Young green rice or Com
When autumn comes, you may notice on a gentle breeze the pleasant scent of new rice as you walk along a quiet street of Ha Noi. Look across the street, and you’ll see a woman vendor shouldering a pole with two baskets covered with large lotus leaves. The young green rice (com) she is selling refreshes the air with countryside fragrance. What bliss after a hot humid and dusty summer!
For centuries, com has been part of autumn in the Red River Delta, with the sound of pestles heard pounding young green rice day and night. Mothers present com in large lotus leaves to their children, who watch to make sure their shares are equal.
Alexandre de Rhodes, the first French Jesuit missionary to visit Viet Nam, included com as an entry in his Dictionarium Annamiticum – Lusitanum – Latimim (Vietnamese- Portuguese-Latin Dictionary) published in Rome in 1651, though he defined com only as “pounded green rice.” However. the process requires a skill (and sometimes even an art) that has been perfected over generations.
Making com is a family secret, which parents teach only their sons and daughters-in-law but never their daughters. They fear that married daughters will reveal the secret to their husbands’ families and create competition.
Making com demands a high level of skill. First, the artisan must select the perfect rice. A special kind of sticky rice, nep hoa vang, is best because its grains are smaller and rounder than other varieties. The artisan plucks grains in the paddy and gently bites them to check for ripeness. If the taste is as sweet as milk, the rice is ready for making com.
Harvesters hand pluck the grains (ordinary threshing would impair quality) and winnow them with a flat bamboo basket. They roast the rice, stirring the grains in a hot pan over a gentle fire fueled by wood. They then pound the grains in a mortar while stirring them from bottom to top and add coloring extracted from crushed young rice plants to make the rice greener. The final product is com – flat, soft, and fragrant rice grains that are a delicate green.
Com is eaten fresh, a pinch at a time, so the gentle sweetness can penetrate. Persimmons and bananas add subtlety to the taste.
Even the kings and queens of the past enjoyed com. During the nineteenth century, residents of Vong Village in the Ha Noi suburbs offered com to the Nguyen kings. The royal capital was in Hue then, and trains and motorised vehicles were not yet available: poor peasants from northern Viet Nam walked ten days to deliver the delicacy. They devised a special method to keep com fresh and tasty. Using a shoulder pole, each porter carried a pair of bamboo baskets with a tin tray of thinly spread com in each basket. A small earthen stove” under the tray heated a vessel of water to create steam, which kept the com fresh.
Although a perfect dish, com has a disadvantage; It must be eaten within twenty-four hours or its subtle taste will be lost. What if you want to enjoy it later? Don’t worry! Vietnamese make other com dishes – com nen, banh com, com xao, che com, cha com, kem com, com hoc. and com dep – for just that purpose.
Com nen is com stir-fried in sugary water and wrapped with banana leaves. It becomes bdnh com when the cook adds a filling of finely-pounded mung bean, sugar, and coconut and shapes a square cake, which is wrapped in banana leaves and tied with pink bamboo strings. Vietnamese use bdnh com as special gifts since the cakes can keep for a week. Children working away from home send bank com to their parents; the groom’s family offers them to the bride’s family: relatives and close friends give bdnh com to each other during Tet.the Lunar New Year.
Com xao is dried com fried with sugar and oil: however, this dish does not have the original flavour of com. A lighter dish is che com, which is an opaque, watery pudding dotted with com grains. It is often eaten as a dessert to lighten the heaviness of a large meal. Chd corn is an ordinary meal pic mixed with com grains to reduce the fatty taste. Kem com is ice-cream made from com, a refreshment unique to Viet Nam.
Com hoc of Binh Thuan Province in southern Viet Nam is popped sticky rice mixed with sugar and shaped into a square cake. Com dep, a specialty of the Khmer people in Soc Trang Province, is made by roasting ripe sticky-rice grains, removing the husks, and then mixing the rice with coconut milk, coconut meat, and groundnuts.
Vietnamese born before the First Indochina War (1945-1954) have a special nostalgia for com. They grew up singing such folk ballads as:
Com from Vong, rice from Me Tri,
Soya sauce from Ban, mints from Lang
can anything be tastier?
I did not know that von had married
And that my com had grown moldy.
Ha Noi has two well-known specialties: pho (noodle soup) and com. If the two are compared, some will say that pha is delicious but not noble. However, com is both delicious and noble. Hanoians may enjoy eating pha, but they never set it as an offering on their ancestral altars. However, some Ha Noi families do offer their ancestors in the other world com at the beginning of autumn before they themselves enjoy this treat.
In the Oriental balance of yin and yang, green com represents yin or the female principle. Eaten with red persimmon, which denotes yang or the male principle, com gives one the feeling of perfect harmony with the universe. Perhaps for this reason, com continues to be a delicacy held dear by Vietnamese wherever they are, whether in Viet Nam or abroad.