When it comes to junk food, memory can play a big role in taste. For example, there are certain snack foods I’ve found recently in the U.S. that take me right back to my childhood on the Mediterranean Coast, in a small town 30 minutes south of Tel Aviv.
As kids, my friends and I would drop by the neighborhood grocer to fill up on sweets and snacks after school, or in between jumping rope in the street. And it’s these memories I think of when I see Krembo, Bamba, and others on the shelves of a market in the States.
Many Americans may be unfamiliar with these exotic-sounding treats, so here’s a little primer:
Bamba is Israel’s most popular childhood cheese doodle-like snack. Only when you crunch into the puff, it melts in your mouth like creamy, gooey peanut butter right out of a jar. Surprisingly, it’s mostly made of corn. Only the coating is peanut butter.
The peanut butter is imported from Argentina, according to the manufacturer, Osem, Israel’s most recognizable food manufacturer.
The company was launched in 1942 when three noodle companies joined resources,but it really took off once it started making snacks in the 1960s. It is now majority-owned by Nestlé.
Since then, Osem has been churning out snacks and advertising like the English subtitled cartoon video with the diapered Bamba baby have become iconic.
Over the years many creative versions of Bamba have popped up, including Bamba filled with hazelnuts and Bamba cream-filled Bamba, for double peanut butter fun. No matter what, you won’t be sharing the one-ounce bag. Licking all the Bamba “dust” off each and every one of your fingers is a must. The super-sized bag, you just might share, perhaps.
Osem also makes a snack called Bissli (Biss: bite Li: for me), similar to Chinese crispy chow mein noodles, only in exotic flavors like falafel.
It’s Osem’s second-best seller after Bamba. Bissli comes in fusilli (corkscrew) shapes and a variety of others. Each shape corresponds to a different flavor. Pizza, BBQ and onion flavors, just to name a few, line the shelf of a Maryland Shopper’s Food Warehouse kosher aisle. There’s a taco flavor, too.
Another Israeli childhood favorite that is hard to find in the U.S. is a cylindrical-shaped coconut candy, neon pink on the outside and cloud white on the inside. It’s made by A-Atias Sweets and called Mamtak Kokus in Hebrew, or Coconut Sweet, in English.
An entire box of Kokus landed on a National Geographic reporter’s desk as a gift from her fellow explorers on a recent archaeological dig in Israel. (See Surprising Mosaics Revealed in Ancient Synagogue in Israel.)
National Geographic reporter A.R. Williams admits she was skeptical of the color of Kokus at first, especially since she spied them on the breakfast table. But once she tasted them, she found herself stuffing her pockets, squirreling them away for a mid-morning treat.
When she returned home and shared the unusual box of pink sweets with The Plate, it prompted this “investigation.”
And that investigation led me to reach out to Ran Abayev, vice president of A-Atias Sweets. He emails (and I translate from Hebrew) that “his most veteran employee, Bella Asa-El, 73, who has worked there since ’54, and has been through all of A-Atias Sweets’ re-incarnations, said that the original owner […] brought the recipe from Germany.” (Abayev is the current owner’s son.)
So I called Bella Asa-El, who is now retired, in Israel, and found out she still works at A-Atias Sweets three to four hours a day, “so I won’t get bored at home,” as she puts it. Asa-El was born in Jerusalem and is a third generation Israeli on her mother’s side, with an immigrant father from Turkey. She reminisced about the days when they used to hand wrap the famous Coconut Sweet, but “once we moved to the second or third location,” she says, “the process became automated.”
While all these treats are great, and available practically anytime and anywhere in Israel, there’s another classic that is only available during the winter holidays–Krembo (cream-in-it).
Krembo is a 1960s Danish import, but each year Israel manufactures more of these Mallomar-like treats than Denmark. While the Mallomar filling is gelatin-based, the Krembo is Italian meringue-based.
Both have a cookie bottom, with the marshmallow-mousse piped on top of the cookie and then dipped in melted chocolate.
Each of the 50 million delicate Krembos manufactured every winter is individually hand-wrapped in crinkly, shiny tinfoil. Vanilla is the most popular flavor, with mocha right behind. Many other flavors–orange, strawberry and banana–followed, but they aren’t as popular as the vanilla and mocha classics.
The question is do you, like most, slowly relish the Krembo from the top down or work yourself up from the cookie at the bottom? Some twist the cookie at the bottom to dislodge it from the fluff. Some crack the chocolate at the top and scoop the marshmallow-y meringue out. There’s even a video on how to eat Krembo properly.
If you travel to Israel, you might find some restaurants serving gourmet versions of Krembo.
If you wish to give Krembo a go at home, you can find New York City’s Israeli chef Einat Admony’s Krembo recipe from her Balaboosta cookbook here or a de-constructed Frozen Passion Fruit Mousse with White Chocolate Shavings Krembo in The Washington Post.
Or, the easy way: these snacks and sweets are available at some U.S. supermarkets, kosher markets and on Amazon and other shops online. Except the pink Kokus. According to Ran Abayev, due to the extreme heat in the summer months they ship them overseas only when temperatures cool down.
Or you just might have to go on a dig in Israel to get your hands on them.