The Origins Of Cơm Tấm (Vietnamese Broken Rice)
Cơm tấm is made from gạo tấm (broken rice), with toppings such as grilled pork chop and steamed egg meatloaf served with sweet and tangy fish sauce on the side. It’s popular in the morning, but can also be found throughout the day for lunch, dinner and even supper.
As the name suggests, what sets this dish apart is the use of broken rice – fractured rice grains discarded during the milling process. Considered “inferior” to undamaged rice, this was often fed to animals and sold at a cheaper price. Periods of poor harvest and a prudent habit of not wasting food also led farmers in the Mekong Delta to consume broken rice more regularly.
When people from the rural areas came to Saigon, they also brought their food with them. According to celebrated writer and cultural researcher Sơn Nam, broken rice was originally a peasant dish for the working class or students with modest means. Initially, scallion oil and shredded pork skin (without meat) were the only accoutrements to broken rice.
In response to the wave of immigrants from India, China and France in the early years of urbanization in Saigon, vendors started selling the rice on plates, accompanied by forks and spoons instead of Vietnamese traditional utensils, such as bowls and chopsticks.
Since then, many generations, regardless of economic status, have grown up eating the signature Saigon dish for breakfast. What was once a discarded product demands its own production line.
What Goes Into A Plate Of Broken Rice That Makes Foodies Fall In Love With It
While everyone has their favourite, a basic plate of broken rice will consist of:
- The Rice: Traditionally, vendors cook rice in a steamer to avoid mushing the already-delicate grains. Some also add in a few knots of pandan leaves for fragrance.
- The Meats: The trio sườn-bì-chả (grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin and egg meatloaf) is for those who can’t make up their mind or simply want the essence of broken rice in one bite.
Some sources said that the pork chop was influenced by the French way of eating meat but seasoned with Vietnamese spices. Each vendor has their own secret marinade sauce for the pork, and a perfect cutlet will be charred, smoky and soft, after basting in its own fat on the grill.
Meanwhile, the meatloaf is made from ground pork, wood-ear mushroom and mung bean noodle – bound together by a couple of eggs and then steamed. As living standards rose, people also added sliced meat to the shredded pork skin.
- The Topping:
Scallion oil, a mixture of thinly-sliced scallion cooked in lard or oil, adds more moisture and richness into the rice. Some generous vendors will even sprinkle crispy pork fat as bonuses.
Pickled carrot and daikon are served on the side or soaked into the dipping fish sauce. Their sourness and crunch cut through the hearty dish, making it less cloying.
- The Fish Sauce:
A spoonful of sweet, salty and tangy fish sauce will moisten the rice and bring everything together. Those who want some heat can reach out to the jar of garlic chili sauce offered on the table.
What Cơm Tấm Means To Saigonese
Nowadays, broken rice has become so popular that we can spot at least one broken rice shop on every Saigon street. These shops range from nomadic pushcarts with makeshift tables and chairs to brightly-lit air-conditioned establishments.
But maybe the best broken rice is the one in the neighbourhood we grew up in. Maybe the best broken rice is enjoyed on the roadside, where all your senses are heightened. As you bite into the white fluffy rice, sweat starts dripping down your shirt, and the vrooming sound from motorbikes around activates your ears. A few meters away, the charcoal griller constantly churns out caramelized pork chops, its smokey smell wafting towards you.
Welcome to Saigon.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt