Image: Toby Manhire
Image: Toby Manhire

KaiFebruary 29, 2020

The South Island and green onion chips: A love story for the ages

Image: Toby Manhire
Image: Toby Manhire

From the tip of Farewell Spit to the very arse end of Stewart Island, there is one delicacy that unites Te Wai Pounamu: the humble green onion chip. But why? Alice Neville embarks on a quest for the true story behind this regional snacking quirk.

I have many fond childhood memories of visiting my grandparents’ farm near Nelson – baby animals, the same paisley carpet as the Karori United Video store, bottomless jars of lollies, games of pool with my grandad, a car whose backseat was inexplicably covered with sheepskins and soft toys, an ancient swimming pool that always had a dead frog or two floating in it. But the fondest of all these memories relates to chips.

At the farm, no matter the day, 5pm was “happy hour”, when it was time to perch oneself on a La-Z-Boy to enjoy a beverage and some pre-dinner salty snacks. A glass of sherry for grandma, lemonade for me, a big 750ml glass bot of Double Brown for grandad. And, almost without fail, a packet of green onion chips.

Gran would occasionally branch out to salt and vinegar, but nine times out of 10 it was green onion, a flavour I never once had at home in Wellington. Pop across Cook Strait, however, and green onion was de rigueur.

I grew up and stopped visiting so much, the grandparents got older and eventually passed away. I rarely thought of green onion chips, but during the recent summer holidays, they made a reappearance at gatherings of our now long-time-Auckland-based family. I’m not sure who was responsible, but it was not a controversial move: green onion was a universally agreed-upon flavour (unlike barbecue, which my mother once disparagingly said “tastes like Burger Rings”, as if that’s a bad thing; chicken, which is objectively disgusting but beloved by the under-12s; or ready salted – liked by the oldies, but essentially trash, as a wise woman once pointed out).

Green onion, on the other hand, was a flavour that brought the family together, a snack that found favour with every age bracket from the under-fives to the over-70s.

I thought it was common knowledge that green onion chips were a South Island delicacy as uniquely regional as the beloved cheese roll, but few people I spoke to seemed aware of this point, which made me wonder if I’d imagined it. I conducted an informal Instagram poll that further prompted me to question my belief.

The great green onion Insta poll

Though a minority, the “yes” voters were by and large South Islanders. Surely they knew the truth, I figured. But I had to know for sure, so I contacted Bluebird via an Australian PR agency contracted to PepsiCo, which owns Bluebird Foods, I received this statement from Bluebird’s general manager, Ali Hamza:

“We do see certain localised preferences. Green Onion flavour is very popular in the South Island, and on average about 50% more Green Onion flavoured chips are sold in the South than the North.”

There it was. The smoking gun. The South Island is home to just 23% of Aotearoa’s people, yet Bluebird sells 50% more green onion chips there as in the North. The North Island, home to 77% of the population, puts away 50% less than the South does. No matter how you look at it, this is massive, I thought. This is huge

I asked other brands too. Countdown brand green onion crinkle cut? The South Island stores move 50% more than those in the north (the Oamaru, Invercargill and Christchurch’s Church Corner Countdowns sell the most). Heartland green onion? Sales are generally four times greater in the South. Pam’s green onion? Also more popular in the South Island.

My mind raced: I must uncover the fascinating backstory and reveal why green onion chips are so popular in Te Wai Pounamu. It would be my Watergate, my Wikileaks, my Finding Rosemary, I reasoned.

Initially, no one else seemed to share my excitement, but then I casually mentioned these potato-based revelations to Toby Manhire, esteemed editor of The Spinoff. “That’s a huge story,” he said without hesitation. 

Chippies (Photo: Alice Neville)

Secure in the knowledge my news sense was on point, I got to work. Firstly, I asked the good folk of our Facebook group Kai Corner if they had any theories. There were some goodies (“GREEN onion, GREENstone, duh”; “it goes back to a single crop of green onions in Darfield that were created pre-Gondwanaland splitting apart”), but the problem was none of them were actually true. 

So I dug for instances of green onion chips featuring in New Zealand news media. There wasn’t a lot, but each mention had some link to the South Island, from Jason Kerrison reminiscing about his Southland upbringing to Shell’s colossal 2003 SNAFU of removing green onion chips from its service stations nationwide, then reinstating them after a South Island-wide outcry, as reported in the Timaru Herald (there’s no publicly available link, sorry). 

Next, I delved into the naming issue. I’ve always been a touch perturbed that we call this flavour green onion, not spring onion, when the latter term is far more common in New Zealand. (This article suggests that the long, skinny allium we call a spring onion in New Zealand is in fact a green onion or a scallion, but whatever, let’s just agree they’re all the same thing in this instance.) 

(Interesting side note: green onion chips don’t actually contain any spring/green onion, rather onion powder and unspecified herbs.)

A Bluebird green onion chip packet from 1985 and one from 1999 from Steve Williams’ retro packaging collection (Photos: Steve Williams)

Anyway, “green onion” is chiefly an American term. Could the South Island’s love for this chip have somehow come via the U.S. of A? Perhaps. We call them chips, after all, rather than the British “crisps”. What’s more, green onion chips are particularly prevalent among the “heritage” chip brands of the midwest. Founded in 1910, the Ohio-based Mikesell’s is the oldest continuously operating potato chip company in the United States, and possibly the world. According to its website, Mikesell’s green onion was one of the very earliest varieties of flavoured chips (the world’s first chips were sold unseasoned). So green onion chips have been around a good while. 

I emailed Mikesell’s, and fellow ancient chip brands Guy’s, and Conn’s. No one replied. So I tried Dirk Burhans, author of Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, to see if he had any theories. He didn’t, but was fascinated to learn of the South Island’s passion for green onion (finally, I have found my people!). Burhans directed me towards Alan Richer, “who is even more of a chip nerd than I am”. 

Richer reached out to a bunch of long-established American chip brands for me (chip nerds are the best!) and forwarded me this response from Bob Jones (no, not that one) of Ohio’s Jones Potato Chip Company: 

“Flavor preference from one region to another is an interesting phenomenon. We have had products that sold well in Mansfield Ohio but not in Cleveland Ohio and vice versa. The distance between the two is only 70 miles. I believe it defies logic. Large groups of people or the populations in regions do not conspire to do one thing or the other in regards to flavours and products.

“My first thought is that it could go back many generations and have something to do with what people ate 100 to 150 years ago, however, with people moving all over the place I am not sure that is valid. Possibly more valid for some countries than others where people tend to stay where they are raised.”

So no further light shed on green onion, but some interesting thoughts nonetheless. Richer has promised he’ll keep asking his chippy contacts for me. 

A small selection of the green onion chippies available in Poland

Green onion chips do not appear to be particularly common around the world. As far as I can tell, they don’t exist in our beloved colonial motherland the United Kingdom, where many of New Zealand’s non-indigenous food traditions come from. Curiously, however, green onion chips seem to be popular in eastern Europe, particularly Poland, where the flavour is called zielona cebulka. There you can get zielona cebulka Cheetos, zielona cebulka Lays, and even zielona cebulka chips made of meat!

On finding this, I naturally delved into the history of Polish immigration to New Zealand, hoping to find that a plucky Pole introduced South Islanders to the joys of the green onion chip many moons ago. I found no firm evidence of such, but did discover that small numbers of Polish people came to New Zealand in the 19th century to help build the railways, and Polish settlements sprang up at Marshlands, near Christchurch, and at Allanton and Waihola on Otago’s Taieri Plain. Where are those places? In the SOUTH ISLAND. I rest my case. 

So now I had some not very watertight theories, but I needed more. Someone must know the truth, I reasoned. I went back to Bluebird’s PR agency, which was all of a sudden no longer Bluebird’s PR agency, so I was directed back to Bluebird. Eventually, a spokesperson told me they did some digging but could reveal no more, not even when the flavour was added to the range. All I was told is it’s been “a permanent part of the core flavours for a number of years”.

A 2010 Sunday magazine story about chip flavours suggested green onion was added to Bluebird’s core line-up of ready salted, salt and vinegar and chicken only in the 90s, at the same time as sour cream and chives. A common North Island misconception is that sour cream and chives and green onion flavours are essentially the same, but that is blatantly false: green onion is tangier, with a pleasant sweetness at the back of the palate. Sour cream and chives, as the aforementioned wise woman also noted, is trash.

The Bluebird range from 1985 (Image: Grocers Review via Steve Williams)

No, green onion has nothing to do with the perversion that is sour cream and chives, and came into the world to improve our lives much earlier. Brian Kirby, national sales manager at Timaru chip company Heartland Chips, says green onion chips have been around since at least the late 1970s. He worked for Bluebird for almost 20 years, starting in 1987, and as far as he’s aware, green onion’s South Island dominance has always existed. Kirby was a little perplexed by my interest in the green onion/South Island phenomenon but agreed to a phone call. “It’s always been the same. Why? I don’t know. It just seems to be one of those unexplainable things.”

Kirby said that in the early 90s, the Bluebird team decided to test whether the South Island theory was genuine. “We thought it might be a bit of a myth.” They chose Wellington, as the closest North Island point to the South Island, to send a few containers of the flavour to. “It didn’t work,” he said. “We ended up crediting half the stuff out of the stores because it didn’t sell.”

The only other regional trend Kirby has noticed in his decades in the chip business is that the “cereal snack” market is far bigger in Auckland than anywhere else – that’s Twisties, Rashuns, Cheezels, Burger Rings and so on. But that’s another story for another day. 

I kept probing, searching, hunting for any clue that might reveal the true origins of the South Island’s green onion penchant. I tried food historians, industry groups, Facebook pages aplenty. Nothing, though Gemma Carroll of Potatoes NZ speculated that the Scottish influence down south may play a part; just like Southland cheese rolls, she reckoned “the gruntiness of that flavour may appeal to those of Scottish descent”.

It feels like as good a theory as any, but I will not rest until I have firm proof. Did green onion chips come to the South Island via the midwest, Poland, or the Scots? Or did some southern trend-setter simply make them cool, like whoever the hell is responsible for poké bowls. Somebody, somewhere out there must know the truth. 

*Please, I beg of you, email if you know anything about the South Island’s penchant for green onion chips

Keep going!