Thursday, September 23, 2010


Since I had those freshly made, hot potato chips at the LA County Fair, I’ve been eating other potato chips with a new, more intense interest. And I’m cobbling together some kind of a theory that potato chips reveal a society’s cultural identity, and its deepest, most profound assumptions.

The British of course like salt and vinegar, smoky bacon, lamb and mint, and (if they get them) Bovril. These are all sharp, aggressive, insistent flavors.

The Germans, by contrast, and to my surprise, really like paprika flavored chips, and my spy in Berlin tells me they also eat something called “Africa style,” though I wonder if the latter was done specially for the World Cup.

As yet I haven’t been able to sample those German flavors, nor for that matter Greek oregano or Russian caviar flavors, but I’m starting, in a modest way, to check out the international galaxy of potato chip flavors.

It seemed to me that the Indians, as in India rather than Native American, might have an interesting take on this. They seem to love potatoes, and curry spices and potatoes seem a match made in heaven. I went along to India Sweets and Spices here in LA and bought a bag of Anand brand potato chips, product of India, and described as Masala flavor.

Masala, I gather, just means “blended spices” and the list of ingredients on the pack says no more than “spices” so I suppose these chips might have tasted of anything. In fact the flavor was a single, back of the tongue hotness that might have been nothing more than chilli powder. It was OK, but I’d have liked more. The packs of Butter Chicken Masala seasoning sold in the store contain coriander, dry ginger, cassia, garlic, cloves, mace and star anise. I thought the good folks at Anand might have tried one or two of these

As an aside, I was pleased by the transparent cellophane those chips came in, and it made me wonder why so many chip packets are opaque and don’t allow you to see what’s inside. The most obvious answer is that most manufacturers don’t want you to see how pathetically few chips are actually in each bag. No such deception from Anand: good for them.

And then as luck would have it, I discovered that Marco, one of my wife’s colleagues, was on vacation in Japan. Maybe he could be persuaded to buy some local potato chips while he was there and bring them back. After an email or two, he duly did and my wife delivered me a bag that looked like this:

Reading no Japanese, and not having spoken to Marco, I had no idea what flavor was in the bag, but I ate them anyway, and I wasn’t much wiser. At first there was a very mild, low salt taste, and then there was a very slightly less mild, and growing, savory but inscrutable aftertaste. It was nothing as obvious as soy sauce, though you might have been able to call in umami. The chips tasted good but they were probably a little too subtle for my jaded western palate. Anyway, the linguistic research has been done. The flavor was “consommé punch,” beef flavor to you and me. There's a pretty wild commercial for them on Japanese TV featuring a little boy and a person in a dog suit.  Like this:

Much more research to be done here, as and when.

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