Cơm Tấm (Vietnamese Broken Rice) Recipe
Why It Works
- Using fatty pork shoulder or pork butt ensures that the meat won’t dry out during grilling.
- Soaking the pork skin in warm water gets rid of any residual fat and blood, for a cleaner appearance and softer texture.
- Adding lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and pickled vegetables provides a balancing counterpoint to a hearty meal.
For Vietnamese, rice is life! Vietnamese eat rice from breakfast to lunch and dinner, and even dessert, albeit in different forms. Growing up in Vietnam, I do not remember a single day that my family skipped rice. The phrase for having a meal, ăn cơm, translates to “eating rice”—Vietnamese history and food culture revolve around it.
As one of the world’s leading rice exporters, Vietnam exported 6.4 million tons of rice in 2021, according to the USDA. But much of what Vietnam sends to the rest of the world are perfect rice grains, not the broken rice, or cơm tấm, Vietnamese love so much. Broken rice are the grains damaged during the drying and milling process, which, outside of Vietnam, are generally considered inferior to intact ones. Among the Vietnamese, however, the feeling is much different and demand for broken rice is so high that some manufacturers will manually break rice grains just to produce enough. While broken rice by itself tastes no different from regular whole rice grains, it does have a couple advantages: Thanks to their smaller size, the broken grains cook faster and soak up sauces and flavors better.
Historically, rice farmers in the rural Mekong Delta kept broken rice both as animal feed and for their own meals. Broken rice was originally served with just two ingredients: bì (shredded pork skin) and mỡ hành (scallion oil), and was often stigmatized as peasant food. As people from the Mekong Delta moved to Saigon after 1975 for better job opportunities, they introduced broken rice to the city dwellers. Since then, broken rice has become one of southern Vietnam’s most iconic foods, available from street carts and sidewalk vendors, and there are even restaurants dedicated to this popular dish.
Growing up in Vietnam, I do not remember a single day that my family skipped rice.
Nowadays, broken rice has evolved from its humble beginnings; these days you’ll see it dressed with fancier cuts of meat and topped with many delicious add-ons. Besides shredded pork skin, you can choose from popular options such as grilled pork chop (thịt sườn nướng), grilled pork (thịt nướng), grilled pork paste (nem nướng), grilled chicken (gà nướng), steamed pork-and-egg meatloaf (chả trứng hấp), or a sunny-side-up fried egg. The whole plate is topped with scallion oil, pickled vegetables, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and a tangy-sweet fish sauce dressing drizzled over everything. Some places serve a bowl of pork broth to slurp along with the broken rice.
My favorite combination is grilled pork, shredded pork, and pork-and-egg meatloaf. Choose what your taste buds fancy, or go all-out with a special that includes everything on the menu.
The Main Event: How to Cook Broken Rice
Using a rice cooker is an almost foolproof method of cooking rice to obtain those perfect fluffy and sticky grains. Before cooking, I wash the excess starches of the rice with running water until it is no longer cloudy, which helps prevent the grains from excessively sticking to each other once cooked. Then, with a 1:1 ratio of broken rice to water, I put it all in the rice cooker and let it work its magic.
If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can of course also cook the rice on the stovetop, which this recipe also provides instructions for.
Component 1: Grilled Pork
For the grilled meat, I like to use pork butt, which has more fat and tends to be juicy after grilling compared to leaner cuts like the loin. Have your butcher slice the meat about 1/8-inch-thick so that it is easier to marinate and grill. The marinade is a simple mixture of fish sauce, water, sugar, freshly ground pepper, and vegetable oil, along with my favorite aromatics of shallot, scallion, and garlic. Marinate the meat overnight, or up to 24 hours, before grilling.
You will need six to eight 8-inch wooden skewers to thread the pork, and it’s best to soak them in water for 30 minutes to prevent them from burning during grilling.
I like to cook the skewers over a two-zone fire, in which the grill has burning-hot coals on one side but not the other. This way, you can sear the pork first directly over the coals to get some good browning and flavor development, then move them to the cooler side to finish cooking without the risk of them burning.
Component 2: Shredded Pork and Pork Skin
What I love about this topping is the textural contrast between the chewy pork skin and crisp-tender meat. Store-bought shredded pork skin is made from skin with the fat removed that is then boiled and sliced super thin. You can make your own pork skin, but I prefer the convenience of premade options widely available at Asian supermarkets.
The pork skin itself is pleasingly chewy, and it’s tossed with pork butt that’s been simmered until cooked-through and tender, then crisped in a hot pan and cut into matchsticks. Both the sliced pork and pork skin are mixed with minced garlic and toasted rice powder (thính), the latter lending an earthy, nutty aroma and pleasing grittiness to the pork and skin.
Component 3: Steamed Pork-and-Egg Meatloaf
Dubbed as “Vietnamese meatloaf,” chả trứng hấp is a humble dish made from ground pork, cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, shallot, scallion, fish sauce, sugar, and freshly ground pepper. Other proteins that work great with this recipe include ground chicken, shrimp, and crabmeat. Soak both the cellophane noodles and wood ear mushrooms in warm water for 15 minutes to rehydrate before incorporating them with the other ingredients.
South Vietnamese steam the mixture, while north Vietnamese pan-fry it. Baking it or cooking it in a pressure cooker are other options. If you do not own a dedicated steamer, fill a large pot with about 2 inches of water, put a wire rack inside with the loaf pan rested on top, cover with a vented lid, and proceed with steaming. The whole mixture is suspended in beaten egg whites, steamed for 25 minutes, topped with beaten egg yolks, and steamed for another 5 minutes, resulting in two beautiful, distinctive layers.
Assembling and Eating
Serving the broken rice and toppings goes something like this: fill small bowls with the cooked broken rice, then invert the rice onto a plate. It should hold a domed shape once the bowl is removed. Next to the rice dome you can assemble the toppings. The grilled pork should still be warm, the meatloaf is good just slightly warm, and shredded pork mixture can be room temperature or slightly warm.
Then drizzle the scallion oil over the rice, the grilled pork, and the shredded pork. Add a few pieces of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber next to the meat, and serve it with the dipping sauce and pickled vegetables on the side.