If there is any dish that is a Saigon icon, it’s com tam. But what’s the background behind this local favourite cooked up with steamed ‘broken’ rice? Words by Vi Pham
If there is any Vietnamese dish that makes southern Vietnam, especially Saigon, different from other parts of the country, it must be com tam, also known as broken rice. Even though in Saigon, com tam is eaten as much as pho, not many people, including Vietnamese, are aware of the background of the dish. And as a person who’s grown up eating com tam almost every day, I feel the urge to dig deeper into the narrative behind this recipe. As I discovered, a plate of com tam contains more historic and cultural stories than I had thought possible.
The Not-So-Broken Rice
A typical plate of com tam consists of tam (the rice), suon nuong (grilled pork ribs), cha (Vietnamese pork pie), do chua (pickled veggies) and nuoc mam (sweet fish sauce). Tam is the essential part of the dish and also the reason for the name since other ingredients can be up to the diner. Despite the popular belief that tam are broken and valueless pieces of the rice seed, it is not true. In contrast, tam originally implied the most valuable part of the seed.
In the past, after harvesting, farmers would collect and separate the straw and the good seeds, filtering the bad ones and the eatable grains. Freshly harvested seeds had to be brayed by hand to remove the husk. During this braying process, most of the seed would stay in its original shape. But the tip of the seed, which is the most nutritious and can potentially grow into another rice crop, would occasionally fall out. That was the real and original tam — when it was cooked it always tasted better. In the past, only the wealthy could afford to eat tam with their meal.
Fast forward a century and tam is no longer such a luxury. Harvested rice crops go straight into the mill and farmers leave all the work to the machines. Though this quickens the process, there is no longer a demand for quality tam and instead the seed tips get mixed with above broken bits of the grain. All these factors lower the price but also diminish the real taste of tam grains.
A Plate of History and Culture
Despite the change in quality, com tam still plays a major part in the history and culture of Saigon. A plate of com tam contains many stories.
In the past, when the price of tam became more affordable, com tam was sold on the street for breakfast and lunch. Most customers were workers who could not make it home to eat with their family. Eventually, the dish became so ubiquitous and popular, that Saigonese started eating com tam for dinner.
After pho, com tam is the people’s choice for price and availability, and over time, vendors have moved from mobile stands to settled restaurants. Over the past decade, com tam brands have sprung up — Thuan Kieu is perhaps the most famous — and have begun differentiating themselves with many twists in the way the recipe is served.
Com tam also reflects the changes in society and the impact of Western culture in Vietnam. Instead of the traditional meal in which all dishes are laid out and shared by a group of diners, com tam is more individual with all ingredients prepared for one person on a single plate. And being on a plate, diners don’t use the more traditional bowls and chopsticks to eat their rice, reverting instead to spoons and forks. To me, this is a symbol of the country changing from a collectivist society to a more individualistic one.
As com tam is so popular, you can find it almost everywhere in Saigon. However, I recommend street restaurants where you can watch the sizzling pork chops being grilled on burning charcoal, creating an aroma that can trigger all your taste buds; prices vary from VND20,000 to VND40,000 a plate.
Not too greasy, fattening or sweet, com tam is an excellent choice at any time of day.
Thanks to Dr. Han Nguyen Nguyen Nha for providing valuable materials to help write this piece
Where to Get Good Com Tam
Com Tam 40A
40A Quoc Huong, Q2, HCMC
Com Tam 114
114 Vo Thi Sau, Q1, HCMC
84 Dang Van Ngu, Phu Nhuan, HCMC
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
26 Ton That Tung, Q1, HCMC; 138 Nguyen Thien Thuat, Q3, HCMC; 46 Dinh Tien Hoang, Q1, HCMC; 114 Yersin, Q1, HCMC