35 food souvenirs that are better than fridge magnets
There’s no better feeling than being a provider of snacks
When I mentioned my upcoming holiday to a friend, she urged me — a social media lightweight — to post pictures. She said it would make her feel like she was on holiday with me. Touched that she cared so much about what I was up to, I delicately broke the news to her that none of the introverts on this family trip are inclined to take selfies.
“I don’t want to see pictures of people,” she replied. “I want to see the food and stuff.”
She was right. No one wants to be held hostage, looking at their co-worker’s 30-slide vacation PowerPoint or feigning polite interest as their aunt swipes through another hiking-in-Darjeeling album. Living vicariously through other people’s food porn, however, is an hour (or three) well spent.
It’s the sensory imagination that makes our mouths water when we can practically taste those glossy noodles and stretchy pizzas through the screen. Then there’s the mental jotting down of which restaurant, what dish – so that when you visit, you’re prepared. Most of all, it’s the idea that we can briefly experience a facsimile of Seoul or Naples by eating the same food regardless of where we are.
So when you travel abroad this season, don’t bother picking up the same old novelty keychains and magnets being flogged at every tourist trap. Let the folks back home be a part of your trip with food souvenirs. There’s no better feeling than being a provider of snacks, unless it’s eating them yourself.
Food souvenirs that deserve to take up space in your suitcase
Pretty much any French cheese is worth smuggling through customs. Raclette is worth being arrested for. The gooey Alpine cheese is named for the action of scraping — because the wheel of cheese is held to a fire and then the toasty, melted bit is scraped off onto your plate. Dish out raclette over steamed vegetables and bread, pour a glass of wine, and imagine yourself in a snowy ski lodge.
Seasonal violets are plucked and preserved to make this floral confit. For a classic with a twist, some violet jams are mixed with fruit like raspberries or figs that complement the perfume of the flowers. Or smuggle a jar of amethyst-hued violet jelly into your food souvenirs allowance for friends to admire and devour.
Get a taste of Southeast Asia’s first bean-to-bar chocolate. These bougie bars combine the French colonial roots of Vietnam with sustainably sourced local cacao. The chocolate combinations tease your palate with interesting twists, like the peanut ginger caramel flavour.
Ben Tre coconut candy
These nuggets of creamy, coconutty goodness are a hit with kids and adults alike. They’re uncomplicated and delicious, and the founder, lovingly called Auntie Hai To, is something of an icon for turning this homegrown operation into a big brand. Flavours range from plain coconut and chocolate, to durian and pandan leaf.
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO
What does a lactose-intolerant girl do for fun? Well, this one shovels hot spaghetti out of a parmesan wheel directly into her face while watching a show about murder. The real parmigiano reggiano cheese is naturally lactose-free, and unnaturally delicious. No matter your dietary preferences, you can now make your Friday night pasta dreams come true.
Christmas in Italy isn’t complete without a loaf of panettone: an addictively fluffy sweet bread studded with dried fruit and candied citrus peels, enriched with eggs. Like all cakes — even if they’re cosplaying as bread — a panettone is delicious year-round. Especially if it’s stuffed with chocolate, a popular modern variation.
When a lot of brands throw around terms like cold-pressed and extra-virgin, your best bet is to go straight to the source for authentic olive oil. Small-scale manufacturers have often been pressing fresh olive oil for generations from ancient trees. The gorgeous grassy aroma will instantly transport you to a sunny picnic in Athens, so it’s worth adding to your list of food souvenirs.
Baklava has undeniably earned its place as the gift of choice to bring back from Turkey. But if you want to switch it up or consider a healthier option, try another local preparation made from nuts. Hazelnuts are a major export, so you can’t go wrong with a jar of hazelnut butter.
Bursting with flavour, this spicy sausage is blended with cumin, garlic, and chilli before being dried and cured. It’s usually made with beef, but lamb versions are available too – or even horsemeat, for the bold and brave. Regardless of which type you favour, any Turk will rightly tell you there is no better partner for fried eggs. Enjoy the world-famous Turkish breakfast anytime you like, including for dinner.
United Arab Emirates
Nougat and Malban
This beautiful assortment of traditional Arab sweets has all the charm of a box of mithai. It’s familiar enough to make it to your food souvenirs shopping list, and provided you like nuts, you’ll find a morsel to munch. Malban is a firm jelly made with grape molasses, while nougat is also known as ‘mann al-sama’, or manna from the heavens. Egg whites and pistachios are whipped with sugar syrup into this chewy, cloudlike confection.
Japan offers a specialty snack for every prefecture and season. Their tasty national treasures tend to be highly localised, so depending on where you’re travelling to, you’re bound to find anything from chestnut-flavoured pastries to natto (fermented soybeans). But a few food souvenirs are available pretty much anywhere in the country.
Swap out your morning masala chai for a bowl of leafy green matcha. The colour alone will brighten up your day. If you can’t spare the time to froth it up with a bamboo whisk the old-fashioned way, you can get this powdered green tea in pre-sweetened instant lattes; just add hot water.
KitKats are a beloved sweet in Japan, so much so that the company opened a factory in 2017 just to manufacture novelty flavours. Some are still specific to a region or season, such as Okinawan purple yam, and mint chocolate in the summer. Strawberry or rum raisin flavours make a nice gift for the office, while others, like wasabi or apple vinegar, are best split with adventurous friends.
German fruit teas take many forms, and you’ll find delicious branded blends in the market when hunting for food souvenirs. These caffeine-free herbal teas are often spiked with dried berries, spices, citrus fruits, and hibiscus flowers that lend a rich scent and colour without any artificial additives. Fruit tea is a gift for the body and the soul.
Next time you reach for a box of fine German chocolates, let your hand drift towards these gingerbread cookies instead. They’re just as sweet and luscious, and you won’t find them anywhere else. Lebkuchen are soft honey cookies with a zing of ginger and cinnamon that tastes like Christmas. Just the thing for daadiji to dip in her afternoon chai.
Labneh falls somewhere between yoghurt and cheese, and is common all over the Middle East. Jameed, however, is a Jordanian specialty of dried sheep’s or goat labneh — a preservation technique used by Bedouins. It’s essential in mansaf, the national dish made with lamb and a savoury jameed sauce, served with rice. Jameed makes an exciting topping for soups and salads as well.
Also known as preserved lemon, this condiment is what brings that bright tang to a tagine, the Moroccan clay-pot braise. Although it packs a punch of flavour, lemon confit is deceptively simple: juicy lemons are layered with salt and warming spices, then left to sit. Whip up a Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon and olives, and you’ll feel like a Cordon Bleu chef.
Green tea milk spread
Diehard fans of green tea can now smear it on their toast and wash it down with… a cup of green tea, of course. This creamy green tea spread is a regional novelty, originating from Jeju Island and now available in other parts of the country. It tastes like a matcha latte in a jar.
Convenience store food
Did you fall in love with spicy gamjatang stew on your trip to Korea, or get hooked on naengmyeon cold noodles? Chances are, you can find these dishes pre-packaged at a grocery store, and they can be prepared in the microwave. Stuff these food souvenirs into your suitcase and you’ll never have to live without budae jjigae again.
Bugs are the food of the future, so we might as well start acquiring a taste for them. Silkworms are a good source of protein and have long been a sustainable, nutritious snack in Thailand. These packaged silkworms invite the question: How bad could anything be when it’s deep-fried and covered in barbecue seasoning?
The South African take on dried meat jerky is marinated in vinegar and spices for taste and tenderness, then air-dried. You can choose which texture you prefer, with softer or more ‘wet’ varieties having a shorter shelf life. Apart from beef, biltong can be made from exotic meats like ostrich, venison, and even modern dinosaur (more commonly known as chicken).
A tangy, aromatic herbal tisane that is native to South Africa, rooibos – meaning ‘red bush’ – brews to a lovely scarlet colour. It’s free of caffeine and packed with antioxidants, so it’s the perfect bedtime mug. You can brew rooibos for several minutes without it becoming overly strong, as it contains no bitter tannins.
Democratic Republic of Congo
This piquant hot pepper sauce is the mother of all your late-night peri-peri fries. It’s usually made with Scotch bonnet peppers or even habaneros, so expect it to smack you in the face like a cat getting an injection. The burn is worth it, though, as pili pili is incredibly fragrant and fruity. Cut it with mayo and make a fiery dip for french fries. No more late-night Swiggy, only late-night pili.
Girl Scout cookies
The sheer variety of American snacks is the stuff of legend. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the gleaming walls of packaged food in the supermarket, but the best cookies are outside the store. What could be more quintessentially American than Girl Scout cookies? Everyone has their favourites, with the actual, scientific best ones being Thin Mints – a minty chocolate-covered cookie.
Peanut butter pretzels
Salty, crunchy, and satisfying, pretzels are all but impossible to find in India. Since this humble German bread immigrated to the US, it’s been gussied up with garlic butter, pepperoni, salted caramel, and more. After you’ve scarfed down a load of soft pretzels, bring a travel-friendly jar of hard pretzels back home. The peanut butter-filled variety is an example of American excess done just right.
Some stereotypes exist for a reason. Not only does Canada keep reserves of this most sticky export, but there was a national scandal in 2012 when thieves were discovered to be syphoning off barrels.
The chief perpetrator of the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist (yes, that’s the official name) has since been fined millions of dollars for his crimes. Luckily, you can get your hands on a bottle of the finest for a lot less, and it tastes better than anything you can buy in India.
Does your poutine squeak? Canadians know that the starchy, savoury mess of fries and brown gravy isn’t really poutine unless it’s topped with cheese curds so fresh they squeak between your teeth. These food souvenirs will survive in your suitcase if you buy the freshest ones possible and refrigerate them immediately.
We probably don’t have to sell this one too hard. Cheese bread in any shape or form is an automatic win, and Filipino cheese bread is no exception. It is different, though – milky, cheesy brioche buns with a crunchy layer of sugar on top. Hitting both sweet and salty notes, these rolls are serious multitaskers and make for unforgettable food souvenirs.
The vivid purple hue of this cake comes from the ube, or purple yam, that gets mixed into the batter. The delicate yet distinctive taste makes ube cake a staple at Filipino celebrations, where it’s often frosted with coconut. Stash some snack packs in your carry-on so you can munch on tiny purple cakes like a fairy princess.
Traditionally made during the Lunar New Year, these tiny embellished cakes are almost too pretty to eat. They’re surprisingly heavy, with the crumbly golden pastry encasing a dense filling. Although they can be made savoury, sweet lotus seed paste is the OG. It’s meant to be sliced into triangles like a full-size cake, but if you can’t resist biting right in, we won’t tell.
Namkeen or mithai? With bak kwa, the answer is yes. Thin slices of dried pork are glazed with soy sauce, spices, and sugar to create this popular Lunar New Year delicacy. It’s chewy, slightly crispy, sweet, and savoury – so whatever your craving of the moment happens to be, bak kwa is the solution.
Salted egg chips
The Singaporean obsession with salted egg flavouring extends to an endless array of pastries and snacks. It makes sense once you realise that salted egg tastes neither like salt, nor like eggs. Instead, it’s rich and custardy with a savoury hit – just what you want from a crunchy chip. Ordinary potato chips are a good option, and if you like seafood, you should give the salted egg fish-skin crisps a go. As long as it’s salted egg, it’s all good.
Kaya toast is the ultimate Singaporean street food breakfast, and it’s a fantastic start to the day. Cafés spread this coconut jam and a hefty slab of butter between toast, designed for dipping in coffee and an optional soft-boiled egg. Take your bun-maska game to new heights with a jar of kaya.
Marmite is the Maleficent of condiments, a dark goopy villain who is really just misunderstood because she can’t be Nutella. Yet Marmite is packed with umami flavour and fortified with essential B vitamins, so a spoonful goes a long way. Stir it into your soups and sauces, spread it on your buttered toast, and fall in love. Find your one true jar with variations like chilli, peanut butter Marmite, and the newly released truffle Marmite.
The second best part of afternoon tea is the fancy tiered trays and dainty cups. The best part is clotted cream. Scones, after all, are merely a vehicle to transport clotted cream into your mouth. While British biscuits like shortbread or Jaffa cakes will always find space in your luggage, make some room for a shelf-stable pot of the good stuff.
Sarawak layer cake
Picture this: You’re sitting in a bakery in Malaysia when you spot this towering slice on the counter. You lock eyes and it’s love at first sight. This stunning creation is the Idris Elba of cakes, guaranteed to draw gasps and swoon wherever it goes. Is it a work of art or a straight-up snack? You be the judge.