Last year I had a freak accident while traveling in Southeast Asia. I fell and put a hairline crack in my front teeth. Ever since then, I’ve neither been able to gnaw on ribs nor bite into corn on the cob. My dentist warned me against it, lest I aggravate the injury. We’re heading into corn season as the weather heats up these days. I unfortunately have to pass on one of my favorite summer foods – grilled corn on the cob slathered with scallion oil and garnished with a sprinkling of salt. It’s a Vietnamese treat that I remember from childhood, and just because I can’t enjoy it doesn’t mean that you can’t either. Just make some scallion oil and grill the corn (boil it first) till the corn gets some charred parts.
I love corn and I was looking for -- and needed -- a corny change. Last month while dining at Street, Susan Feniger’s restaurant in Los Angeles, I noticed a side dish called “Vietnamese corn”. Oh, I thought, Susan was offering Angelenos a version of a Vietnamese street treat that I’d enjoyed a few years ago in the Motherland. How clever.
Once home, I looked through my travel notes and came across some chicken scratch I’d jotted down during a visit to Chau Doc, a border town on the fringes of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta. Rory and I were totally bowled over by the bap xao (“bahp sow”) that two women vendors were selling in the Chau Doc main square. Hot from the skillet, the corn was spicy, sweet, and briny. I asked for the recipe and the ladies told me how they sautéed the corn with various seasonings and insisted that a little margarine made their corn sing. They added a touch of MSG too but our sweet American corn doesn’t require that culinary trick.
I actually think that what makes the seared corn remarkable is the addition of dried shrimp, which imparts a delicate lobster-shrimp quality. Fish sauce undergirds the of-the-sea flavor. The hot chile contrasts well with the sweet corn. Butter is here to pump up and stay true to the Chau Doc street food vendors’ recipe. This simple dish is uncommonly tasty.
Corn with Chile, Scallion, and Shrimp
During summer, choose the sweetest corn available and remove the fibrous silk as you cut the corn, or you’ll be flossing with it. When out of season, frozen corn is a worthy stand-in. Dried shrimp is sold at Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai markets. In a pinch, use Mexican ground dried shrimp sold in plastic packages and start out with 1 tablespoon as it’s got a super fine texture. If you don't have dried shrimp, use about 1/4 cup chopped shrimp and/or increase the fish sauce to add briny oomph.
Serves 4 as a side dish
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup chopped scallion, white and green parts
1 1/2 tablespoons dried shrimp, quickly rinsed in warm water and finely chopped
1 or 2 red Thai chiles, chopped
4 cups fresh corn (cut from 4 large ears of corn)
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
About 1/8 teaspoon salt
1. Heat the oil and butter in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the scallion, dried shrimp and chiles. Cook for about 30 seconds until the scallion has wilted and the mixture is aromatic.
2. Add the corn, give things a big stir to combine, then sprinkle in the fish sauce and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the corn has cooked through. Remove from the heat, taste and add additional salt, as necessary, for a savory-sweet finish. Transfer to a serving bowl. Great when served hot or warm.