Crunch time for local flavour: It’s the Great Chips Taste-off!

Crunch time for local flavour: It’s the Great Chips Taste-off!
(Photo: Unattributed on Pixabay)

Taste testing potato chips purporting to be proudly South African …

There was a time, not so very long ago, when chips/crisps tasted of potato and salt. Or mimicked, simple, Eurocentric, potato-adjacent ingredients – salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, sometimes ketchup, occasionally barbeque. Not anymore.

Worldwide Millennial and Gen Z foodie fickleness requires incessant edible innovation and the humble spud provides a perfect neutral canvas upon which to paint aroma and taste. In order to stay ahead of the pack, contemporary food flavourists work with an array of E-numbers, oils and extracts to imitate multi-cultural, multi-ingredient meals. Complex, nuanced recipes are now being simulated and spackled onto slivers of fried potato. Advances in polypropylene packaging ensure that the volatile taste and aroma molecules, previously lost or distorted by oxidation, are retained. Et voila! The chippie equivalent of Willy Wonker’s three course meal gum from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rapidly becoming more fact than fiction.

Well, that’s the idea anyway. Whether these new-fangled flavours actually achieve any of the above is arguable. What is certain is that assuaging hunger and tasting good is no longer all that the snack brands promise on their packets. In order to create chips that tastes like mushroom soup, sushi or a Reuben sandwich (all of which exist and are at the tamer end of such stuff) flavour scientists spend some time assessing the chemical content of each recipe but at least as much effort is put into trying to capture the abstract essence of each food – which is where feelings and chemistry combine. They are attempting to tap into cultural associations and evoke sensory stimuli. Essentially, what we are talking about is a cut price Ferran Adrià-style, deconstructionist, epicurean experience existing at the interface of taste, memory, emotion and identity.

And yet these are troubled times. Comfort cuisine reigns supreme and many of us have retreated into traditional tastes. Which is why, counterintuitive as it may seem, nostalgia and nationalism are increasingly the main focus of this ultramodern flavour science. There is a widespread assumption that South African patriotism is at an all-time low but our supermarket snack food sections suggest otherwise. Local is lekker, heritage-style chip seasoning is (literally) flavour of the month.

On a recent visit to my local shopping mall I found the Pringles Braai Party! (chicken and chop flavours) competing for my attention with the Pick n Pay’s potjiekos chippies and also their Africa Rise collection from which I bought the sweet tomato gravy and chicken dust flavours. Apparently, this range also includes atchar, nyama and the chakalaka flavours but I couldn’t find them. Woolworths use the English nomenclature “crisp” but nevertheless have a proudly South African selection. I purchased “braai lamb chop” and chakalaka flavoured crisps at my local Woolies. I am told that they also do a chicken bunny chow crisp but it was not available at any of the stores I visited. At Foodzone I found Willards bunny chow and my local farmstall kept Frimax Durban curry seasoned chips. Everywhere had Simba’s “roarrring (sic) with Mmmzansi flavours” range from which I selected shisanyama, braai wors, chakalaka, Mrs. Balls and chilli biltong. The provenance of southern Africa’s great hot sauce has clearly confused Lay’s who make what they have labelled “Portuguese Peri Peri prawns (sic) flavour” which I am including here on the grounds of regional solidarity with the people of Mozambique from whom this Afro-Lusitanian fusion sauce has been culturally appropriated.

The full haul. (Photo: Richard Goode)

Cynics dismiss these country specific signature dish offerings as an attempt by industrial, often multinational food corporations to capture and control national identity within which superficial localisation is overlaid with actual homogenisation. To this charge I can offer only a Bart Simpson-style “D’oh?!” Of course, that is the underlying aim. What is it that such sceptics think global capitalism does all day? Whether or not they should be doing that is a question for another day. What I wanted to know was whether they were doing it well. There was only one way to find out…

With any other taste test, my strategy would probably have been to chomp through all brands and flavours in a single session starting with what I anticipated to be the mildest flavour and gradually getting to the most potent product for the finale. The problem with this approach was that South Africans like spice and fire a lot so, almost nothing I was proposing to taste had any chance of being mild. So, I spread the testing over four days thereby allowing my palate to cleanse/ heal and heartburn to subside between sessions.

I did the shopping so I couldn’t taste blind and I make no claims to serious scientific rigor. I am also aware that many of the chips listed above are described using terms that mean different things to different people. Some (such as shisa nyama and braai) are used as both nouns and verbs. When the chips are down, beauty is in the bag of the beholder but, I ate myself into chippie oblivion, so I may as well share my junk food journey…

Shisanyama flavoured chips. (Photo: Richard Goode)

Simba Shisanyama – My definition of tasting like a shisa nyama involves red meat (generally beef), smoke from a fire and a paprika-laden dry rub (à la 6 Gun seasoning). I also expect a commercial setting with an out and about, see and be seen vibe.

In the best and the worst sense this chip captured that essence. A nose plunge test (which is exactly what it sounds like) revealed realistic, fatty, beefy qualities (I sensed short rib) and a strong smoky smell both of which followed through powerfully on the tongue. Crinkle cut with a generous width and crunch; one was wonderful, two terrific but after three my mouth felt like I had woken up with a hangover after a night spent with friends who smoke too much.

Marks for capturing the essence 4/5

Marks for personal pleasure 2/5

Chicken dust meets chicken braai flavoured chips. (Photo: Richard Goode).

Pringles Braai Smokey (sic) Chop – For a braai I expect the same smoke and red meat flavours that I described for shisa nyama but, in my mind, the meat is more likely to be lamb than beef and a fruity marinade is common. Where there is boerewors (and there almost always is) I anticipate aromas of coriander seed and fat. Since braais are generally at home, they are all about lingering afternoons spent literally and metaphorically chewing the fat with family and close friends.

Pringles don’t say what meat they are mimicking but the picture on the tube seemed to be of a lamb chop. Tasting the chips didn’t clarify matters because the flavour was super-subdued with a generic meaty taste. There was also an almost total absence of smoke flavour.

Over and above the seasoning deficiencies, I find that the shape and texture of Pringles does not lend itself to the local is lekker food space. For me, Pringles are too posh and foreign to mimic a braai. Part of the appeal of Pringles is that their mouthfeel – and they are all about that glorious, can’t stop gloop – is profoundly American. These tasted very pleasant (as all Pringles do) but they did not offer any evidence of a braai.

Marks for capturing the essence 0/5 

Marks for personal pleasure 3.5/5 

Woolworths Braai Lamb Chops Farmers Crisps Upon opening the bag, a nose plunge revealed a convincingly lamb-like subtle, slightly sweet meaty, herbal, fatty aroma with gentle smoke smells. So far, so good. Sadly all this disappeared once I decanted the crisps into a bowl. There was a satisfying crunch and a lovely, clean potato taste but no lamb braai…

Marks for capturing essence 2.5/5 

Marks for personal pleasure 4/5

Pick n Pay Potjiekos Braai Time – this crinkle cut chip offers a pleasantly meaty sweet, savoury, spice, smoke balance. Followed by a surprising but not unpleasant back of the throat chilli and pepper kick. All of which is in keeping with expectations of a coriander and cinnamon-laden stew with dried fruit bits bobbing about in it. The chips are quite thick and the crinkles quite deep which makes for a very generous coating of all of the above. After a while this becomes overwhelming. I ate a whole bag but I probably shouldn’t have…

Marks for capturing essence 4/5

Marks for personal pleasure 3/5

Simba Braai Wors – my understanding is that the term “braai wors” is not something to be proud of. What is and is not boerewors is precisely set out in the inspiringly entitled “Regulations Governing the Composition and Labelling of Raw Boerewors, Raw Species Sausage and Raw Mixed Species Sausage”. This edifying tome was published under Government Notice No. R. 2718 of 23, November 1990 by the Minister of National Health and Population Development in terms of section 15(1) of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act No. 54 of 1972). If a sausage does not meet these criteria it gets labelled “braai wors”. Think soya and cereal fillers and then walk away.

It is strange that Simba should linguistically self-sabotage in this way because this chip is actually an accurate boerewors facsimile. Lovely smoky, beefy, sausage chip replete with nutmeg, clove, coriander in every crunch. Almost the Platonic ideal of what boerewors should be.

Marks for capturing essence (if that essence is boerewors, not braai wors) 5/5 

Marks for personal pleasure 4/5 

Simba Chilli Biltong – initially there was a rich, beefy aroma but no follow through of meat on the palate. No chilli or coriander seed flavours. Tasted like cardboard. Maybe I got a bad batch. 

Marks for capturing essence 1/5 

Marks for personal pleasure 0/5 

Pringle Smokey (sic) Chicken Braai – On the up side, the smell was instantly recognisable as chicken – although not so much real chicken as chicken stock cube. The down side was that, despite its title, I found no smokiness (with or without an E) at all in this chip. Had I not known I would have thought it was a roast chicken chip. As above, the shape and texture of Pringles is both a strength and weakness. Nice to eat but not at all convincing as a chicken braai simulation.

Marks for capturing essence 1/5

Marks for personal pleasure 3.5/5

Pick n Pay Africa Rise Chicken Dust – For me, the term “chicken dust” conjures up images of road side, flame grilled chicken eaten as a middle of the working day quick stop off. Traffic cops playing hooky come to mind. I don’t expect the chip makers to provide me with the taste of traffic policemen but I do want to taste chicken which I couldn’t really. On the plus side, there were lovely smoky, convincingly charred, almost crispy skin fatty flavours and a decent peppery kick at the back of the throat but no poultry meat taste was present. To me, these basically tasted like potatoes cooked on a braai. 

Marks for capturing essence 2/5

Marks for pleasure 3/5  

Frimax Durban Curry Durban curry is a term that almost all South Africans intuitively understand but many would struggle to put into words. When pushed, most will describe this Indian Diaspora food genre as redder, oilier and hotter than the curries of other countries. Words like pungent, astringent are often used – in a good way. Fierce Mother in Law masala meeting sweet, reduced tomato gravy. When the curry is served as bunny chow I anticipate the soothing absorptive redemption of white government bread and the smack of vinegary carrot pickle too.

Frimax Durban Curry flavoured chips did none of the above. They were unpleasantly peppery and impressively managed to simultaneously achieve the impression of dehydration and dampness. Horrible oxidised back notes – like mud mixed with a crowd-dispersal agent.

Marks for capturing essence 0/5 

Marks for personal pleasure 0/5 

Willard’s Bunny Chow – these crinkle cut chips were almost unnervingly accurate and deeply delicious. From the first nose tingling sniff through to the tongue there was just the right sort of good, strong searing heat that one needs for Durban-style curry. Not just hot, flavour too. Layered reduced sweet tomato, onion, ginger, garlic and masala were all recognisably present in every crinkly wave. Put these in the pantheon of great chips.

Marks for capturing essence 5/5 

Marks for pleasure 4/5  

Simba Chakalaka – Chakalaka is an extremely ambitious flavour to try and imitate because every township family has their own recipe and they will all tell you that everyone else’s version is wrong. It is a complex taste with a lot of ingredients. For what it is worth for a relish to qualify as chakalaka I expect to taste at least onion, tomato, carrot, green peppers and curry powder. Almost always cabbage and beans too.

The Simba chakalaka chips had a nice warm, spicy, nose tingle when I opened the bag and sniffed. On my tongue they gave a decent acidity and a little sweetness to round things out. There was a sufficient curry kick to make things interesting but not enough to overwhelm. I didn’t get any sense of vegetables other than tomato and chilli.

Marks for capturing essence 2.5/5

Marks for pleasure 2.5/5

Woolworths Chakalaka – This crinkle cut chip has a great crunch and a curry powder meets reduced tangy tomato paste tingle in the nose. These follow through on the palate and are joined by interesting and accurate vegetable elements. Green peppers, definitely, carrots and beans perhaps. Hints of cabbage. Chakalaka is a layered taste and this impressively captures its essence.

Marks for capturing essence 4.5/5

Marks for pleasure 3.5/5

P n P Sweet Tomato gravy puffs – This chip is the odd one out in that it is a corn puff rather than a potato chip. It is aiming to recreate the taste of slow cooked, rich, reduced, gently spiced tomato and onion sauce that South Africans call “gravy” – except in the Eastern Cape where it is iBisto.

All of the above is evident in the nose plunge. On the tongue the puffs had a satisfying, boisterous crunch that then dissolved – as it melted in the mouth an intense tomato tang with subtle, smooth curry powder notes and caramelised onion elements appeared. After a while the tomato purée tastes became a bit overwhelming but it took several fistfuls. 

Marks for capturing essence 4/5  

Marks for pleasure 3.5/5

Simba Mrs. Balls – This was a very accurate imitation of Mrs. Balls original. Upon opening the packet the traditional tangy, sweet, spiced smell was instantly apparent. The same fruity flavours and mild, sweet zing were followed through on the palate. Lovely crunch.

Marks for capturing essence 4/5  

Marks for pleasure 3.5/5

Lay’s Portuguese Peri Peri Prawns Flavour – These chips had a delicate, crisp bite. A nose dive delivered a recognisable garlic, chilli, bay leaf aroma. All of which were carried through to the tongue. Curiously, there was a strong tomato taste and smell which I don’t associate with peri peri. There was also a pleasant prawn smell when the bag first opened but this failed to follow into taste.

The bitter taste in my mouth came not from the chip but from the packet which is emblazoned in large capital letters “Portugal” and smaller letters “inspired by”. Mozambique was historically subject to Portuguese colonial rule and this relationship undoubtedly influenced the food cultures of all involved but piri piri (the E is an anglicised spelling) is a fusion recipe created in Southern Africa. While all chillies have their ancestry in the Americas, piri piri uses African landrace hybrid chillies that Mozambicans often call Piri Piri Sacana (generally referred to in English as the African Birds Eye). The term “piri piri” (and its central and west African cousin pili pili) and the concept of hot sauce pre-date the arrival of chillies on our continent and were historically used to describe indigenous, feel the burn ingredients such as Melegueta and Alligator peppers.

Colonial rulers all over the world seek to impose an oppressive mindset within which everything of value (including culinary creativity) must be given up to the dominant power. These chips are a small but not insignificant example of the damage this does.

The terms peri peri and piri piri are frequently misattributed to Portugal and/or South Africa. Whether with an I or an E, this sauce is the birthright of the people of Mozambique. The recipe and the name have economic value and should be protected with a legally binding geographical indicator. 

Pedantically, I am also irritated by the grammatical error in the phrase “Portuguese peri peri prawns flavour”. Surely that should be prawn singular?

Marks for capturing essence 2.5/5

Marks for pleasure – change the packet and then perhaps the bitter taste will fade.

So, what to make of all of the above? There is no way of writing about any of this without sounding simultaneously mad and pretentious but some of the chips that I tasted really did stir that transcendent, Proustian quality that sets off cascading, synapse stimulating sensations radiating from touch and smell to tongue, mind and memory. For all my grumbling, the bag with the problematic politics also triggered regionally specific, intense emotions. And, (with one notable exception) even those that didn’t accurately depict South African tastes, feelings and memories, were impossible to stop eating… DM/TGIFood

Follow Anna Trapido on Instagram @trapidoterritory

The author supports The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Manenberg. Saartjie Baartman Centre


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