Going gourmet: Why the popularity of artisanal popcorn is exploding in the UAE

With popcorn now available in flavours as varied as curry, chilli-caramel and goat's cheese, is that the death knell sounding for plain old buttery kernels?

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It's long been the trusty friend of any cinemagoer, thanks to its moreish saltiness and ability to comfort a viewer through even the most abysmal of films. However, popcorn is no longer a buttery snack relegated only to darkened movie houses, destined to grease the fingers of film fans as they repeatedly dip into the cardboard tub nestled in their lap.

Nowadays, you're just as likely to find the popped kernels served at upmarket bars, or snuggled against cans of fancy soda as part of a five-star hotel's minibar offerings. But this is no ordinary popcorn. Much like its elegant new setting, this stuff is an elevated version of its humble predecessor. The snack is now being reimagined in a host of new flavours. Curry, sticky toffee, goat's cheese and chilli-chocolate are some of the artisanal varieties snackers can find on supermarket shelves in the UAE and beyond.

The latest player to enter the game in the Emirates is Joe & Seph's, a gourmet popcorn brand that handcrafts its flavoursome kernels in London. A family-run company devised by Joseph Sopher, his wife Jackie, and their son Adam, the brand's offerings can be found in Waitrose, Spinneys, Dubai's seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel and even aboard Emirates's first-class cabins. "There is a real trend toward clean ingredients and brands with truth and an honest story in the Middle East," Adam tells The National, while mulling over the reason behind the company's success. "Historically, the popcorn and snacks you'd get served wouldn't have the cleanest ingredients and certainly wouldn't be available in lots of interesting flavours."

Handout of Garrett Popcorn. Courtesy of Garrett Popcorn *** Local Caption ***  Pistachio CaramelCrisp, Dubai Skyline Tin.jpg

Joe & Seph's, by comparison, boasts 40 variations, such as peanut butter, gingerbread, and caramel and espresso. "There's a huge amount of brands, excuse the pun, popping up, but I think we do something different," says Adam. The idea for the company, launched in 2010, came from the Sophers's own kitchen, with Joseph routinely cooking up a batch of popcorn.

“He always made it quite differently to how popcorn in the UK was made,” says Adam, adding that the brand’s name is a tribute to his father. “Traditionally you fry the kernels with lots of oil, and put some powdered seasoning on; it would always be quite artificial. He made it by air-popping the popcorn, not frying it, literally blasting the kernels with hot air with no oil, and using natural ingredients.”

Joe & Seph's isn't the only brand in the UAE bringing gourmet popcorn to hungry mouths, either. Poparazzi branches can be found around the country, from Dubai's Ibn Batutta Mall to Abu Dhabi's Centrepoint, Marina Mall, offering sweet and savoury options. US import Garrett, which has outlets in The Dubai Mall and Yas Mall, is also a major player in the country, with flavours such as coconut curry and almond-caramel stashed inside its retro-style tins. Cinema chains such as Vox and Reel also sell more than the traditional lightly salted butter, with choices including Flamin' Hot ­Cheetos. Let's Popcorn is another brand available in Dubai's Times Square Centre and Festival City, which specialises in out-of-the-ordinary flavours such as caramel-cinnamon and Oreo peanut.

Dubai, U.A.E., September 25,  2018. VB Photo Project:  OFW 's Portraits.  Jezzi Ann Coroña-22 from Ilo-Ilo, Philippines.  Works at Let's Popcorn, Times Square.  I miss my mother the most back home aside from my friends at my province.  I am saving up to build my own house and putting up a small business which I am not quite sure of yet.
Victor Besa / The National

And who would blame brands for wanting to take a bite out of an ever-growing market? Indeed, the global popcorn industry is projected to reach $15 billion (Dh55bn) worldwide by 2023, according to Allied Market Research – a big number for such a minuscule morsel. "In some countries, popcorn isn't a snack that is eaten and we've had to educate people on what popcorn is and why you would eat it while you're not watching a film," says Adam. "But in the UAE, people already eat it on many different occasions, not just at the cinema, so it's an easier journey to take the customer on … to say that you've had this popcorn, it's not very good, but try ours, it's much better."

Joe & Seph’s, which is stocked in high-end London department stores such as Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, as well as premium hotels around the world, says that in the Middle East, its most popular flavours include classic caramel, salted caramel and nuttier varieties, so far anyway. “A different flavour idea concocted by my dad will land on my desk every morning,” laughs Adam. “We’ll go through 20 different versions to get the right flavour. It’s actually quite difficult to do what we do.” 

While the brand focuses on well-sourced ingredients, it does embrace a certain indulgence – a must, Adam says, to ensure a tasty end result. “Our one mission is to make the best-tasting popcorn, we’re not trying to make the cheapest or the healthiest,” he admits. But that’s not to say it’s completely sinful. “Air-popping, not frying, means there’s no oil, which means the calories per serving are not horrific,” Adam adds. Another luxury touch is the removal of all unpopped kernels and sharp shells languishing at the bottom of its bags, saving you a potential trip to the dentist. 

Regarding the future of gourmet popcorn, is it a trend that, like the kernels of corn, expands further? “Certainly in Europe we’re seeing a big movement towards vegan. We’re launching a range of vegan popcorn in September,” says Adam. “We’re not sure if it will catch on in the Middle East as a trend, but that’s certainly coming through over here.”

At the end of the day, though, Adam says there’s one guiding light innovative brands such as his and indulgent snacks such as popcorn follow: “It’s all about taste.”