There’s no denying that the best way to eat fresh corn is straight off the cob, perhaps with a bit of butter. Sadly, it’s not everywhere that you can get luminous cobs packed from end-to-end with translucent pearls of sweet, crisp deliciousness.
I’m not sure how corn first wound up in Japan, but the proper use for the variety of corn that was introduced was either lost in translation, or the person who introduced it was playing a cruel joke on the Japanese. I can almost picture a conversation taking place with a guy in denim overalls futilely trying to explain to a guy wearing straw sandals and a conical hat that the corn is meant for feeding livestock. Whatever the case, for most of its history in Japan, corn (or tomorokoshi as it’s known there) has been a far cry from the sweet corn with tender juicy kernels we get in the US.
Any visitor who’s gone to a summer festival in Japan and excitedly purchased an ear can no-doubt relate. It’s easy to be lured in by the seductive scent of grilled corn and caramelized teriyaki sauce. But that initial excitement quickly sours when you bite into the cob only to come away with a mouthful of tough, waxy maize, with a chewy texture like stale bubblegum that you forgot to remove the wrapper from.
Put simply, Japanese corn has to be grilled until charred and then doused with some kind of tasty sauce to make it remotely edible. The thing is, the problem with the corn in Japan isn’t the preparation method, it’s the corn itself. With every disappointing corn experience I’ve always thought to myself that it could be amazing if they just grew some proper corn.
Back on this side of the pond, after spending an entire summer gorging on lightly buttered just-picked ears of corn, I started getting a little bored. That’s when I decided to give Japanese corn on the cob another chance by using sweet American corn. Instead of a teriyaki sauce, I made a miso butter, which is an unlikely combination that happens to go together like sour cream and chives.
The earthy miso accentuates the sweetness of the corn, while butter lends some creaminess that takes the salty edge off. To get a smoky flavor, I grilled the corn on a very hot grill until the sugars start to caramelize and the tips of each kernel start to char. Then I glaze each ear with some miso butter before sticking them back on the grill to caramelize the sauce.
Since the natural sugars in corn starts turning to starch as soon as it’s picked, it’s important to get corn as fresh as possible. The easiest way to judge the freshness of the corn is to peel some of the husk back to reveal the corn underneath. The kernels should be plump, and almost translucent if it’s really fresh. As it ages and the sugars turn to starch, the kernels become more opaque.
Unfortunately most farmers/stores don’t want you molesting their corn until you buy it. Luckily there are other ways to pick out good corn by looking at the husk and silk. The husk should be vibrant green, stiff, and still be filled with moisture. If the husk is yellowish, limp, or dry these are all signs that the corn is less than fresh. You also want to check the husk for holes or dark spots that could indicate the underlying corn is diseased or has been infested with bugs. The cut end of the stem should look freshly cut, not dried out and woody. Lastly look at the silk. It should be a deep shade of brunette, not blonde. Blonde silk means the corn hasn’t fully matured and you’re likely to shuck it and find underdeveloped kernels.
- 4 ears sweet corn
- 3 tablespoons cultured unsalted butter (softened)
- 3 tablespoons miso
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1 small clove garlic (grated)
- Peel away the husks and silk of the corn, leaving the stem attached to the cob. Use a damp paper towel to rub off any stray strands of silk.
- Put the corn on a hot grill or in a hot broiler, turning periodically until there are some charred specs on every surface of the corn.
- In the meantime, add the butter, miso, honey and garlic. Use the back of a fork to mash the mixture together.
- When the corn is done, spread a generous amount of miso mixture onto each ear of corn and return to the grill. Grill, rotating regularly until the miso has caramelized onto the outside of the corn.