Let’s admit it: drinking beer is not just about drinking beer. It is also about the food you eat while drinking. Lately, chefs have been paying more attention to the foods that best complement beer. While wine pairings have long accompanied tasting menus, many restaurants have switched over to "drink pairings" instead, often including one or several brews, a move fueled by the proliferation of great craft beer. And so, beer and food pairing has evolved into a craft of its own. Restaurants have the option to consult cicerones on which beer styles go best with which meat, fish, and vegetable dishes, and how to marry them with an amuse bouche or a dessert course.
What is usually ignored in this conversation are beer snacks—not just the stuff that needs to be cooked and served hot ... but the really lowly stuff that can be bought prepackaged and ready to eat.
What is usually ignored in this conversation are beer snacks—not just the stuff that needs to be cooked and served hot, like the wings or cheese sticks, but the really lowly stuff that can be bought prepackaged and ready to eat. The chips and the nuts—the finger foods that can be emptied out of a bag or a can and into a bowl. While the snacks listed above are well known to the American and international audience and are readily available in any supermarket, there are many others that are hugely popular in other parts of the world but virtually unknown to the domestic consumer.
One such snack calls Britain its home. Practically every pub has them and supermarkets stack several varieties on their shelves. Pork scratchings are eaten cold. They are deep-fried (once or twice), salted, crunchy pieces of pork rind with a thick crispy layer of fat still attached. Similar to pork rinds (particularly popular in Southern states) and pork cracklings sold around the world (such as the chicharron for example), scratchings are usually smaller in size and harder, although some varieties can be puffy as well. Though several different types are made, the most traditional scratchings are once cooked versions made from shank rind.
Pork scratchings are believed to have originated in the 1800s in the West Midlands region of England and were ultimately the poor man’s fare at a time when most people could not afford to waste any part of the animals they kept for food. As their popularity soared in the second part of the twentieth century, pork scratchings have become a big part of the British pub culture as more than twenty million bags are sold in the United Kingdom every year. The best beer to drink with this savory umami treat is a real English Bitter like Young’s Bitter from the Wells & Young's or Bluebird Bitter by Coniston Brewing Co.
In Russia, when it comes to the most popular and the most cherished traditional snack that accompanies beer, vyalenaya ryba wins hands down.
Borsch, beef stroganoff and caviar—what could be more Russian? Assuming that this is not a hypothetical question, the answer would probably be vobla. At least when it comes to the most popular and the most cherished traditional snack that accompanies beer, the Russian version of fish jerky—or vyalenaya ryba—wins hands down. Technically the name "vobla" applies only to the Caspian roach, the fish inhabiting the Caspian sea and its inflowing rivers (like the Volga), but colloquially, any other fresh water fish that has been salted and dried can also go by this name.
Popular since the nineteenth century, vobla began to be commercially prepared and packaged only in the 1990s. Even today, many households prefer to make their own since all that one needs is any locally caught river or lake fish, salt to make a brine and twine from which to hang the fish. After soaking the unfilleted fish in brine for several days, one passes a piece of twine through the eyes and then hangs the fish outside to dry. Once dried it can store virtually indefinitely.
The most traditional way to serve vobla is on a piece of newspaper spread on a table, onto which the fish’s skin and scales are peeled and then the meat is torn off by hand into small pieces. Even though vobla and other types of dried fish nowadays come prepackaged, and often gutted and skinned, the basic eating ritual stays the same. Tasting fishy and briny, nothing can wash down its distinct flavor and saltiness like a cold Russian lager, such as Zhigulevskoye or Baltika № 3 Classic.
Another beer snack that may elicit a raised eyebrow or two is dried shredded squid (or sometimes cuttlefish). Squid has long been a part of East and Southeast Asian cuisine, but its snack-size packaged, shredded variety that was commercialized in Hong Kong in the 1970s has become especially popular in South Korea (where it is considered an anju—food consumed with alcohol) and Japan (as a type of otsumami, or small snack).
Called "atarime" in Japanese and slightly salty or sweet, chewy and tough, it takes several weeks of elaborate squid preparation, which involves skinning, cooking, seasoning, salting, drying, curing, shredding and then seasoning and drying again. Whether flavored with chili peppers or smoked or regular, the snack's fishy aroma is unescapable. When plated, the squid looks like a light yellow fluffy haystack (some say it resembles shredded pork). It goes well with a Japanese Rice Lager like Koshihikari Echigo Beer from Uehara Shuzou Co., and the citrusy Japanese-made Belgian-style Hitachino Nest White Ale.
Just like English pork scratchings, Russian cured fish, and Asian dried squid, this last beer snack from South Africa, called biltong, originates in the most traditional ways of preserving food. This beer snack, a variety of beef jerky, has roots that date back to the indigenous peoples’ custom of preserving meat through salting and drying. European settlers added vinegar, sugar, coriander, cloves and other spices to the original recipe and gave the final product its current name. Biltong comes from the Old Dutch for "a strip of rump" or more literally, "buttock tongue."
Today, biltong is usually made with beef, but may also come in other varieties, such as shark, ostrich or springbok (a South African gazelle). It can be soft (also called wet) or dry, lean or fatty, usually with a distinct tinge of vinegar and a flavor resembling salami. What separates biltong from regular beef jerky is that it’s cut much thicker (over an inch), cured in vinegar, and never smoked as it is traditionally dry-air cured.
While biltong is commonly sold in South African butcheries and grocery stores in long wide strips, it can also be purchased packaged—cut into thick pieces, sliced or shredded. Many claim the snack is addicting and swear that biltong and beer is a match made in heaven. Try a beer style that pays homage to the indigenous beers from Africa using sorghum malt like Sorghum Pale Ale from Steadfast Beer Co. from Albany, New York or New Grist with Ginger Sorghum Beer by Wisconsin’s Lakefront Brewery.
Even though these beer snacks are not in many American supermarkets or convenience stores, they are slowly making their way into the mainstream, for example Trader Joe's sells a "South African inspired" biltong. Until these snacks find more popularity among American consumers, look for them at specialty and ethnic food shops.