On this episode of Christina’s “Street Feast” series, Onetrip guide Phoebe invites us to try out a childhood favorite dish, com tam, aka broken rice.
Every country has its own round of comfort foods. For the Americans, a buttery grilled cheese does the trick while Brits find their solace in a bowl of curry or fish and chips with a side of mushy peas. For the Vietnamese, nothing says home like a plate of com tam (broken rice).
What is Broken Rice (Com Tam)?
Com tam, or broken rice, is an everyday meal made from broken rice grains. Once considered “poor people’s rice,” farmers would collect the fractured rice grains that broke during the milling and sell it for cheap. But over the years, the Saigonese became rather fond of the broken rice grains and today, its eaten all around Ho Chi Minh City. Fun fact: many com tam restaurants are forced to break their own rice grains to be able to meet the growing demand for this dish. Com Tam Sai Gon (Saigon-style broken rice) is usually served with a caramelized pork chop, a bed of pickled vegetables, steamed egg cake (called trung hap) and garlic chive oil. However, most establishments will give you the option of customizing your order.
Where to Find Broken Rice (Com Tam) in Saigon
Com tam can be found on almost every street corner in Ho Chi Minh City, and all around the country in fact. Most com tam joints are street stalls but more and more, com tam has been cropping up on the menus of high-end restaurants. You’ll usually find com tam shops situated close to office buildings and schools, as it is typical for students and office workers alike to eat this dish during their lunch break and at the day’s end. Check out this guide for some more nominees for great com tam in Saigon.
The Best Broken Rice (Com Tam) in Saigon
Travel out to District 3 and you’ll be rewarded with Com Tam Ba Ghien, arguably the most popular com tam restaurant Ho Chi Minh City has to offer. This joint is as local as they come, hidden down an obscure alleyway. My friend Phoebe grew up in this neck of the woods and would eat at this spot almost every day during her high school years. Even after she moved away from this neighborhood, her status as a regular customer still remains. She finds herself eating here once a week to this day. The reason why Com Tam Ba Ghien has amassed a legion of loyal fans is because the portion sizes are out of control. The grilled pork chop they cook up is a beast with the same circumference of a regular plate so you better come hungry!
After his experience eating at Com Tam Ba Ghien, food blogger Mark Weins of the popular blog Migrationology, concluded that the com tam at Com Tam Ba Ghien is “the Grand Slam of all Vietnamese Food.” Instead of eating Saigon-style broken rice, we special ordered a place of broken rice with caramelized pork chop, a fried egg, a loaf of steamed egg cake, and the garlic chive dressing mixed with bits of crunchy pork fat for some added texture. Their com tam is also served with a small bowl of broth; a small bowl of soup is a normal fixture in a complete Vietnamese meal.
This monstrous serving of com tam and soup is only 50,000 VND (about 2 USD)! Vietnamese pork chops, suon nuong, are traditionally marinated in a pool of fish sauce, sugar, lemongrass, and garlic, and are grilled on high heat so that the char crusts seals in all of that savory goodness. The fried egg at Ba Ghien is always runny, adding another layer of flavor when broken over the pork chop and rice. If you want to do as the locals do, make sure the rice is soaked in the runny egg yolk. The most interesting aspect of the dish was the steamed egg cake, trung hap, which tastes like American meatloaf even though it is purely vegetarian. The cake is a concoction of whipped eggs mixed with sliced wood-ear mushrooms and cooked rice vermicelli that are then steamed, giving the eggs a silky and fluffy texture.
How to Eat Broken Rice (Com Tam)
Com tam is eaten using a fork and spoon, the preference of most Southeast Asian countries when it comes to utensil combos. It might feel strange eating a slab of pork without a knife but trust me when I say that pork is so soft, your spoon will be able to easily slice through the meat. Spear the chunk of meat with your fork and then shovel the broken rice with your spoon. Com tam is usually drenched in nuoc cham, the quintessential fish sauce condiment in Vietnam, but in my opinion, the pork chop is salty as is, so just pour the nuoc cham in little amounts so you don’t overdose on Sodium.
Our Advice for Eating Broken Rice (Com Tam)
Broken rice is eaten as a normal lunch and dinner entree but it’s a very hefty meal so don’t expect to do some marathons after this. The best time to eat com tam is during a jam-packed day when you’ll only have time for one meal. It will hold you over and give you the energy you need to take on a long day. Just make sure to keep hydrated while you’re eating com tam because especially on a hot day in Saigon, the heavy intake of sodium will heighten the risk of dehydration. Com Tam Ba Ghien is packed during lunch hours but the orders come out quick. Dinner is the same but they usually run out way before closing time at 8:30 PM so come early.
Recipe – How to Make Broken Rice (Com Tam)
- Rinse and soak the broken rice for about 20 minutes before cooking. Cook the rice in a rice cooker with a portion of 1 cup of rice and 1.5 cups of water.
- Marinate chopped pork in sugar, honey, fish sauce, salt, red onion, pepper, and garlic. Let the chopped pork sit for a few hours or overnight in the fridge. Then, grill the chopped pork over charcoal.
- Egg cake is made of a mixture of minced pork, egg, soaked rice vermicelli, wood ear mushroom, spring onion, sugar, fish sauce, and pepper. Steam the mixture for 30 minutes. Open the lid and crack an egg yolk on the surface. Continue steaming for another five minutes.
- The fish sauce is cooked with sugar until it becomes pasty, with a portion of 5:2. Then, mix the fish sauce with lemon juice, water, garlic, and minced chili.
Dish’s name: Com Tam
Price: 40,000 VND – 50,000 VND
Opening time: 8 AM – 8:30 PM
Address: 84 Dang Van Ngu, Phu Nhuan District
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