Cơm Tấm History and Origin | What is Broken Rice?

Cơm tấm is pure gastronomic pleasure: barbecued pork on broken rice, topped with a fried egg and other accoutrements. Saigon and cơm tấm are inseparable: the two most distinctive smells in this city are exhaust fumes and grilled pork.” -Vietnam Coracle

Broken rice is a traditionally cheaper grade of rice produced by damage in harvest, milling or transport. It is mainly used as a food industry ingredient in America and Europe, but is eaten in Southeast Asia. Broken rice is fragmented and there is nothing wrong with it. Due to the different size and shape of the grains, broken rice has a different, softer texture from “unbroken” rice and absorbs flavours more easily. It cooks faster and can be used to make rice porridges and congees, which need long cooking times. The broken varieties are often less expensive and have historically been preferred by poorer consumers, but they are also eaten by choice. Some cookbooks even describe how to break unbroken rice to produce the desired texture or speed of cooking.

 

In Vietnam, cơm tấm is a popular rice dish with pork. “Tấm” refers to the broken rice grains, while “cơm” refers to cooked rice. Also known as ‘cơm tấm Sài Gòn’ as it is particularly served in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

 

“Cơm tấm is pure gastronomic pleasure: barbecued pork on broken rice, topped with a fried egg and other accoutrements. Saigon and cơm tấm are inseparable: the two most distinctive smells in this city are exhaust fumes and grilled pork.” -Vietnam Coracle

In the past, the fractured grains were difficult to sell because most people preferred to eat the long, whole grain rice. With their broken rice unsold, farmers traditionally would use it as animal feed. However, food is rarely wasted in Vietnam and, at some point, farmers and poor families (who could afford the broken grain) began to cook it for their own consumption. They would eat this cheaper rice with egg and bits of meat. Nowadays, broken rice is often favoured over long grain rice for its texture and is no longer considered “poor man’s food”.

When serving broken rice in combination plates, the rice should be moderately sticky. Many Vietnamese restaurants serve the broken rice shaped into a small dome. (This is done by filling a small rice bowl with cooked broken rice, pressing it gently into the bowl and then inverting onto a plate.) The rice dome is actually a really good test to see if the broken rice is cooked properly. The broken rice should hold its molded shape when you put your chopsticks or fork into it. If the rice spills onto your plate, it’s too dry. If it sticks together in one big clump, it’s too wet. Properly cooked broken rice is a bit drier than regular white rice but still fluffy and hearty – Trang of Runawayrice

Cơm tấm” has become a famous dish thanks to the a varied and sophisticated combination of toppings. It is usually served with grilled pork chop (“sườn nướng”), shredded pork skin (“bì”), steamed egg cake (“chả trứng”), sunny-side-up fried egg (“trứng ốp la”) over broken rice. The rice and meat are served with sides such as slices of fresh cucumber and tomato, pickles (“đồ chua”), and sauté green onions with crispy pork fat (“mỡ hành tóp mỡ”).

Typically, restaurants would serve this popular dish with a small bowl of nuoc cham (dipping sauce made from fermented fish sauce), as well as a small bowl of clear broth (canh) with garlic chives (to cleanse the throat).

 

In the beginning, Cơm tấm was only sold as breakfast, but due to rising demand of customers, is available the whole day. In Ho Chi Minh, late night broken rice shops (“Cơm tấm đêm”) are multiplying rapidly with increasingly diverse toppings

Want to try for yourself? Broken Rice is sold in Asian markets where various rice and grains are sold.

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