If I’m going to talk about Canadian food, I need to start with ketchup potato chips. This quintessentially Canadian snack seems like it should be an American thing. It’s not. Canadians have discussed this at length (more on that later).
Oddly, I remember that the first time I saw ketchup chips, it was in the US, and I didn’t try them because they sounded icky.
I was raised in a small New England town. At around six, I was picking through a snack machine stocked with local brands like Veryfine juice and Wachusett chips. At the time, Wachusett was one of only two chip brands in the US dabbling in “ketchup flavour.” Inside the machine’s front display was a semi-faded bag of ketchup chips. I remember thinking, “I like ketchup on burgers and fries, but chips? Who’d eat that?!”
I can’t explain the logic, but it held fast until my 30s.
I was on a wine tour of Niagara on the Lake with Canadian friends. They brought Lay’s ketchup chips, and I fell for them fast and hard. Drunk on Cab Franc I pounded the chips until the insides of my mouth hurt from the sweet-vinegar-umami.
Lay’s does not sell ketchup chip in the states, yet they make the only variety I love (so far). Wachusett chips were bought by Utz, eliminating their ketchup flavor, and the other American brand, Herr’s, just don’t taste the same.
Lay’s ketchup chips seem to be the result of “intelligent design.” These aren’t merely potato chips flavored with ketchup. Pop open the bag. It starts with the color. Instead of a loud fire-engine-red, Lay’s are purple. More accurately, they’re a regal burgundy.
The vinegar is pronounced. In fact, they start as salt and vinegar chips on the palate, but then there’s a sweet taste. It’s “ketchup” sweetness, a specific combo of tomato and sugar, that rises from under the tongue and creeps up from the back of the palate.
This arrangement of flavors pairs well with the chip’s broad and thin flakes of potato. Each bite is crispy and delicate. Ruffled chips can’t replicate this.
In fact, the texture plays a significant role in my two snacking approaches. There’s the delicately crisp and subtle expression of flavors you get from one chip at a time. I also love to pile shards for the “fat stack” approach. Here you suck in air as you collapse the stack against the roof of your mouth. You get a much bolder and visceral vinegar punch this way.
Best bite? It’s the mouth ravaging vinegar-burn-ketchup-fest that comes from dumping that last bit of bag crumbs and flavor crystals into your mouth. Pure, blissful, ketchup/vinegar irritation.
Presently Americans have Herr’s, which uses actual Heinz, and recently, ketchup Pringles. I think Herr’s doesn’t scratch the itch because they lean their rep on actual ketchup, which is the lazy move. The Pringles taste like what Americans are afraid ketchup chips taste like… Pringles with mystery flavor. (Plus, everyone knows you eat Pringles for one flavor: Sour Cream and Onion.)
Your moment of Zen:
“What Canadians understand about ketchup chips that Americans don’t” By Chris Nuttall-Smith
Written by the restaurant critic for The Globe and Mail, I think this is the best description of what the chips taste like, and a nice breakdown of the history.
“A Definitive Ranking Of Canada’s Best Ketchup Chips” by Laura Jeha
Chatelaine is not the best site to navigate (I should talk), but I trust Jeha as a chip guide. This is less of a ranking and more of a wider commentary on what kinds of ketchup chips are available in Canada.
“In search of Canada’s best ketchup chips”
From the EatNorth website, I think this might be a more “definitive ranking” of ketchup chips (they use a bracket system, and list judging criteria). I recognize more of the brands here from the Toronto area shops, but this list is four years out of date. They even rank chips offered by Target during their disastrous Canadian foray.
I also want to point to, “AMERICANS TRY KETCHUP CHIPS FOR THE FIRST TIME,” mostly because it’s fun to watch these two young women talk about a.) how long they waited to try them (two years?), and b.) I love that one reviewer says “they’re spicy.” ADORABLE!