Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.
I’m not sure I’m close enough yet to my local bodega owners to make requests. But for the sake of my shrimp-chip cravings, I hope to be soon.
My bodega currently stocks shrimp chips by Nongshim; but, to the despair of my late night snacking, I find that particular brand to be a little too bland. The best shrimp chips are from Calbee, who mass produced them first and who have wielded modern food science like magic to produce the most craveable chip I’ve ever had.
Calbee Shrimp Chips are like Doritos—or whatever chip demolishes your sense of self-control—in that they’re engineered to be delicious. Shrimp chips, as you might expect, owe their flavor to a mixture of shrimp, salt, and monosodium glutamate. That last ingredient is of utmost importance, even if it’s the reason why you won’t find Calbee shrimp chips on shelves at Whole Foods.
Since the mid-1900s, MSG has been used to make processed foods taste even better. Naturally found in foods like Parmigiano Reggiano and mushrooms, MSG is also manufactured as a flavor enhancer for everything from bouillon cubes to chips to ramen. If something tastes super savory and processed, it’s probably got MSG in some form. The additive got a bad rap in the middle of the 20th century due to concern about its health effects, but those claims have since been called out for their anti-Asian sentiment and largely debunked by scientific research. Although there’s still some stigma attached to MSG (looking at you, Whole Foods), plenty of people worldwide have been enjoying just how goddamn snackable it makes Calbee Shrimp Chips for over 50 years.
It’s also why shrimp chips don’t taste like fresh shrimp, necessarily—which at its finest is delicate and even a little sweet—but more like a hyper-concentrated caricature of shrimp, as if you licked your finger and stuck it in the powder of a shrimp ramen flavor packet. I’d describe my snack leanings as a need for salt that’s best quenched by flavors that veer oceanic (right behind shrimp chips in my hierarchy of snacks, for example, are pieces of roasted seaweed). And since MSG was intended to simulate the flavor of seaweed broth, it’s no surprise that the shrimp chip fulfills those cravings.
The correct way to eat a shrimp chip is not to down a handful with reckless abandon, but rather to savor each one. In terms of American snacks, they eat sort of like a Cheeto, but with a totally different flavor profile. They’re lighter and more nuanced. Put the chip in your mouth and then crunch down—immediately, you’ll taste salt. Your instinct might be to swallow, to eat another one in an instant, but you should really let it linger.
Like a nice cup of coffee, you’ve gotta give the shrimp chip time to sort of bloom in your mouth. Let the chomped-up chip sit on your tongue, where the crumbs will disperse its umami-rich mixture all over your palate. If you’re patient, the shrimp chip becomes increasingly savory and more delicious.
You can, according to several recipes online, make shrimp chips at home fairly easily. You can also buy pre-made discs of shrimp and starch to fry at home, just drop the rounds into hot oil and they poof into airy crisps. For me, though that sort of defeats the point; I want a chip to be easy, immediately satiating, and full of MSG. Buying a bag of Calbee does just that.
Every immigrant kid has stinky food stories, and I think I realized instinctively, even at a young age, that I didn’t want to ruin shrimp chips for myself like that. After all, it’s sort of inevitable that something made of processed seafood will smell a little fishy and opening a bag of shrimp chips in public can be a gamble. So for fear of more sensitive olfactory systems, the shrimp chip has always been something I ate alone or with my family, who can handle a little funk.
But that’s okay; I like having a snack that’s all mine. When I buy a bag of Calbee, nobody asks me for a piece. I can sit alone, for a few moments, and savor the salty rush of shrimp.