Oct 24, 2023 Food
We walk past the array of Lay’s chips on the shelves of Karangahape Rd’s Lim Chhour Supermarket every day. The line-up seems to constantly change, its shiny, colourful packets emblazoned with delicious-looking hot dishes that serve as the inspiration for the unique (and sometimes amazingly specific) flavours like Roasted Garlic Oyster and Numb and Spicy Hot Pot.
This sort of generational flavour innovation is the work of food scientists and advancement in this field — a complex matter of lab chemistry which figures out the aroma, bitterness, saltiness and texture of a certain taste. The flavours come from extracts, essential oils, chemicals; some companies (colloquially known as ‘flavour houses’) will also sell their own concoctions of common flavours (think all types of apple, vanilla or strawberry), promising to add a certain profile to the food you’re trying to create or recreate.
To some extent, the technology has been there for a while — the big breakthrough was the invention of the gas chromatograph, post-World War II, which was a tool for figuring out what chemical compounds were present in food items that contributed to their flavour — but our appetite for the new and the weird, alongside an increase in production, means the tech has evolved to meet demand.
In my research into this topic (fascinating), I unearthed the existence of a non-profit organisation called the Society of Flavor Chemists, whose sole purpose is to advance the field of flavour creation and technology. It appears to be a very serious business. Alongside the difficulty of contending with people’s sense memories and nostalgia, using artificial techniques to create something for real humans to enjoy can be tricky. The most extreme method being explored to enhance flavours, gene editing, is particularly ethically fraught. In a world where ‘unnatural’ flavours are sometimes positioned as the enemy (think about the big MSG debate, or how many products you find in the supermarket that declare they’re made with ‘All Natural Flavours’), getting consumers to accept a flavour made in a beaker, rather than extracted, can be a challenge.
I like to imagine that the first thing flavour chemists do when setting out to replicate something for their clients is to eat the ideal version of that thing, whatever it is. If it’s a cucumber, they’ll eat a cucumber. If it’s a Numb and Spicy Hot Pot, then I expect they’ll be sitting down to a Platonic hot pot together: dipping their raw beef slices into the red, cumin-y soup and umm-ing and ahh-ing around the table about what hit their taste buds first. Apparently, that’s not so far from the truth — food scientists have been known to contract chefs to create that first perfect example, so they can work backwards from there. It must be strange to taste something and go, “Ah, the spiciness is reminiscent of [insert chemical compound here].”
Lay’s potato chips come in all shapes and sizes, designed to appeal to the taste buds of consumers in many different markets. The most common ones found in Auckland are imported from China and India, reflecting the tastes of these two influential ethnic groups, so that’s what you’ll find in this taste test. And, finally, the usual disclaimer: our list is not exhaustive. You will be able to find more flavours if you try (and you should try!).
Numb and Spicy Hot Pot
Spicy enough that you don’t get that annoyed feeling when something has ‘spicy’ in its name but doesn’t follow through, and with enough complexity in the undertone to emulate an aromatic hot-pot broth, these had a very healthy dose of mala flavour — interesting and spiky. If you like this one, also give “Sichuan Rattan Pepper Chicken” a go.
Indian Magic Masala
‘Masala’ refers to a spice mix used in Indian cuisine and these chips are notable for the flavour punch they pack into such a small surface area. Cumin, chilli, garlic — they all combine to form a deep — almost sulphuric — combination that makes normal potato chips seem boring.
This is the Chinese version of a classic (not just because it has MSG in it, but also because it’s made for the Chinese market). It’s a perfect Ready Salted that is helped along by the addition of MSG, so you get that addictive umami.
The first chip hits you with a huge kick of wasabi — which is a delicious flavour, in our opinion — but it finishes short, meaning you don’t get the punishing brainfreeze that sometimes happens when you mainline a dollop of the real stuff.
METRO’S LEAST FAVOURITES
The ‘meaty’ flavours fared badly here, because there’s something a little bit gross about a potato chip being so close to the taste of animal flesh (chicken flavour aside). We found that these chips had pretty good verisimilitude, but were very sweet and had a sickly gravy taste to them.
Much the same as above — just an unpleasant generalised meatiness. See also: Italian Red Meat
Spanish Tomato Tango
Sweet, sweet tomato sauce — a lack of saltiness made it hard to really hoe into these, and the tomato sauce flavour was not particularly exciting.
1: The Lay’s bags are diabolically hard to open.
2: We were consistently impressed by how close many of the flavours got to the real thing — at one point we were convinced that our brains were playing tricks on us, given the packets tell you what the chips are supposed to taste like and even give a helpful reference picture.
3: Seafood flavours are always surprisingly fishy.
4: Judging the salty-sweet criteria was somewhat flawed because a lot of these chips were weirdly sweet, even when
the flavours didn’t call for it. Maybe that’s why they taste so good?
5: Apart from taste, we were impressed by how they smelled — a special shout- out to the “Roast Goose” flavour, which, when you opened the bag, was like when the dude at Cafe BBQ Duck puts a plate of roast duck on rice in front of you. And the “Fried Crab”, which smells exactly like a Cantonese seafood dish.
6: The “Pure Flavour No Salt” bag was very strange, though not completely un- pleasant, as potatoes do taste good. If you’re a texture person but, for some reason, not a flavour person, get these.
7: China’s “American Classic” was delicious (and one of our faves), but India’s “Classic Salted” was almost flavourless. Is it just a case of different cultures’ palates and expectations?
8: Always take a chance on the weird flavour. At no more than $3.99 a pop, they’re a cheap thrill.