Japan has its fair share of potato chips and other salted snacks, with nearly as much variety as its sweets. We tend to associate them with late nights studying as a college student or gatherings at a friend's home, something not quite as common in Japan as in America due to often miniscule apartments.
Among the expat population, there's a general consensus that Japanese people don't have a palate for spicy food despite their love for wasabi. Indeed, wasabi invokes a different type of spicy reaction than something like a spicy Indian curry, and accordingly many Japanese products touting themselves as "geki-kara" (super spicy) have little to no effect on foreign diners.
Luckily for us, a series of salted snacks called Karamucho is here to light up a new set of Japanese taste buds. As it turns out, these chips have been around for 30 years, finding a sort of niche market among Japanese who can handle peppery sensations. To celebrate the 30 years since their inception, the maker held a web survey asking voters to choose what flavor of chips they would like to see on store shelves the most. Voters could choose three parameters to create their ideal chip flavor. First, users selected a spice flavoring: chili pepper, wasabi, Japanese mustard, (black) pepper, or curry. Then they chose the level of spice, ranging from "mild" to "super spicy." Lastly they picked a flavoring powder, from butter, cheese, mayonnaise, tartar sauce, or nori (seaweed).
The results of the survey showed that users wanted to see chips made with chili pepper and cheese flavor that are super spicy, and I now hold in my hand the resulting Chili Cheese Karamucho, with triple the spiciness of their standard product. This particular variety is not actually a potato chip but a small strip which is like a thin, crispy french fry.
So what does it taste like and how does it hold up? The cheese is an almost-but-not-quite chedder flavor, which is actually reminiscent of pizza-flavored chips, a staple of the salted snack market in Japan. And yes, they are genuinely spicy! The fire on the package is appropriate; no one could accuse the company of false advertising. While they might not approach the realm of spicy Cheetos, the hot sensation definitely stays with you for a while. But it's not too much to keep you from taking another bite. My only complaint is that because of the shape, it's hard to get a good sized handful in your mouth without jabbing your palate or cheeks. Being patient and eating just one or two at a time resolves this problem.
In particular, I was impressed that, given the choice, users involved in the survey wanted the spiciest possible product they could get. It certainly debunks the myth that Japanese don't like spicy food. Actually, one of the first Japanese friends I ever had in college once cooked Thai-style curry for some of us, and it was so spicy that I could barely eat it. It just goes to show that preferences are from individual to individual, not from group to group.
So go ahead and grab a bag of these while they're around, because a product made based on results from an internet survey is sure to be a limited time offer. Just don't eat them if you've got a big date the evening.