Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine
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
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