Here’s something that is going to surprise you: name today’s ultimate diet food. It is filling. It is exciting. And it is low in calories: just 30 calories for a cup-full and probably not more than 100 calories even if you gorge yourself silly. It is rich in anti-oxidants, and far better for you in that respect than many vegetables and fruit. It is gluten-free, full of fibre, contains no saturated fat and has lots of B vitamins.
Okay, those of you who stopped reading for just a nano-second in sheer surprise, and those of you who think I’ve been at the crack-pipe, pay attention. I’m not saying that the popcorn you buy in cinema halls is going to make you healthy or thin. And yes, popcorn can have a downside; it can be soaked in sugar, or saturated fats and can even be pumped full of calories.
But that’s not the fault of the popcorn. It is the fault of the other things we add to it.
To understand the secret of popcorn, here are a couple of simple numbers. One cup of popcorn has, as I said, just 30 calories. But one cup of hot-buttered popcorn has 120 calories.
As any fool can see, it is the butter that adds the fat. The popcorn is entirely innocent of any crime. And how does popcorn achieve its healthy status? Well, because of the popping. When you pop a corn kernel it expands so much that it quadruples (or much more) in size. So just three tablespoons of corn kernels will give you six cups of popcorn. Not only will you feel you are eating much more (because of the illusion of size), but corn that has been popped is actually much more filling than the raw kernels themselves.
How does all this happen? How does popcorn, a great miracle food, emerge out of the humble bhutta, the corn on the cob that we have been eating on our streets for decades?
Well, the science is not too complicated. If you take corn off the cob and dry the kernels, you end up with a grain that is misleadingly hard on the outside. But inside the shell is lots and lots of moisture that is trapped within. The process of making popcorn involves applying heat to the dried kernels. This makes the moisture vapourise, causing enormous pressure within the kernel. When this pressure becomes too much, the kernel bursts open and its starchy centre explodes outwards. Effectively, the kernel has been turned inside out.
Native Americans knew all about maize and therefore, all about popcorn
It is not difficult for cultures with some experience of corn (or more properly, maize) to work out that the moisture within each kernel can be harnessed in the interests of gastronomy.
Unfortunately, few cultures had any experience of maize at all because the grain was restricted to the New World. It was only after America was discovered that Europeans were introduced to maize and began to cultivate it in their colonies. (As much as I love makki di roti, I doubt if it is a centuries-old food of the people of the Punjab; the British introduced maize to the region).
But Native Americans knew all about maize and therefore, all about popcorn. Archaeologists found popped corn kernels dating back to the first millennium BC, in New Mexico in North America. This suggests that popcorn was a traditional food in the region long before Jesus Christ was even born. The archaeologists also conducted an interesting experiment. They placed some of the unpopped kernels from the first millennium BC in hot oil at which – lo and behold! – the kernels promptly popped, creating the hitherto unknown concept of vintage popcorn! More seriously, one reason why Native Americans dried their corn kernels was because corn could last in that form for centuries without spoiling.
The real history of popcorn however – or at least the history that concerns us – only began in the late 19th century when a company in Chicago invented a machine that could make popcorn in large quantities and thus, created the global craze for popcorn because of the availability of mass production.
The links between popcorn and the movies seem to date back to Depression-era America. Till then, popcorn, like candy floss (or cotton candy) had been an outdoor food, sold at carnivals and fairs. But when cinema-owners lowered ticket prices to attract audiences during the Great Depression, they covered their losses by selling popcorn in the foyer.
Spice it up
Flavour the popcorn as you would a bhutta on the street: with nimbu and masala
Popcorn became the kind of food you could make at home much later. In the 1950s, American supermarkets started selling popcorn that any housewife could pop on a stove. And by the late Seventies, when the microwave arrived in kitchens, food companies began marketing microwave-friendly popcorn.
It is the latter – the microwave version – that should concern us. Now that microwave popcorn is available all over India, here are some things you should be careful about. Never, ever, buy any kind of flavoured popcorn. The best reason for steering clear is that the flavouring is often highly calorific.
But even if it says on the packet that the butter flavour is synthetic and therefore contains none of the calories of real butter, be very careful. Some studies have found a link between diacetyl, a synthetic chemical used to mimic the flavour of butter and Alzheimer’s. Moreover, there is also a good-taste reason for avoiding synthetic butter flavours. Not only do they never taste right but they also coat the roof of your mouth with an unpleasant substance which lingers for hours.
The reason I always stick to natural unflavoured microwave popcorn at home is because commercial ready-made popcorn (the stuff you get at many – but not all – cinema halls) is often cooked in the cheapest oil available, is doused in salt and is frequently packed with saturated fat. But if you make your popcorn at home, using a microwave and unflavoured corn kernels then you can be reasonably sure of getting popcorn that only amounts to around 30 calories a cup.
Of course, you have to be a popcorn fanatic to eat it in its pure form so most of us will need some flavouring. My own policy is to follow the bhutta principle. After all, popcorn is really just heated corn, so flavour it as you would a bhutta on the street: nimbu and masala (chaat masala is the easy way out but you can be more adventurous). That way you add zero calories and lots and lots of flavour.
If that tangy taste is not for you, then you can experiment with other seasonings. My son adds a little bit of genuine black truffle oil but that’s too fancy for me. I find that salt and a shake of ready-mixed Italian herbs (available at all grocers now) is enough. If you have access to good quality, freshly ground black pepper, then it adds a depth to popcorn that you could never have imagined. A little garlic salt never goes amiss either. And if you are desperate for a fatty taste (which frankly I don’t think popcorn really needs), then a drop or two of olive oil is usually enough.
Trendy popcorn bars in New York and London insist on serving such abominations as salted caramel popcorn etc
But remember that in much of the world, popcorn and sugar are seen as natural partners. When I went to the cinema in England as a boy, my greatest disappointment was that the popcorn was caramel-flavoured and disgustingly sweet. Even now, the many trendy popcorn bars that have sprung up in New York and London (oh yes, popcorn is really trendy these days) insist on serving such abominations as salted caramel popcorn, strawberry jam popcorn and the particularly loathsome drizzled chocolate crackle popcorn.
My guess is that the trendies will now take popcorn along the route travelled by the potato crisp – we will have kettle-cooked branding, an emphasis on the origins and quality of the corn and soon enough, coloured popcorn made from naturally coloured corn. (We already get blue taco chips made from blue corn, so popcorn is probably next).
Speaking for myself, I am going to give trendy popcorn a miss. I like it simple, made in my own kitchen in a microwave and flavoured with whatever simple ingredients I find lying around.
With that taste, that texture and that 30 calories-a-cup advantage, who could ask for more?
From HT Brunch, January 6
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