New Delhi: It’s not as if Sanjay Naphade set out in life intending to become a potato chip specialist. He had no particular potato chip affinity in childhood, he majored in chemistry and not potato chippery in his undergraduate years, and even in his postgraduate food technology degree and subsequent career, his interests roamed the edible world at large. Then, in 2000, Naphade caught his lucky break, landing a job that actually requires him to eat potato chips on a daily basis. “Some days," he admits, “I can’t even keep track of how many packets of chips I eat."

Snack smart: Frito-Lay’s Sanjay Naphade, the?potato chip specialist, at the Gurgaon research facility. Harikrishna Katragadda/ Mint

Of Naphade’s three chief chip concerns—appearance, flavour and texture—it is flavour that poses the most complex, and the most constantly evolving challenge.

In an Indian snack food market that was estimated at $3 billion (Rs13,950 crore) last year—and the salty snack market in particular, nearly 85% of which is comprised of potato chips—the right flavour can prove to be the swing vote. The business of producing these tastes has thus grown progressively intricate in the last 25 years. From synthesizing monotone flavours, such as strawberry for ice cream, it now aims to recreate the near-symphony of flavours in complex dishes such as chaat or tandoori chicken.

The idea for a new flavour comes, unsurprisingly, from just asking people what they like to eat. Before Frito-Lay launched its Chaat Street line in 2005, its marketing team often stood around at chaat stalls simply watching people eat. “Then we looked for some articulate consumers," remembers Deepika Warrier, marketing director at Frito-Lay. “Most people say ‘It’s tangy’ or ‘It’s tasty,’ but they can’t build on that. We want to ask: ‘What does that mean, when you say tangy?’"

The brief that arises out of such research, and that is then sent on to a flavour house such as International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. (IFF), can be broad or specific. “Say they ask for a chaat flavour, a golgappa flavour in particular—now that’s very specific," says M.D.V. Kumaraswamy, vice-president for sales and marketing at IFF. “But sometimes they may just say that they want some regional speciality, and then the idea will go back and forth a few times before we fix on, say, a masala vada flavour."

At the heart of this design process is the flavour curve, something that nearly everybody in the industry is only too keen to jump up and draw on a whiteboard. “How do you describe a good golgappa?" asks T.S.R. Murali, Frito-Lay’s executive director for technology, a man fondly called “Doc". Without waiting for an answer, he picks up a green marker, and with a wry warning—“Don’t try this at home. My wife always tells me to leave all this at the office"—he sketches a steep, humped curve.

The flavour curve is a map of individual tastes—or “notes", as they are known in the industry—that the tongue picks up in sequence as its owner eats. In a golgappa’s flavour curve, at least in the Frito-Lay handbook, there is first a hint of fresh mint, followed by a subtle note of coriander and a sour hit of tamarind. Only after that do the spices make their swaggering entry. “There’s an aftertaste of spice and tang," Murali says, “and finally a little residue of mint."

It’s important that Frito-Lay’s technicians know these notes as well as the flavour-house chemists. “If you just ask for mint, they’ll give you 20 different?types of mint—they’re industrial chemists, after all," says Murali. “Once, when we were talking to them about a particular coriander aroma, I took the IFF guy to a vegetable market in the morning, when it was opening. I said: ‘Close your eyes. What do you smell?’ He said: ‘Coriander.’?I said: ‘That’s what I want.’"

Reproducing a flavour curve can thus straddle the realms of both science and art. The science lies in knowing, for instance, that organic allyl compounds are the essence of the onionness of an onion, or that an aldehyde can simulate the taste of yoghurt. The art involves detecting precisely what notes of onion occur in the food of choice, and where in the flavour curve they would work best. This is the reason, Kumaraswamy says, that IFF’s flavour chemists are also trained tasters, and that chefs are frequent visitors to the IFF premises in Chennai.

The nuances in even a single note become clearer during a Frito-Lay tasting session that Mint attends. On the conference room table, there are 10 dark brown medicine bottles of chemicals—five varieties of the onion note, and five of tomato. There are twice as many varieties possible, remarks Sudhir Nema, head of food technology at Frito Lay, and degrees of subtlety even within those varieties. “Usually, we don’t smell more than three of these in an isolated room," Nema says. “Then it becomes overwhelming, so we take a break or we move to another room."

On a touche—a paper smell strip, common in perfume stores—Nema drips a little essence of raw onion; the scent immediately invades the long room. Sniffed so close, the raw onion is deeply pungent, but once it is smeared on a simply salted potato chip, the pungency dips. The other bottles contain essences of shallots, sweeter and slightly less tear-jerking; of spring onions, with a fresh green scent that emerges late; of browned onions, smelling a little burned at such high concentrations; and of fried shallots, with a gentler caramelized flavour. The tomato essences come fresh, ripe, pulped, sautéed and ketchupy.

Ruchika Malhotra, an assistant manager for seasonings at Frito-Lay, who was once put through an entire month of just smelling and tasting spice essences diluted with water, points out that raw onion spikes through the middle of the flavour curve, while the spring onion leaves an aftertaste. Eating two potato chips together—one inflected with raw onion and one with spring onion—promptly generates a more rounded, complex taste.

“For Indian food, a flavour curve has many, many notes, whereas for Western food, it often gets monotonous," Nema says. His team, now trained to identify taste notes even in their sleep, has taste buds that stand constantly on alert. “Even when we go out for team lunches or dinners, we’re spotting notes," he laughs. “The other day, we were at lunch at a nearby restaurant, and we were trying to profile this great chutney they had. Even before the chef came out to our table, we had figured out its recipe."

A flavour can take upwards of a year to come to full fruition, and Warrier calls development costs “significant", although she refuses to put a number to that cost. In that time, the concept will bounce back and forth multiple times between Frito-Lay and the flavour house, evolving and refining itself as it does. Even then, there are few cast-iron guarantees of success. “We sustained Chaat Street for a year, but we couldn’t do it after that," Warrier says. “We couldn’t live up to the multi-sensorial experience of chaat, and we found that our consumers essentially wanted chaat in a bag."

“Doc" Murali prefers to dwell on the triumphs—Lays Magic Masala, for example, or the immensely popular Kurkure—but he too has a war story of a flavour that never took off. “In 1999 or 2000, I had just joined Frito-Lay, and the first flavour I developed was a Lays tandoori chicken," Murali remembers. “It simply didn’t deliver the tandoori chicken taste, but even beyond that, it failed miserably as a concept. I was lucky they didn’t fire me immediately."

More rewardingly, Warrier says, she has seen the Indian potato chip eater’s palate become more experimental over the last decade. “A cream-and-onion has gone from an upper-class flavour to a middle-class flavour," she says. “The chips taste familiar, and they only cost Rs10, so it’s not much of a risk. That’s what we’re doing—providing safe adventures in flavour."