On a recent trip to Mauritius, I tucked into one of the most unique tasting sweet snacks that has set me on the path of a new culinary quest. It was a slice of a silken, steamed pudding made with sweet corn of all things. Served alongside my sundowner cocktail at the Mangrove beach shack bar at the Club Med La Plantation d’Albion resort, it was a dessert that made me look at the humble corn from a whole new perspective.
While we’re used to seeing vegetables like carrot and bottle-gourd co-opted into sweet dishes like gajar and doodhi halwas—and the former, also into carrot cake—here in India, fresh sweet corn kernels are usually relegated to the role of a butter- or chaat masala-topped cinema snack. And even though an ear of farm-fresh corn can truly be as sweet as candy, rarely do we showcase corn as dessert.
However, that’s not true in other parts of the world. All through Central and South America—which is where corn was born—there are myriad desserts incorporating corn. It’s also very commonly found in South East Asian desserts, especially in countries like Thailand and Vietnam where sweet corn is frequently combined with coconut milk. This being the case with the deliciously silky che bap, a Vietnamese corn and coconut milk pudding with sago pearls for added texture and bite.
Interestingly, desserts made with sweet corn are catching on in India of late. The chefs I spoke with tell me that sweet corn has a delicate, non-challenging flavour of its own. And that is due to its natural sweetness and nuttiness, it goes well, not just in savoury dishes, but in a host of desserts too.
One such sweet corn dessert is the Thai version of che bap called tra ko that’s served to diners after an elaborate Thai hot pot meal at the Pan Asian restaurant Fumi, at the Sahara Star Hotel in Mumbai. Here, sweetened with palm sugar and flavoured with pandanus leaves, the whole corn kernels are covered with a jelly-like salted coconut milk and corn flour custard that is steamed in a ‘cup’ fashioned out of a banana leaf. “When deciding on the star ingredient for our dessert, I was drawn to the unique flavours and cultural significance of corn. In Thailand, this dessert holds a special place in the hearts of locals,” says Thai expat Kanjana Nikesri, chef de cuisine, at Fumi. “The choice of corn was deliberate—its natural sweetness, appealing colour, and the availability of American sweet corn year-round made it an ideal candidate for this creation.”
For Chef Niyati Rao, partner-chef at Mumbai restobar KMC*, her tryst with employing corn in a dessert she calls ‘corny ice cream’ came about by sheer accident. A midnight craving for ice cream of a “crazy flavour” saw her churn some generic ice cream base with a handful of cornbread crumbs leftover from the restobar’s Sunday brunch. But this wasn’t the final product as we have it today. “Though it tasted amazing, we worked more on the recipe and replaced the cornbread with actual corn kernels. We sat this atop a crumbled white chocolate and corn blondie base. We then made a powder that resembled the cinema popcorn smell—sweet, savoury and buttery. This powder is sprinkled atop the dessert,” says Rao of her dessert that’s a hit with her diners.
Choosing an unusual ingredient for a dessert of a corn and lime tart with corn silk syrup and red chili crumble was an instinctive decision for chef Radhika Khandelwal of the fine dine restaurant Fig & Maple, located in Assagao, Goa. “I was inspired to celebrate the region’s abundant corn, which grows as an intercrop between mango and cashew trees. With this dessert, we take pride in utilising every edible part of the corn, even creating a unique corn silk syrup with palm jaggery,” says Khandelwal of her rather outré creation. As far as diners’ reactions, she says that that’s an evolving one. “The initial surprise of encountering corn in a dessert is quickly replaced by curiosity and excitement once diners taste the harmonious flavours and textures.”
This unconventional culinary approach has led to some even more outré corn desserts. Such as the decidedly Middle Eastern kunafa at The Bayview restaurant at Mumbai’s Hotel Marine Plaza. It has a core of pureed sweet corn within a baked vermicelli-like nest. “Using corn in desserts can offer a unique and unexpected twist to traditional sweet treats,” says chef Kshitiz Shekhar, the hotel’s culinary director who came up with this riff on a traditional kunafa. “While introducing corn in desserts might present some challenges in terms of diner expectations and taste preferences, it also offers an opportunity to surprise, delight, and challenge culinary norms.”
All this corn talk clearly underscores the essence of culinary artistry; one that is all about taking seemingly disparate ingredients and weaving them into a tapestry of flavours that seek to change perceptions and celebrate the unexpected.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.