Popcorn has one job. So what happens when it won’t pop?
On the arduous journey to perfect popcorn, why two Tāmaki Makaurau eateries mysteriously shut, plus coffee in a pouch.
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
There’s nothing quite like the lively ceremony of making stovetop popcorn. First there’s the clattering of those amber-coloured kernels into the pot. Hopefully within minutes, there’s the first hollow pop. Then, between a few beats of suspense, another abrupt crackle, before a flurry of kernels transform by way of steam into crunchy puffs. All this is then festooned with salt, spices and seasonings, and as is inevitable with popcorn, quickly eaten without restraint. When I consider the process through which these kernels become the delicious snack we eat, I can’t help but think about the concept of ihi: “the power of living things to develop and grow to their full maturity and state of excellence,” as Cleve Barlow described in his 1991 book Tikanga Whakaaro.
Perhaps this level of philosophising over popcorn hints at my currently obsessive relationship with it. Att any point in time before this year, I’d have categorised that relationship as more of a friendly ambivalence. Sure, I’d share a box of popcorn at the movies, but it wasn’t exactly essential, and you certainly wouldn’t find me shaking a pot of kernels on the stove at home. However, I’ve had two of what I would describe as “popcorn canon events” this year that have turned my relationship with the snack inside out. One of these was my introduction to Bar Planet, a martini bar in Sydney where our drink order was accompanied by a paper bag of popcorn that was so wonderful we spent a good chunk of our evening speculating about what exactly the stuff was laced with. It was the first time I’d ever been really captured by popcorn and it was only this past week that I figured out Bar Planet’s recipe (thanks to TikTok). The second event was a chance discovery of one of American chef Carla Lalli Music’s recipes for popcorn, or more specifically, her “Magical 7-Spice Umami Popcorn” (which I’ve spoken about excitedly in this newsletter before). That is to say, I am a changed woman. You will now find me regularly shaking a pot of kernels over the stove at home.
However, after months of successful popping, my recent attempts at making popcorn have been absolute failures. Bowls of eccentrically seasoned puffs have dissipated into a world of kernels that refuse to pop and blackened blobs of white at the bottom of the pot. It’s almost routine at this point for my flatmates to return to a house filled with the smell of burnt maize and inquire gently about the status of yet another failed popcorn attempt. Fossil evidence suggests that corn was popped as early as 4,700 BC in Peru and yet here I am, just a few months into my journey, unable to get a kernel to pop.
I turned to the internet which suggested two possible causes for this popcorn misfortune: incorrect cooking method or old/ bad kernels. I’d continued my previously fool-proof popping technique (including exactly the same pot and stove top) which had been cross referenced with those in online popcorn forums, so I let myself off the hook with that one. The variable that had changed, however, was my kernels. Because finding kernels at the supermarket can be spotty (unless you’re after the microwave kind), I’d turned to a rotating selection of bulk bin stores for my stash. I began buying small portions to use on the same day of purchase – and still had the same unfortunate outcome: the absence of movie snack material and the presence of failure. Popcorn can last indefinitely when stored in a sealed bag or airtight container but without that, kernels can lose their ability to pop. I have a suspicion that the lack of consistent airtightness in these kinds of stores might be affecting the freshness of these kernels. Popcorn only has one real job (I mean, you can technically plant the kernels too but that’s another story), and so surely we have a problem when they don’t pop.
After probing me on my method, a spokesperson for Consumer NZ said the issue was pretty clear-cut. “If popcorn doesn't pop it's not really fit for purpose,” the spokesperson said. “And it can’t be repaired,” they added, citing the Consumer Guarantees Act. At around $1.60 a pop (or non-pop, rather) I’d absorbed the financial hit, chucked the burnt kernels in the bin and continued on with my day, but Consumer NZ recommends returning your dud popcorn and asking for a refund or replacement – if not for you, for the benefit of future customers. “Just because it's cheap doesn't mean the Consumer Guarantees Act isn't valid,” they told me.
To make this story more confusing, after months of failure, I bought popcorn from a new bulk bin shop earlier this week. The outcome was astounding, if not rather frustrating for the story. The popcorn popped without a hitch using my regular method. I’ve come to accept that this inconsistency is part of the thrill of my infatuation with popcorn. Sure, if my popcorn-making record had been less unfortunate I’d have enjoyed a lot more bowls of the stuff by now, but would I know as much as I know now about the inner workings of these little yellow kernels? Absolutely not.
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A cloud of mystery hangs above the recent closures of two Tāmaki Makaurau hospitality venues. The doors at long-running eatery and venue Leigh Sawmill Cafe north of Auckland and beloved Karangahape Road pasta restaurant Cotto have remained shut for more than a week, with staff being told to hand in their keys and a note blaming “unforeseen circumstances” for the sudden closures. The link between the venues? An Auckland businessman involved in a number of hospitality businesses across the city. The Spinoff takes a look at what’s going on.
My McDonald’s order is unwavering: two cheeseburgers, medium fries and a strawberry milkshake each and every time (though I am proud to share with you all that I am on a two-month streak of not eating McDonalds). That predictability makes life easier for sure, but Hayden Donnell’s piece lamenting the easy-to-read drive-thru menu boards of the past makes me wonder if my order isn’t by choice but rather a coping mechanism in response to the unreadable menu boards of today, filled with “random doodles and words of affirmation”. Perhaps if I could read the menu, I’d mix things up a bit? Maybe I’d try something new? Who knows.
You can tell a lot about someone by their preference of the pastel-coloured Pals cans. The RTDs are such a familiar sight at festivals, bars and clubs that it’s hard to believe they’ve only been around for four years. Duncan Greive tells the remarkable story of how Pals has transformed from a two-man startup to a brand so covetable that its given rise to a league of almost indistinguishable competitors.
It turns out, we like to drink all sorts of things out of cans. Canned iced coffee, once a newfangled novelty, has become exceptionally ordinary throughout Aotearoa. It’s now available at dairies and supermarkets, which is great news for those who like their daily cup(s) of joe cold, portable and quick, but the ever-growing range of options is also somewhat overwhelming. We tasted 25 kinds of readily available canned coffee to sort the “weird” from the “nice”.
We live in a world of many mysteries – including, apparently, how our chips are seasoned. Take a read of this fascinating investigative piece from the Guardian exploring the secretive world of chip flavours.
The weekly snack
Youus Earl Grey Cafe Latte, $2.70 from Bok Mart Mt Eden: In South Korean convenience stores, coffees, cordials and teas in bag-type receptacles are a pervasive part of the experience. Usually you’ll find them stored just above a chest freezer packed with ice-filled plastic cups. It’s a symbiotic relationship: the liquid inside the bags needs a home and the icy cups need a beverage. Connoisseurs of convenience stores whip up concoctions using these cups and bagged drinks, tipping in various flavoured milks, liquors or sparkling waters to suit their personal preferences as if they’re hunched over a cauldron conjuring some kind of deliciously drinkable potion. When I was in Seoul last month I indulged in this convenience-store potion-making daily, and found the whole process delightful – even with the corresponding pang of guilt around all the single-use plastic (however, I’d hazard a guess that there are some benefits to bagged packaging when it comes to shipping emissions). While shopping for supplies at my local Korean grocer on Saturday afternoon I noticed they’d begun stocking a range of these pouch-packaged drinks. For old time’s sake I couldn’t leave without adding one to my basket: an Earl Grey-flavoured latte. So how do these drinks stack up when you take them out of their natural convenience store habitat, and instead drink them from an old cup in the kitchen of an Auckland flat in between emails? I regret to inform you that it’s not the same experience at all. Nothing about it was particularly unpleasant, but without the bright lights, novelty and colourful shelves of noodles and chips, all that was left was an intensely sweet drink and an empty promise of Earl Grey which was barely detectable. Topping up my glass with a few extra cubes of ice and a dash of oat milk certainly helped, but it’s a lesson: attempting to relive something to the hilt is a recipe for disappointment. 5.5/10
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte