A few months ago in the US, people were going crazy for 3 flavors of Lay’s chips pitted against each other in a contest for permanent production status. In reviewing the Chicken & Waffles, Sriracha, and Cheesy Garlic Bread chips, The New York Post said that they “were about as far away from the classic BBQ, Sour Cream & Onion and Salt & Vinegar varieties than one could imagine.” The good people at the NYP have obviously never been to China.
Just in time for stuff-your-face hibernation season, I bring you a comprehensive review of all the Lay’s flavors we could find at my local Beijing supermarket. What’s important to remember here is that these are just the Lay’s chips I rounded up. There are countless other crunchy potato snacks in countless other flavors, and quite frankly the task of collecting and tasting all of them is just too daunting.
As it was, I needed to enlist the help of my friends Alex, Ami and Sam (who are fellow snack food enthusiasts/fearless eaters) in order to make it through the stack of greasy goodness piled up in my living room. Ami also happens to be a mustard lover, and thus gave me her opinions of some chips dipped into all the mustards she found in my fridge.
These are what I would call “classic” flavors, meaning they’ve been around in China for quite some time and are the flavors you’re most likely to find even at a small kiosk shop. These are, from left to right, Texas Grilled BBQ, Mexican Tomato Chicken, and Italian Red Meat. Not pictured (or taste-tested) is the American Classic, which is just a standard no-frills potato chip.
Texas Grilled BBQ
Natalie: Tastes like something I don’t like. Just, no.
Ami: Bleh x2
Alex: Not too sweet, but not very meaty? It tastes, but I have no idea what it tastes like.
Mexican Tomato Chicken
Natalie: There’s nothing Mexican or chicken about it. But there is tomato. Sort of.
Sam: It just tastes like sweet tomato.
Alex: Sweet! Tomato flavor, but not chicken.
Italian Red Meat
Natalie: I get a hint of ginger and garlic, but not red meat.
Sam: Flavor is really weak. I don’t even know how to describe it other than vaguely sweet?
Alex: Actually tastes like meat, but also very sweet. It’s a very accessible flavor, not too weird.
Of all the “classics” we’d honestly rather stick to just plain potato chips, but if we had to choose another flavor to declare edible it would have to be the Italian Red Meat.
This next group are the “fresh” flavors of Lime and Cucumber. The alleged freshness comes from the addition of xylitol powder to the chips, causing a sort of cool burst in your mouth like you’d get from chewing gum. Lay’s also makes a “fresh” Tomato flavor, but thankfully my market didn’t have any in stock. There were so many damned tomato chips in the bunch that I couldn’t even look at pasta sauce without cringing for a few weeks after we finished our tasting. They used to also make Blueberry flavor and Lemon Iced Tea flavor as part of this series, but they’re no longer on the market.
Natalie: Tastes sweet – like a citrus soda or a lime candy.
Ami: It’s like a Jolly Rancher in chip form.
Sam: Smells like Seven-Up and tastes extremely sweet.
Alex: KEY LIME PIE!
Natalie: It kind of reminds me of cucumber rind under all the xylitol dust.
Ami: Cucumber Mojito. Nori aroma.
Sam: Legit tastes like the Wrigley’s cucumber-mint gum. Mint chips = no.
Alex: Tastes like cucumber, but I don’t want that in a potato chip!!! Why would you sweeten it?!?!
We’re a bit split on this one. Ami and I both liked the strange tingly cucumber flavor, but Sam and Alex were strongly against. Lime wasn’t terrible, per se, but it tasted more like candy than potato chip. Unless you’re a fan of coating your tongue with xylitol, it’s probably best to steer clear.
The new kids on the block, these flavors were also part of a flavor vote at the end of the summer. They include Sweetie BBQ Pork, Wildly Grilled Rib, Fun Wasabi Shrimp, Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish, and Zesty Tomato. In addition to the strangest pictures on the bag, this group also happens to have my favorite flavor translations. China has a habit of adding unnecessary descriptors that is in part responsible for the funny menu items you’ll see now and again.
Sweetie BBQ Pork
Natalie: Smells like dim sum. Not a strong flavor, but inoffensive.
Ami: Like pork floss.
Sam: Tastes sweet but then I was left feeling confused about if this is what pork is supposed to taste like. Chip gave up too soon.
Alex: Tastes like BBQ sauce, but only for a second. Unsatisfying long term.
Wildly Grilled Rib
Fun fact on this one: The Chinese name of the chip is Cowboy Flavor. Which thankfully is not what it’s actually made from.
Natalie: Tastes like a burst of cowboy in the face. Or chargrill.
Ami: Smoky, peppery, not meaty, not sweet. Improved by mustard.
Alex: I guess they can’t make it taste like meat, so they make it taste like things around the meat.
Fun Wasabi Shrimp
Natalie: Wasabi, yes. Shrimp, no. Mild, a bit sweet, and really tasty. I could eat an entire bag.
Ami: Not nose-tickling enough. Amazing with whole grain mustard.
Sam: Not that spicy, but definitely tastes like wasabi. My favorite so far.
Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish
By far, this bag had the least appetizing image on it. If I wasn’t organizing a taste test, I never would have picked this up in the store of my own free will.
Natalie: Firebombed my tongue. It’s 0% fish and 100% peppercorn, with a hint of lemon.
Sam: What? Where is the fish? Just tastes like nasty peppercorns.
Alex: VERY PEPPERCORN! It’s spicy, but long-term won’t burn your face off.
Natalie: Tastes like tomato paste with a slight kick.
Ami: Little bit of zest at the end. Mustard was overpowered by the chip.
Sam: Wow! So zesty! Tastes like fresh tomato.
Alex: Not as sweet as other tomato flavors, and tastes more fresh.
Chips in this group were unanimously hit or miss. If we were going to sit down with a bag of chips and a good rom-com on a cold night, we would all lean towards the Fun Wasabi Shrimp, despite its distinct lack of shrimp-ness.
This group of chips are a bit difficult to classify, so they’re lumped together as the oddballs. They include Hot & Sour Fish Soup, Cheese Lobster and Cola Chicken. Lay’s went so far as to call Cheese Lobster a “classic great taste,” but we refused to accept this and thus excluded it from the “classics” section. Interestingly, the Cola Chicken is the only variety of Lay’s we’ve ever seen in China that didn’t have an English translation of the flavor on the bag. There’s a fairly popular dish in China that is made by boiling chicken wings in a spicy cola sauce, and this flavor is meant to replicate that. More specifically, the flavor actually translates to Pepsi® Chicken, since they have the same parent company as Lay’s.
Hot & Sour Fish Soup
Natalie: Tastes like aged vinegar and nothing else.
Ami: Blah. Sweet. Marginally improved by the addition of Ikea mustard.
Sam: Thankfully does not taste like fish.
Natalie: Strangely sweet. Vague lobster flavor. Even more vague cheese flavor.
Ami: Red Lobster biscuit! Not improved by mustard.
Sam: Initially tasted like a lobster, but later started tasting like a strange, bland version of an onion pie.
Alex: Definitely NOT classic flavor.
Natalie: Pretty much the only chip that tastes like the name.
Ami: Closest match to advertised flavor. It smells like flat soda.
Alex: Smells like Pepsi, tastes like chicken.
We wouldn’t recommend any of these for actual snacking, unless you’re a fan of cola chicken. We’re not fans, but we’re still willing to admit it does actually taste like the food it’s supposed to mimic.
I wasn’t going to include canned chips in this review, but then I saw these flavors and couldn’t resist the urge to add them to the mix. They are Mediterranean Roasted Chicken, Finger Licking Braised Pork, and Spicy Seafood. A lot of the other flavors we reviewed are also available in the extra-processed, molded can chip form, for those who prefer their snack food pre-chewed and pressed into discs.
Mediterranean Roasted Chicken
Natalie: Vaguely herbal, no chicken, definitely nothing roasted.
Ami: Chicken bouillon.
Sam: I don’t really get what this is supposed to taste like, but it tastes bland with an aftertaste of oil.
Alex: Weird smoky flavor.
Finger Licking Braised Pork
Natalie: Just tastes like crunchy to me…
Alex: It only tastes like something when you lick it. And that’s no way to eat a potato chip.
Sam: I actually thought this tasted pretty accurate.
Natalie: Smells like fish food. Tastes innocuous. Just not good.
Alex: Tiny spicy! Shrimp paste? Still just crunchy.
[Sam refused to even eat this one after smelling it. I think she had the right idea.]
Just don’t. Not these. Not ever.
Ok, they’re not chips, but they are still technically a Lay’s product so we decided to include these as a bonus round. Regular, manna-from-heaven cheesy Cheetos are (for reasons unknown to me) not sold in China. Instead, they offer up these two varieties: Tomato Beef and American-Style Roasted Chicken.
Natalie: THIS IS NOT A CHEETO. It’s an impostor.
Sam: This is why China will never be a #1 superpower. They can’t even do Cheetos right.
Alex: Why does this exist? Although it is meatier than the Italian Red Meat chips.
American-Style Roasted Chicken
Natalie: This is the most unAmerican thing I have encountered in a while.
Alex: Tastes like Chicken Twisties.
Ami: Less offensive than Tomato Beef, but still not good.
The fact that these even exist is an offense to common decency. And to cheese. And also cheetahs. Somewhere in China a drunk exchange student is quietly weeping into a bag of American-Style Roasted Chicken Cheetos and wondering if life is still worth living.
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