There are few greater pleasures than eating snacks from around the world, whether while traveling abroad or from the comfort of one’s own hometown. Growing up in the Midwest, it was always a weekend treat to stop by our local Chinese mart and leave with a haul of pantry staples, vegetables, and other products we couldn’t find in the international aisles of big box supermarkets — and, of course, the chips, crackers, and candy that, in my mind, are forever linked to that distinct childhood experience.
Informed by those collective years of snacking, here are 17 favorites that can be found in most Chinese marts. Many are classics; some are more recent. Not all of them are even “Chinese,” strictly speaking; in many locales, Chinese supermarkets also function as broader Pan-East Asian stores, stocking Japanese or Korean goods alongside those from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. But they are all, in my opinion, worth trying:
Senbei is a type of Japanese rice cracker with roots in imperial China’s Tang dynasty. One of the main senbei brands you’ll find in Chinese supermarkets is Want Want, a Taiwanese manufacturer. The crunchy crackers come in multiple varieties, like sweet-salty (pictured on the left) and a mouth-smacking umami flavor (right).
Spring onion crackers
Another great cracker is the savory scallion or green onion kind, which tastes exactly how you’d imagine. One brand that’s worth trying is Pop-Pan, which makes a round, buttery cracker dotted with sesame seeds and green onion seasoning.
Sachima are one of my childhood favorites. Traditionally made from flour, butter, and rock sugar in Manchu cuisine, the version you’ll find most often in stores nowadays combines a sweet, eggy taste with a soft, chewy texture. There are sachima with raisins, sesame seed-studded sachima, even chocolate-flavored sachima — but, above all, I would recommend the “original” kind for first-timers.
At their best, cream wafers are a light snack for satisfying a sweet tooth. At their worst, they could be described as “like thin planks of styrofoam sandwiching layers of cream that taste faintly of strawberry.” Ah well, either way, I could house half a packet of these.
Egg roll cookies
Not to be confused with the egg rolls you might get from takeout, these crispy cookies known in Chinese as 蛋卷 are crisp and flaky. They sometimes skew a bit dry, so best enjoyed with a nice beveragino. While there are multiple brands on the market, you might consider the kind sold in classic red tins so you’ll have a new container to store sewing supplies for years afterward.
Yes fine, Pocky is a Japanese snack, but it has long been a staple of Chinese and other Asian supermarkets, even before big box retailers like Costco started selling them. The popular confectionery-coated biscuit stick is available in a huge variety of flavors. I’d recommend starting out with the classic chocolate before leveling up to strawberry, matcha, and less widely attainable flavors like cookies and cream, mint chocolate, and sakura.
Another Japanese treat turned Asian snacking symbol, Yan Yan predates Dunkaroos, its closest American equivalent. Each cup comes with crisp biscuit sticks — which, in the 15 or so years since I last regularly bought them, have become inscribed with quotes and cartoon animals? — that are dipped in slightly-too-sweet frosting. Delicious.
Hello Panda (strawberry) and Koala’s March (chocolate)
You might already be familiar with these cute filled biscuits, which are often mistaken for each other but are made by different brands (Meiji Seika and Lotte). Listen very carefully when I instruct you to try the strawberry flavor of pandas and the chocolate flavor of koalas, not the other way around. Can be microwaved briefly or refrigerated for different eating experiences.
Sweet, fruity, and colorful, these little cups of jelly — often sold in big ol’ buckets — are as delightful to look at as they are to eat. Consuming them basically involves peeling off the top wrapper, affixing one’s mouth to the edges of the cup like a vacuum seal, and inhaling in one swift, unflinching slurp (but don’t go too fast, lest the jelly shooter become a choking hazard). Other jelly varieties to try include ones in straws and ones in pouches.
Chinese and other Asian supermarkets offer a plethora of fruit gummy candy. I would recommend the lychee flavor in particular, most commonly sold by Japanese brand Kasugai.
Chinese hawthorn is such a good fruit!!!! I wish for everyone the joy of tasting this sweet, tart flavor. One such way is through haw flakes, which are essentially flat, dry, candy discs packaged in short rolls. A lesser-known — although, in my opinion, better tasting — form of haw candy is 果丹皮 or 山楂卷, sort of like a stickier, more intensely flavored fruit leather or rollup.
White Rabbit candy
So iconic that there are White Rabbit pop-ups and merch, this milk candy is creamy, chewy, and pretty much a national candy of China. Each one is wrapped in a layer of edible rice paper, which dissolves on the tongue.
Sesame and peanut candy
These candies — which bear some resemblance to brittle or nougat — typically boast a satisfying crunch and a nutty, aromatic taste.
Shelled or unshelled, savory or sweet, peanuts are a common fixture in Chinese households, especially when guests come over for cards, drinks, or a long chat. Some flavors that are commonly available include garlic, five spice, and fermented soybean curd. Go for shelled when you’re in the mood to work for your food, unshelled when you don’t mind shoveling nuts down by the handful.
Bread, buns, and other baked goods
Not all stores have a fresh bakery section, but if yours does, grab a couple of treats, like a pineapple bun or a sponge cake.
You should always take a supermarket run as an opportunity to stockpile as many Asian drinks as you can. My go-to is milk tea; I’m partial to Japanese brands like Kirin, which I personally find to be smoother and less sweet, but there are usually at least a few different options, including Chinese and Taiwanese brands.
Brown sugar boba ice cream bar
Hot off the brown sugar bubble milk tea craze that has spread from Taiwan to overseas these past couple years, there is now a creamsicle that tastes remarkably similar to the drink, complete with chewy tapioca pearls. If you like brown sugar boba, you’ll probably like this.