Why you should care
Sometimes the by-product of a food becomes the best part of it.
Once known as “poor man’s rice,” cơm tấm is now a lunchtime (but also breakfast and dinner) obsession for everyone in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — from highfliers to sandaled schoolkids. The dish, which translates as “broken rice,” is named after its primary ingredient: once-worthless broken rice grains, which are the casualties of the milling process. Served with an intoxicatingly smoky barbecued pork chop and lubricated by a gooey fried egg and liberal lashings of spicy fish sauce, the soft-but-still-crunchy rice shards are the comforting bedrock of the dish.
But broken rice wasn’t always a popular fast-food option. Eating it was once a necessity that came with a stigma attached. Poor rice farmers in the Mekong Delta started eating the broken grains because they could not sell them — and they soon developed a taste for them. Urbanization in the first half of the 20th century brought the dish to Saigon (aka HCMC), where it quickly became a working-class staple. Grave food shortages in the 1980s, brought about by the failings of collective agriculture, shattered whatever class divides still lingered.
When the highly successful government policy of Đổi Mới (“renovation”) was introduced, Vietnam went from near-famine to being the world’s second-largest exporter of rice between 1989 and 1997. That meant broken rice remained readily available since the damaged grains were not suitable for export. As the country’s economy surged, cơm tấm stalls and restaurants sprung up all over Ho Chi Minh City and beyond. What was once reserved for the poorest of the poor eventually became a “standardized part of the culture,” explains Renee Marton, author of Rice: A Global History. Nowadays, the dish is so popular that many places have been forced to break full-grain rice (soak for an hour or two and break with your hands) to keep up with demand.
Soft and succulent, but never mushy, broken rice is a middle ground between sticky rice and regular rice.
But it’s not just a Vietnamese thing. In Senegal, which has a three-thousand-year history of rice production, the grain has a totally different — and altogether more dubious — political past. In the early 20th century, city dwellers developed a taste for imported broken rice as French merchants off-loaded the undesirable riz brisé from French Indochina (present-day Vietnam) on their African colonies. Senegal’s national dish ceebu jën (“rice fish”) can be made from full-grain rice, but the smaller, almost spherical broken-rice granules do a far better job of mopping up its rich, spicy tomato sauce. Little wonder, then, that broken rice commands premium prices there.
So why is there so much broken rice knocking about? Rice isn’t just the most labor-intensive grain of all, it’s also surprisingly delicate, says Marton. Grains can break at any stage of the process — from threshing through milling. For the people who grow and sell rice, full grains have always been more valuable. But the broken grains are never wasted. Instead, they’re fed to animals, turned into rice alcohol and used by the cosmetics industry. It has also become a popular food among laborers and subsistence farmers — once they’d got over the ignominy of eating animal fodder.
Apart from being cheaper than regular rice, it also cooks faster, which means lower energy bills and fewer trips to the well. Cooked properly — broken rice must be soaked before cooking or it becomes a “starchy mess,” says Marton — the smaller grains feel “like comfort food in your mouth” and are also better at absorbing sauce than their unmutilated cousins. Soft and succulent, but never mushy, broken rice is a middle ground between sticky rice and regular rice. Some even liken it to couscous.
Broken rice’s peasant-to-posh story is not unique. It’s pretty common, says Marton, for something that “starts off as low status to become desirable.” Believe it or not, escargot, sushi, lobster (aka “the garbage of the sea”) and even caviar were first eaten out of necessity by farmers and fishermen. Social stigma, it seems, can only last so long in the face of something truly delicious.
Broken rice, it turns out, didn’t need any fixing.
Broken Rice in Other Nations
- In Bangladesh, khuder bhat — broken rice with onion, garlic, chilies and spices — has long been a staple of rice farmers, and is now a sought-after urban delicacy. Khuder bhat is eaten on its own for breakfast or with bhorta (lightly fried mashed vegetables) for a more filling meal.
- In the American South, during colonial times, female slaves tasked with pounding and winnowing Carolina Gold rice quickly found a use for the “middlins,” pairing them with vegetables or thickening them with rice flour (rice dust). “Rice grits” have been given a chic makeover by producers like Anson Mills ($5.95/pound) and celebrity Southern chefs including James Beard award-winner Ashley Christensen, who has a kick-ass recipe for creamy grits with tomato relish.