I’ve never been much into popcorn, which is to say I haven’t been into the heavily (fake) buttered popcorn that comes out of the microwave or in monster-size portions at the movie theater. Whenever I have tried it, the filmy layer that forms on my tongue serves as a reminder of why I can’t stand the snack. But B has always been a fan, and it’s nearly a habit for him to snack on it while watching movies. Some time back, he became interested in making his own popcorn, and these days he’s practically a pro.
It is worlds above the fake stuff and very easy to make. In fact, my 15-year-old brother taught us how to do it. Corn kernels are cheap and readily available. We like the multi-colored ones seen above, which pop into different gradients of yellow and white. I found them at our co-op and World Market.
Start with a small amount of vegetable oil, pop the corn, and then season how you like. Melted butter and salt give you the classic, familiar popcorn. But anything can go on it: Italian seasoning, Cajun spices, sugar, black pepper, and the list goes on and on.
While B is traveling, I have been missing one particular popcorn recipe he likes to make (and which he was making when I snapped the photo on the right.) It has three flavors: salt, sugar and garam masala. Together, the trio play with the taste buds in your mouth and take turns stimulating different parts of your palate. If you’re into the whole sweet-meets-spice flavors of cuisines such as Thai food, you’ll dig this too. Of course, the outcome varies greatly on whose garam masala you are using.
Garam masala loosely means “hot spice mix,” and it is a blend of a handful of spices commonly seen in a South Asian kitchen. In the subcontinent, each household may have its own definition of garam masala. It usually includes some ratio of cumin, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, coriander seeds and cardamom. Black cumin – common in Hyderabadi cooking – black and brown cardamom, peppercorns, red chili powder and malabar leaves may also play a part.
Strangely, my mom noticed some years back that garam masala has a very similar flavor to allspice powder, whose name she assumed meant it was a Western variant of the flavoring she has used to flavor and finish curries all her life. In fact, allspice powder has a singular source, the Jamaica pepper berries found in Central and South America. It gets its name from the British, who noticed its flavors appeared to resemble a combination of “all spices,” namely cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
Those are the dominant flavors in the packaged garam masala I used. When I tried to make this popcorn while visiting my parents, my mom’s garam masala was a tad too spicy as a dressing. My guess is that most store-bought varieties aren’t as hot, but you can always adjust the recipe by using less.
Feel free to try the allspice powder instead, too. It may be appropriate to do so, since popcorn has its origins in the same part of the world as allspice. The kernels are one of the earliest known forms of maize, which was discovered by Native Americans, and they trace back to at least 5,600 years ago in modern New Mexico. Now the popular American snack is especially prominent in the Midwest, where I first discovered the joys of mixing sweet and salted popcorn.
The recipe is simple: Heat 2 tb. of canola oil on medium heat in a large pot that has a lid. Avoid burning the oil by keeping the heat low. Throw in two kernels of popcorn and, when they pop, pour in 1/4 cup of popping corn kernels. Cover, give the pot a shake to coat the kernels with oil. When the popping begins to slow down, listen for a 5-second gap between pops. Turn the heat off, pour the popcorn in a bowl and season.
Salt and melted butter would give you the standard taste, but for this variation, sprinkle on 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. sugar and 1/2 to 1 tsp. garam masala. Toss and serve. Yields about 4 cups of popped corn, enough to share with a friend or feed one popcorn lover like B!