If you've ever taken a cross-country road trip or loaded up your hiking gear with long-lasting snacks, it's likely you included dried beef jerky alongside such tried-and-true favorites as trail mix and GORP.
The dehydrated meat snack has been around for centuries, with historians tracing its roots back to a South American native tribe called the Quechua. Part of the Inca empire, the Quechua called it ch’arki, which means "to burn meat." When Spanish conquistadors made their way up north, they encountered North American Indians practicing the same type of meat dehydration, often mixing their meat with available ingredients like berries.
With its high protein content and long shelf life, jerky soon became a staple for American pioneers and cowboys. Other countries have their own version of jerky, too. South Africa has biltong, China has bakkwa, and Ethiopia has qwant'a, which is seasoned with a mixture of spices called berbere. All are some variety of dried meat flavored with local spices and sauces.
Bakkwa for sale at a Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore. (Photo: Chaerani (Meutia Chaerani)/Indradi Soemardjan [CC by SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Today, the variety of jerky available is astounding. And with many people turning to vegan and vegetarian diets for health and environmental reasons, there's no reason meat should get all the glory. Whatever you like to chew (and chew and chew) on, there's a tasty shriveled snack out there for everyone.
If you're craving something savory, why not try dehydrated mushrooms? The fungi is the latest darling of foodies, thanks its wide-ranging health benefits. This superfood is also one of the few non-animal sources of umami, and there's all kinds of DIY recipes out there online if you prefer to make your own.
If you've left the Lower 48, you've probably encountered fish jerky. Hawaii specializes in marlin and Ahi tuna, while Alaska is all about salmon jerky. What better way to use up your summer catch than by dehydrating filets for snacking during the long winter?
Exotic game is also getting into the, well, jerky game. Venison, alligator, elk, kangaroo, and wild boar are all available in the fast-growing jerky market. For those who like to nosh with a conscience, there's also jerky made from invasive species.
If you're feeling extra-adventurous, kelp jerky is another recent addition to the dried snack world. One of the fastest-growing plants in the world, kelp is full of nutrients and has 10 times more calcium than milk! This New York-based kelp jerky comes in three flavors: sesame & nori sea salt, rosemary & maple barbecue, or spicy Thai & spirulina. It counts Sir Richard Branson as a fan, so consider giving the seaweed — or any of these unusual jerky offerings — a chew.