This story is part of Junk Food, Redefined, our new collection of snack recommendations, recipes, and perspectives that celebrate an undervalued food group. Read all the stories here.
In Pakistan, in the ’90s, I ate only two types of prepackaged potato treats: Slims, which were these thin matchsticks smothered with spices, or Kolson Potato Sticks, an airier, flaky snack flavored with salt and a lot of pepper. In Karachi, where I grew up, I found freshly made potato chips in bakeries, along with cumin-flavored shortbread, chocolate thumbprints, and sugared puff pastry straws—all packed up in brown paper bags and sold by weight.
When I was 11, I moved to Texas and discovered the cornucopia of packaged options in the chips aisle. I quickly grew fond of Salt and Vinegar in particular, but I missed the sharp flavors of the snacks I’d eaten in Karachi, where even french fries, sold in street carts, came with a generous sprinkling of chaat masala—made with dried pomegranate seeds and green mango powder for a hefty dose of tang along with the lingering heat of red chili powder.
Then, in 2007, Lay’s landed on Pakistani grocery shelves. By the time I moved back to Pakistan a few years later, in my mid-20s, the snack aisles of my childhood had completely transformed. I saw small bags of potato chips with the familiar yellow and red logo everywhere. But these local chips boasted none of the flavors I’d seen in U.S. grocery stores, no Sour Cream and Onion or Salt and Vinegar. Instead, there was Masala, a flavor with a mild hint of red chili. Slightly sweet, slightly sour, and very salty. In my absence, the tastes of my upbringing in Karachi and Texas had merged into something entirely new.
There’s something about the humble potato chip that makes it the perfect blank canvas for any type of flavor. And Lay’s in particular has done an effective job of customizing its chips for taste buds around the world, offering around 200 flavors—like Crab in Greece, Shrimp and Garlic in Spain, Honey Butter in Indonesia, and Gusto Bacon in Italy. As such, Lay’s has a loyal global following—multiple YouTube channels are devoted to trying and reviewing as many flavors as possible. A website called Lay’s Around the World documents all the flavors and imagines facetious origin stories for some of the more unique ones out there. (“It was a close call with iceberg lettuce flavor, but ultimately, cucumber won out.”) But novelty itself isn’t enough to make a chip successful: understanding how people snack matters too.
“It’s interesting to me because you really have to think—what would the people in this country find enjoyable on a potato chip,” Josh, the guy behind Lay’s Around the World, told me. (He’s asked us not to share his last name.) Over the years, Josh has eaten more than 60 flavors of Lay’s from over a dozen countries. “I find it interesting that an international brand would do the work, trying to make flavors that resonate in the local market, experimenting like that.”
There’s a thrill in the discovery, in seeing just how far the potato chip can go as a vessel for flavor.
In India, Frito-Lay developed its flavors after months of in-house testing. “For Indian food, a flavor curve has many, many notes, whereas for Western food, it often gets monotonous,” Sudhir Nema, then head of food technology at Frito-Lay in India, told the Indian publication Mint in 2009. At its facility in India, an assistant manager for seasonings (another enviable title) was allegedly once put through an entire month of just smelling and tasting spice essences diluted with water in the Frito-Lay’s mission to get the right flavors. Around that time, in the mid-to-late 2000s, PepsiCo also aired a series of TV commercials featuring cricketers and Bollywood actors promoting its new Lay’s varieties—and adapting the U.S. catchphrase, “Bet you can’t eat just one.”