According to Bui Thi Van, a housewife in Hanoi who has made cha com for years, selecting the appropriate kind of com is important to the quality of the dish. If the cook chooses the wrong kind of com, the dish will become either too crushed or tough.
“Com is divided into two kinds: com in early autumn and com in the middle of autumn. The grain of the first kind is thin and soft, suitable for vegetarian dishes or being eaten with bananas. The second is a bit thicker and a little hard, suitable for cooking pudding and cha com,” Van said.
“Com is sold abundantly on the streets when autumn comes, but the best comes from Vong village on the northwestern outskirts of Ha Noi.
“The meat to mix with com should be lean shoulder pork, which contains fat, so the taste will not become too dry or the dish downsized on being fried. The mixture will then be added with salt, seasoning and delicious fish sauce. It will be left to absorb all the spices for less than ten minutes.
“To preserve the original scent of com, no onion or garlic is added,” she said.
After that, the mixture is kneaded into small pieces and steamed from 15 to 20 minutes. Finally, cha com is fried until it becomes light brown on both sides. According to experienced cooks, instead of being placed on the plates, pieces of cha com should be arranged on lotus leaves to absorb the subtle scent of the lotus, the symbolic flower of Ha Noi’s autumn.
The dish is best when the skin is crisp, com inside soft and the fragrance of the grain mixed with lotus. It can be dipped into chilli or fish sauce to be eaten with cooked rice or rice noodle.
As the com season lasts only three months. The dish can be frozen in the refrigerator in large quantities for long-term use so cha com is available all year round. Especially, the sausage, together with bun dau mam tom (fermented shrimp paste with fried tofu and rice vermicelli), has become one of Ha Noi’s most popular street foods.
The dish can be found abundantly in corners and alleys of the capital, but the most renowned stalls can be found in Phat Loc lane, Ma May or Ngo Gach street.
“Bun dau mam tom is my favourite dish for lunch,” said Nguyen Phuong Thao, a regular visitor to a stall in Ngo Gach street. “To me, the dish cannot be complete without cha com. The sausage served in Ngo Gach street is thick, delicious and not too greasy".
While cha com is a great choice for the main course, com xao is a fantastic idea for dessert or for tea break.
Com xao (browned green sticky rice), a fantastic sweet dish made from com (Photo: healthplus.vn)
While not as popular as other dishes made from the grain, com xao enchants with the first bite.
For a more sophisticated version, the dish can be supplemented with thinned copra, which will enhance the buttery taste and crunchy feeling.
According to Van, com to cook com xao must be made in early autumn, soft and plastic. Its colour is not too green but turns a little bit yellow and especially, it must have the scent of the new sticky rice. Though the process of choosing com as its main ingredient is a bit strict, cooking the dish is not too difficult. Just needing to add sugar, thinned copra and coconut milk, the cook can get ready to make com xao.
“Similar to cha com, as soon as it is finished, com xao needs to be wrapped in lotus leaves to absorb the subtle scent of lotus,” Van said.
Like fresh young sticky rice flakes, the dish can also be enjoyed like a snack. The eater cuts the dish into pieces and downs it with a hot cup of lotus tea.
“In the bit cold of early autumn, what is more pleasant than nibbling pieces of com xao in the lotus fragrance evaporated from hot tea mixed with the fragrance of sticky rice. That’s truly the taste of Ha Noi’s autumn,” Van added.