The Transportive Powers of Unobtainable Snacks
From Japanese Kit-Kats to French 7 Up, our obsession with obscure snacks has opened up new ways to find them.
As I slid my way through customs the first time I returned from a trip to Japan, I had to declare over $300 worth of snacks and drinks crammed into my bag. Bottles of melon cream soda were tucked between my clothes amid an assortment of Kit-Kats in flavors like cherry blossom and apple pie and a variety of chips speckled with flaky nori or salty ume. For me, a trip does not feel complete unless you return home with a sack of snacks.
But for others, snacks can be an entrance to a new culture and cuisine, without having to actually travel to a faraway destination. Such is the case for many of the customers that visit Exotics Only LA, a globally inspired snack and drink shop located in South Gate, California. “I picture myself when I was growing up and I didn’t get to travel,” explains Christopher Henriquez, the co-founder of Exotics Only. “So my goal is to provide communities that don’t have access to these types of snacks or even know about these places an opportunity to learn about culture, to educate—which is one of the easiest ways because food is a universal language.”
It started with grape juice. Henriquez had a mind-blowing experience drinking imported Welch’s from Japan that became the catalyst for opening Exotics Only. “My brother had given me the juice for my birthday and I had never tried anything like it, anything even close to it,” Henriquez reminisces. “I just couldn’t wrap my words around how good it was; there’s nothing in America that reaches it.”
The experience and the flavors shook Henriquez so deeply that he knew he wanted others within his South Los Angeles community to have their own Japanese grape juice moment. Exotics LA launched in September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, when the appetite for travel was at its highest. The orders came pouring in and Henriquez was able to move his operations outside of his mom’s home into a brick and mortar, which has now been open for over six months.
At the very same time—September 11, 2022, to be specific—Folu Akinkuotu, a writer, recipe developer, and homebaker, sent out her first newsletter aptly titled Unsnackable. It’s Akinkuotu’s ode to international drinks and snacks with the occasional recipe included.
Snacks are a lifelong love affair for Akinkuotu. Growing up in the suburbs of Minnesota, Akinkuotu would help her parents stock vending machines—mainly for her personal gain so she could pocket the leftover snacks and ensure there wouldn’t be anything she’d find ‘objectionable.’ “That was the first time I was really thinking about snacks outside of myself,” she says.
That experience, paired with trips to the Asian and African supermarkets, led her to a fascination with novel snacks. “Segwaying into adulthood, when I was traveling one of the things that I would do would be to go to grocery stores or to corner stores and just see what was around, to see what’s fun,” Akinkuotu explains.
When the pandemic hit and travel halted, starting Unsnackable provided Akinkuotu a way to continue honing her writing without the pressure of recipe development. “This was a thing I could do where I could interact with writing about food without it being personal and very emotional—because writing about your own food can feel very intimidating. So I was like, let me write about these things I’ll never get to try.”
For research purposes, Akinkuotu relies on the algorithm of social media, which has molded itself to her fascination with obscure snacks. She follows Latvian teens on Instagram to see what they’re munching on and dives deep into Wikipedia pages, translating the names of foreign chip bags or gummy candies. She’ll weave through videos on YouTube, parsing through the murkily translated bits to see mukbang shots of people around the world enjoying bites of chocolates or sips of sodas.
One of the reasons Americans are now so interested in snacks from elsewhere is because of social media. There are subscription boxes that tout worldwide travel through candies and drinks, like Universal Yums and Try the World, and ones specific to countries or regions, like Bokksu and Tuk Tuk Box. “People want to flex,” Henriquez says, “and that’s why social media has been one of the biggest contributors to our success.”
Akinkuotu finds the interest to be very American. “We kind of assume that everything will be accessible to us,” she explains, “sometimes in bad ways—like there is this American mindset that wants to possess everything.” In a way, bragging on social media about the unobtainable can feel like misappropriation. But, with respect for ingredients and flavors, snacks can also be an opportunity for cultural exchange.
“Snacks are kind of an entryway to the flavors of a culture; you can see the ways that people in those cultures think about food and flavors and pairing things,” Akinkuotu says. “If it’s something mass marketed, you know it’s going to be something a lot of people from that culture like. Snacks introduce you to something in a less intimidating way.”
Although I’m dreaming of my next excursion to Japan where I will ravage conbinis for limited edition chips and sparkly sodas, finding obscure snacks online, through retailers, newsletters, and subscription boxes, will tide me over until then.