These imperfect rice grains were traditionally discarded after the milling process but have been elevated into a delicious signature street food dish by the ever-resourceful Saigonese
What’s the dish?
Com Tam, aka Broken Rice – it’s essentially broken grains of rice left over from the traditional drying and milling process. It looks very similar to normal rice, only the grains are broken into smaller pieces, hence the name.
Where does it come from?
Basically, it’s hard to sell due to its imperfections. The grains were usually ground up for rice flour or animal feed, or eaten by the farmers themselves; however, the Saigonese have made an art-form of this rice and use it as a platform for all sorts of combinations.
What does it taste like?
Broken rice itself tastes like normal rice, and has a similar texture, it is just smaller – the taste depends on how you serve it.
How is it served?
A plate of com tam comes with a plethora of ingredients placed on top, such as suon nuong (marinated grilled pork chops), bi (shredded pork skin), cha trung (a steamed pork and egg quiche), cha ca (deep fried fish patty) and trung (fried egg). It is usually garnished with some lightly fried, sliced spring onions or some zingy accompaniments typical of Vietnamese cooking: mint, spring onions and lime, for instance.
On the side you can have pickled vegetables or sliced cucumber and tomato. A dipping sauce of fish sauce, lime and chilli can be served.
Why should someone try it?
Street food in Saigon is slow food served fast and com tam is no different. Even though each ingredient on the plate can take up to 2-3 hours to prepare, when the order is up, it takes no more than a minute to get to your table. It’s also very tasty and the marinade that goes on the pork chop is full of umami.
What’s the bill?
A plate can cost from 20,000 VND (about 56p) to 60,000 VND (£1.50) depending on whether you buy it from a street vendor or a cafe.
Where can you get it?
Every neighbourhood in Ho Chi Minh has a stall, easily identifiable by their ‘Com Tam’ sign. It is served morning, noon and night. If you do manage to find it outside the city, it will be called Com Tam Saigon, as it is considered a Ho Chi Minh City dish.
Can you make it at home?
Yes, if you live in Ho Chi Minh City. But actually, broken rice isn’t usually exported.
What does this dish say about Ho Chi Minh City?
As Ho Chi Minh is the economic centre of Vietnam, the Saigonese are constantly on the go and need something fast and filling to get through the day – I suppose broken rice reflects that lifestyle.
Vinh Dao blogs at vietnomnom.wordpress.com