Snapshots from the UK: Walkers' Crazy-Flavored Crisps Competition
The Brits are known for some wacky potato chips flavors—think Prawn Cocktail and Roast Chicken. When I first moved to England I committed myself to tasting them all, the only flavor I absolutely fell in love with being Sweet Chilli, as in Thai Sweet Chili Sauce.
Now, powerhouse British "crisp" producers Walkers is asking the nation to vote for the next big flavor in its "Do Us a Flavour" competition that lasts until May 1. Being a Serious Eater has certain risks, and in the line of duty, I bit the dust—crazy-flavored dust that coated each and every chip. Eaters from around Britain sent in flavor ideas, and you'll never believe the finalists: exotic Crispy Duck & Hoisin, everyday Builder's Breakfast, iconic Fish & Chips, curry-house favorite Onion Bhaji, alluring Chilli & Chocolate, and, sadly the most American, Cajun Squirrel.
I have dutifully tasted them all, and, since only Brits can vote, I am giving my estimations and observations here for those who are quarantined from any Cajun Squirrels or are remotely curious. I have watched the campaign-style broadcasts on walker.co.uk. I have even stood before the polling booth online and been escorted as near to it as I, an American, can go. Here are my rankings and my tasting journal—let's see if Britain agrees.
Fish & Chips
Coming in last, in sixth place, is Fish & Chips. Think of all the air trapped in a bag of chips. Now imagine, when you pop the bag open, the first whiff is distinctly fishy. As I choked I was glad that more air meant fewer chips. While I love the gastropub staple—with its crispy beer batter, flaking haddock, salty, greasy chips, and minty mushy peas—the only hints I got out of these crisps were malt vinegar and breading. Traditional Salt & Vinegar would beat these any day.
Next, in fifth place, Cajun Squirrel. I was shocked it didn't come in last, and was only mildly reassured when the back of the packaging read, "Thankfully, no squirrels were harmed in the making of this crisp!" Still, I hesitated as I poked into the bag, wondering if all Brits assume we Americans consume mostly roadkill. I swallowed my pride, and a chip—though I have never tasted squirrel, I do not detect any rodential hint here. Instead, I taste a mild, what I suppose will pass as "Cajun," spice blend, but I certainly don't find myself standing in the French Quarter. Good effort, nice gross factor, but I couldn't recommend it.
In fourth place, and this is where the rankings begin to grow more personally subjective, I rank Builder's Breakfast, which in Britain is a traditional breakfast of eggs, bacon, and sausage. If I think about it, I suppose I can detect a hint of egg, but really all I get is brown sauce and bacon. If you like bacon chips, this one has great potential—smoky, and acidic, with a very recession-friendly name. My British boyfriend estimated these as, and I quote, "good." And they say we Americans have a limited vocabulary!
Crispy Duck & Hoisin
Coming in third, and a close runner up for second place, is Crispy Duck & Hoisin. The flavor combinations are cataclysmic! The sweetness, and the exotic spiciness are such an interesting blend. I felt like I was at my usual New York City corner Chinese place—one taste of the crispy duck, and I wanted to order everything else on the menu, from the scallion pancake to the Moo Shu pork. The only drawback is the unmistakable duckiness that my American palate cannot truly condone in a chip. According to a Scottish friend, these chips are "nice—British for yummy.
Chilli & Chocolate
In second place, the evocative Chilli & Chocolate. I have heard the urban legend of people dipping chips in melted chocolate, and was surprised that these chips didn't have some unappetizing brown chocolate Swiss Miss-like powder all over them. Instead, the first detected scent is rich, dark chocolate, and the first taste is spice, mellowing out to cinnamon and finally cocoa. While my same Scottish friend referred to these chips as "rank," to me, they taste like Christmas in Mumbai.
For me, the Grand Prize Winner is the uncontested, inimitable, and highly revered Onion Bhaji. In every Tom, Dick, and Harry kebab shop in Oxford, onion bhajis—little deep fried Indian onion balls—sit under the heater waiting to be devoured. I got my first one for free when the man behind the counter discovered I'd never had one. I was hooked, and had a pretty good idea this crisp would win my heart as well. It is in the tradition of our Sour Cream & Onion chips, but instead of the tang of sour cream, you have the spice of curry, ginger, garlic, cumin, cayenne, cardamom, and black pepper. It is so complex that it just works.
So, for you Brits out there, what have you tried, and how are voting? For the rest of us, what do you think of the finalists? What’s the strangest flavor you've ever tasted?