My Asian American Childhood
I was blessed to have grown up in Houston, TX, where there was a large Chinese population, and therefore a large Chinatown. The Chinatown was sprawled across 6 miles, making it one of the largest Chinatowns in the South. There are hundreds of delicious restaurants and also, several megamalls that housed several giant Costco sized Asian grocery stores. Every Saturday, my family and I would drive to Chinatown for lunch followed by grocery shopping. I have fond memories of perusing Asian grocery store aisles and grabbing my favorite snacks.
At American grocery stores, my mom never let my sisters and I buy any artificial snacks, such as Froot Loops (“too much artificial coloring!”) or lunchables (“too much sodium!”). So I was surprised that she was more liberal with the snacks in Chinatown. Much to my knowledge, some of my favorite Asian childhood snacks are surprisingly not terrible for you, and in some ways have many beneficial nutrients! And so, I want to share some of these favorite snacks with you!
Favorite 'Healthy' Asian Childhood Snacks
1) Candied Plum
These individually wrapped candied preserved plums are sour and sweet, with a gooey texture after biting through the very thin layer of sugar. The most popular brand is Chan Pui Ying Ge and their main ingredients include plum, orange peel, licorice, sugar, and some preservatives. While sweet in taste, there is a hint of a medicinal aftertaste that made me feel less guilty about eating five or six of them at once. I would find these both at Chinese medicine shops as well as grocery stores. Not only does this candy carry the antioxidants and vitamins of a traditional plum, these candied plums are also good for curing nausea and stimulating appetite. See this Bon Appetit article for more modern uses of this candy.
Yakult is a child-sized cult favorite fermented dairy drink that originated in Japan in 1935. Its instantly recognizable look comes from the small 2.7oz bottles with red (or blue for ‘Yakult Lite’) foil tops. Yakult is a citrusy, milky sweet drink made from taking skim milk and fermenting it with a probiotic bacteria called Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota or LCS. LCS is a unique probiotic bacteria that has been scientifically proven to reach the intestine to help build immunity and help improve digestion. Other health benefits of LCS include immunity, stress relief, skin health, and weightloss. One serving of Yakult has 50 calories, which includes no fat or cholesterol and 10g of sugar. I loved these drinks, but consumed them in moderation due to sugar content and my lactose intolerance!
Y’all already know my love for Hawflakes. I even made one of Bo-yi’s first beverages, Hawthorn Superfood Tea! Hawflakes are thin, small, pink disc wafers made from Hawthorn Berries. They are stacked and wrapped in distinct green and red paper wrapping. You can think of them as a cross between a thin cracker and a fruit strip. Hawflakes are sweet and tart in taste, and its texture is a mix of chewiness and crumbliness. Its main ingredient, Hawthorn Berries (called Shan Zha in Chinese), help with digestion and heart health.
It can help you digest, absorb and guide food out, by stimulating gastrointestinal secretions and by helping your body produce helpful digestive enzymes. Researchers found that Hawthorn Berries significantly improve heart function and decrease symptoms of heart failure while improving the study subjects’ ability to exercise.
I always loved grabbing a pack of Hawflakes whenever my mom took me to a Chinese grocery store or pharmacy, and I have fond memories of happily eating the snack wafer by wafer in the backseat on the way home.
4) Boxed Chrysanthemum Tea
A staple of Asian American childhoods is the iconic yellow boxed Chrysanthemum tea. Whether it was the Yeos or Vitasoy brand, I loved it as my version of Chinese Capri Sun as a child. I loved the sweet round floral, and ever so slightly bitter taste and always carried it with me to Chinese school on Sundays. While these long-standing boxed Chrysanthemum teas include some added sugars and preservatives for taste and shelf-life, Chrysanthemum tea itself is very healthy for you! Chrysanthemum is known to be cooling and detoxing in nature. Some health benefits include deep relaxation, prevent colds and boost immunity, help metabolism, and promote anti-aging and healthy skin. Chrysanthemum tea is another beloved Asian superfood I recreated in our first Asian superfood tea line!
5) Preserved Dried Fruit
And last but certainly not least, I loved sucking on sour preserved dried plums (not to be confused with candied plums above!). We call these snacks “Wah Mui” in Cantonese Chinese and it was something you have to have grown up to appreciate. Its appearance can initially look off-putting, with its shriveled look and jagged edges. Its sour flavor is initially a bit intense, but is balanced by different seasonings, which can include salt, sugar, licorice, and citrus peel. Preserved candied fruits, have been a popular snack in China for ages. In ancient times, emperors wanted to enjoy fruit all year around, but transportation was too slow to deliver fresh fruit to the capital from the warmer southern regions. Health benefits include liver protection, digestion support, and anti-bacterial properties that can enhance oral health.
I had so much fun writing this blog post while visiting my parents’ in Houston for Thanksgiving, as I got to relieve some of my happiest childhood memories. How amazing that these nostalgic Asian American childhood snacks are getting re-emerged as popular snacks again. Or perhaps they never went out of style and I am just coming back to my roots! I recently made a trip to the New York Chinatown just to buy some of these favorite Asian childhood snacks to enjoy. It’s great to know that they both satisfy my sweet tooth while providing some health benefits as well. What are your favorite Asian childhood snacks? Let us know in the comments below!