3 Ethnic Cuisines Perfect for the Snacking Craze

Injera dish made of teff cereal.
Injera dish made of teff cereal.
think stock / rweisswald

Three years ago in this very space, when we last discussed snacking, I talked about the “globalization” of snacks—the increasing tendency of consumer packaged goods (cpg) companies, in particular, to appropriate and redeploy different ethnic flavor profiles in their snack foods.

Three years is practically a lifetime in the snacking world, where consumer behaviors and preferences are in a constant flux. And yet, based on all available evidence, the global-snacking trend continues to gather steam. Credit goes to those ever-adventurous millennials and their younger Gen-Z counterparts, whose restless palates are constantly yearning for new, different, and memorable flavors.

Three cuisines in particular—Moroccan, Ethiopian, and South American (not actually one cuisine, but many)—appear to be ripe for discovery and reinvention. I’ll take each in turn.

Moroccan • Can you imagine pulling up to your preferred fast-food drive-thru window and ordering food in which the flavor profile skews North African? Perhaps not today, but based on the buzz surrounding Moroccan cuisine these days, the prospect doesn’t seem that outlandish or far-fetched. Indeed, at this past summer’s Fancy Food Show, Moroccan food was billed as one of the top 10 food trends.

Moroccans have historically favored fruits and vegetables, unrefined olive oil, rice, and couscous, along with a potent, flavorful mix of sweet and savory spices that includes saffron, cinnamon, fennel, anise, and cloves. Among the local delicacies are chebakia—strips of fried dough coated in a honey-rosewater syrup and topped with sesame seeds—and bastilla, which is a pastry-covered ground meat entrée that could be reconceived as a handheld snack suitable for any daypart. With a liberal dose of cinnamon contributing to the sweet-savory taste profile, bastilla—with a distinctly Western twist—could be a winner for the chain or concept that elects to develop interesting variations on the theme.

Beyond meat and pastry, Moroccans also enjoy savory vegetables with interesting flavor profiles that can be turned into dips and spreads, like cauliflower with harissa or smoked eggplant sweetened with date sugar or date syrup. It’s not hard to envision a health-conscious chain offering snacks such as fried cauliflower florets with dipping sauces; baked or fried legume chips; or almond, cashew, and other nut butters on a pita.

Ethiopian • Ethiopia is the official home of the giant (often two feet in diameter) spongy sourdough pancakes known as injera, which serve as an all-purpose carrier for the thick, heavily spiced, often vegetarian signature stews that are the cuisine’s hallmarks. A mix of spices known as berbere is a staple of the Ethiopian table; it consists primarily of chile peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, and a host of other regional ingredients.

It’s possible to envision a clever concept turning injera and stew into a kind of Ethiopian burrito or chimichanga. Also, teff—the trendy ancient grain high in minerals and protein that’s used to make injera— could be transformed into crispy chip snacks. The crafty menu-development pro could also take a traditional trail mix and give it a contemporary twist using a combination of Ethiopian spices, toasted barley, and mixed legumes.

South American • As noted above, an enormous continent comprising many different climates, cultures, and cuisines offers a vast array of possible snack inspirations. In the Andes region, staple ingredients include corn, potatoes, and other tubers, as well as tropical fruits such as guava, pineapple, and mango, all of which marry well with sweet potatoes and grains. On the other hand, in the southern lowlands region known as the Pampas, German and Italian influences abound, which explains the rampant local popularity of dulce de leche, pasta, and polenta.

The continent is rife with local creations such as arepas—Venezuelan/Colombian cornmeal biscuits often used as sandwich bread or a carrier for fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, or other fresh ingredients—and empanadas, the popular crimped pastries that can be sealed around fruit for a delicious dessert or wrapped around meats or cheeses for a snack or meal accompaniment.

El Porteño in San Francisco, for instance, offers a carne empanada filled with ground beef, onions, green olives, raisins, and hard-boiled eggs, as well as a vegetarian version made with sweet corn, onions, and basil. And Costas in New York favors a Venezuelan arepa made with queso, plantain, avocado, and tomatillo, as well as an Argentinian version featuring steak, caramelized onions, and chimichurri.

Beyond the obvious snack appeal of both arepas and empanadas in a quick-serve environment, plantain fries or chips—a mainstay of South American snacking—could also offer sweet alternatives to the regular, potato-spawned variety.

As quick serves continue competing with CPG companies for the U.S. consumer’s snacking dollars, they may wish to try some smaller-scale experiments with the potential to be category-defining or, at the very least, a welcome alternative to the fast-food norm. In my view, exploring different global flavor profiles is a relatively simple way to create distinct dishes that aren’t too far afield for their core consumers.