When the chips are down
Salt and vinegar, ketchup, barbecue. Sour cream and onion, dill pickle, jalapeno. When it comes to potato chip flavours, everybody has a favourite.
Herman Lay first mass produced thin sliced, crispy fried potatoes in Atlanta, Ga., in the 1930s, but they were just plain salted. Now the junk food aisle is stacked with dozens and dozens of different flavours.
Which chips you crave, as it turns out, is more than personal preference. It’s also a matter of regional particularity and ethnic distinction. Canadians love flavoured chips. We invented the ketchup chip. Dill pickle and fries and gravy, too. Quebecers, research shows, are especially adventurous chip eaters who go for barbecue and anything cheesy.
In Newfoundland and other parts of the Maritimes, the best selling chips taste like roasted chicken. Over in Japan, they like seaweed flavoured chips, and in Thailand, chips that taste like lobster, squid and crab are bestsellers. In India, curry flavoured chips are popular (but were a big flop when Lay’s introduced them to Canada a few years ago). Americans? Just make theirs plain.
PepsiCo Foods, the multinational corporation that owns the Lay’s chip brand, found out just how crazy people are about chips when it launched its Do Us a Flavour contest last year asking consumers to send in their own ideas for a new chip flavour. More than 600,000 Canadians weighed in with suggestions ranging from the sublime to the downright disgusting everything from maple moose, pierogi and bacon, grilled cheese and ketchup (three of the finalists) to guacamole, sweet and sour chicken and wasabi. Around the world, the contest has generated more than 12 million flavour submissions, many of which have gone on to find their place on supermarket shelves.
The contest, which is on again this year (submissions close April 23), is a masterful free run 2 stroke of digital marketing. But David Laurie, eastern region vice president at PepsiCo Foods Canada, says it’s also a window on the ever changing tastes of chip eaters.
The company’s own market research shows distinct geographic differences in flavour preferences, Laurie said in a recent interview. In Quebec, the two bestselling Lay’s chip flavours are both barbecue: old fashioned and hickory. Ketchup has a big fan base, too. So do sour cream and onion chips and the fries and gravy flavour that is so reminiscent of poutine.
“Quebecers are adventurous food lovers who love big, intense flavours,” Laurie said. “They go for the gusto.”
Kat free run 2 hryn Matheson, who as vice president of research, development and innovation for PepsiCo Foods Canada oversees the introduction of new chip flavours, says many of the flavours that are Canadian classics (among them ketchup, dill pickle and salt and vinegar) don’t sell at all in many part of the United States, where chip flavours tend to more subdued and less varied.
What we like in the simulated flavours of our chips, Matheson says, is he free run 2 avily influenced by other foods we eat, by family recipes and fast food favourites, and also by new ideas cooked up by celebrity chefs on television.
Most of us munch and crunch through a handful (or, let’s be honest, a bag) of chips without much thought. But Matheson, who works out of Lay’s Canadian headquarters in Toronto with a team of food scientists, dietitians, flavour specialists and consulting chefs, says it can take several months or more than a year to simulate a new flavour and turn it into a bag of chips.
Getting it right is a matter of balance. Every chip is designed to be savoured in stages from the introductory sniff to the first taste and the last crunch.
“It has to be fun. You open the bag and breath in. There should be a full free run 2 smell that makes you want to dive in,” she said. “The first bite should be either spicy or sweet, or maybe a herb note that lingers on the palate and makes you want some more,” she explained. Antoine Sicotte, the Montreal chef and television personality who goes by the name Cuisinier Rebelle, was hired by PepsiCo Foods Canada to come up with recipes he thought would make tasty chip flavours. He went into the kitchen, took out his travel photos and family albums and came up with pineapple ham that reminded him of his grandmother’s cooking, bruschetta that he serves at parties and Irish boxty from his recent trip to Ireland.
As a kid he was already “pimping up” plain chips, dipping them into ketchup or mustard, sprinkling them with vinegar. Even now he creates his own spice mixes for chips and popcorn. (A cumin, curry powder and fennel seed mixture is his current addiction).
The most successful chip flavours, Sicotte says, have a “multi sensorial vibe.”
“They need to excite your taste buds, but they can’t be overpowering. They need balance,” he said. “There will be a little sweetness and saltiness, but also a little sour and even some bitter. Maybe a hint of smoke, too.”
If he could persuade Lay’s to create any chip in the world just for him who cares if anyone else likes it what would it be?
Depends on the day, and his mood. Right now, though, he has a hankering for something Indian, with a hint of green curry, or maybe tandoori spice.
The Lay’s contest
The Lay’s Do Us a Flavour Contest is on until April 23.
At the end of April, submissions will be narrowed down to four finalist flavours by a panel of judges and will be produced and made available in stores nationwide beginning in August. Consumers will then be able to purchase and try the flavours and vote for their favourites.
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