Corn Nuts Get a Glow-Up in This Filipino-Inspired Snack Mix

D.C. chef Kat Petonito turns a beloved childhood treat into the ultimate bar snack.


By Ellen Fort

Published on February 21, 2024

It’s always Snacky Hour somewhere, at least according to snack-obsessed SAVEUR senior editor Ellen Fort. Follow along as she discovers the best bites that fall outside the confines of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Savory, salty, spicy, sweet, sour: everything’s fair game during Snacky Hour.

Salty drinking snacks are the threads that hold together the fabric of society. They’re usually nothing fancy: maybe it’s a bowl of cocktail peanuts and a plate of cheese straws your aunt sets out next to the white wine, or a giant jar of rosy-hued pickled eggs at the end of the bar. Bars with popcorn makers have also always been a favorite of mine. It’s an ideal pairing: an ice-cold martini or a fizzy light beer to chase down a handful of the greasy, salty kernels some bartender generously popped for you hours—perhaps many hours—before you arrived.

When I lived in San Francisco, I loved to slide onto a stool at Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, where the bartender carves off a hunk of Edam cheese from a giant, red wax-covered wheel behind the bar and serves it to you with saltine crackers—best nibbled with a PBR or well bourbon— amidst conversation with strangers. These are the snacks that bind us to people and places, the quiet backdrop to community. Because drinking without food is never a good idea, and sharing a snack with your friends—new or old—always is.

This kind of deep-seated snack nostalgia is what drove chef Kat Petonito to add her own salty drinking snack, which she calls Bowang Corn Nuts, to the menu at swanky Washington, D.C. gin bar The Wells. Bowang corn nuts are Petonito’s version of a popular Filipino snack called Boy Bawang Cornick. “I grew up eating it and the adults always ate it as a snack with their beer,” says Petonito. “Naturally I thought it was something we should eat at the bar.”

Bawang means garlic in Tagalog, and cornick simply translates to corn nuts, which are the basis for Petonito’s mix. But the original snack is made exclusively with corn nuts in flavors like hot garlic, BBQ, and lechon manok; Petonito goes rogue with the addition of almonds, pumpkin seeds, and cheese crisps, and her own blend of spices. “I based mine off the garlic and BBQ ones and made my own spice blend that’s kind of barbecue-flavored.” While Petonito makes her own cheese crisps, store-bought are fine, which also applies to the corn nuts. The magic happens when the spices and oil are baked onto the crunchy components.  Paprika, both hot and smoked, and urfa biber chiles combine with rich garlic oil for a toasty, crunchy, and deeply earthy flavor.

Petonito, the executive chef at sister restaurants La Collina and The Duck & the Peach, points to her roots for culinary inspiration: her mother is from the Philippines, and her father is Italian-American. Growing up, Petonito’s mother owned a bakery and catering company, which gave Petonito her first taste of the restaurant business. Now, she leads the kitchens of restaurants in Eastern Market, a historic produce market in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood where she once tagged along on her mother’s shopping trips for her business. While both sides of her heritage are showcased in her food—particularly the Italian side at La Collina—Filipino flavors tend to show up as comfort food, like lumpia or her Boy Bawang-inspired snack mix. On the menu at The Wells, however, it’s written as “Bowang,” which Petonito says is how she and her sister pronounced it as kids. “It’s just a little inside nostalgia,” laughs Petonito. “But my mom always points out that it’s spelled wrong.”


Photo: Matt Taylor-Gross • Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

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