Once upon a time, I adored Lay’s barbecue flavor potato chips so much that I could happily finish a bag by myself in one go. My mother soon became so irritated with her otherwise perfect daughter that she banished them from our home, so I’d pester my grandparents into keeping bags on hand for our weekly visits.
Lay’s sour cream and onion chips hit the scene in the late ’70s while I was still living in Taipei, and so by the time I returned, I had found something new to love. Since then, Lay’s has introduced plenty of other, more daring flavors, including some I would never have thought possible in a chip — BLT, jerk chicken, and chicken & waffles, all fascinating concepts that would waft across my attention span and tongue, and then just as quickly disappear from my grocer’s shelves. For many decades, those represented the flavor outliers in my personal chip universe.
Recently, my universe expanded when I tried some of the chips Lay’s has been making in China for its Chinese customers, part of its larger portfolio of more than 200 flavors created to cater to the tastes of different cultures. Most of them can now be found here in larger Chinese supermarkets (and online) and range in quality.
When these were good, they transported me to different parts of China, bringing to mind favorite dishes and tickling my tongue with delicious memories. When they were bad… well, those chips were the epitome of pointless. To give you an idea of what’s out there, I opened 11 bags in the name of service journalism.
There are people who won’t go near an oyster-flavored chip, and that’s too bad, because they don’t know what they’re missing. The chips actually taste a bit like the oysters I once enjoyed in the pijiu wu, or beer shacks, that clustered around the upper reaches of Taipei’s Zhongshan North Road back in the day. Lay’s has somehow managed to get garlic and a hint of oysters in every bite here. I’m also happy to report that these chips are crunchy, though slightly over-salted for me, but it’s nothing that a cold glass or two of Taiwan Beer can’t easily remedy.
These chips taste like potato chips, and they’re crisp. Unfortunately, the flavor seems a little off the mark. Crayfish are the freshwater animals known as “little lobsters” in Sichuan Province’s capital of Chengdu. There you will usually be able to find an appropriately mala version in the city’s Kuanzhai Alleys, where red chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, and garlic invariably liven up the dish. None of this is conveyed in these chips, the main seasonings here being finely-ground dried shrimp shells and chiles.
These are even better than the garlic oyster chips. Hard as it may be to believe, they actually transported me to a specific meal and place, namely a mind-bendingly delicious braise of freshwater fish seasoned with pickled mustard and fresh red chiles, served in a quiet mountain village in the province of Guizhou in China’s humid southern highlands. That really is pretty much what you get here. I don’t know how they did it, but these chips are genius. Even the bag with its frolicking koi fish is remarkably pretty.
The Chinese name on these chips — jinhuang chao xie — promises they will taste like the Cantonese specialty known as cracked crab stir-fried with the buttery brined yolks of duck eggs, which, flavor-wise, beats the pants off of cold crab with mayonnaise. When I last had that dish in Hong Kong, there was garlic in there, along with ginger and green onions and all sorts of serious chef magic. So, do yourself a favor, head over to an OG Cantonese restaurant, and order this next time you’re out and about. But these chips? I beg you to leave them on the shelf. All I could locate in my bag was eau de dried flounder against a background of leftover shrimp shells, topped with so much salt that my throat actually started to swell up.
I reached for this bag with unrestrained excitement. It’s been years since I’ve visited Xinjiang, a vast land that butts up against Kazakhstan, where the cuisines of western China mingle with the food traditions of Central Asia. The halal dishes of that region are among my all-time favorites. Which is why I thought to myself, wow, lamb roasting on an open fire? With a dry rub of chiles, cumin, and garlic? Combined in a potato chip? What could possibly go wrong? Well, just about everything. Unpronounceable chemicals wrapped themselves around the chiles and salt to wreak havoc on my soft palate. And the lamb flavor? Let’s just say it was lacking.
I know that we’re not supposed to take any “serving suggestion” photos seriously, but there is a genuine — and intensely misleading — disconnect between what is pictured on the front of the bag and what is actually hidden inside of it. Standing in the aisle of 99 Ranch, I gazed at those two whole fish braised with chiles and lotus roots, their tops garnished with garlic, green onions, red chiles, and cilantro, and my stomach audibly gurgled in anticipation. When I got home, I was so excited that I could barely manage to open the bag. But there’s no There there. Powdered fish, chiles, a touch of vinegar — that’s about it. A cosmic-level letdown.
I therefore turned with a heavy heart to open up my final bag of non-ridged potato chips. I was expecting something on the order of nacho-flavored Doritos, but just opening up the bag and sticking my nose in there made me smile. These are seriously misnamed, because they are in fact all about fresh tomatoes in summertime. I swear that these — as well as the ridged crisps labeled Lay’s Pure Tomato Flavor — taste like they’ve been tossed with the flavor of fresh, warm-from-the-vine, never-been-refrigerated tomatoes. To their discredit, there was no hint of cumin or chiles in the “Mexican” ones, and the chicken was most definitely AWOL. But both of these varieties are worth it for the tomato flavor alone. I can easily picture these alongside a chilled bloody mary on a summer day.
These are the other ridged chips I tried, and they’re barely worth a review. They’re flavored with just a smattering of ground chiles, and that in itself would not be bad if Lay’s had included different kinds of peppers in there to offer a pleasant range of heat. If that had been the case, I would have happily put these out with some guacamole or hummus, or maybe even my mom’s very retro clam dip. But that’s not what you get here. Instead, these could be marketed as Uncle Otto’s Magic Joke Chips, for their heat increases so dramatically after a few minutes that you could be easily suckered into wolfing down a couple of handfuls before those chiles kick in. But they are not entirely without merit, for you can save them for the people you don’t like, and then serve them without comment or a glass of water.
Spaghetti is so popular in China that it’s a no-brainer that Lay’s would incorporate something Italian into its lineup. This is why, when I noticed the Chinese name on the bag — it literally translates as “Bolognese sauce” — I became downright thrilled. I opened the bag with the expectation of a heady tomato sauce aroma rounded out with hints of meat, onions, and garlic. Nope. Not by a long shot. These chips taste of those little packets of ketchup that sit in the junk drawer until they’re brown and hard. That and a lot of sugar.
These aren’t made out of potatoes, but ostensibly from the mucilaginous tuber known as Chinese yam. I say “ostensibly” because the yam clocks in at less than 6 percent in these chips. Instead, they taste like the main ingredient, which is wheat flour, while their seasoning could best be described as tomato dust that expired back in 1992. Hard pass.
These did not fare much better, but I’d give them an extra point for trying; they do kind of have the taste of cucumbers. Like Lay’s tomato-flavored counterparts, a yam crisp is not really brittle like a proper chip, but more like a Pringle that’s had a drink spilled on it. The bottom line is that this is — for want of a better word — odd.
Carolyn Phillips is an artist and food scholar, and the author of At the Chinese Table: A Memoir with Recipes, All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China, and The Dim Sum Field Guide. She’s presently finishing up her next cookbook.
Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.