Korea’s Cosmos of Corn 옥수수

Is corn a grain? 🌽🌾

Is corn a vegetable? 🌽🥬

Is corn a fruit? 🌽🍌

After reading this article, you might end up confused! But hopefully more clever!

At least this is clear:
Corn is cool. 🆒🌽

Why? Because all over the world, corn is used in a multitude of ways, ranging from being a major food and fodder crop, to producing biofuel and even compostable packaging material. It’s an all-rounder that provides energy for humans, animals and machines! Literally a power plant! And internationally renowned! 💪🌽🗺

To go back to its roots, corn – alias maize – is a native of Central America. 🌎🇲🇽 But it has been cultivated and modified for millennia so that today’s corn plants hardly resemble their ancestors. 🌾➡️💥➡️🌽 They have become the high performance athletes of the plant kingdom! Tall, strong plants with large and bulky (= muscly) ears of corn! 🌽🏆

So what about corn in Korea? 🇰🇵🌽🇰🇷 Is there such a thing as Korean corn?

Corn has been planted and consumed in Korea for centuries.* Nowadays, there exists quite a variety of “Korean corn”! First and foremost, the color of corn could be considered: While your standard image of corn may be yellow🟡, corn that is white, black, purple or a speckled mixture of all three colors is actually more common in Korea. ⚪️⚫️🟣 There is even red-colored corn! 🔴

As diverse as its appearance are the Korean ways of consuming corn! In short, corn is eaten as well as drunk in liquid form: It is a staple, particularly in rural areas such as the province Gangwon-do (강원도), and the essential ingredient in certain kinds of bread, noodles and salads. 🍞🍜🥗 By itself, corn on the cob is a common snack in Korea, popular as street food and fuel when outdoors or hiking on mountains. 🌽 While more processed snacks such as popcorn and chips are available as well, there is even corn-flavored ice cream! 🍦 Furthermore, corn can be turned into drinks and enjoyed as a refreshing tea, alcoholic beverage or in sweetened milk! 🍵🍶🥛 Corn-curious?

Let’s take a closer look at the cosmos of corn and its culinary consumption in Korea! 🌽🔍🤓

What you need to know about corn in Korea

Different kinds of corn at a traditional market. Seoul, 2021.

Starting with the name, corn is generally referred to as oksusu (옥수수) or gangnaengi (강냉이) in Korean. Being the more widespread term, oksusu is derived from the word ok (옥 玉) for “bead, jade” 🔮 and susu (수수) which is the name of sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), another grain. 🌾 The word gangnaengi is usually applied either in context of certain corn-related food products or as a local dialect.

Apart from that, Korea largely categorizes into glutinous corn (chal-oksusu 찰옥수수 or chal-gangnaengi 찰강냉이) and non-glutinous corn, which is typically a kind of sweet corn (satang oksusu 사탕옥수수). Since taste and texture are quite different, glutinous corn and non-glutinous corn are often consumed differently!

Sometimes, however, a similar way of serving is applied to both kinds of corn. Before we discuss the individual properties and serving suggestions of glutinous and non-glutinous corn separately, let’s take a look at Korean foods that just call for corn in general.

Corn on the cob. 🌽🌽 What is the simplest way to eat corn? Eating it as it is. As corn on the cob. But it is normally consumed cooked, in whatever way you can imagine and can do (= provided you possess all necessary tools). Boiled, steamed, roasted on the barbecue… How do you eat corn on the cob? With your mouth. But how you get it there depends on what you like and social norms allow. In some cases you can grab corn with your bare hands and gnaw on it 👌, while certain circumstances may require the use of a fork and knife. 🍴 In yet other situations, corn on the cob may be served on some kind of stick. 📌

In contemporary South Korea, corn on the cob is one of the most prevalent snacks and available inside convenience stores, at road vendors and on markets. Sweet corn of the variety Chodang-oksusu (초당옥수수) [more info below!] can even be enjoyed raw and then tastes crunchy and sweet. Glutinous corn, on the other hand, is best cooked before consumption. Find ready-to-eat corn advertised as jjin oksusu (찐옥수수) for “steamed corn”, gun oksusu (군옥수수) for “grilled corn” or simply referred to as “corn” (옥수수). While steamed corn is normally vegan by default 🌱, roasted corn is occasionally coated with butter. 🧈⚠️🐄

Corn tea. 🌽🍵 More than water, Koreans drink tea to quench their thirst. Both warm as well as cold tea. ♨️🧊 But not necessarily tea made from the tea plant (Camelia sinensis)! Among the countless Korean teas, grains are frequently the main ingredient. 🌾 Corn tea, in fact, is one of the most common beverages in Korea, available in restaurants, stores and quickly made at home! This oksusu cha (옥수수차) is made by boiling roasted corn in water. Korean corn tea is brown to caramel-colored but always translucent. It has dark and roasted aromas, while tasting light and soothing. 🤎☕️ You can find roasted corn kernels on traditional markets or purchase conveniently portioned tea bags filled with ground roasted corn in supermarkets. In addition to that, convenience stores and supermarkets offer pre-made corn tea – cooled, bottled and ready for consumption!

Another curious thing about Korean food culture is that corn silk can be consumed, too! Instead of discarding it, the corn silk leftover from husking corn is dried and later used for tea. This so-called “corn beard” (oksusu suyeom 옥수수수염) changes color from pale yellow to dark brown as it dehydrates. 🧔 Corn silk, sometimes in combination with roasted corn as described above, is steeped in boiling water to create corn silk tea (oksusu suyeom cha 옥수수수염차). In traditional medicine, it is ascribed a diuretic effect, but the tea seems to be enjoyed anytime by anyone who likes it.

Corn rice. 🌽🍚 Korea’s daily bread is rice. 🇰🇷🍚🇰🇵 But rice is not simply rice. Not only are there innumerable varieties of rice, but rice is cooked with all kinds of other ingredients, e.g. grains and beans, mushrooms, herbs, vegetable greens, seaweed, to switch up plain white rice. [An in-depth article about rice in Korea is planned for the future!] Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that there exists also oksusu bap (옥수수밥) which is literally “corn rice”. It is a mild and gentle combination, in which kernels of corn figuratively cuddle with grains of rice. 🍚🟡🔴🟣🌽 According to preference, such a dish contains either glutinous corn or sweet corn, although taste and texture strongly vary with the type of corn used.

Corn noodles. 🌽🍜 Besides rice, another staple in East Asia are noodles, which are made from diverse ingredients, also corn. You may know already that currently, corn is being used in gluten-free alternatives to regular pasta. 🍝 Koreans, likewise, have developed noodles from corn starch: Gangnaengi guksu (강냉이국수), which is the name for long, yellowish noodles based on corn as well as a dish featuring said noodles, are a specialty of North Korea. 🇰🇵 In the famous North Korean dish, corn noodles are served in a broth with mostly vegetarian toppings.** There are other local dishes with those corn noodles, e.g. fried noodles, deep-fried food, stews and corn dumplings.*** At present, it is difficult to describe the flavor of any of the mentioned dishes or to confirm which types of corn are grown in North Korea.

Results of Google image search.

Corn chips. 🌽🍿 There are endlessly more ways of processing corn into edibles by using its starch. Naturally, modern South Korea produces multiple corn-based snacks and corn chips. Such modern food products grow constantly, so for the sake of this post’s size, let’s refrain from listing and describing them all here… Also, not all of those corn snacks are gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian friendly by default, so better check the label for potentially critical ingredients.

Korean popcorn 옥수수 뻥튀기

Puffed corn. 🌽🍿 Speaking of crunchy snack foods, we can’t miss popcorn! Popcorn is a classic snack while watching movies. 🎞🍿 Korean popcorn, aka oksusu ppeong twigi (옥수수 뻥튀기), is a classic snack while drinking beer [but also very enjoyable without beer]. 🍺🍿 This Korean-style popped corn is sometimes also referred to as gangnaengi (강냉이).

Korean ppeong twigi is produced by putting grains under high pressure and steam inside a cannon-like machine. When the pressure is released, there is a loud explosion and the grains shoot out doubling or tripling in size. 💣 This technique can be applied to both glutinous corn as well as sweet corn (and many other cereals in fact). In Seoul, it has become a rare event to witness how vendors on markets or by the road side produce puffed grains on location… [Presumably because of the loud noise from the exploding “cannon”. 💥]

Korean puffed corn and other puffed grain products at a traditional market. Seoul, 2020.

Unlike regular pan-fried popcorn, high-pressure-puffed corn does not resemble shapes of snowflakes or butterflies. Puffed glutinous corn looks as if the entire corn kernel was magically enlarged. 🔍 Or it looks like a tooth! 🦷 Sweet corn ppeong twigi is softer than glutinous corn ppeong twigi and its color is light yellow.

Korean popcorn has a subtle sweetness, since sugar is usually added during the production process. Its texture is crunchy yet fluffy like any popcorn. Minus the fat from butter or vegetable oil! An addictive, light and naturally plant-based finger food. 🌱

Korean popcorn made from glutinous corn (left) and sweet corn (right).

Corn ice cream. 🌽🍦 Do you like tomato ice cream? Then you have to try corn ice cream! You can find a couple of ice creams flavored with corn chilling in the freezers of supermarkets and convenience stores. Additionally, some artisan gelaterias in South Korea’s cities produce corn-flavored gelato! Corn being cool, literally. 😎❄️ By the way, corn ice cream may not be a completely new concept for those who know rice-flavored gelato. 🍚🍦 Sweet and milky flavors merged with cereals. Sounds plain but that pure aroma can be quite comforting! 🤍

Glutinous Corn 찰옥수수

Steamed glutinous corn.

For some reason, the most common type of corn in South Korea is glutinous corn (Zea mays var. ceratina), which is called chal-oksusu (찰옥수수) in Korean. Its main characteristic is that it is “glutinous”, which means it is somewhat sticky and has a denser, almost chewy consistency compared to “regular corn”. Apart from that, the corn kernels become slightly translucent when cooked, and the color inside is pale white. Waxy corn, an alternative English name for Chal-oksusu, seems to reflect this property as well.

There are numerous color varieties of glutinous corn, ranging from completely white corn (mibaek 미백), yellow waxy corn (hwangchal 황찰) to almost black corn (miheuk 미흑). ⚪️🟡🔴🟣🔵⚫️ Anthocyans, natural pigments occuring in plants, cause the red, blue, purple or black appearance of colorful corn.

In Korea, fresh glutinous corn is available throughout July and August.

Unless otherwise stated, corn products tend to be based on glutinous corn, which is the most prominent corn cultivar in South Korea.

Glutinous corn, raw and husked. Color varieties white and black.

Sweet Corn and other types of yellow corn

If you have lived in the Western hemisphere, you may have eaten your share of corn flakes, popcorn, nacho chips, corn bread, corn on the cob and other foods featuring yellow corn. 🍿🟡🍞 Although they are all yellow, there is no regular or standard corn for all those dishes.

Among the different types of yellow-colored corn, a major one is sweet corn alias sugar corn, literally translated into satang oksusu (사탕옥수수) in Korean. 🍬🌽 Sweet corn not only has a higher sugar content and thus tastes sweeter than other kinds of corn, but it is harvested immaturely! In other words, it is actually unripe! [Think of sweet corn as a teenager. 🧒 Baby corn or cornlets, by comparison, represent baby stage 👶 and mature corn is an adult. 🧔] Its carbohydrates haven’t ripened into starch yet, which is why the kernels are still soft and sweet.

It is the seeds of mature corn, which ripen into hard, starchy cereal grains and are then e.g. ground into polenta, cornmeal or corn flour for baking, noodles and other types of cooking. 🍞🌮🌯🥣 Sweet corn, on the other hand, is treated like a vegetable! Because fresh sweet corn spoils just as easily, it needs to be consumed quickly, or alternatively preserved in cans 🥫 or in the freezer. ❄️ Worldwide, sweet corn is roasted on fire or cooked in water 🔥💧, served as a side dish, added to stews, salads or as a topping on pizza. 🍲🥗🍕

With regards to Korea, however, sweet corn was an imported product for the longest time, available only in canned form. Fresh sweet corn was difficult to come by. In addition to that, most foods featuring sweet corn are derived from or somehow influenced by Western-style cooking. As of recent, food creators do not have to rely on canned corn anymore: The cultivar Chodang-oksusu (초당옥수수), which was developed in the 1990s, is grown locally and currently gaining tremendous popularity in South Korea. As its name “exceptional sweetness” (derived from the Sino-Korean characters 超糖) suggests, this breed of corn tastes very sweet. 🍯 Apart from its sweet taste, it has a high water content and a crunchy texture, when consumed raw. 💦

Fresh Chodang-oksusu or Chodang corn is in season only for a short period of time: It is available for roughly two weeks in July. 🌻 Upon cooking, the color of sweet corn, which is typically milky yellow when raw, becomes a sunny, golden yellow. 🌞

Chodang corn 초당옥수수 at a market in Seoul, 2021.

Corn salad. 🌽🥗 What do you picture, when you hear the word “salad”? Anything green? 🟢 When you are in Korea and get “corn salad”, called kon saelleodeu (콘샐러드) or oksusu saelleodeu (옥수수샐러드), you will see mostly yellow! 🟡 Plus ivory-colored mayonnaise between the yellow kernels of corn. Korean corn salad is normally made with canned sweet corn which is mixed with a mayonnaise-based dressing and a few other seasonings such as onion, carrot or bell pepper. It is rather rich and tastes slightly sweet, sour plus salty. [It kinda belongs to the same category as Korea’s potato salad, sweet potato salad and pumpkin salad!]

Korean corn salad (left), sweet potato salad (center) and pumpkin salad (right).
Poster advertising corn latte (right) and sweet potato latte (left). At Ediya Coffee in Seoul, 2019.

Corn latte. 🌽🥛 If purple sweet potato cake or sugar-coated potatoes seemed extraordinary, you may find this rather strange: Corn latte (oksusu ratte 옥수수라떼). It is a sweetened drink based on milk and flavored with corn. 🥛 Its color is – who would have guessed – creamy yellow! 🟡 A few years ago, modern coffee shops began offering such a beverage as a sweet and caffeine-free alternative to coffee drinks. However, it is not yet a classic as sweet potato latte and pumpkin latte. 🍠🥛🎃🥛

Korean corn bread. 🌽🍞 Corn bread may be a familiar term for you, in particular when you have been to America. But it has nothing in common with Korea’s corn bread, except for the point that it contains yellow corn flour! Korean corn bread, translatable as “corn alcohol bread” (oksusu sul ppang 옥수수술빵), is fermented and steamed! ♨️ Originally, Korean rice wine (makgeolli 막걸리) which contains active yeast is used because it ferments starch and leavens the batter with the emerging gases.**** Nowadays, simply adding yeast does the trick and the alcoholic beverage is not always required. Besides flour, sugar and a leavening agent (yeast or fresh Makgeolli), the dough is occasionally prepared with egg or milk. 🥚🥛 [Warning for allergic people and vegans.⚠️] Before steaming it, the bread may be garnished with colorful toppings such as nuts, beans and dried fruit. 🌰🥜🍇 The finished bread is fluffy and moist. Variations feature wheat or rice flour, and sometimes no corn flour at all – then they are simply called sul ppang (술빵).

The history of this kind of corn bread is actually not very long: It was invented around the time of the Korean War (1950-53) when US-American troops supplied South Korea with food provisions – including cornmeal! – and people mixed the novel ingredients with local dishes and traditional methods of food preparation. 🧑🏻‍🍳 [Even today, ovens for baking are not as common as steaming equipment!] Accordingly, you can find Korean steamed corn bread at stores that specialize in steamed foods, e.g. rice cake houses or dumpling manufacturers. 🍡♨️

Korean rice wines including corn-flavored Dongdongju 옥수수동동주 (right).

Corn-based alcohol. 🌽🍶 Korean rice wines such as Makgeolli (막걸리) or Dongdongju (동동주), which regarding alcohol content and production method are actually more similar to beer than wine, are ever diversifying as new flavors are created for South Korea’s demanding food market. Besides fruits, sweet potatoes, chestnuts and peanuts, there now exist corn-flavored Makgeolli and Dongdongju.***** Instead of rice, these versions tend to be produced mainly from wheat and corn. 🚫🍚 The resulting alcoholic beverage exhibits a yellow tone, rather than the usual milky white of the traditional drink. 💛 Note that most often imported corn starch is used in the process, suggesting that the corn’s variety is probably not waxy corn which is prevalent in Korea. 🥫 Furthermore, natural colorants such as gardenia seed pods (chija 치자) may be added to intensify the yellow color of the product. 🌼

Other kinds of Korean corn 쥐이빨옥수수

Apart from translucent glutinous corn, diverse yellow-colored corn and unripe sweet corn, there is yet another type of corn in Korea: Jwi-ippal oksusu (쥐이빨옥수수) which translates to “mouse tooth corn”. The ears of this kind of corn are distinctly smaller and its kernels are sharp and pointy, apparently reminiscent of the tiny teeth of mice. 🐁 According to it being labelled as “native” (tojong 토종), it’s supposed to be a Korean cultivar of corn.

Yet, this breed of corn seems to be rare and not conventional at the moment. In fact, I’ve never seen it anywhere in person, only online… There seem to be red and yellow varieties of mouse tooth corn.

Results of Google image search.

Corn conclusion

In order to come to a conclusion, let’s return to the initial questions.

Is corn a grain? In biological terms, yes. ✅ Corn is a grain, a cereal grain to be more precise. But its use in the kitchen by far exceeds it being merely a source of starch for staple foods!

Is corn a vegetable? Unripe corn can be considered a vegetable. ✅ International cuisines use sweet corn and baby corn in a diversity of ways. It is cooked, preserved and pickled like a vegetable; served as a side dish and included as an ingredient in vegetable dishes.

Is corn a fruit? As we have seen, at least in Korea, corn is also used in desserts and combined with sugar. The taste of sweet corn, in particular, is very sweet. But can we call it a fruit? The following quote explains why the answer is yes! ✅

Botanically, a cereal grain such as cornrice, or wheat is a kind of fruit (termed a caryopsis). However, the fruit wall is very thin and is fused to the seed coat, so almost all the edible grain-fruit is actually a seed.[7]

Wikipedia entry on “Fruit

Conclusion: It’s complicated. Corn can be so complex!

In Korea, the culinary universe of corn includes staple foods, side dishes, snacks and desserts. 🍚🍜🥗🍞🍦 In this regard, it seems comparable to the Korean way of eating tomatoes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, which appear in savory but also sweet foods. On top of that, corn stars in beverages and alcoholic drinks! ☕️🍶 In other words, corn’s culinary capability stretches over all fields of food and drink.

Globally, corn is ever more prominent, just to hint at the universal presence of corn syrup and corn starch in products of the conventional food industry. 🍰🥤 On a side note, even traditional Korean dishes are nowadays getting sweeter and oftentimes contain additional corn syrup (mulyeot 물엿).

And all that while being gluten free! 🚫🌾

Considering its history, today’s corn is a competitive athlete, who excels in various disciplines. 💪🌽🥇 A modern corn plant yields a large amount of fruit, packed with hundreds of kernels. It was cultivated for high performance and bred to compete with other food sources, while surviving against environmental challenges. Plus, the resulting corn grains are competent in several fields of the kitchen! 🏊‍♂️🚴‍♂️🏃‍♀️🏂 [Water sports, summer sports and winter sports all at once! 😆 ]

After all, a word of caution, because this high performing plant also requires high maintenance. Maize plants are known to demand a lot of nutrients and are thus a much debated crop in agriculture. Grown in monoculture, corn can deplete the soil at the cost of the environment. Better than farming corn all by itself is planting corn in combination with beans and other legumes, which add nitrate (a critical nutrient for corn) into the soil. On a small scale, for instance, the companionship of corn, beans and pumpkins, the so-called Three Sisters method invented by Native Americans, is more sustainable and effective. 🌽🎃🥜 [Now I wonder how Koreans traditionally dealt with this issue...]

To end this post with another thought-provoking note about the corn cosmos, does anyone wanna crack a corny joke? Please comment below!!!! 😁

Ears of corn, unhusked.
Additional notes by the author

*) Written evidence for this is for instance a report in the Joseon Annals (조선왕조실록) which mentions corn as a food crop in the year 1593: 선조실록 46권, 선조 26년 12월 24일 계유 6번째기사.

**) North Korean recipe for Gangnaengi-guksu: on YouTube (in Korean).

***) Korean source.

****) Only Makgeolli with living yeast cultures, found in so-called “fresh Makgeolli” (saeng makgeolli 생막걸리; also marked with ), can be used for fermenting. Fresh Makgeolli is widely available in Korea, and it needs to be consumed within a few days since the fermentation process is still active. In other countries, Makgeolli is usually imported and was pasteurized to extend its shelf life, which is why the yeast is not alive anymore.

*****) A comparison of corn-flavored Makgeolli and Dongdongju can be found here: Korean source.

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