* That first encounter with salted caramel and popcorn ice cream a couple of months ago taught me essential lessons. It proved that there is life beyond strawberry ice cream
* The story of popcorn began around seven millennia ago when an unsung but observant soul noticed that one variety of maize — today called Zea mays everta — tended to pop when exposed to high temperatures
* The popcorn business wobbled when TV arrived on the scene and cinemas saw dwindling audiences. Then microwavable popcorn came along; soon, heaped bowls of puffy, warm corn became as much a part of the routine as the remote control
It was a fancy-seeing-you-here moment like no other.
The first spoonful delivered the salty sweetness of caramel and the cool velvetiness of cream. The second delivered the surprise. A popcorn.
Naturally, I goggled. Encountering that flake of crunchy-airy corn in a bowl of ice cream was like bumping into Abu, the prawn and surmai vendor, in the Amazonian rainforest. It was utterly unanticipated and rather revelatory.
That first encounter with salted caramel and popcorn ice cream a couple of months ago taught me essential lessons. It proved that there is life beyond strawberry ice cream. That there’s a reason why popcorn has survived 7,000 years of human fads and fickleness. And that it’s time I shed my hard-held prejudice.
I’ve never been a popcorn person. You wouldn’t be either if you’d grown up on the little plastic bags of white, flaccid, popped-sometime-last-week corn that was hawked near Gateway of India and during interminable school sports days. Munching on the stuff was exercise for the jaw and thermocol for the taste buds. Naturally then, anybody with an iota of sense spent their precious two rupee note on packets of salty, crunchy wafers instead.
Perhaps, though, the time has come to switch allegiance. Partly because popcorn has undergone a dramatic makeover; and partly because there’s an entire marketing machinery out there, convincing me that my life and my Star Wars experience are incomplete without a giant tub of cheese-powdery, caramelly, buttery popcorn plonked on my lap.
Of course, the story of popcorn began way before movie nights, microwaves and marketing might. It began around seven millennia ago when an unsung but observant soul noticed that one variety of maize — today called Zea mays everta — tended to pop when exposed to high temperatures. This happens because its small hard kernels trap steam and eventually explode into a fluff of starch.
We know this much because archaeologists found cobs, husks and stalks at the sites of two prehistoric settlements in Peru. While another team identified 5,600-year-old popcorn in a cave in New Mexico. Other discoveries and writings indicate that the popped kernels of corn were more than a mere snack. They adorned the head of a god on a 1,700-year-old funerary urn in Mexico. They were strung into thick garlands and worn by Aztec girls during ritual dances. And they were used as offering to the Aztec gods.
“Since they didn’t even have ceramic pots at their disposal back then, chances are they roasted the cobs directly over coals or flames,” writes History.com about the evolution of what was to become America’s favourite snack. “Later inhabitants of Peru’s northern coast would perfect the technique by developing the world’s oldest known popper — a shallow vessel with a handle and a hole on top — around 300 A.D. The first popcorn machine made its debut 1,500 years later at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.”
As the early popcorn machines in America were mobile contraptions powered by a gas burner, the popcorn vendors wheeled their way to fairs, parks and bustling crowds. The merry popping of corn — which sometimes jumped three feet high and came out looking like a mushroom, a snowflake, a butterfly, a hippopotamus, an anything — was a source of amusement and amazement. And the flavours of the sweetish kernel stirred with salt and melted butter became synonymous with fun and sunshine.
The vendors often targeted movie-goers, much to the irritation of the cinemas. The movie theatres wanted to attract a highbrow clientele — and disliked the idea of noisy snacking and popcorn being smushed into expensive carpets. Then the Great Depression came along and, while most luxuries became unaffordable, 5-cent bags of popcorn were still within reach. Which was when theatre owners started leasing lobby space to popcorn vendors.
Like Disney princesses and denim jeans, this American trend traversed the globe. And today film buffs everywhere are united by their love for that very distinctive “movie popcorn” — yellow, delicious, extra buttery, extra crisp and laden with dubious fats and chemicals that make it extra addictive. And extra unhealthy.
The popcorn business wobbled when TV arrived on the scene and cinemas saw dwindling audiences. Then microwavable popcorn came along; soon, heaped bowls of puffy, warm corn became as much a part of the routine as the remote control.
Meanwhile, popcorn has come a long way from its 5-cents-a-bag days. Partly because of its neutral, adaptable flavours, it is the perfect candidate for culinary experiments. In Tokyo — where gourmet popcorn outlets sit alongside designer stores and jewellery boutiques — I sampled extraordinary black raspberry and vanilla cream popcorn as well as maple bacon popcorn. And I always regret not trying the whisky caramel and matcha ones as well.
Closer to home, brands such as 4700BC and Wow have been attempting flavours such as sriracha lime cheese, cheese tadka and tiramisu with varying degrees of success. Chefs have been trying their hand at popcorn bhels and masala popcorn. And, of course, there’s the salted caramel and popcorn ice cream, created by Icestasy, a young and adventurous brand based in Mumbai.
“Kids especially go crazy when they know there is popcorn in their ice cream,” says Sanmish Marathe of Icestasy, who is sure that the crunch and texture of popcorn add a unique dimension to the dessert.
I can only nod in agreement, and sign up for the 7,000-year-old popcorn fan club.