Celebrating the world’s most popular potato snack.
When I started planning menus, they were always austere and healthful. Austere because I was the cook and couldn’t manage more than two dishes in one meal, and healthful because I was dutiful and nervous. So if it was an Indian dinner, there would be basic dal-roti: one green vegetable and a dal or mutton; and if it was Western, salad or sautéed veggies and pan-grilled chicken or fish. That was in the days of blissful ignorance of cholesterol, so bread with butter as well.
One day my mother, the one responsible for my Spartan ways and carefully balanced meals, said, very mildly, “Why don’t you put a small helping of chips on your two plates? It’ll just add some fun to the meal.” Suddenly, she had freed me. And it opened me to the idea that a bit of “junk” was no bad thing. And she had suggested plating the junk — it would be limited.
In those days her cupboard had a large round brass box filled with homemade chips, but I bought them. The shops had only one kind, local, unbranded, packaged in cheap cellophane bags. The pieces were unevenly sized and shaped and the best part was at the end, when only odds and ends remained at the bottom of the bag. If you were reading or talking, taking chips out of the bag without looking, you suddenly realised that your fingers were meeting only air — the bag was empty. So you looked and saw what remained: oily crumbs, sticking to the inside of bag. So you would scoop out what you could grasp, lick it off your fingers, and dip again. Some smaller crumbs would stick to now damp fingertips, and so it went on for a minute until only salt remained, and finally that was polished off too. Obviously we hadn’t heard of trans fats, re-used oil or too much sodium.
Some potato chip manufacturers have invested in R&D to create health-conscious products. Kettle Foods sells only products that are trans fat free, and according to research by PepsiCo, 80 per cent of salt on chips is not “tasted” by the tongue before it is swallowed. Since saltiness is what we’re after, Frito-Lay has reportedly spent almost half a billion dollars to develop salt crystals that you need less of, without altering the mouth feel. So you get chips that taste as salty as the others, with less actual salt content. But to this day, to my mind, the local “halwai” chips taste the best. I’d rather eat a salad and a bowl of yoghurt for my health; chips are just for fun.
The nomenclature. When I think about it, I wonder why we call them by the American word, given that our English is otherwise so, well, English. Chips in the U.S. and Canada mean very thin slices of potato baked or deep-fried until crisp. The Brits call them “crisps”.
Now, though, the word chip, like crisp, has also come to denote savoury snacks made of corn, tapioca and other cereals, shaped and textured like potato chips (and crisps). In the U.K. and Ireland, crisp thin potato wafers are called crisps, and chips mean finger chips, French fries, always served hot, as in fish and chips. In Bangladesh and Bengal, they have a local variant, served fresh out-of-the-pan, called aloo bhaja, and in the west, Parsi meals often include crisp golden shoestring potatoes, sali, served with, for instance, mutton, in sali boti.
I loved these when they first appeared on our shop shelves: the huge, wide, crisp chips/crisps by Pringle. They were stacked for protection against breakage like shallow cups in a long cardboard tube, and it was better to lick the salt off first, to get maximum pleasure, than to crunch them full tilt, which reduced them to plain starch.
We always had our local variant, the reconstituted “mirchi chips”. Larger than the other halwai chips and as high on salt, they have the added bite of coarsely crushed deep red chillies. But whichever the shape, and whatever the name, a smooth, tangy yoghurt dip is the best complement to snappily crisp chips.
Yoghurt and garlic dip
Makes 2 cups
4 cups yoghurt
4-6 cloves garlic
1 tsp red chilli ﬂakes
1 tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves
Hang yoghurt in double sieve or muslin bag about 4 hours or overnight. Remove from sieve. If it has become too stiff, moisten with some of the drained water. Season yoghurt with salt, pepper and red chillies. Pound garlic to a ﬁne paste and stir in, along with mint. Cover and refrigerate until serving.