There’s a popular Vietnamese dish that, at its base, is a food that was once considered “not good enough to sell.” It’s called Cơm Tấm, which translates as “broken rice”.
Broken rice are fragments of rice grains that have broken off during handling. In earlier times, it was considered inferior to a whole grain. Therefore, hard-working farmers would sell the superior full-grain rice and keep the broken rice for their own tables. What I love is that the cooks and chefs of Vietnam have embraced and elevated this once-stigmatized food as the base of many dishes. I’ve eaten at stands and restaurants throughout Ho Chi Minh City dedicated to broken rice.
A common variation of Cơm Tấm is called “Cơm Tấm Sườn Bì Chả” This dish is served with a mound of broken rice (of course), along with pork ribs and thin strands of deliciously seasoned pork skin, some fresh veggies (like tomatoes and cucumbers), as well as (my favorite) pickled carrots and radishes, and finally, a fried egg, or an omelet. There will also likely be a side of sweet and sour fish sauce that often includes spicy red pepper flakes. While you can use the sauce as a dip, it’s more commonly spooned or poured over the dish and then just kind of mixed together on the plate.
Tip: The first time I ordered Cơm Tấm, the waiter brought me a fork and spoon with my order. I asked for chopsticks, which he brought, but it immediately tagged me as a tourist. While Vietnamese use chopsticks for most foods, they eat Cơm Tấm with a fork and spoon. So remember, if you come to Vietnam and want to look like a local when you order Cơm Tấm, use the fork and spoon the waitstaff brings to you.
Oh, and by the way, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with broken rice; it looks and tastes the same as full-grain rice. And Cơm Tấm has (according to Wikipedia) cemented its place in culinary history as one of 10 Vietnamese dishes recognized by the Asia Record Organisation (ARO).
Take that full-grain rice!