An interview with Folu Akinkuotu, the woman perfecting the art of email entertainment.
Out of principle and pessimism, I do not do new years resolutions.
I stand squarely in the camp that a new digit to our calendar year does not “reset” anything, nor does any good come from setting lofty goals or unrealistic expectations for yourself. There are 365 days in a year. Any one of them is a fine time to break a bad habit or work towards better ones. One shouldn’t have to wait till the dead of winter—when you are suffering from a severe Vitamin D deficiency and there are still lingering Christmas cookies in the kitchen—to kickstart a health regimen or become a morning person.
Instead, I do past year reflections. Tim Ferriss breaks down how to do this quite nicely, but the gist is: take an hour to go through your planner, your inbox, etc. and identify what were moments of joy for you this year. Then, build momentum in the areas that energize you by doing more of those things in the coming year.
One true highlight that was quick to top my 2020 list was the joy of an Unsnackable newsletter in my inbox each Monday. A newsletter dedicated to obscure snacks from around the world, author Folu Akinkuotu (you may also know her as the baking genius who created TKC’s outstanding Kasu Cake with Orange Blossom Sugar and Ginger Whipped Cream) describes these snacks-I-cannot-have with such clarity and wit that I have taken to reading the newsletter with an odd snack of my own to satisfy the intense craving for idiosyncratic flavors.
Clearly, I am not alone in my enthusiasm for Unsnackable as The New Yorker and Australian news outlet SBS have both highlighted the newsletter just this past month. And while I am unable to make more Unsnackables appear in my inbox, I will be keeping an eye on what new projects Folu will be baking up this year on her Instagram and Twitter in the new year. Recently, I had the good fortune of catching up with Folu to hear how Unsnackable and Humble Brag Diet, another cheeky-named creation of hers, came to be.
We ask this of every TKC member: What was your first or best sake experience?
Over the summer, we packed up and spent some time in one of those Getaway mini-cabins in New Hampshire. We brought plenty of drinks and snacks and some nigori sake. Even though it rained, I appreciated the change of scenery and having a chance to relax and turn off my brain for a bit. I know there are vessels made especially for sake, but it tasted delicious out of enamel coffee mugs with the scent of campfire lingering on our clothes.
Your newsletter, Unsnackable, pays homage to the wildly fun world of international snacks. A world I thought I knew something about. That is, until I subscribed to Unsnackable. What made you want to share your love of obscure, delicious delights?
When I started Unsnackable It had been ages since I’d written anything that wasn't a tweet or a professional presentation. I felt intimidated by words in general. A newsletter was daunting but it seemed like a path to becoming more comfortable with my voice as a writer. I chose the topic of international snacks because I was already researching them in my free time out of pure, misdirected curiosity.
Where did the idea for Humble Brag Diet and Unsnackable come from?
I've been cooking and baking since I was young, but back in my early 20's I struggled with the transition from college into professional life. In school, I had a concrete sense of achievement because every task had a beginning and an end but that didn't exist with my job. With the help of a steady diet of food tv, blogs, and cookbooks, I started honing my skills and posting my various food project under the #humblebragdiet hashtag on different parts of the internet. I started using the hashtag in 2014 but #humblebragdiet has taken many forms over the years. Like a mail-order cookie business, a month where I tried to make a different type of grilled cheese every day, and an ambitious #yearincakes.
In all your snacking adventures, you must have come across a few bad apples. Any worth noting?
Something sinister happens when international snacks come to the US and are reformulated for an American audience, especially when chocolate is involved. The original UK version of the Milka Oreo Bar is good, if not slightly boring because it is pretty hard to mess up chocolate and Oreos. The US version of the Milka Oreo Bar challenges that because it is terrible. I don't understand: how it is so terrible?
A few years ago, you traveled all over Japan. What snacks do you think of the most when you think of Japan?
At the very top of my list, and in my heart always and forever are chu-hai. They are canned cocktails with flavors that range from simple flavors like lemon to more exciting and adventurous ones like red shiso furikake. I've tried more than 40 different types of chuhai but Japanese soda and beverages are all next-level. I also ate a lot of incredible baked goods in Japan and found a lot of inspiration in their bakery culture. It was pretty mind-blowing to realize that the baked goods at 7/11 or a train station often rivaled those at a neighborhood bakery. But I could go on for hours about the exact snacks that make me think about japan-cider sodas, buttery shokupan toast, fizzy ramune candy, savory smoked cheese, fluffy castella cakes, and the unstoppable way that onigiri satisfies your hunger in seconds.
Staying on snacks for one more moment...How does a snack aficionado like yourself describe a Konbini (Japanese convenience store) to someone else? What is your favorite thing to buy at a Konbini?
Konbini are a hyper-regional ecosystem of quick, easy, and accessible food. They might seem small but they hold dozens of different types of snacks both sweet and savory, alongside more substantive meals. If you went into a Konbini two days in a row, there is a good chance that it'd look different because the products change so quickly.
A quick scroll through your instagram and it seems that cakes, cocktails and skincare make a strong argument as a few of your favorite things *Cue Sound of Music*. Can we take a minute to hear about your skincare routine?
I love gentle products instead of aggressive actives, hydrocolloid bandages for breakouts, lots of sunscreen, and taking my time when I introduce new products into my routine. My regimen varies each day based on how my skin looks and feels. Some of my favorite products are CosRX Snail Mucin, Son & Park Beauty Water, La Roche Posay Toleraine, Rosehip Oil, and First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream.
Japan has some incredible skincare products not available in the US. Did any make their way into your suitcase while you were visiting?
I’m a big fan of Hada Labo and it was great to see the full line of products that you can't find in the states. Sheet masks from Saborino and Keana Nadeshiko found their way into my luggage as well.
You recently baked an incredible vanilla + sake kasu sponge cake with kikusui ginjo sake swiss buttercream and citrus that knocked my socks off. But it seems you’ve been baking with some curious and boozy ingredients for quite while! Any tips for pulling off a surprisingly delicious combination? Is there one combo you return to over and over again?
I google incessantly when I'm developing recipes, and lean on books like The Flavor Thesaurus and websites like foodgawker for inspiration. It's a volume game, only once I've seen dozens of different ways to use an ingredient can my brain start to figure out how I'd like to approach it. This process is a lot easier if you pick a star ingredient, then work backward to find flavors that complement it.
What should a home baker keep in mind when baking with fresh kasu? What flavors/textures/smells does fresh kasu add?
Kasu has a gentle flavor that lends a hint of savoriness to baked goods. While the texture can vary, whisking kasu into a liquid like water or milk can help it dissolve and work into the dough or batter of a baked good evenly. Measuring the kasu by weight instead of by volume can help to ensure that your final product doesn't come out too wet or dry.
You completed #ayearincakes project, where you baked a cake every month for a year. What inspired you to take on such a challenge? Besides an immense amount of patience, what else did the #ayearincakes project teach you?
I learned a lot about the mechanics and architecture of baked goods, and how you have to consider form alongside flavor. I also learned how to break down a big bake over multiple days so it is less intimidating. Making one or two components a day for 3 days is much more tenable than making 5 or 6 components in a day-long baking marathon.
Do you have a cake you are most proud of?
Grape is a notoriously hard flavor to master but it was my inspiration for the last cake of #ayearincakes. Making sure the grape flavor was sufficiently "grapey" required a combination of two types of grape juice, grape soda, grape kool-aid, and a grape powder made from freeze-dried grapes.
What five kitchen staples (ingredients or equipment) would you recommend to any TKC member looking to step up their baking game?
Kitchen Scale - baking by weight instead of by volume will make your baked goods taste better and save you so many dishes!
Americolor Gel Food Coloring- I use a lot of color in my baking and Americolor gels are by far the most vivid with the largest variety.
Pasteurized Egg Whites- I make a lot of swiss meringue buttercream and I very rarely remember to use my extra egg yolks. Egg whites cut a step out of the process and can also be used in cocktails.
Oven thermometer- There is a 100% chance that your oven is not heating up to the temperature on the dial, using a thermometer can help you understand your oven better and adjust the settings to match your recipes.
Plastic Deli containers- I have dozens in my apartment and I use them for everything. No better form of storage exists.