Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fire-roasted corn on the cob: Welcome Monsoons

A trip to the Indian grocery store yesterday reminded me instantly that the month of Shravan must have begun! Back in India, the Monsoons in the month of Shravan not only brought an end to the intense heat wave in Delhi, but also ushered in the festive season. As with everything else, my unforgettable memories are those of food- starting with vendors selling litchijamun and Phalsa, followed by the appearance of Pheni and Ghevar in the sweet shops. And who can forget those charcoal-roasted bhutta sellers that sprang up on every corner. Sprinkled with masala and neembufire roasted corn cobs are the quintessential Indian street food during the monsoons.

My mom and I bought those bhuttas every evening during the rainy season. This ancient old man in a ratty turban would materialize out of nowhere when it was time. He lined a few bricks in a semicircle, and filled the middle with charcoal that he lit for fire. On top of this make-shift fire-pit, he placed a largish, semi-circular jaali. As he fanned the fire with a large woven palm-leaf pankha with his left hand, his right rang a loud, clanky brass bell. Slowly, a crowd gathered around him. Children returning from school, some with their moms in tow. Neighborhood “aunties”, just waking up from their afternoon nap and ready for a small snack and big gossip. Younger kids, fed up from being locked inside their home all morning and hankering to be taken out for some air. As he removed the silk and husk from the corn; orders rang all around him - masala, mirch-masala, extra neembu, light-roast, charred…..He gave everyone a nod, without looking up. And yet, he never made a mistake. Everyone got what they wanted. He was sold out within an hour- and he always returned the next day with more. As the rains waned, the old man disappeared again- only to return the next year. 

The funny thing is, corn in the US is much better tasting than the one I remember from back home. And yet, all I usually do with it is steam or boil it and eat it with butter. Once in a while, when we set up the grill outside on the deck, we roast them on the grill. I have a smooth, ceramic-top stove, so I never contemplated roasting anything on it. 

A couple of years ago, a dear friend gave me a contraption to be used for roasting on glass-top stoves. It is a rectangular steel mesh with little feet that I can put on the stove and then cook the food on top of the mesh so that it is in direct contact with “fire” - or heat; as mine is an electric cooktop. I’ve mostly used it for making makki ki roti. This time, it reminded me of the bhutta-waala’s jaali. I just couldn’t stop wondering if I could roast  a cob of corn on it…it worked!

Corn on the Cob

To make an Indian street- style bhutta, you need:

  • Corn on the cob- stripped, dehusked and desilked.
  • A charcoal grill (or not!). An open fire of some sort would do.
  • A seasoning of your choice. Typically, salt, pepper or chaat masala rubbed using one half of a lemon is ideal.
  • Best eaten piping hot!

All you need to do is to roast the corn on the cob over open fire till it looks slighted charred and burned and mostly cooked. Turn it around periodically to get it cooked evenly.

Once it is done, take one half of the lemon and dip it in a bowl of chaat masala. Rub your masala all over using the lemon half while slightly squeezing the lemon along the way.


My two cents: There is no better way to recreate childhood memories than with food. I am glad I got over my “electric stove” hurdle and satisfied my craving. A word of caution though- some corn kernels splattered and burst on direct flame. I got quite a few on my bare arms. So be careful. And enjoy a hot bhutta on a rainy day. You can’t recreate the magic of an ancient bhutta-walla, but you can still have fire-roasted corn on the cob; Indian -style!