A group of elderly women make a meal of com nam muoi vung on the way to a pagoda in northern Vietnam. Photo by Ngoc Thang
Dieu deftly slices the rice spheres to serve her customers on the street in the Hanoi Old Quarter, putting back leftovers into a bag in her basket and stretching out the paid notes, usually small change.
The vendor said the snack of compressed rice that usually sells for less than a US dollar a portion is everywhere in Hanoi. "It's on any street, any hospital, any market."
The rice spheres, locally called com nam muoi vung, are traditionally served with a powder made with smashed sesame and salt, and sometimes with peanuts added to the mix. More recent, alternative accompaniments to the dish are meat balls and pork floss.
Com nam was a dish originally made to make it convenient for farmers to the fields or for poor people on long travels. It has now become a popular, even fashionable street snack in Hanoi, lifting at least one village out of poverty.
Like most com nam vendors, Dieu gets her supply from Lac Dao Commune in Hung Yen Province, around 20 kilometers from Hanoi.
Lac Dao is now dubbed the "billionaire village" by many people, not some resident has really struck it rich, but because the simple rice dish has made a huge difference in the lives of the villagers.
Hung Yen people call it the "big brother commune," for its striking success in poverty alleviation.
Multi-storied houses crowd the commune, which has a population of more than 10,000.
Several stories do the rounds about how the rice spheres were reintroduced into the modern food industry, but almost all of them surround a woman called Am and her neighbor Nguyen Thi Dao, believed to be the first to sell the rice spheres on the street about 40 years ago.
A VnEconomy report cited Dao as saying that selling snacks, mostly boiled eggs and sweet treats, used to be the main job of local women as they lived near a train station on the north-south route.
The single mother of eight children, whose father had passed away, was among the vending group.
Usually, she could not go home for lunch so she brought along the compressed rice spheres to satiate her hunger. Several passengers noticed the dish and asked to buy it from her, so one day, she made about 100 of them, and they were not only sold out soon, she also received compliments for the dish.
Knowing she was on to a good thing, Dao started the business and asked her neighbors to join her.
The rice spheres, locally called com nam muoi vung, are traditionally served with a powder made with smashed sesame and salt, and sometimes with peanuts added to the mix.
Her com nam quickly shot to fame and Dao kept increasing her supply as well as her vending range. Sometimes, she walked 30 kilometers a day, also selling to people at hospitals who needed cheap meals while taking care for their relatives, and police officers who did not have time to sit down.
Those who make com nam say the rice used for the dish is not cooked normally. The uncooked rice, favorably newly-harvested, needs to be soaked in water and then rubbed hard until it is crystal clear.
Then it is cooked on a small fire in a thick pot. When the rice gets to the density of a thick porridge, the fire is put out and hot ashes or coal are used to cover the pot.
Bien, in the trade for around 10 years and among the biggest suppliers of the dish in Lac Dao, said the most important stage in the making is rubbing the rice as it needs to be a little broken.
The cooking needs more water than normal rice cooking as the rice has to be stickier. The water is also filtered several times to be clean. "Rain water is the best as it brings sweetness to the rice."
It's not a job for people in a hurry, he said.
When the rice is cooked, it's time to bunch it into spheres using strong hands and a soft cloth. This should be done when the rice is still hot. A proper com nam is one that does not fall apart and is pasty inside. It can be left for days without being spoiled.
Com nam makers also say that the job is hard and the profit margin is not that big, but it is stable and ensures income all year round. A maker earns at least VND2 million (US$95) a month and many houses have done well for themselves on it.
The commune is busiest during the beginning of the year when there are many festivals across the northern region, and people need the rice spheres for their journeys.
When Am and Dao started the trade, they were the only ones making it, but after their success, they were joined by others in their family and their villages.
Dao said the job was hard but it earned well, and there were months she could make enough to save and purchase two tenths of a gold teal, worth nearly VND8 million ($380) at present, or three to four times Vietnam's minimum wage.
Now, close to 80, she still stays with the business, though it has grown to be a grand industry for the whole Lac Dao Commune, serving five to seven tons of com nam a day, not just to guests at the train station, but to a wide cross-section of Hanoians.
Lac Dao rises up at 1 a.m. in the morning, and all adults and children in each com nam making family are also at work.
Each family would have to cook around five large pots a night, taking turns to prepare the rice, watch the stoves, bunch the rice and prepare the ingredients for making the salt mixture. The adults have to swing constantly between the different tasks.
Sometimes, the work needs to start before midnight if the family receives big orders. They are kept busy until early morning when vendors come to take their batches over to Hanoi, where the rice spheres find their way to many nooks and corners.
Its cross generational appeal can be seen in an unspoken tag among the young people those who have not tasted the dish yet are not cool.
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