounce bag.
Taste Nirvana Thai tea — If you've got a craving for Thai iced tea — which I frequently do — go to a Thai restaurant and get a fresh one. Better yet, hop on a plane to Bangkok and buy one from a street cart. But if it's not feasible to do that and you need Thai iced tea in a pinch, this'll do. For canned tea, it's decent. Sweet and milky. $1.39 for a 16.2 ounce can.