in the chips

You’ll have a hard time in­ter­est­ing a Briton in chicken-flavoured chips, but Aus­tralians adore them. And ev­ery­one loves Salt & Vine­gar. How come? Margo White pon­ders potato chip trends

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - Food -

You can in­scribe any flavour imag­in­able on a deep-fried slice of potato. Those alert to re­cent mu­ta­tions will be aware that Blue­bird and Eta have been bat­tling it out at the gourmet end of things, with a novel range of fancy flavours such as Sweet Chilli Rel­ish, Le­mon Moroc­can Chicken, Char­grilled Chicken and Herb, Sea Salt & Bal­samic Vine­gar and Bal­samic Vine­gar & Caramelise­d Onion.

In­car­na­tions of the potato chip that have come and gone in re­cent years have in­cluded Ki­wiana flavours such as Meat Pie & Ketchup, Cheese & Mar­mite and Re­duced Cream & Onion Soup, while flavours also once con­sid­ered laugh­able, such as Greek Tzatziki and Roast Lamb & Mint, have found a per­ma­nent place on the su­per­mar­ket shelf. When it comes to potato chips, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

Next month, Blue­bird will an­nounce the four fi­nal­ists of its Do Us A Flavour com­pe­ti­tion. You may have heard of it; peo­ple were in­vited to sub­mit a chip flavour. The com­pany will put the top four – se­lected by a panel of celebrity judges – into pro­duc­tion, to go on sale some­time around the end of Septem­ber. The over­all win­ner (de­cided by pub­lic vote and by sales) will re­ceive $20,000 for the idea and two per­cent of the prof­its from sales, up to $100,000. So, to earn $100,000 you’d only need to come up with some­thing as pop­u­lar as, say, Salt & Vine­gar. Chances are you won’t. Try­ing to es­tab­lish ex­actly what makes one chip flavour bet­ter than an­other will leave you feel­ing as if your mouth has been washed out with chip fat, and you still won’t find a rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tion. While New Zealand con­sumers may roam around the var­i­ous tex­tures – ket­tles, rip­ples, thin-cut – they al­ways re­treat back to the same three flavours, to the blue bag, the green bag and the yel­low bag, aka Ready Salted, Salt & Vine­gar and Chicken. The only se­ri­ous chal­lenge to the es­tab­lished tri­umvi­rate came some­time in the 1990s, with Sour Cream & Chives, which has set­tled into fourth place, and Green Onion, which has found favour with South Is­lan­ders.

Ready Salted makes per­fect sense. It is the purists’ chip, be­ing a sim­ple com­bi­na­tion of potato, fat and salt, one that goes well with any­thing and doesn’t stain your fin­gers. Salt & Vine­gar is also an inim­itable com­bi­na­tion, of potato, fat and salt, with a burst of nasal-cleans­ing acid­ity. But be­yond those two (best­sellers all over the world), chip-flavour pop­u­lar­ity seems to be partly about lo­cal gas­tron­omy and partly ar­bi­trary.

Our fond­ness for the chicken-flavoured chip, that over­whelm­ing blend of herbs, salt and sugar is, for in­stance, an idiosyn­crasy we share with Aus­tralians. Maybe it has some­thing to do with our erst­while de­pen­dence on Oxo cubes. Maybe it’s just that it got in there first (some­time in the 1970s) and, de­spite our culi­nary pre­ten­sions, we don’t like change.

The English will hardly touch them, go­ing in­stead for Cheese & Onion. Peo­ple in the US like their chips cheesy too, or sour cream­flavoured, or smelling like grilled pork ribs. Mex­i­cans like salt and lime, Nor­we­gians like salt and pep­per, and Greeks like oregano. The cur­rent vogue for gourmet chips may re­flect our so­phis­ti­cated

mag­a­zine age ( some­one once de­scribed it as the age of bal­samic fun­da­men­tal­ism), but potato chips are still potato chips, and ev­ery­one knows that they’re a child-like plea­sure, an em­bar­rass­ing weak­ness, a food group you’d never con­sume in front of, say, your yoga teacher. Still, peo­ple must be eat­ing them on the de­fi­ant sly be­cause Do Us A Flavour at­tracted around 28,000 sub­mis­sions. Some ideas – such as Hokey Pokey or White Choco­late & Salt – sug­gested a lack of think­ing; a lit­tle sweet­ness is a lovely thing on a chip (Honey & Soy) but very rarely, and never ob­vi­ously. Oth­ers that failed at the con­cep­tual level were those that in­cluded po­lar­is­ing veg­eta­bles, such as roasted Brus­sels sprouts. “They were clearly just hav­ing a laugh,” says Al Brown, chef, restau­ra­teur and one of the com­pe­ti­tion’s judges.

Nostal­gia is a key driver of our food choices, even potato chips (think of Proust and his Madeleines). For this rea­son, if Brown wasn’t a judge and there­fore ex­cluded from the com­pe­ti­tion, he would have sug­gested smoked ka­hawai. “It’s very New Zealand, it’s very beach, and it’s very us.” In fact, he warmed him­self up for the com­pe­ti­tion by steep­ing some smoked ka­hawai in canola oil, then fry­ing the potato slices in it. They were pretty good, he says. “It’s not just the flavour, but the mem­o­ries of the flavour… I grew up camp­ing at the beach so I have these warm, won­der­ful mem­o­ries of smoked ka­hawai.”

Some peo­ple might also have af­fec­tion­ate mem­o­ries of cauliflowe­r cheese, the flavour sub­mit­ted by this mag­a­zine’s edi­tor, it be­ing a dish for­ever as­so­ci­ated with her mother’s par­tic­u­larly creamy, cheesy bake [ Ed: With toasty bread­crumbs

Most peo­ple, how­ever, will link cauliflowe­r cheese to pe­ri­ods of their life in which they were forced to sit at the ta­ble un­til they got through that

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