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What do you do?  How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

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.”

What is your role or designation?

At Frito-Lay’s research facility in Gurgaon, where he works, Naphade’s in-house designation really is “potato chip specialist”, although his visiting card calls him a “technical brand manager”. Naphade is the man to go to if you want a lyrical description of the perfect potato chip: “Round, golden bright, no brown spots, and with the clear flavour of fried potato.” He is the man who thought up 21 quality commandments for the process of buying and storing potatoes. He is the man who can name every one of the flaws listed on a chart named Potato Chip Defect Photographs, with its mugshots of guilty-looking, variously defective chips against a blue background.
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.

Is this a very big market?

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.”

How does the company do the research?

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.”