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Saigon’s hidden 'com tam' gem

Sunday, January 17, 2021, 15:15 GMT+7
Saigon’s hidden 'com tam' gem
Trung kho long dao, the signature of Com Tam Chi Nam, is seen in the photo. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

Tucked deep in a crowded alleyway in Ho Chi Minh City, Com Tam Chi Nam has been winning over hearts and stomachs for over 50 years with its signature trung kho long dao (caramelized soft-boiled egg).

Com tam, or Vietnamese broken rice, is a traditional street food made from broken rice grains.

Once considered 'poor people’s rice,' broken rice refers to the fractured rice grains collected after the milling process.

Over the years, Vietnamese have become fond of broken rice grains and today it is one of the country’s most common street food dishes.

Diep Thi Ngoc Anh tops scallion oil on the broken rice at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

A dish of broken rice is topped with scallion oil before other toppings are added and served to diners at a com tam stall on Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

Com tam can be found on nearly every street of most Vietnamese cities, with street vendors relying on the sizzle and smell of grilled pork to grab the attention of passers-by.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the dish is so popular that many deem it the primary representation of their culinary heritage, on a par with pho.

Com tam Saigon (Saigon-style broken rice) is usually served with grilled pork, a bed of pickled vegetables, steamed egg meatloaf, scallion oil, and a special topping called top mo (fried pork fat). 

It is often accompanied by a small bowl of seasoned fish sauce and a bowl of soup broth. 

Thanks to its superior simplicity and healthiness, Vietnamese foodies are willing to dine on com tam for breakfast, lunch, or dinner savoring the unique texture of the broken rice grains.

The grilled pork served with com tam is considered a major component of the dish. 

It is typically marinated in salt, sugar, garlic, onion, soy sauce, and sesame oil in order to create a juicy, savory sensation with each bite.

The homemade grilled pork at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

Grilled pork, the main topping of Com tam Saigon, is seen at a com tam stall on Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

Much of the magic of com tam comes from the atmosphere in which it is cooked – street side grills, bustling traffic, and crowded sidewalks all make for a dining experience that fully engulfs the senses. 

Nowhere is this unforgettable atmosphere better illustrated than at 53-year-old Com Tam Chi Nam, arguably the most well-known com tam vendor in the city.

Launched in 1954 by Vo Thi Hue, Com Tam Chi Nam first operated near the Bay Hien intersection in Tan Binh District before becoming a permanent fixture on Tan Canh Street in the same district.

When Hue passed away, her daughter, Diep Thi Ngoc Anh took the reins of the family business at just 18 years old.

Diep Thi Ngoc Anh serves a dish of com tam to customer at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

Diep Thi Ngoc Anh serves a dish of com tam to customers at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

According to Anh, now 67, the family recipe has been preserved and unchanged since day one.

Although the stall appears to be a typical street food stand, it manages to attract dozens of customers each day, most of whom are regulars.

The stall opens from 6:00 am to 12:00 pm each day and is often full. On best-selling days, the stall closes early before noon.

Despite the high demand, Anh still knows each of her regulars and manages to serve them in the exact order they arrive.

Most of the food sold at Com Tam Chi Nam is made using secret family recipes, including grilled pork, Chinese sausage, cha (steamed egg meatloaf), bi (shredded pork mixed with cooked and shredded pork skin), sunny-side up eggs, and meatballs.

The homade bi (shredded pork mixed with cooked and shredded pork skin) at Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City, is seen in the photo. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

The homemade bi (shredded pork mixed with cooked and shredded pork skin) at Com Tam Chi Nam on Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City, is seen in the photo. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

A 'standard' dish of com tam suon (broken rice topped with grilled pork) at Com Tam Chi Nam fecthes around VND20,000 (US$0.87).

The signature dish at the stall – trung kho long dao (caramelized soft-boiled egg) – is what has truly built the store’s reputation and distinguished it from other com tam stalls.

Paying for an extra of VND10,000 ($0.43), diners can add to their com tam dish a trung kho long dao – a stewed egg which tastes bland alone but becomes a rich, creamy meal when combined with rice.  

A plate of com tam includes grilled pork, trung kho long dao, steam egg at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

A plate of com tam includes grilled pork, trung kho long dao, and steamed egg meatloaf at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

According to Anh, cooking the soft-boiled egg is a learning curve which requires accuracy and precision or else the egg will be overcooked.

An average of 100 eggs are consumer per day at the stall.

“To make the perfect soft-boiled eggs, I boil the eggs for eight minutes and then remove them from the pot," Anh revealed to Tuoi Tre News.

"Fire plays an important role in the process as well.

"The fire level must be at a simmer.

"When I first started, I need a timer but now I don’t."

To ensure a tasty plate of com tam, the ingredients must be top quality so Anh is extremely strict in the ingredient purchasing process.

She only works with reliable suppliers with a solid reputation.

The homemade trung kho long dao at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

The homemade trung kho long dao at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

“Some of my customers were elementary school students when they first ate at my stall, and they still do even thought they have [grown up and] got married or returned from studying abroad,” she said. 

“Some customers even bring along their children."

It is not only the delicious food but also Anh’s cheerful attitude that have made diners fall in love with the street food stall.

Anh confided that she still remembers the face of every student who visits her stall, even though she sometimes forgets their names.

“Though Com Tam Chi Nam has operated for more than 50 years, it still retains its traditional taste and attracts a large number of patrons," Lan, 40, a regular customer at Com Tam Chi Nam, told Tuoi Tre News.

"Many regular customers come for a trip down to memory lane.

“My older brother and I have eaten com tam at this stall since we were an elementary school students.

"Now, I am 40 years old.

"For me, this stall might not have the best com tam plate in town, but it holds a lot of memories.”

According to Anh, the stall has had to relocate more than five times but has still been able to maintain its great reputation.

At its peak, Com Tam Chi Nam was serving more than 15kg of broken rice each day, but now that Anh is getting older, she has had to reduce the number of plates she sells.

The Com Tam Chi Nam signboard at Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City, is seen in the photo. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

The Com Tam Chi Nam signboard is shown on Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

The homemade Chinese sausage at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre

The homemade Chinese sausage at Com Tam Chi Nam, Tan Canh Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nam Vuong / Tuoi Tre News

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