"You're so lucky, you get to have com tam everyday," an old friend of mine told me after I moved from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
May be having com tam everyday is a bit too much, but it is one of the most special flavors in southern Vietnam. It is a simple meal, and though it's become increasingly popular in extravagant Saigon, it remains cheaper than most food here.
Com tam is made from "broken rice," which is the grains of rice that have broken during processing and transport. Previously only eaten by very poor people or used as chicken feed, the smaller rice is now sold throughout the south as a cheap meal for everyone. It has also prompted a variety of upscale restaurants to add it to their menu, or even specialize in what might be called the Vietnamese "soul food'.
But com tam was first seen on the street as corner vendors fired up charcoal grills on the sidewalk and old ladies opened up cheap food stalls at local markets.
The most common com tam dish comes with a fried pork chop and an egg, sunny side up. Garnishes include do chua, or pickled vegetables (usually carrots and parsnips, but sometimes also cucumbers and cabbage) and super-sweet fish sauce and chili -- sometimes also mixed with garlic -- that northerners and people from the central region sometimes have a hard time getting down because of all the sugar.
It is one of the city's most popular late-night foods.
Nothing goes to waste
In the typical Western food culture that has been exported all over the world, people usually use only certain parts of the animal (most commonly pig, cow or chicken) for cooking. Other parts such as the head, tail and feet -- as well as certain insides like the heart, kidney, liver, stomach and blood -- are usually thrown away.
But Vietnamese chefs use every part of the animal, and Vietnamese diners love it.
Some ubiquitous dishes in Vietnam include gio thu (pork pie made of pig head meat and moc nhi -- black mushroom), long lon (boiled pig intestines stuffed with pig blood, fried nuts and spring onion), canh chua dau ca (sour soup made from fish head and sour fruits), chao tim (pig heart porridge) and tiet canh (blood pudding).
Cooks make Canh chua dau ca by throwing the big fish head in a pot with pineapple, tomato and some vegetables. But the key ingredients are fried shallots and herbs such as ngo (culantro) that add a little warmth to the broth.
In the north gio thu, long lon and nom hoa chuoi (banana flower salad) and oc nau chuoi dau (snail soup with green banana and fried tofu) are countryside dishes made with unconventional ingredients that have now become popular in the cities.
In the past, gio thu was a side dish which cooked for special occasions such as Tet (Lunar New Year and weddings when people slaughter a pig for a celebratory feast. The price of pig's head meat is also cheaper than lean pork so some people eat gio thu instead of gio lua (pork pie with lean meat) for economical reasons.
People use the meat from the pig's head, which is less fatty, together with pig ears and nose (which is crunchy) to make gio thu. This dish's flavor is enhanced with moc nhi (black mushroom).
Gio thu is not difficult to make. At first, the sliced pig head's meat will be stirred with pig's nose and ear, moc nhi, salt, fish sauce and pepper.
Then the mixture is then cooked and placed inside a homemade cylindrical mold, often made out of a milk carton, to give it its sausage-like shape.
The dish is then put aside to cool and set for 3-4 hours before it is cut into small circular slices and served cool. You can also keep gio thu in the fridge to eat later.
The people's food
Long lon and chao long are dishes for everybody.
For around VND10,000 to VND 15,000 one can have a bowl of chao long for breakfast in Ho Chi Minh city. Chao long is a hearty dish made of rice, innards and water which provide protein to start a new day.
Oc nau chuoi dau is made by slicing green banana fruit super thing before soaking it and washing with water to release the bitter taste of the raw banana flower.
After that it is boiled with water and then removed from the water. Then the snail, which has been soaked in water and grapefruit leaves for hours, is washed and boiled and separated from the shell.
Finally, the boiled banana fruits and boiled snail will be cooked with water and a bit of salt for a short time. Then fried tofu and thin sliced tia to (red parilla) leaves are added to the dish before serving.
These dishes remind me of how in Vietnam, anything is possible. Our cooks are always thinking of how to create more food from less.
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