It is once again that wonderful time of year, eagerly awaited by Reader staff, when Lay’s releases its experimental potato chip flavors. In past years, Lay’s entrusted the conception of its new flavors to the masses and, last year at least, in a beautiful and touching gesture, even gave them credit on the bags. This year, though, it’s back to dreaming up flavors in-house. I guess that’s not really such a bad thing; based on our taste test, last year’s American regional-based flavors were not very good. (Though it’s completely understandable why they didn’t give anybody credit for the cappuccino chips of 2014. The shame would be everlasting.)
This year’s theme is international: Chinese Szechuan Chicken, Indian Tikka Masala, Brazilian Picanha, and Greek Tzatziki.
Before we opened the bags, we spent a few minutes critiquing the package design. Somebody at Lay’s thought it would be a good idea to make the bags educational and identify each cuisine by its flag and most obvious national symbols. In the case of Chinese Szechuan Chicken, Reader staffers felt the iconography bordered on racism. “A dragon, a paper lantern, a pagoda, bamboo, and a Chinese take-out container!” exclaimed one Reader staffer in mock astonishment. “The poor graphic designer.”
This was by far the most offensive bag, though the inclusion of a Pegasus on Greek Tzatziki was slightly puzzling, and one staffer pointed out that, though it was inspired by the flavors of traditional Indian food, chicken tikka masala had actually been invented in Scotland. (According to legend, a Bangladeshi chef in a Glasgow restaurant threw together a sauce of yogurt, spices, and Campbell’s tomato soup after a customer sent back a plate of chicken tikka complaining it was too dry. This is strangely similar to the origin story of potato chips: after an irate customer sent back a plate of fried potatoes because they were too thick and underseasoned, an equally irate and vengeful chef in Saratoga Springs, New York, cut his potatoes as thin as he could and then fried and salted the hell out of them—which makes tikka masala potato chips a natural fit. Even if maybe both the origin stories are false.)
And then we ripped the bags open. One staffer had already tried the Indian Tikka Masala on his own and approved. Everyone else agreed. “A legitimately good chip,” someone pronounced. “I’d actually buy these if I encountered them in the wild.” “The turmeric and cumin flavors really come through,” another staffer agreed. “I like them, but maybe it’s because they’re kettle chips, and kettle chips are my favorite,” said a third.
A few staff members are vegetarian and checked the ingredients list to see if there was any actual chicken involved. There was not. But the group was divided as to whether it tasted like chicken anyway. “No chicken flavor to speak of,” said one staffer. “Good call.” But others disagreed. “This tastes something like I imagine grilled chicken skin tastes, along with the spice mix,” said one of the vegetarians. (He noted that this is a classic British crisps flavor—or flavour—although he remembered Walkers version as better. Sadly, it appears to have been discontinued.) “It tastes like a meal!” said one of the interns. “But you can’t really eat a lot of them,” said another.
Next up was Chinese Szechuan Chicken. The taste of the chips did nothing to dispel the bad feelings from the packaging. “Racism doesn’t taste very good,” one staffer remarked. “These are upsetting on an emotional level,” declared one of the interns. “It just kinda tastes perfume-y and very heavily of chemicals,” said another staffer.
More specifically, the tasters objected to the lack of spiciness, which was not nearly up to Szechuan ma la levels. “There’s no numbing-tingling Szechuan peppercorn spiciness,” one staffer complained. “It’s bland and brothy at first with an undifferentiated mild sort of heat at the end.” “It tastes more like jalapeño,” another staffer agreed. “Stephanie Izard isn’t Asian, but I think she would be very offended.”
The packaging for Brazilian Picanha helpfully promised that it would taste like steak and chimichurri sauce. “Is this what the Olympics taste like?” someone asked. “What is chimichurri sauce anyway?” asked one of the interns. It took a group effort, but it was determined that chimichurri usually consists of parsley, garlic, and olive oil. “It doesn’t taste like anything,” a staffer complained.
There was some debate over whether meat was an appropriate flavoring for potato chips, and whether it was even possible to taste meat in these particular potato chips. “It doesn’t taste like steak,” one staffer said. “Meaty chips seem like a poor idea to me,” said another. “Chimichurri sauce, however, turns out to go great with potato chips.” Compared to the other varieties, particularly Indian Tikka Masala, it had a very subtle flavor. But at least one of the tasters declared it was her favorite.
There was some confusion as to how to pronounce “Tzatziki.” “Zaziki? ” “Tse-tse-ki?,”Zzzz? Like the sound I make when I snore?” A few of the tasters also wondered how Greek Tzatziki chips differed from last year’s (mostly reviled) Greektown Gyros. “In these progressive times, this flavor is a massive step backwards,” said one veteran taster. “The tzatsiki taste was part of last year’s Greektown Gyros flavor, so it’s just like a lesser version of that. I also get creeped out by chips that are supposed to taste like dairy products.” But another veteran thought that tzatziki was an improvement over gyros on the most basic level: “I can enjoy these.”
Several staffers remarked that the tzatziki tasted a little bit like sour cream and onion, only with dill. “Solid chip-tasting chips,” said one staffer. “Very persuasive imitation,” said another, “just kind of boring.” But a third disagreed. “The best flavor!” she said. “They taste so fresh!”
We pinned the bags shut with binder clips so the chips wouldn’t get stale. But throughout the afternoon, people kept getting up to sneak more chips. The bag most frequently sneaked into was Indian Tikka Masala. By the end of the day, the selection looked like this. Think of it as a bar graph where the lowest levels represent the highest level of satisfaction.
Like a lot of statistical representations, this isn’t necessarily a completely accurate representation of how people felt about the chips. It’s possible that more Chinese Szechuan Chicken got eaten because people wanted to taste for themselves if they were really that awful. (They were.) And so the poor, subtle Brazilian Picanha got the shaft. But Indian Tikka Masala was the overwhelming favorite. “I hope they make these a real flavor,” one taster said, crunching away. “But next they should do Thai chili and makrut lime.”
Are you listening, Lay’s?