Monday, November 21, 2011

A Tiger Mom’s Daughter Makes Popcorn

I’ve had this brilliant idea bouncing around for a while: flavored popcorn. But not just plain old cheese-flavored popcorn or kettle corn – truly epic, sweet, salty, tangy, and spicy popcorn with crazy Indian flavors that would subvert the whole notion of what popcorn is supposed to taste like.

And it would be a cinch to make, too. I knew exactly what flavors I wanted and how to get them (basically, I’d use the spice combination in Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for Indian snack mix, which I’ve used successfully before in other experiments). I knew how to get the flavors and the popcorn together – I’d cook the spices along with the popcorn, a technique I had learned from a spiced popcorn recipe in City Cuisine, a cookbook featuring dishes from a wonderfully original (and sadly defunct) Los Angeles restaurant.

How could I go wrong?

Let me count the ways.

First, I haven’t laid eyes on that cookbook for years. If I still have it, it’s somewhere in storage at my parents’ place, three time zones away. I haven’t made the spiced popcorn recipe from that book in years, and the exact details of the technique involved were fuzzy. I’d have to wing it, but I’m good at winging it. Usually.

I assembled and mixed my spices, per Jaffrey’s recipe: salt, sugar, cinnamon, turmeric, black mustard seeds, cayenne (I like to use a LOT), cloves, black pepper, and the secret ingredient, amchoor, or dried green mango powder.

Then I heated up some oil in a big pot to pop the corn. When it was sufficiently hot, I dumped in the popcorn kernels, let a few of them pop, then dumped in the spices. I could heat the happy thumps of popping kernels hitting the bottom of the pot’s lid, and smell the spices. And something burning.

I lifted the lid about an inch. Several kernels of corn shot across the kitchen through a puff of smoke and skidded under the refrigerator. If you make popcorn on the stove you can expect a bit of steam when you crack open the lid but this wasn’t steam. It was the whole darned project going up in smoke.

I realized immediately what had happened. The City Cuisine recipe (if I recalled correctly) involved only dried spices and salt. My recipe involved sugar and amchoor, which was essentially powdered dried fruit. Dumped into a pan with a layer of hot oil on the bottom, it cooked into a jam-like gunk, then scorched.

Duh. What did I think would happen? Here, I can hear my parents’ Pavlovian response to such mishaps by their offspring. “The problem was, you weren’t thinking!”

Well, I was thinking now. Failure is a memorable teacher, if nothing else. And one lesson I’ve absorbed from a Chinese-American childhood (other than to never put sugar in your tea at a dim sum place) is that adversity is good for you. Spending hours upon hours doing stuff you hate (Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, anyone?) makes you a better person – and really good at doing stuff you hate, a regrettably important skill for adults.

Fortunately, this training also made me better at doing stuff I like, especially when it goes bad – like now. Thankfully, I had plenty of all the ingredients I needed, and the burnt gunk on the bottom of the pan washed off fairly easily. Time for take two. This time, I’d keep the amchoor and sugar separate from the other spices and add them only at the end, after the popcorn had finished popping.

The oil was heated and the kernels were just starting to thump against the inside of the lid. I lifted it quickly and dumped in the spices, leaving the amchoor and sugar off to the side. I shook the pan to distribute the spices as the kernels popped, thinking of how pretty the finished popcorn would look – sunny yellow from the turmeric and flecked with bits of spice.

The popping slowed, then stopped. I lifted the lid: a few sunny yellow buds of popcorn, but the rest were flecked with black. The spices had burned again.

A lesser warrior would have given up. But not me. I wasn’t raised to be a quitter. Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill you will make you grow stronger, and being stronger is always a good thing. This was a teachable moment, and I was going to learn from it, dammit!

Take three. It was obvious that cooking the spices with the popcorn was a no-go. (Was that really how they did it in the City Cuisine recipe? Now I was beginning to doubt my memory, which is normally pretty good.) Just dumping the spices onto the popcorn after it was popped wouldn’t work either; I’d tried that before and the spices never stuck to the popcorn – they just sank uselessly to the bottom of whatever container the popcorn was in. So I opted for the method Madhur Jaffrey used to incorporate the spices into her snack mix: I heated the mustard seeds in oil until they popped, removed the hot oil from the heat, and stirred in all the spices except the amchoor, salt, and sugar. Then I poured the mixture over the popcorn and stirred. Once everything was combined, I sprinkled on the amchoor, salt, and sugar and stirred again.

Close, but still not perfect. It was certainly edible, but not quite what I wanted. Some pieces of popcorn were covered with gobs of the spicy mix, while others were nearly white. Also, the mix was almost too saturated with flavor –as if there was too much spice for the amount of popcorn used. I knew exactly what I needed to do: slightly increase both the amount of popcorn and the amount of oil used to heat the spices. The problem with this batch was that the oil-and-spice mixture was thick and pasty, not the melted-butter consistency that would even cover the popcorn. These two adjustments would both improve the flavor balance and the distribution of spices over the popped kernels.

Now I was feeling both like a very proud cub of a good Tiger Mom and like a particularly masochistic minion of Christopher Kimball. The end was in sight. But my kitchen was a hot mess (literally) and it was getting close to dinnertime. The (hopefully) final denouement of my project would have to wait.

Flash forward about 20 hours. This whole experiment was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day. I assembled my spices (again), measured out a slightly larger quantity of popcorn, and popped it as usual -- again. Then I dumped it into a big bowl, wiped out the pot, and added the oil and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds had all popped, I added the spices, just as before. This time, there was enough oil to dissolve, or at least, evenly disperse them. I poured the now- bright-orange liquid over the popcorn and stirred vigorously until the popcorn was the sunny, nearly uniform yellow I had hoped for. Then I poured over the amchoor/salt/sugar mixture and stirred again.

I tasted it. Success! About freaking time, too. Sweet, salty, spicy, tangy, and despite the seemingly copious amount of oil involved, not discernibly greasy. A perfect snack for Bollywood movie nights and beyond. Forget the Tiger Cub – now I felt like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: my 10,000 hours of popcorn-making practice (well, that’s what it felt like) had finally resulted in transcendence. It felt amazing and made me wonder why I didn’t do experiments like this more often.

Then I realized it was close to dinnertime again and it was time to wash and put away all that stuff in the sink before getting started on yet another group of recipes. And I was now running low on black peppercorns, one of my husband’s favorite flavorings, too. And cooking oil. Oops. Maybe that’s why.

But no regrets. The ride was totally worth it.


(inspired by recipes from Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cookingand City Cuisine,by Mary Milliken and Susan Feniger)

This recipe actually is really easy to make, believe it or not. It would make a fun and different cocktail nibble for a holiday open house. Amchoor (which contributes a tangy, fruity note) and black mustard seeds are available at Indian markets.

¾” piece cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste—this amount makes the mix quite spicy!)
1-1/4 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 teaspoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons amchoor (dried green mango powder)
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
½ tablespoon black mustard seeds
4 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola (or more if you need it to pop your corn)

1. In a spice grinder or mortar, grind the cinnamon stick, cloves, and peppercorns until they are powdery. Combine with the turmeric and cayenne in a small cup and set aside.

2. In a separate cup, combine the sugar, salt, and amchoor; set aside.

3. Pop the corn. If you don’t have a popcorn popper, you can do it the old-school way, on the stovetop: put 2 tablespoons of canola or other neutral oil in a large, heavy pot with a lid and drop in a test kernel. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat until the kernel pops. Then add the remaining kernels. Keep the pot covered, but shake it around occasionally to distribute the kernels evenly. When the popping stops, remove the pot from the heat and pour the popped corn into a large bowl.

4. Wipe out the pot (if you’ve used one) or use a small, heavy skillet to make the seasoned oil. Put the 4 tablespoons of oil into the pot or skillet and bring the heat to medium. Add the mustard seeds and cook until all the seeds have popped. Remove the skillet or pot from the heat and stir in the ground spices.

5. Pour the spice mixture over the popped corn and stir vigorously with a large spoon (or even your hands) until the popcorn is evenly coated. Sprinkle on the salt/sugar/amchoor mixture and stir again.


  1. Thanks for submitting your recipe to Food Blog: Post of the Day. I loved checking out your blog!

    JoAnn Ryan

  2. Practice does make perfect ;) Have you read Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies"? This reminds me of the story where one of the characters who is newly immigrated from India tries to recreate a snack mix with Rice Krispies and various spices.