To almost anyone who grew up in Vietnam, street food is probably the quintessence of childhood memories. I remember the snack stands that were rampant near any school or park (or any street corner or pavement, really), selling anything from breakfast food to after-school snacks like rice paper salad (an all-time favorite of students everywhere), five-spice braised offal, green papaya and beef jerky salad, crab egg drop soup, fried fish balls, pickled makok fruits, candied star gooseberries and sweet puddings of all kinds only to name a few. As soon as the last school bell rang, kids from classrooms would spill out onto the streets and flock to these stands like hungry hyenas closing in on their prey. While that may give the impression that Vietnamese children are an unexpectedly savage bunch, it’s exactly how I remember the scene. Every afternoon, the streets near my school would jam for a couple of hours after school was out because of all the chaos from the buying and selling and eating and chatting that went on. Most people would sit on the tiny stools that the food vendors set out around their stand and eat the food right there, although many others would make a round of their favorite spots before congregating with friends to hang out and gossip between bites.
Myself, I never really participated in this ubiquitous ritual. My parents were always very adamant that I always come home immediately after class, partly because I usually had cram school classes to go to, partly because they were concerned about food safety. Mostly, though, they just thought that loitering around and eating snacks on the street were unbecoming of a good girl from a good family. (It wasn’t until years later that this illusion of theirs was completely shattered.)
It’s not that I never ate any of this stuff growing up. Even the strictest parents can’t be alerted all the time, so I did get my share of street food, albeit only occasionally. This one time, my aunt and I were attending the evening mass when the smell of fried corn from the cart in front of the church got so tempting that we had to sneak out in the middle of service to get our fill. It was a very popular dish of sautée corn kernels, scallions and dried shrimp; and I remember standing under the yellow glow of the street lamp and scooping up the corn with a tiny plastic spoon in such haste so that we could get back in time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Maybe because it was the most blasphemous thing I had ever done, this particular memory has always stuck with me, and whenever I think about Vietnamese street food, I always think back to this occasion and this dish. Or maybe it is the mix of corn and shrimp, ever so tasty and perfect in their sweet and salty harmony, that harks me back to the day when I shunned God for corn.
Vietnamese Street Corn
This dish is so very ridiculously easy to make, and it only has a handful of ingredients so there really is no need for a detailed recipe. All the ingredients and amounts listed here are only suggestions, feel free to make any tweaks and changes to your liking. Traditionally, this dish is always cooked to order and one portion at a time, and I do think it’s best consumed that way. Here, I’m also making just enough for one serving but you can make more if you want, just be sure to not overcrowd the pan.
Start with taking two scallions and mincing the bottom green part and set it aside.
Then thinly slice the green tops.
Also, mince a small clove of garlic and set aside as well.
In a skillet over high flames, heat up a couple teaspoons of vegetable oil and a pat of butter. In Vietnam, margarine or rendered pork lard is typically used. I prefer butter because its flavor compliments the corn nicely and, well, it’s a tiny bit healthier.
When the butter is melted, add in 3 tablespoons of dried baby shrimp. You can find these in the refrigerated section of Asian markets. If you can’t get them, regular dried shrimp also works; just chop them up a little as they are usually larger.
When the shrimps are dry and slightly golden, add in the minced white parts of the scallions and the garlic and sauté for a minute until fragrant.
Toss in a cup of corn and continue cooking until the corn is browned. You will hear popping sounds and some of the kernels will jump from the skillet.
Season with a teaspoon of sugar and a few grinds of pepper. The shrimps are salty so make sure you taste the mixture before adding any salt. Add in the remaining sliced scallions, stir well and turn off the heat.
Serve immediately, and with Sriracha, if desired.