Lay's has now abandoned its "Do Us A Flavor" flavor-submission contest gambit, probably because offering $1 million each year to a random member of the public (technically for a job its flavor scientists were already doing) was not popular with the shareholders.
However! They have not abandoned us, dear tasters. They have given unto us their annual batch of limited-edition novelty flavors to savor. Since these flavors are not user-submitted, there is no "vote to save your fave flave" contest this year, and thus, no need to have an easy-pleasing low-hanging-fruit option angling to be the winner. Therefore, note the welcome absence of potato-flavored potatoes or yet another populist iteration of cheese powder.
No, this year, inspired by the Summer Olympics in Rio, the theme is "Passport to Flavor," featuring four international signature dishes. The flag of each relevant source country is printed helpfully on its color-coordinated bag. Notice that even the font for each flavor name matches the bag/flag décor - the Greek flavor has that triangular fraternity-letter look; the Indian flavor has a curving, exotic-looking script; and the Chinese flavor name is spelled out in a sort of tacky chopsticks hieroglyph. Nothing like stereotypes to get a point across!
But I digress. On to the flavors!
Of course, given the theme, they had to have a flavor for the 2016 Olympics host country, and they chose Brazilian Picanha, which the bag helpfully subtitles "Steak & Chimichurri Sauce." Note: none of the other flavors require or receive this additional line of explanation. [The bag does not add a definition for chimichurri, which is a piquant uncooked Latin American green sauce usually made of parsley, oregano, garlic, vinegar, and oil.]
One of my tasters this year is a vegetarian, and he joked that he could certainly eat these chips regardless, because surely they did not have real meat in them. To the contrary, I warned him, remembering the surprising duck fat hidden in last year’s (not-even-meat-flavored!) Truffle Fries flavor. Sure enough, this Picanha chip contains both "Beef Extract" and Beef Fat, as well as Milk Protein Concentrate and Skim Milk, just to be sure we've represented the cow as much as possible, for some reason. To its credit, though, this flavor also contains oregano, parsley, dried garlic, and extra virgin olive oil.
When one breathes in the scent from the opened bag, the top note is simply that of an oily potato chip, but after a moment, the bass note of beefy aroma does make itself known, but as one taster pointed out, it reads more of beef bouillon than a steak. The aroma finishes with a whiff of garlic and herbs. The appearance of this chip is an ordinary potato chip-yellow, but thoroughly flecked with green. The presence of beef does not read through into the flavor in any perceivable way. The tongue perceives an initial hit of garlic, which then segues into the sharpness of parsley, followed by a generic herb flavor. These are perfectly pleasant, but nothing to write home about.
Keeping with the Olympic theme, clearly they had to do a Greek chip, to honor the country that started it all. Also, recall that last year's lineup featured a Gyro chip, so my initial thought was that perhaps they were able to repurpose last year's leftover seasoning, which did have a tzatziki note to it. Luckily, however, this was not the case, as last year’s Gyro chip was described as having the aroma of the elephant cage at the zoo, but the Tzatziki chip was far cleaner and more pleasant.
The aroma from the bag is a mixture of garlic, white onions (for some reason), and the unmistakable dairy funk of sour cream and yogurt. There is the faintest whiff of dill on the finish. These chips are the Wavy variety, so they provide a thicker chip base with wide accordion pleats. Green herb flecks are present on the surface of the chips, but to a lesser degree than the other flavors.
The tzatziki flavor is shockingly spot on. In addition to the dill, garlic, and yogurt notes, somehow one even senses the appropriate note of cucumber in the background. Again to Lays’ credit, the ingredients list does contain “Natural Dill Flavor, Natural Cucumber Flavor, and Natural Yogurt Type Flavor.” (Yes, “yogurt type” flavor is a little disconcerting, but it’s also accurate.) There was no hidden meat in these chips, not even last year’s leftover gyro meat.
Overall, very pleasant, and the favorite of some of my tasters, though there was some disagreement about the aroma. One taster noted, “smells like cat box, tastes like sour cream,” and another, who hails from Paris, added, “like Camembert – smells bad, but it’s good!”
Chinese Szechuan Chicken:
The next entry in the Passport to Flavor honors Olympics powerhouse China, in the form of Szechuan Chicken. As the name makes clear, these be meat chips – the ingredients list includes chicken broth, chicken fat, and “chicken powder” (try not to think about that too much.) It also contains soy sauce, “Roasted Szechuan Pepper,” and most amazingly, “Natural Szechuan Wok Type Flavor.” Now, a true food nerd knows that the secret allure of wok-fried dishes is the mysterious flavor wok hay, roughly translated as “breath of the wok.” Chinese chefs sniff that this undefinable essence cannot be replicated in a regular Western skillet. But apparently, it CAN be replicated in a Lay’s flavor lab. SCIENCE!
The aroma from the bag is astoundingly specific: an intense smell of soy sauce and red chili oil. In other words, it smells exactly like the dipping sauce that comes with fried Chinese dumplings. These chips have heavy green flecks, and also a brownish-reddish dusting.
The initial flavor hit is of soy sauce – not just salt, mind you, but most specifically, aggressively, soy sauce. Then your tongue is grabbed by a surprising jolt of heat. Most impressively, the heat lingers in the tongue-tingling way indicative of actual Szechuan peppercorn, a sensation known as ma la (“numbing and spicy”) in Chinese. The heat also accumulates as you continue to eat them. There is no perceptible flavor of chicken per se, but to be fair, that’s also true of eating real Szechuan chicken from a Chinese restaurant – through all the flavor and heat of the sauce, have you ever thought to yourself, man, I can really taste the chicken! So this is also eerily accurate, and while these were not anyone’s runaway favorite, I found them rather inexplicably addictive.
Not everyone agreed, however. One taster noted, “like soy that has gone bad. Can soy go bad?” Another said simply, “Nope.”
Indian Tikka Masala:
There isn’t any obvious Olympic connection with this flavor, other than the fact that India is of course a country that competes in the Games, and that has delicious and distinctive flavors. Good enough for us. Because this was the most eagerly anticipated flavor by far, and it did not disappoint. Although tikka masala is most commonly incarnated as chicken tikka masala, these chips were actually chicken-free, focusing all their flavor energy on a nearly pitch-perfect recreation of creamy spiced tomato sauce.
The beautiful curry aroma from the bag elicited great excitement from my tasters. There are distinctive notes of cumin, turmeric, paprika, pepper, and even a faint echo of ginger, weaving together into a harmonic chord of deeply familiar flavor. These chips are the Kettle Cooked variety, meaning a more intense crunch, which added to their addictive quality. Their seasoning lent them a light red color, with the flecks of green that are apparently ubiquitous in novelty chips.
The curry flavor hits the tongue first, with all of its seductive spices. Then the brightness of tomatoes, garlic, and onions appears. The most amazing note of all, however, is the finish, which somehow truly tastes of the butter and cream that give tikka masala its richness. Yes, the ingredients do include butter, milk, cream, and sour cream, but I wouldn’t have expected those flavors to hold their own against the spices, tomato, and aromatics – but they do.
No one hated these, and many absolutely loved them, myself included. One taster was so moved that he swore he was going to go buy his own full-size bag, to take back with him to France. Passport to flavor, indeed!
To sum up, Lays was certainly not phoning it in this year, perhaps because they did not have to waste time finding ways to concoct realistic versions of the fevered dreams submitted by the lay population. (See what I did there?)
If you are disappointed by the lack of horror attendant in this review, however, just stay tuned for future posts. We tasted scores of products along with the chips this year, many of which will remain seared across the taste buds of our worst nightmares for a long time to come.