My Grandmother’s Vietnamese Corn with Scallion Oil Tastes Like the Best Parts of Summer

published Sep 1, 2021
summer
Grilled Corn with Vietnamese Scallion Oil

A sweet, umami-rich oil made with scallions, sugar, and fish sauce bathes grilled corn in this summery side dish.

Serves4

Prep5 minutes

Cook15 minutes

Jump to Recipe
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
corn on plate
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner

When I graduated from college, my grandparents gifted me a trip to Vietnam — my first visit home since I left at the age of 5. We spent a heady week in Saigon, where I drank my fill of cà phê sữa đá each morning and then sampled nearly everything at the markets — from rectangles of crispy pork belly (the crackle of which nearly hurt my teeth) to overfull bowls of hủ tiếu noodles — while sitting on a plastic chair, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other diners. The richness of those meals warmed all the lost parts of me. 

Then we truly went home, to the town where I was born in the Mekong Delta. We left at first light, when Saigon was just waking, and the moped engines began to hum like gathering cicadas. My grandparents splurged on a car to drive us the five hours to Châu Đốc, a city that hugs the spindly Hau Giang River and brushes against Cambodia to the north. We crossed the river on a small ferry crowded with cars, people, and strolling food vendors, who hoped to entice bored families sitting in their cars. 

I wasn’t hungry — I didn’t think I could ever be hungry again, after those soul-satisfying Saigon meals — but then I saw a vendor with a huge basket of pale-colored corn. The cobs were piled high, like ivory bricks. The vendor approached our car window, left open for a snatch of elusive breeze, and offered us a handful. Before I could say anything, my grandmother — tiny, stern, impossibly elegant — waved several bills out the window, elbowing me in the face in the process. 

“We’ll take eight!” she said. 

Once paid, she gave us each piece of corn, including the driver. She ate hers quickly, with a sigh, her teeth scraping every last bit of corn milk. She reached for another. This from the woman who craved so little, who couldn’t be enticed by five-star restaurants or French bakeries, unimpressed by any cooking that didn’t come from her own kitchen. I tentatively bit into my ear of corn. Glutinous corn is incredibly creamy, but it’s not very sweet. It tastes starchy and a little sticky. It wasn’t like any corn I’d ever had.

“You like it?” my grandma asked. 

“Hmm,” I said, noncommittal. 

Offended, she declared, “This is how corn should taste. I’ll show you.”

When we arrived in Châu Đốc, my grandmother went to the central market and bought six ears of corn. She heated her portable stovetop and made a simple scallion oil, sweetened with sugar, and amplified with a splash of good-quality fish sauce. She generously coated each ear of corn in the scallion oil and presented them to us on a big platter. After I bit into mine, I understood. The richness of the glutinous corn danced with the scallion oil — sometimes sharp, sometimes melting. It tasted like the best parts of summer, turned way up.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner

Since that trip, I’ve made my version of corn with scallion oil. Corn is dear to my Ohio-born husband too, and we both crave this version. It’s both decadent and simple; a little seductive, yet wholesome. I don’t use glutinous corn, since I’ve only found it occasionally at an Asian market, but regular corn is just as good. You can grill or boil it, although I prefer the char of the grill. You could even remove the kernels from the cob and toss them in the scallion oil for a kind of Vietnamese corn salad. 

I save the leftover scallion oil to serve with a bowl of white rice, or as a seasoning for steamed fish. When I was young, my grandmother liked to drizzle it onto a toasted French baguette for a simple take on savory toast that we ate while watching endless episodes of Paris By Night. The sweet-and-salty richness is endlessly versatile, making scallion oil my new favorite condiment — especially when paired with fresh corn.

When I talk about eating grilled corn with scallion oil, I’m talking about the way the markets in the Midwest bloom with husks in July. The sweet pebbly crunch of kernels, and the smell of sunscreen mixed with bug spray. Sun and sprinklers. An American summer. I’m also talking about a ferry crossing a distant river at the apex of two countries. The way my grandmother reached into her purse, nearly knocking us all over in her haste. The milkiness of glutinous corn and the way it plays with earthy fish sauce; land and sea in one bite. I’m talking about a meeting of worlds. A moment that is neither of the past or present, but somewhere, deliciously, beyond both. 

Grilled Corn with Vietnamese Scallion Oil

A sweet, umami-rich oil made with scallions, sugar, and fish sauce bathes grilled corn in this summery side dish.

Prep time 5 minutes

Cook time 15 minutes

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 4 ears

    fresh corn

  • 3

    medium scallions

  • 1/3 cup

    neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable

  • 1 tablespoon

    granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon

    fish sauce

Instructions

  1. Prepare an outdoor grill for medium, direct heat. Meanwhile, shuck 4 ears corn. Thinly slice 3 medium scallions. Heat 1/3 cup neutral oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering (test by dropping in a piece of scallion; it should barely sizzle). Add the scallions and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat. Add 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon fish sauce and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

  2. When the grill is ready, scrape the grates clean if needed. Place the corn on the grill and grill uncovered until charred in spots, turning them every few minutes, 8 to 10 minutes total. Transfer to a plate. Brush the corn all over with the scallion oil. Serve with the remaining scallion oil.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The scallion oil can be made and refrigerated up to 1 week ahead. Rewarm over low heat before using.