This month I’ve decided to travel to the ancient historical central region of Vietnam to introduce a dish called com hen. Com (rice) hen (baby clams or mussels) is a Vietnamese rice dish originating from Hue.
Hue is the city located in the central region of Vietnam ruled by the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors and was Vietnam’s capital from 1800 to about 1945. This city is known for their iconic 19th century citadel surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls which include palaces, shrines, tombs and was once referred to as the Forbidden Purple City.
Besides its rich dynastic history, Hue is more known for its unique cuisine. Such as bun bo Hue (spicy beef with vermicelli noodle soup), banh beo (water fern cake) and com hen which is among the most popular dishes.
Com hen is quite a unique and complex dish to make. It includes lots of boiled baby clams about the size of your fingertips, rice, fried pork fat, da heo (crunchy pig skin), roasted peanuts, bac ha (taro stem), rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), lots of chilli pepper, bap chuoi (banana flower), khe (star fruit), assorted herbs and mam tom (fermented shrimp paste) together with a side of hot clam broth.
Mam tom is the deciding factor for most to either love or hate this dish because it is quite salty and pungent, but a necessary ingredient in order to bring the whole dish together. Unlike mam tom, everyone loves the freshwater baby clams that are steamed with lemongrass.
The unique aspect of com hen is that it is never served hot or cold, but rather at room temperature. However, the clam broth, which always accompanies the bowl of com hen, must be steaming hot.
Com hen reminds me of the famous Korean dish bibimbap, which literally means “mixed rice”. The taste is definitely different, but the mixed rice with meat, assorted vegetables, Gojuchang (red chili paste) and a side of cabbage soup draws plenty of parallels.
Com hen was once a popular dish to the common people in the central region just like com tam (broken rice) in the South, because it was inexpensive and somewhat refreshing. A balance of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and extreme spiciness all at once makes this dish very unique.
If anything, it will definitely give your palate a challenge and a good workout. There are a couple of other meals to consider from this region and style such as bun hen (baby clam vermicelli) and chao hen (baby clam porridge), which we will save for another column.
1. Quan Huong Ngu
Address: 83 Thach Thi Thanh, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1
Hours: 7:00AM – 9:30PM
Telephone (08) 38 208 114
2. Nam Giao
Address: 136/15 Le Thanh Ton, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1
Hours: Mon – Sun , 7:30 AM – 10:00 PM
Phone: (08) 38250261.