Steamed Corn with Szechwan Pepper-Salt


Corn, like the potato, is a New World vegetable that plays a minor but sweet part in Chinese cuisine. Grown predominately in northeast China, it is eaten straight from the cob by country folk or stripped into kernels for inclusion in soups and fritters. It was a boisterous favorite in our Chinese household, particularly for breakfast.

  • This is a no-fuss, 10-minute vegetable that is a colorful accompaniment to most any Chinese meal, especially pretty if steamed on com silk and served in a bamboo steamer. The requisite is to find the freshest com possible, ideally picked just before cooking, when the natural sugars have not yet converted to starch. If you are not within sprinting or driving distance of a cornfield and must buy your corn a day old in the market, choose it carefully. Look for firm, unblemished ears with the husks and silk intact, that when pulled back reveal plump, perfect kernels.

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As much as 8 hours in advance of serving, remove the husk and silk from the corn. Trim and set aside some of the prettiest silk for lining the steamer. Bag the silk in plastic, cover the corn with a damp towel, and refrigerate if you are working in advance.

Just before steaming, cut off any cob or dry kernels at the ends of the ears, then chop the ears into 4-inch segments with a cleaver or heavy knife.

Oil the bottom of a metal or bamboo steamer basket with a thin film of com or peanut oil. Spread the silk in a thin, even layer on top, then arrange the corn on the silk, leaving some space between the pieces.

Steaming the corn

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat. Add the corn to the steamer, cover tightly, and steam over medium-high heat about 8–10 minutes or until cooked to a nice firmness. Very young corn takes only minutes, mature ears take longer. Check so as not to overcook.

Serve the corn directly from the steamer with tongs, or transfer to a warm platter, silk and all. Invite the guests to roll the ears in butter and sprinkle them with pepper-salt.

Second helpings can be kept hot in the steamer, with the heat turned to the lowest setting. If left to cool, the kernels wrinkle.

Leftovers may be refrigerated once cool and make great eating for breakfast, resteamed until hot.