I first encountered potato chips that taste like my favorite savory dishes or ingredients decades ago in Japan where wasabi and beef, pizza and ume (pickled plum) flavored chips are not uncommon. Until I tried that wasabi and beef flavor, I was just a plain chip eater, maybe sea salt and pepper, but never vinegar and salt.
Now, chip makers have gone wild with inventions that summon up all the comfort food dishes you can think of. This summer Lay’s Potato Chips came out with a line “inspired by the places you call home,” region-specific chip flavors like New England Lobster Roll boasting “a taste of fresh lobster served on a buttery grilled roll. It’s wicked good!” or Sweet Thai Chili for the Pacific Northwest and a Giordano’s Deep Dish Pizza flavor for the Midwest. They sold out online quickly, although you might be able to find some still on the shelves until Sept. 30 (selection depends on your region) or at a friend’s house, if, like me, they’re a flavored potato chip hoarder. Of course, many food writers helped us out with a spate of “We tried the Lay’s flavors so you don’t have to” columns.
I don’t have to try them, but I certainly do because I can’t get enough of this new potato chip trend. My mine reels with questions — who gets to think up these flavors and what mad scientist team gets to figure out what combinations of dried powders and extracts go into making a potato chip taste like a lobster roll or deep fried pickle?
Our local supermarket here in Austin, the H-E-B (named for founder Howard Edward Butt Sr.) has its own line of flavored chips, numbered, limited edition varieties like Pot Roast (“a new spin on a beloved classic, meat and potatoes. Take in the aroma of savory gravy with onion, garlic, and other vegetables and the flavor of a delicious pot roast in every chip.”) which really does taste a bit like beef, thanks to a dusting of dried beef stock, and like the celery, onions and carrot I put in my pot roast pan thanks to dried powders from those vegetables. Genius.
They also had Korean BBQ with flavors of BBQ sauce, soy sauce, garlic, spicy chiles and ginger; and currently Smoked Brisket, which does have the umami of the brisket as if it came from the local food truck and a bit of citrus. My husband the vegetarian can’t eat those, but he did love the Smoked Gouda chips, which quickly sold out at our three local HEB markets. I went so far as to contact the company via email about my distress at finding the space where those chips were stocked bare. They called me back (now that’s good customer service) and told me to go in the next day and, lo and behold, they’d restocked. I bought four bags.
I also had the good fortune to be able to get some of those special Lay’s flavors including the New England Lobster Roll, which didn’t taste much like lobster but did have the celery salt flavor and a bit of buttered roll flavor, and the Thai Sweet Chili, which had a bit of the salt and vinegar chip characteristic but the sweetness added something very tasty and interesting. It was like what I’d dip my pork dumplings into, but instead I dipped them into French onion dip. In a stunning flip, I should come up with a pork dumpling flavored dip for scooping up with my Thai Sweet Chili chips.
There are also some Wavy sub-brand special flavors around right now including a West Coast Truffle Fries which despite having black truffle listed on the ingredients tasted more like mushroom, and one that’s simply Ketchup. I still have some Southern Biscuits and Gravy flavor around, too, and I fondly remember their spot-on Reuben sandwich flavor.
Australia’s wacky chip flavor game is strong, too. I’ve seen Honey Soy Chicken from them and in England, you could get Walkers English Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding flavored chips during the 2010 World Cup; and in Ireland, their Irish Stew chip. In China, you might find blueberry chips. Lay’s has a caviar dusted flavor in Russia. In 2013, the company had a Canadian contest that resulted in a chip with maple syrup and moose. My tour of the internet found Cappuccino chips, mint flavored and squid.
Lay’s periodically has contests for regular chip eaters to come up with flavors that might make it to the big time, in a bag on a shelf with your name on it. I don’t need my name on a Lay’s potato chip bag, but I do have a few ideas of my own which I might experiment with at home. I think I’d just need a dehydrator for the powder and the perfect deep fryer for making chips and I’m off making all my favorite comfort foods into chips.
Summer tomato and Hellman’s mayo on white bread is a start. That seems easy. Or how about buttered corn on the cob with a sprinkle of Himalayan sea salt? Fried egg sandwich with ketchup or even better a New Jersey pork roll, egg and cheese sandwich are on my list. Cacio e pepe! How would I do that? Dustings of dried Parmesan, butter, black pepper – seems easy. I’d like a chip that tastes like a perfect rye Manhattan or one that mimics the taste of a soup dumpling with rich broth and juicy pork or for the holidays, turkey with gravy and stuffing or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. With the way this trend is going, we might just see those all very soon. I can hear the sound of that bag opening already.
—Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Austin, Texas. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.