Truffle chip battle in the snack aisle
In the middle of FairPrice Xtra in Ang Mo Kio Hub is a large display of the supermarket chain's latest housebrand potato chip - truffle. The eye travels up, and on top of the mound of chip bags sits a supermarket trolley piled high with more bags of truffle chips. Towering over all of that is a giant mock-up bag of chips the size of a pillow.
The newest contender in the truffle potato chip battle has entered the arena.
FairPrice, which launched its truffle potato chips recently, is competing in a crowded marketplace.
Meadows, the housebrand of Cold Storage and Giant supermarkets, has truffle chips too, plus truffle potato sticks and stacked truffle potato crisps to boot. Other home-grown companies with truffle chips include Aroma Truffle, which calls its chips the "World's Strongest Truffle Chips"; Aunty Esther's, better known for its salted egg yolk snacks; and Fragrance, a bak kwa chain.
The chip aisles in supermarkets are also crammed with truffle chips from Italy, Spain, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Prices range from $1.67 to $10.90 for 100g of truffle chips.
Truffles, a prized fungus, are a luxury and seasonal food. They can cost thousands of dollars for a kilogram. In high-end restaurants, diners pay by the gram for truffles shaved onto their food.
But the advent of truffle oil in the 1980s made it affordable to add truffle flavour to snacks, fries, pasta, pastries and other food. Most brands contain no actual truffle. The flavour of truffle oil, dismissed as the "ketchup of the bourgeoisie" by detractors, comes from chemical compounds.
Luxe for less
Real flavour or fake, there is money to be made by adding truffles to potato chips.
Ms Jolin Huang, Lazada Singapore's head of RedMart and Grocery, says: "The popularity of truffle products, most notably, truffle chips, has become more prevalent in recent years, as more consumers seek out unique flavours to complement their existing snacking habits."
She says that in 2021, RedMart had 12 types of truffle chips. That has now doubled to 23. The online grocer is also selling a bigger variety of truffle snacks such as popcorn, fish skin and seaweed. Non-snack truffle items it sells include truffle-flavoured butter, cheese, pate, pizza, pasta and condiments such as mustard and mayonnaise.
"Among all truffle products, chips is the most popular and best-selling category," she adds.
Aroma Truffle, which launched its Black Summer Truffle Potato Chips in 2018, flavours its chips with dried truffle. A 100g bag costs $10.
The company - started by brothers Kenny Chan, 37; Johnathan Chan, 34; and Kayson Chan, 31 - launched with potato chips and now has 15 truffle-flavoured products, including popcorn, gelato, dipping sauces, oil and mooncakes. The original potato chips are the best-selling item.
It all started as a side hustle.
Mr Kayson Chan says: "We realised that consumers are getting more and more sophisticated with their choices of food. We started experimenting with bold flavours and incorporating them into the potato chips to add a modern twist to the conventional snack.
"We were partial to using truffles widely known as 'The Mozart of Mushrooms'. Suddenly, our potato chips became popular among working professionals at Raffles Exchange, and demand increased, thanks to them."
Before the pandemic, he says, sales were growing more than 50 per cent year on year. Now, it is growing 20 per cent year on year. Aroma's chips are also sold in Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.
They have gained the most traction in South Korea, he says, adding that Aroma Truffle's products are popular with celebrities there. The company did a product placement in April last year on the South Korean drama Sell Your Haunted House.
In 2019, Meadows, the housebrand developed by the DFI Retail Group, which owns Giant and Cold Storage, introduced truffle chips. A 60g bag costs $1.
A spokesman for the group says: "The idea started from the premium truffle dishes that are available in restaurants, and we wanted to bring this high-in-demand flavour to the mass market by launching our very own truffle chips that every customer can enjoy at just $1."
The spokesman adds that sales have been "tremendous" and that the Meadows truffle chips are "now the best-selling truffle chips in Singapore", with 1.3 million 60g bags sold a year.
Last year, the group introduced 180g bags of the truffle chips and truffle potato sticks. And earlier this year, it came out with Stacked Truffle Potato Crisps.
FairPrice launched its truffle potato chips at the end of July, and it has become the supermarket chain's best-selling snack. A 60g bag costs $1.
Mr Marcus Wong, FairPrice Group's senior director, head of Own Brands Retail, says: "We observed there is an increase in popular snacks variants such as truffle-flavoured chips, and it is a good opportunity for FairPrice Housebrand to explore this variant so that we can continue to delight our shoppers."
Is it truffly enough?
All three brands say they spent time figuring out the right level of truffly flavour to put in their chips.
The spokesman for DFI Retail Group says of the Meadows chips: "We partnered international flavour experts to replicate the restaurant-grade truffle taste in a seasoning that blends well with chips. After numerous rounds of tasting and reformulation, we finally settled on one recipe. To ensure it was loved by customers, we conducted sensory tasting with a panel of at least 100 people to gather feedback and further fine-tune the final recipe.
"The truffle taste of our chips is intense without being overwhelming. The size and crunch of the chips are also best-in-class at its price point."
FairPrice's Mr Wong says: "We spent more than six months getting the right recipe and went through three rounds of formulations to get the right taste profile."
Both Meadows and FairPrice's chips are made in Malaysia.
Aroma Truffle, which lists dried truffle in the ingredients list for its made-in-Singapore chips, says it sources the fungus direct from a farm in Spoleto, Italy. It also has a research and development team, headed by Mr Chan's brother Johnathan, which works on flavours and new products.
Mr Kayson Chan says: "One of the challenges faced by many leading food retailers is the threat posed by copycats in the market. Due to the high food cost involved in our unique recipes, the feasibility of mimicking and retailing a product at the same retail price with similar quality is seemingly unfeasible. The source, cost and quality of the truffle ingredients themselves play a key factor in knocking out our competitors.
"Personally, I doubt you will be able to find any other retail truffle chips brand in the market that has a stronger aromatic experience than Aroma Truffle, for the time being."
The real deal
People who cook with or sell truffles say the complex flavours in the real thing is very different from flavourings.
Mr Benedict Raj Dorai, co-founder of Woodland Truffles, which supplies truffles and truffle products to more than 100 restaurants here, says: "The real thing is a lot more subtle. Truffle oil has one element of the flavour profile."
People used to the flavour of truffle oil are often "somewhat disappointed" when they have the real thing, he adds.
That, however, has not stopped him and his business partner Marcus Heng from selling products such as truffle oil, truffle paste, truffle honey and truffle dust, alongside fresh truffles brought in from Italy and Australia, among other countries. The restaurants they supply had asked for these products.
Mr Heng says they worked with a supplier to come up with their own formulation of truffle oil, going "back and forth" until they hit on something they thought the market here would accept.
A little goes a long way, they say. "Use too much and the food will taste chemical-ly, like kerosene," Mr Dorai says.
Television host, food writer and recipe consultant Sarah Huang Benjamin says she uses truffles "when appropriate", such as on scrambled eggs or mushroom risotto.
"Real truffles are very earthy and savoury, whereas the oil only has the top note," she says. "Some chips suffer from the addition of truffle flavour. They are good by themselves. Forget the truffle."
What brand of truffle chips should you buy?
The Straits Times did a blind taste test of 14 brands of truffle chips. Testers graded them on taste, aroma and crunch, and could give a maximum of 10 points for each category.
On the tasting panel were Ms Sarah Huang Benjamin, 33, a television host, chef, food writer and recipe consultant; pastry chef Joy Chiam, 28, co-owner of Patisserie Cle; Mr Benedict Raj Dorai, 32, co-founder of Woodland Truffles; chef Marvas Ng, 36, of Path restaurant in Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 3; and this reporter.
Their pick for the top three brands was unanimous - these were the ones with the strongest truffle flavour, although two of the three did not, like most of the other chips in the test, have a strong aroma of truffle.
"Quite frankly, if you didn't tell me these were truffle chips, I wouldn't have known," Mr Dorai said of some of the brands tested.
It was a sentiment all the other testers echoed at many points in the test.
Truffle taste and aroma were missing in most of the chips in the taste test. Some tasted of salted egg rather than truffle. One brand had a strong ham flavour; and every tester picked out the rosemary flavour in one of the brands. Some chips also tasted of rancid oil.
The ingredients list of some brands of truffle chips did not include the word "truffle". Instead, there were ingredients such as "flavour enhancer" or "mushroom powder". Other brands listed truffle oil, truffle powder or dehydrated truffle in the ingredients.
Ms Benjamin said: "I am shocked by how plain bad some of them are."
Mr Dorai also pointed out that while many chip bags sported photographs of black truffles, what flavoured the chips was essence of white truffles.
He said: "White truffles have the most punch out of all the truffles, and the flavour resonates with customers."
Here are their picks for the top three brands of truffle chips:
Aroma Truffle & Co
Black Summer Truffle Potato Chips Original (100g, $10)
Unlike most of the chips in the test, this one had the aroma of truffle and tasted more strongly of truffle than the rest.
Chef Ng said: "Most of us would associate this taste with truffle - it's the truffle oil taste. But the taste is heavy and, price-wise, it's more expensive than the rest."
Ms Benjamin said: "Would you eat a whole bag of this? It's too truffly, a bit cloying after a while."
Truffle Flavour Potato Chips (60g, $1; 180g, $2.80)
Just 1.2 points separated the brands that came second and third. While the truffle aroma was lacking in this version, testers took note of the truffle flavour, which was distinct but not overwhelming.
Chef Chiam said: "This is what I imagined a truffle chip would be like. It's crunchy but also soft - it has an Asian chip texture."
Mr Dorai said: "Meadows can improve on the aroma, but in terms of value, I'd pick it any day."
Fairprice potato chips
Truffle (60g, $1)
Chef Chiam said: "As you crunch on it, the flavour comes out."
Chef Ng said: "It's not bad, but there's no truffle aroma."
Truffle chips - list of brands
Here are the other brands of truffle potato chips in The Straits Times taste test:
Aunty Esther's Truffle Potato Crisps (100g, $7.50)
Fox Nut & Snack Truffle & Salt Premium Potato Chips (120g, $5.90)
Fragrance Truffle Potato Chips (105g, $8.80)
Lay's Truffle Potato Chips (180g, $5.85)
Marks & Spencer Hand Cooked Crisps Black Truffle & Olive Oil (150g, $6.50)
Mr Bazaar Lay's Potato Chips Truffle (43g, $3.60)
Pafritas Hand Cooked Chips with Olive Oil & Black Truffle (100g, $6.95)
Quillo White Truffle Flavored Potato Chips (130g, $5.95)
Savoursmiths Truffle And Rosemary Potato Crisps (150g, $4.95)
Torres Selecta Black Truffle Premium Potato Chips (125g, $6.95)
Truffle Hunter Black Truffle Crisps (100g, $10.90)