As a cheesemonger and overall foodie, I’m lucky to live in a city (Columbus, Ohio) that is a crossroads of multiple cultures. It may not seem so at first, but Columbus is chock-full of incredible immigrant-owned restaurants serving some of the best food I’ve ever had. One great example is Saraga International, a large international market in an area of town that might seem sketchy at first. But this neighborhood is one of my favorites for foods from all around the world.
One of my favorite ways to get pairing inspiration is to walk through Saraga. The market is full of cultures and languages all intermingling in one magical place. There are foods of all kinds that I have never heard of and intrigue me every time. As a cheesemonger, I love to pair cheese with non-traditional pairings because I find that they become the most surprising and delicious. Walking through Saraga, I picked up inspiration for five fabulous pairings of snacks from all around the world.
1. Sennerkase + Huang Fei Peanut Crisps
These Chinese peanut crisps are a bit like an English toffee studded with chopped peanuts. To me, they taste like a Babe Ruth at first. Then, surprisingly, a little heat creeps up at the back of the tongue. They are sweet, crispy, and spicy all in one. My top pick with these addictive snacks is a rare German Alpine cheese called Sennerkase that is studded with fenugreek seeds. The result is reminiscent of maple syrup coupled with the traditional Alpine flavors of brothy caramelized onions. When paired with the Huang Fei crisps, it provides a much-welcome sweetness to counter the heat and enhance those wonderful peanutty flavors. Gruyere and her close French cousin, Comté, would also work well with these crisps. Both provide that deep peanutty flavor that complements these spicy nut bites.
2. Jackfruit Chips + Cypress Grove Straight Up Spreadable Goat Cheese
This is the lightest pairing of this list, but one of my favorites. Jackfruit, I’ll admit, is a weird fruit. When it’s cooked, it takes on a flavor reminiscent of pork, but its raw form tastes like fruit candy. Think Smarties candies or Juicy Fruit. These jackfruit chips from Vietnam are simply dried jackfruit. They’re light, crispy, and come in a scoopable boat shape. Enter Cypress Grove. The renowned California creamery has recently released a new line of spreadable fresh goat cheeses that are almost whipped in consistency. They come in multiple flavors, but the Straight Up flavor (aka the “plain” flavor) really lets that candy-like fruity flavor of the jackfruit shine. The delicate tartness of the chevre is a nice breakup between the chips. This snack feels so light and (almost) healthy that I could definitely eat this whole chevre cup in one sitting with these jackfruit chips on hand.
3. Seaweed Flavor Crispy Fish Chips + Parmigiano Reggiano
This pairing is a full exploration of umami. Umami is caused by an amino acid called monosodium glutanamate (yes, the infamous MSG) that creates a deep and intense savoriness. These light and crispy Chinese fish chips are baked with nori, or dried seaweed. They’re super briny and taste like salty sea air. The perfect pairing with these is the Italian classic Parmigiano Reggiano. More than just a “cooking cheese,” Parmigiano Reggiano is complex, a little fruity, and addictively salty. It also contains the second highest amount of MSG in cheese. The strong flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano holds up to those sea flavors without overpowering them. Another cheese that would be a cool pairing would be Mystic Cheese Co’s Sea Change. This creamy soft-ripened cheese is inoculated with Penicillium Roqueforti (the mold that makes blue cheese blue) rather than with the common white Penicillium Camemberti. It, like seaweed, tastes of the ocean. The creaminess would be a welcome contrast to the chips’ light and crispy texture and the mold funk would play nicely with the seaweed and fish flavors.
4. Taki’s Fuego + St Mang Rubius
Is it really an article about international snacks if I don’t feature the infamous Takis? These Mexican rolled tortilla chips are notoriously spicy, but also have a little hit of lime right at the end. I am a fan of milder washed rind cheeses with these because the creaminess coats the tongue as a little protection from the heat while the acidic lime neutralizes the funky cream. It is a cool play of textures and flavors. When tasting this, I used a cheese I found from Trader Joe’s called St. Mang Rubius. It is a subset from the giant German cheese company called Champignon and is made in Bavaria. Another killer mild washed rind is the Italian Malghese, which is like a milder version of Taleggio.
5. Korean Chocolate Star Cookies + Bayley Hazen Blue
These little Korean cookies are super adorable. I love how concentrated the chocolate flavor is while maintaining their light texture; they taste like a Cocoa Puff and a mocha had a star-shaped baby. That chocolate flavor gives way to espresso intensity while maintaining an airy puffed texture. The natural companion for these cookies is a fudgy blue like Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen. This blue echoes that chocolatey flavor while the blue mold adds another layer of flavor. It is rich, it is indulgent, and it is perfectly sinful.
With everything going on in the American political landscape these days, it seems even more important to learn about other cultures around the world, and to support immigrant-owned businesses. I’ve always found that food can bridge that gap of understanding because it is universal. When paired with cheese, these snacks that seemed so foreign to me at first suddenly seem familiar. I challenge each of you reading to do the same, in your own way, however that may be. Cheese is what unites us all.