The name -- corn milk, may sound odd. Is it a typo? What is it? Corn milk -- often called sữa bắp in Vietnam, is a creamy, refreshing, and slightly sweet beverage. It is incredibly tasty for something that employs just a handful of readily available ingredients (mostly corn and water!).
Sữa bắp is an enticing refresher that I’ve enjoyed in Vietnam and abroad. You may have spotted sữa bắp at casual joints, delis, and bakeries. I first noticed a sign for it at a tiny pho shop in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Corn milk and pho? Why not?
As with a lot of Vietnamese foods, corn milk is flexible. It can be vegan (or not), but it is definitely not a dairy substitute. Most Vietnamese language sữa bắp recipes call for using ‘American corn’ and praise it for good flavor, handsome color, and healthful benefits. They also include evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk (SCM) for creamy sweetness.
With a bounty of sweet summertime corn in the States, I combine our maize with a touch of coconut milk (it’s a classic Viet pairing that’s dairy free too). Natural corn starches and sugars create a smooth, delicate sweet beverage; vanilla adds dimension. No sweetener is needed, though you could add SCM, if you like. There’s corn flavor in the silk, tender husks, and cobs so they are part of the cooking phase to create a drink that screams, “I’m corny!”
I'm sharing the corn milk recipe from my new book, Ever-Green Vietnamese, because I don't want you to miss out. We couldn’t photograph every recipe for the book and I don’t want you to overlook this gem.
Options for enjoying corn milk
Corn milk is usually served as is, with or without ice. But you could be offered as a light soup. Ever-Green Vietnamese recipe testers Nathan and Kate Schmidt added dark rum to create a cocktail. I've frozen it for ice pops too (see below).
Corn Milk Variations
Want an extra tropical take? Caroline (@carolinesaigon on Instagram), a Vietnam-based chef, recently told me that folks there are nowadays adding pandan juice to corn milk. The pandan leaves add a tropical grassy note and green hue. I tried it with frozen pandan leave and used a little too much so the resulting pandan corn milk tasted somewhat soapy. Pandan can overwhelm. But it was fragrant and handsome. In my recipe Note below, I offer you a range so you can choose.
Frozen pandan (lá dứa) for its availability at many Southeast Asian and Chinese markets. Sometimes it's available fresh. What is rozen mostly comes from Vietnam.
Can you use pandan extract? It's very convenient but the green co]or is very aggressive. It can color things Incredible Hulk-like green before there's enough pandan flavor. On the left, I used a toothpick tip's worth to color ¼ tsp of water. Dispense the extract gradually and with care.
Corn Milk Video Tips!
Here's a casual video on how corn milk is made in my kitchen. Remember to select "STAY" when prompted or you'll see a new video.
Bonus idea: Popsicles
When I make too much corn milk or just want a different way to experience it, I turn it into popsicles. You simply pour it into molds and freeze overnight. Here's a combo of corn, pandan, and even ones that combine pandan and corn. I use silicone popsicle molds for easy removal.
While corn is still in season, make sữa bắp!
- 2 large ears corn (choose yellow or bicolor for vibrancy)
- 4 cups water, plus more as needed
- ½ cup full-fat unsweetened coconut milk (whisk before measuring)
- Fine sea salt
- ½ tsp vanilla extract, plus more as needed
- 1 to 4 Tbsp sweetened condensed milk (coconut, if preferred), agave syrup, mild honey, or granulated sugar (optional)
Shuck, cut, and boil the corn
- If the corn is not shucked, trim the dark, wizened portions of the corn silk, then shuck the corn, saving most of the corn silk and six to eight of the inner pale green husks (it’s okay if some silk lingers on the cob). Encase all the reserved silk in the husks, fold the husks over to tidy up the bundle, and tie tightly with kitchen string. Put into a 4-qt saucepan.
- Cut the corn kernels off the cobs, then break the cobs in half. Add both to the saucepan, along with the water, coconut milk, and 1⁄4 tsp salt. Set over high heat and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium and maintain a gentle boil. Cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and, using tongs, lift out and discard the cobs and husk bundle. Let cool for about 10 minutes.
Blend, strain, and season the milk
- Transfer the contents of the saucepan to a blender and whirl at high speed for a good 1 minute, until creamy and milky. Pour the corn through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl or a large liquid measuring cup, pressing on the solids with a wooden spoon to extract as much milk as possible. Stir in the vanilla. If the corn milk is too thick, add up to 1⁄2 cup water to thin it out.
- Corn milk intensifies in flavor and sweetness as it cools; especially once it is chilled. Refrigerate for about 4 hours, then taste and add pinches of salt, drops of vanilla, and, if needed, sweetened condensed milk by the tablespoon. Your tweaks depend on your corn, palate, and serving method (make it strong if serving over ice). Stir before serving.