Snack Critic: Have Your Ulam In Snack Form

February 3, 2017

Ever reached into a bag of chips and thought, “man, if only this were sisig!” No? Well someone sure did when the chichirya genre we call “Pinoy ulam” snacks became a thing: chips and puffs purporting to either look, feel, and/or taste like certain Filipino meals. Maybe it’s the delight in knowing you can have your favorite ulam flavor in between meals, sans the heaviness; maybe it’s the pure novelty of having one popular food item in the form of another. Either way, this genre of snacks is one among the more curiosity-inducing on the market.

Today I’ll be unwrapping four ulam-themed bags: Chicharron ni Mang Juan in Spicy Sisig, La-La Ka-Isaw Vegetarian Chicharon Sticks, OK Crispynets Chicken Inasal, and OK Lumpiang Shanghai. Will they live up to their names? There’s only one way to find out.

CHICHARRON NI MANG JUAN – SPICY SISIG FLAVOR

Chips purporting to be chicharron, flavored as sisig? Sign us up! You get the fibrous but crunchy texture of the Chicharron ni Mang Juan line with its signature curl. Taste-wise, there’s a sweet-savory pork broth-esque flavor and some heat, as expected, but it finishes with a taste I can only describe as being lemony in a fake, candy-like way. Right, I thought, that’s probably meant to represent the calamansi! But with hardly actual sourness to follow it up, it just tastes out of place. There’s more to sisig than just the richness of the pork—also integral to the dish is the punch of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy, which these chips fail to deliver on.

la-la KA-ISAW VEGETARIAN CHICHARON STICKS, SILING TAGALOG FLAVOR

Now this suffers a bit of an identity crisis, with both “chicharon” and “siling tagalog” in its label—but from the name and the drawing of people holding squiggly skewers on the package you’d reckon they’re mainly going for isaw. The snack’s actual shape—the long, narrow, hollow cylindrical pieces that may resemble intestines when laid out—barely represent accordion-like isaw as we picture it. (Unless their stick-shape is meant to be the barbeque sticks. D’oh.) Still, the flavor tingles the tastebuds: a sour, punchy vinegar flavor with the heat and distinct zestiness of green sili. It doesn’t taste like isaw at all, but combined with its light crunch, it’s pretty addictive.

OK CRISPYNETS CHICKEN INASAL WHEAT-FLAVORED SNACK

We move on to the poultry contender of the bunch with this chicken inasal snack. I’m not sure where they’re going by claiming it to be “wheat-flavored”—because (1) wheat itself doesn’t have a very strong flavor, and it’s certainly not one you’d associate with junk food; and (2) there is no actual wheat in the ingredient list! (Instead, you find corn.) But do they deliver on inasal? Beyond their flat form and crunchy, cereal-like texture, you get a savory, sweet umami flavor that ends with a hint of spice. If you concentrate hard enough you taste chicken powder, but it blends in too well with everything else that it doesn’t really stand out. The overall flavor doesn’t scream “chicken”, let alone chicken inasal, but what the heck—these are tasty, tasty things that will have you licking your fingers clean.

OK LUMPIANG SHANGHAI

In this case, you have a snack named after a meal it’s made to physically resemble even though it’s not even meant to taste like it. Rather, these “Lumpiang Shanghai”—an foil-packed upgrade on these unbranded, 1-peso small packs (from the same mother brand) typically sold at sari-sari stores—are long, hollow corn puffs with a flamboyant orange shower of sweet cheese powder. They’re puffy, crunchy, and deliver on the tried-and-tested combination of sweet corn + processed cheese that might make your inner cheese snob shudder, but always tickles the inner child.

THE VERDICT

Of the four, no one bag is truly able to replicate the look, feel, and full experience of eating their eponymous meals. Still, they make for tasty snacks, with interesting flavor profiles that stimulate the appetite—like any good chip should. Go into these with an open mind and stomach; you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And if you’re still craving the real deal, fret not: mealtime’s just a few hours away.

Patricia Baes SEE AUTHOR Patricia Baes

Trish thinks too much about everything—truth, existence.....and what’s on her plate. Her ongoing quest for a better relationship with food has led to a passion for cooking, gastronomy, and a newfound interest in its politics. She is a cheapskate in other aspects of her life, preferring to use her savings on specialty vinegars and degustation menus. While she admits to eating out too much, cooking and baking remain her first love, and she's always looking for quirky new ways to use up seasonal produce. Thanks to her obsession with (unnecessarily) making everything from scratch, she is now desperate to clear her fridge full of homemade condiments. She dreams of perfecting the art of making soufflé with her crappy toaster oven.

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