I grab the bag of popcorn from Ian, intent on salvaging what little hasn’t reached his mouth yet. He protests but only half-chewed kernels sputter out of his mouth, so full is it. Peering into the now grease-stained bag, I see a disparate mix of khaki and orange — the Chicago mix of caramel and cheese ”“ that has more of the former than the latter.
“You finished all the cheese!” I accuse Ian, my eyes boring holes into him.
“I did not!” he replies defiantly, arms crossing over his weight-room-enhanced chest, oily-orange fingers neon signs of guilt.
“Well, what good is it if I don’t have cheese along with the caramel?” I shoot back.
And that, as you can see, is the whole idea behind Chicago-style popcorn.
Until I meet friends and business partners Oliver Ong and Rory Johnson, co-founders of Chicago Popcorn Shops, I don’t realize that popcorn isn’t just popcorn. Even when I visit the ever-famous Garrett’s Popcorn in Chicago, I didn’t realize the travesty I’d committed in daring to compare it to Poppycock and its mass produced ilk. Now I know better and this popcorn pair has set me straight.
“Popcorn is part of Chicago culture,” Rory explains. In the States, October is rightfully National Popcorn Poppin’ Month because of the popcorn harvests which take place each fall (in the Midwest). In fact, it may not be a coincidence that most U.S. popcorn is grown in the Midwest – Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri. Back in the little shop, Rory looms over me, the popcorn professor in the flesh, standing tall and authoritative. “Kids, when they walk home from school, [they] gotta have their ”˜carmel’ and cheese popcorn. Carmel and cheese, that’s the Chicago mix.”
I may know it as “caramel” popcorn but to these two Chicagoans, it’s “carmel.” Even the way they say the word, so gently, almost lovingly, is indicative of its importance, and the way this golden substance is cooked carefully to achieve its superlative bronze sheen.
When they first came to the Philippines two years ago, Oliver and Rory admit they were amused with the popcorn flavors available locally. “Sour cream! Strawberry! Good flavors but it’s not what I do,” Rory exclaims, his voice incredulous, his hands raised in mock surrender. “I only do ”˜carmel’ and cheese.”
As Rory and I talk, Oliver is busy scooping the finished popcorn into airtight containers positioned under the counter. When an order comes in for 50/50 (half caramel, half cheese or whatever the customer’s preference may be) scoops of each flavor are alternately poured into the tin or paper bag followed by a good shake right before the tin is closed or the bag sealed. If you’re lucky enough to be in the store when they cool the caramel popcorn on the stainless steel cooling table, you’re in for quite a show. “Our ”˜carmel’ isn’t just splashed on,” says Oliver. “We ‘carmelize’ and then coat each kernel. And our popcorn is air-popped.”
Oliver and Rory had to adjust their caramel recipe to work with Manila’s climate and humidity. Despite the challenge, their ebullience is evident coupled with their insistence on popcorn done properly. “Ingredients matter, the process matters,” Oliver says. “This is handcrafted popcorn. We’re literally crafting this by hand,” echoes Rory. The two touch on their mantra of “making it fresh, keeping it local,” their commitment to using great local ingredients as much as possible; already, they’re huge fans of Philippine sugar.
Chicago-style or even Chicago popcorn achieves a precarious balance that’s salty-sweet and boasts impeccable texture. It’s caramel that rings true with notes of deep brown sugar and butter, and cheese that’s worlds away from the “splash and shake” variety. Though he refused to reveal much, Oliver confirms that they don’t use cheese powder.
When you visit Chicago Popcorn Shops, choose your desired ratio of salty-sweet (Chicago Mix), or go for the Plain, Butter, Karamel Krisp or Cheese. Prices range from P20-P65 for a Single, P40-P120 for a Double and P280 for a tin, which I highly recommend. If you bring the tin back on your next visit you can refill it for just P200 (an introductory offer). I promise you that you’ll finish half the tin and you won’t even know it ”“ or want to share. All you’ll be left with are your cheesy-sweet fingers to lick clean.
Chicago Popcorn Shops
2/F Entertainment Mall (new wing near the Science Discovery Center)
Mall of Asia, Pasay City
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