Swing by chị Hien’s street cart for dinner on any given day and you’ll find a cross-section of Saigon that covers all demographics: middle-class residents from the apartment blocks up the street, well-heeled expats from nearby City Garden, neighborhood xe ôm drivers, hungry lotto ticket vendors and everyone in between. Rich, poor, young, old, local, foreign, we all agree on one thing: these people make a mean cơm tấm.
In Vietnam, street food is the great unifier. While people may not agree on everything, our differences promptly fade away when we pull up a plastic stool and tuck in to a plate of rice or a piping hot bowl of soup.
It is in this egalitarian spirit that cơm tấm rose from a working-class dish in the Mekong Delta to the hallmark of Saigon street food. Purely on merit, what originated as a farmers’ meal has grown to become one of the southern hub’s most iconic comfort foods, and today cơm tấm is not only available from street carts and on sidewalks across the country but in popular local chains both at home and abroad.
Before it catapulted to international fame, however, this humble dish began in the Mekong Delta, where farmers would gather the broken bits of rice leftover from the milling process to make their meals, according to Thanh Nien. The broken rice was originally served with just two ingredients: bì, or shredded pork skin, and the greasy goodness of mỡ hành.
As urbanization grew, however, low-income workers began to move into cities, bringing their cơm tấm with them. Mekong Delta workers introduced the dish to Saigon, where it became the preferred meal of penny-pinching students and laborers alike thanks to its cost and, of course, its taste. Eventually, the cơm tấm craze caught on with other city dwellers, and cooks across the city began to tack on fancier accoutrements like the pickled veggies, fried eggs and grilled pork that are considered standard ingredients in its modern-day version.
While the exact date at which cơm tấm entered Saigon’s culinary lexicon is unclear, we do know that it was a celebrated meal by 1945, when writer and cultural researcher Son Nam praised the merits of cơm dĩa. Whether the rice served in these dishes was broken, we don’t know, but the assortment of proteins featured are certainly in line with cơm tấm’s offerings.
“Cơm dĩa is the most popular food, eaten with a fork and spoon, includes grilled pork ribs, some shrimp, fried egg, roast pork or braised duck egg,” the author wrote, according to Thanh Nien. “The original was created by a Hainanese person who worked as a chef for Europeans and applied these skills to local cuisine.”
The last several decades have seen few modifications to the dish, though the occasional “re-imagining” does happen. In fact, it was a souped-up version of this very dish that won Christine Ha her Masterchef title in 2012. The judges’ main comment? It wasn’t the best-looking dish, to be sure, but it was damn delicious, giving voice to what the people of southern Vietnam already knew to be true.