It is a com-plete surprise when RONAN O’CONNELL finds that researching a rice dish solves a delicious enigma for him.
When it appeared on my plate I had no idea what it was but enjoyed it immensely. When it appeared in a news article on my phone I did not make the connection to that meal. When it appeared just now, in wicker baskets all through the village I’m exploring, finally it was familiar.
Those three sentences may have come across as somewhat of a riddle but that’s fitting because what I’m writing about was an enigma to me for years.
I was at the tail end of a satisfying breakfast in a Hanoi hotel about 10 years ago when first I tasted “com”. Part of a complimentary set menu included with my accommodation, this green sticky rice was served up to me paired with chopped banana. It looked basic yet was fragrant and delicious. So tasty I cheekily requested and received a second helping. I forgot to ask what it was called and gradually forgot about it altogether.
The best part of a decade later I was doing research for a trip to Hanoi and was interested by an article on a Vietnamese news website. It related to com season. In Hanoi each autumn (September-November) there is a big increase in the availability of com, which coincides with one of Vietnam’s two main rice harvesting seasons. What caught my attention was an explanation about com’s history.
It is one of Hanoi’s most popular snacks yet, as the story goes, it would not exist if not for a famine in a small village within this city many years ago.
I jotted this information down in my notebook and, upon arriving in Hanoi, set out to track down this neighbourhood where com was born and find out more about its legend. Once a hamlet, Vong village is now part of the ever-expanding urban sprawl of the Vietnamese capital city. Increasingly, lofty concrete and glass structures are encroaching on it.
Yet Vong remains a tightly knit community. Com is a key reason for this. For more than a century Vong has been Hanoi’s hub for the production of this snack. When my taxi pulls up at the edge of the village I spot several large signs advertising com. As I enter a narrow road which leads into this labyrinthine neighbourhood I see a host of vendors offering this sticky green rice.
Only then do I realise that this was the treat I enjoyed so many years ago for breakfast.
My interpreter introduces me to Minh Nguyen, a 58-year-old woman who has been selling this snack for 40 years.
I relay to her the story I read about how com was invented. Vong village was going through a famine due to a poor harvest the previous season. As they waited for the next rice crop to mature they became desperate.
One man could wait no longer so he took unripe grains of rice, roasted them in a clay pot and then crushed them to get rid of their husks, continuing to pound them.
What was left was broken pieces of unripe, chewy grains of rice. The farmer found these smashed grains were tasty and digestible, and let the whole of Vong village in on his secret. Soon its popularity spread far beyond the village and Vong had a new, lucrative industry making com.
Minh is nodding as I recount this tale, she knows it well. She tells me the process used in Vong now has barely changed in a century. Unripe glutinous rice is slowly roasted in a pan over a fire. The roasted grains are ground with a big pestle and mortar, over and over until they become much softer and chewier.
Then Minh hands me a small plate full of com and I wander off through the village, happily chewing on this snack, as locals have done for generations