What is com tam?
People often think that Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) lacks a rich and diverse culinary history compared to other parts of Vietnam; however, this is where the best of the country’s culinary offerings come together and reach new heights. Com tam (cơm tấm – broken rice), a popular dish among international food lovers, is a source of pride for Saigon people. It is a staple for Vietnamese people from all walks of life. Don’t miss out on this essential food experience when visiting Vietnam. Let us take you through the history and interesting facts of this culinary highlight.
The origin of com tam
The practice of eating rice in daily meals is a result of Chinese influence and the fact that wet-rice agriculture is our main source of economy. Rice harvest produces tam, which is broken and fractured rice grains. In the past, tam was consumed by the lower class or underprivileged people who couldn’t afford whole grains. At some point, the price of tam was so low that it was used to feed cattle. There are several versions of the creation of com tam, but we are presenting the one that makes the most sense and is the most interesting in our opinion.
In the 1930s, the French colonies had a mission to make Saigon one of the world’s busiest harbors. To accomplish this, they hired a large number of workers and builders to construct large-scale projects. During this time, a lady named Ma Hai was selling steamed rice with caramelized pork and eggs. Although her food was of good quality, she often received complaints about the high price, which was too expensive for blue-collar workers. This bothered her since these manual workers were her target customers. She then came up with the idea of using broken rice grains instead of whole grains to lower the price. Ma Hai cooked broken rice with pandan leaves and heated it in a steam pot. At first, she used cheap and simple ingredients such as scallion oil, crunchy deep-fried pork fat, and a thick sweet and spicy fish sauce mixed with minced garlic and chili. The affordable price and creative rice combination attracted even more customers, from French engineers to poor manual workers. As a gesture of appreciation for her customers’ support, she added bi, shredded pork skin, as a complimentary topping. Later on, to meet the demand of a wider range of customers, she created cha, a steamed combination of egg, minced pork, and other vegetable ingredients.
The reputation of com tam finally reached the French authorities, who requested pork chops that resembled the Western-style steak. This is how the last topping, chargrilled pork chop, was added to the dish. This also explains why we now eat com tam with a spoon and fork, rather than with chopsticks. Since then, whenever com tam is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the combo “suon – bi – cha”, which is com tam topped with chargrilled pork chops, shredded pork skin, and steamed egg meatloaf.
Com tam ingredients
Although com tam is a popular dish that appeals to the general public both in taste and price, assembling all its toppings requires a lot of preparation. Despite countless variations of this dish, a typical com tam plate must have its iconic elements, including:
- Com tam (broken rice): This is the primary component of the dish. The chef carefully rinses the fractured grains to eliminate any musty smell and then cooks them with a pinch of salt. The steamed broken rice, after cooking, is soft, dry, and non-sticky, and it is kept warm in a food steamer throughout the day.
- Suon (chargrilled pork chops): The pork chop used for com tam is first marinated with simple local spices and seasonings. A successful piece of pork chop must be grilled over a charcoal fire to develop a golden char with a deeply smoky flavor while still remaining juicy and tender.
- Bi (shredded pork skin): Boiled pork skin is thinly sliced into fine threads, cooled, and then mixed with roasted rice powder (or thinh, as it is called in Vietnamese). The pork skin threads have a powdery, crunchy texture and a hint of fermented aroma.
- Cha (steamed egg meatloaf): This seemingly ordinary side dish is actually a delicacy. The mince is super soft and moist, with crunchy highlights from the wood-ear mushrooms inside. The top is brushed with a shiny golden egg yolk glaze. Some restaurants add their signature ingredients, such as crab meat and salted egg yolks, to their meatloaf, making it stand out from competitors.
- Trung op la (sunny-side-up eggs): We already had steaming, boiling, and grilling cooking methods, so it’s time for something fried. The addition of a fried egg is not only for decoration but also for balancing the elements in the dish.
- Mo hanh (scallion oil): This garnish is used in many Vietnamese dishes, especially those with grilled meat. More often, scallion oil is mixed with top mo, which are crispy deep-fried pork fat cubes. The shiny green scallion oil not only adds the final touch to the dish but also creates a nice aroma and texture.
- Do chua (vegetables and pickles): A plate of com tam is not nutritionally balanced without them. It is always served with sliced fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. To ease the richness of the cooked ingredients, pickled red and white carrots are also added.
- Nuoc cham (dipping sauce): This is an indispensable accompaniment to com tam, completing its explosive taste. The com tam made for Saigon people must be thick in texture and intense in flavor. Fish sauce is added with water, lime juice, and sugar, and the mixture is complemented with minced chili. Depending on personal preferences, the fish sauce can be made more salty or sweet.
Types of com tam
Due to its convenience, com tam is now a popular choice for an easy and tasty meal throughout the day. Local com tam food stalls are always packed with people, regardless of whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Many customers visit their favorite place almost every day, which led the cook to diversify the food choices for them by offering various side dishes to alter the standard com tam toppings. This includes using different types of pork such as back ribs instead of rib chops or butterflied chops, and a selection of over ten home-cooked dishes, including stir-fried vegetables, soups, seafood, and vegetarian options.
One notable version of com tam is com tam Long Xuyen, which has gained its own reputation. Long Xuyen is a quiet town in the Mekong Delta and is known for its less greasy and “complex” version of com tam compared to Saigon. In Long Xuyen, even small rice fragments are used, and the most noticeable difference is that whole eggs are caramelized and braised in coconut water instead of a sunny-side-up egg or steamed egg meatloaf. The braised eggs and grilled pork are chopped into matchstick size when serving, creating a mixable dish similar to a mixed rice dish. Pickled carrots and pickled morning glory are also added.
For vegetarians, it is possible to find a meat-free or even vegan version of com tam. Pork chops and pork skin are replaced with textured soybean slices and glass noodles, and the seasonings are altered to accommodate a vegetarian diet, such as using vegan oyster sauce and fish sauce. However, be mindful when ordering as some places still use eggs in their steamed egg meatloaf. In this case, vegan cha is a great option, using young tofu and tofu skin to replace eggs and meat, ensuring a soft and moist texture not far from the original version.
The eating culture of com tam
Honestly, it’s not an exaggeration to say that com tam food stalls are as prevalent as coffee shops in Saigon. Finding a com tam restaurant is easy, no matter where or when you are: just look for a distant, aromatic puff of smoke from the chargrilled pork chops on the sidestreets – that’s a sign of a good place. Here are some interesting facts about com tam and its eating culture among Vietnamese people:
- Vietnamese people often try to avoid or at least stay away from the smoke released from the grilling oven, as the smell of marinated meat and charcoal is so intense that it sticks to our clothing and lingers in the air for a long time, overpowering even the longest-lasting perfume.
- It is common sense to eat com tam with a spoon and fork, with no offense (as explained in its origin).
- Typically, when you order a full combo com tam (also called suon – bi – cha), it comes with grilled pork chops, shredded pork skin, and steamed egg meatloaf. However, you can adjust the ingredients to your preference by asking for extra scallion oil or pickles, for example. A sunny-side-up egg usually comes by request, with an extra charge of 5,000 – 7,000 VND ($0.2 – $0.3), while a small bowl of soup is offered for free.
- Com tam is favored for breakfast and lunch. If you crave it for dinner, look for a sign reading “cơm tấm đêm,” meaning com tam at night. These food stalls typically open late, past midnight, so you can satisfy your hunger after working overtime or a night out.
- To take advantage of steamed rice, com tam restaurants often transform into com binh dan, a local home-style eatery, during lunchtime. Besides the regular ingredients for com tam, these places offer a variety of home-cooked dishes, served at affordable prices and in generous portions. This is a fun and fast way to experience authentic local cuisine in Vietnam.
- The food at a com tam or com binh dan eatery is displayed in trays and showcased in a large glass cabinet for customers to see. To order, simply point to your desired dish from the selection.
- In Season 3 of MasterChef, the creation of com tam played a key role in helping the blind but talented Vietnamese chef, Christine Ha, win the coveted title.
- Com tam prices can vary greatly depending on the quality of the side dishes and the reputation of the eatery. Typically, basic com tam costs between 25,000 VND to 30,000 VND ($1 to $1.25). However, at a higher-end restaurant, prices can start at 50,000 VND and go higher, especially if you order a signature dish or additional side dishes, reaching over 100,000 VND ($4.5). Be sure to check the prices before placing your order.
Where to eat com tam?
Com tam is a dish that people in Saigon take pride in. It embodies the quintessential street food spirit of Vietnamese cuisine by delivering an explosion of flavors. Make sure to add com tam to your must-try list when visiting Vietnam, and we guarantee you won’t regret it.
- Com Tam Bui Saigon
Address: 100 Thach Thi Thanh, District 1
Price: 45,000 VND – 65,000 VND ($2 – $3)
- Com Tam Moc
Address: 85 Ly Tu Trong, District 1
Price: 45,000 VND – 74,000 VND
- Quan Chay 103 (vegetarian)
Address: 103 Nguyen Thai Binh, District 1
Price: 40,000 VND
- Thuy Linh Chau
Address: 53 Trang Thi, Hoan Kiem District
Price: 60,000 VND
- Com Tam Quan 1
Address: 178 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem District
Price: 60,000 VND – 85,000 VND
- Com Tam Tung
Address: 32 Phan Dinh Phung, My Long Ward
Price: 30,000 VND – 50,000 VND
- Quan Cay Diep
Address: 67 Ly Tu Trong, My Long Ward
Price: 30,000 VND – 55,000 VND
- Com Tam Ngon
Address: 85 Ha Huy Tap, Thanh Khe District
Price: 35,000 VND
- Ba Lang
Address: 120 Yen Bai, Hai Chau District
Price: 35,000 VND – 70,000 VND