When I hear people talk about Vietnamese food, it’s usually pho or banh mi. The occasional spring roll or savory crepe may also be mentioned. Each item is delicious, by all means, but far too hyped. It bums me out that there is one dish that hardly anyone ever talks about: com tam.
Com tam, translates to broken rice in Vietnamese. At its core, the broken grains of rice are served with a grilled protein and fish sauce, accompanied by a plethora of flavorful additions. A popular dish in Vietnam, broken rice is very cheap (undesirable leftovers from the rice milling process) making it a favored street food item.
Like Filpino silog dishes, there are different ways you can enjoy the broken rice dish. You can order it with thit nuong (grilled pork), ga nuong (grilled chicken), or tau hu ky (fried shrimp wrapped in bean curd skin). Other tasty additions like trung hap (a steamed egg cake), bi (thinly shredded pork), or a fried egg are possible. Nearly every version of the dish is garnished with mo hanh (scallions in oil), dua chua (pickled greens) and served with canh (broth to cleanse the palate).
Com tam can be enjoyed by its separate components, or mixed together in a euphoric spoonful of flavors and textures.
When I think of Vietnamese comfort food, my mind instantaneously goes to com tam rather than other popular dishes of my culture like pho or banh mi. Again, still delicious.
My First Time
My earliest memory of the dish was at my grandparents’ house, in a time before I reached double digits in age. I was watching an episode of The Busy World of Richard Scarry, when my grandmother came into the living room. She handed me a plate of rice and meat and told me to eat.
Not wanting to take my eyes off whatever shenanigans Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm got into that week, I grabbed a spoonful and ate without a glance. Immediately, the first thing I noticed was that the rice tasted sweeter than usual. I asked my grandma what I was eating and she replied, “Com tam.”
“What’s that?” I asked, in Vietnamese.
She explained that it was a dish made with broken rice, served with different kinds of meat. She had marinated some pork chops and grilled them earlier that day to serve with the rice. Combined with the sweet fish sauce (and the fried egg my grandfather shortly threw on), com tam cemented itself as a dish I’ve loved since the very first bite.
Decades later, there’s still yet to be a Vietnamese dish that comforts me so easily.
Here’s my go-to com tam dish:
A bed of broken rice, grilled pork, and a fried egg topped with tons of scallions in oil. I could take or leave the pickled greens.
First, I pop the egg – the white-hot yolk smothering rice like molten steel over a reformed T-800. Next, it’s a spoonful of fish sauce over the golden rice. I fix myself a bite piled with as many components I can fit onto a spoon and brace myself for what comes next. Rice, egg, meat, sauce, and onions come together like multicolored lions forming a veritable Voltron of flavor in my mouth.
I feel like I can take on the entire galaxy after crushing a plate. Or take a really long nap. Probably the latter.
Here’s a little secret: my favorite com tam joint is only a few miles from the Foodbeast office. I’ve been going there since I was a kid, and I fear it may also be the reason I eagerly took a job here, being so close to such a wondrous place and all. I guess we’ll never really know though.
Costa’s First Time
Fellow Foodbeast, Constantine Spyrou (Costa for short), had never experienced broken rice before. Hearing me talk so lovingly about the dish, he decided to visit a food truck on campus that served broken rice. His experience at the food truck, although delicious, was pretty different from the traditional dish.
Letting my initial disappointment that this was his first broken rice experience subside, I messaged Costa that I was taking him to my secret spot for lunch.
Here are his thoughts after trying the real thing:
While [the food truck] was good and I enjoyed the texture, it was nothing compared to going to an authentic broken rice spot. You need the full experience there to fully enjoy it. You need the broth to entice your tastebuds, the toothsomeness of the rice mixing with the fish sauce and the egg yolk, the different types of meats, and the pickled cabbage to cleanse the palate. With the truck, I just got rice and meat. Having that fish sauce to soak up is paramount to getting the most out of your experience. To me, the food truck was a solid introduction, but going to an authentic spot was the full immersion I needed to really fall in love with com tam.
As we drove back to work, a sheepish smile rested on my coworker’s face. The normally chatty Costa was a quiet and full. He was happy.
Where to find com tam?
Most pho restaurants usually offer a similar dish, albeit with regular rice instead of broken. The key is finding the word “Tam” next to the rice. I highly recommend going to a restaurant that specializes in com tam, rather than one that specializes in another Vietnamese dish but carries it on the menu. Being the flawed, selfish human that I am, I can’t empart my favorite spot just yet. Eagle-eyed lovers of Vietnamese food in Orange County, however, may be able to recognize the plates from the photos.
Perhaps in a few years, when someone shouts “Let’s get Vietnamese food!” the first thing that comes to mind will be my favorite broken rice dish. Until that day, I’ll do my best to laud this lesser known comfort dish to anyone and everyone asking me for recommendations.
Other Vietnamese foods to try
If I haven’t already lost your attention at this point, there are tons of other amazing Vietnamese dishes out there. My friend and food blogger Connie (@occomestibles) recently did a tour of all the best Vietnamese eats in Orange County. If you have some time, I highly recommend you checking out that video.