Ha Noi comes into its own in autumn. There is nothing quite like the multihued majesty of Ha Noi’s tree-lined streets on a clear bright morning: green leaves mottled with chocolate, maroon, ochre and umber against the pale blue backdrop of the sky, flower sellers on bicycles wending their way through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, the red bursts of brightness on the banks of Sword Lake when loc vung (Barringtonia acutangula) flowers bloom.
And then there is the cool loveliness of the evenings, scented with the sweet perfume of sua (milky) flower (Alstonia scholaris), which has inspired so many of our poets and songwriters, painters and photographers.
Autumn has truly arrived in Ha Noi, gently and subtly, in all its magnificent splendour. Yet, to a Hanoian like myself, autumn is not complete without the sweet taste of com (green sticky rice flake), gifted to us by the soil and the toil of hard-working peasants. Wherever I am in the world, at this time of year, I see in my mind’s eye young women with shoulder poles carrying baskets of com wrapped in lotus leaves and bound with green straw, and I hear them calling out, “Ai com day? (Who wants to buy com?)”.
Many tastes of com
There are many kinds of com depending on where in the north it originates, but to me, the best comes from Vong Village in Cau Giay District’s Dich Vong Ward, on the outskirts of Ha Noi.
Typically, sticky rice flake comes wrapped first in wild taro leaves, to keep it moist and soft, and then lotus leaves, which enhance its flavour.
Eating com (which is graded according to its freshness) the right way is an art. One is generally advised to chew small amounts at a time to really appreciate its subtle aroma, taste and texture. In this way, while enjoying this commonplace delicacy, your mind will be transported to some vast field of sticky rice somewhere in the hinterland.
Do Minh Thu, a colleague of mine, can’t get enough com.
“Nowadays, our living standards have improved much. People don’t have to worry about hunger. And that goes for me too. But I’m always hungry when I eat com, and I don’t leave a bit because I love its flavour and taste,” Thu says.
Many people enjoyed com on its own, while others, typically those in middle or old age, prefer eating it with ripe bananas.
My mother-in-law, Phan Thi Tinh, says com is part of our Vietnamese identity.
“It is said that com has been an autumn delicacy in Ha Noi for a very long time. It is a great source of pride and a testament to our rich culinary culture,” says Tinh, who turns 78 this autumn.
“Enjoying it with bananas when autumn comes is something I have done for the last 50 years. It’s delicious. I would recommend everyone to try it.”
Com is used in a number of Vietnamese specialties that are usually eaten at other times of the year, such as banh com, a type of young sticky rice cake from Vong Village.
Banh com is traditionally shaped into a squat cubes. Its green colour symbolises a bright future. It is usually served at engagement ceremonies, when the family of the groom-to-be gives a gift of banh com to the bride-to-be, who then distributes it among her relatives and friends. It is also used as an offering to ancestors during Tet (Lunar New Year) festival.
Others favourite com cakes and sweet dishes are com xao (sticky rice flake stir-fried with sugar and coconut), com rang (roasted sticky rice flake), xoi com (rice cooked with young sticky rice flake, coconut, green beans and sugar), che com (green sticky rice flake pudding) and kem com (green rice ice-cream).
Nguyen Van Khu, vice head of the Ha Noi Association of Chefs, and chef de partie at the five-star InterContinental Hanoi Westlake Hotel, says com encapsulates what it means to be Hanoian.
“In my opinion, com is the quintessence of sky and earth when autumn arrives in Ha Noi,” says Khu.
“I’ve loved it since I was little. As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a chef famous for making cakes and dishes made from com. And now, my dream has come true.”
Among Khu and the chefs of Ha Noi’s best creations are Pistachio cream cheese with young green rice pudding [the recipe for which is in the sidebar] and pistachio cream cheese with green rice pudding, as well as savoury dishes such as meat pies with com, beef fried with com, chicken stewed with herbs and com and fried shrimp coated in com.”
Com is also a favourite of chef Nguyen Nhu Hoang from the Viet Soul Restaurant in Moscow (which had the honour of hosting President Truong Tan Sang in May, along with other state leaders and officials from the Vietnamese Embassy to Moscow).
“You only find the best com in Ha Noi in autumn,” says Hoang. “It’s the first thing I think of whenever I have to prepare special dishes that are typical of Ha Noi.
“Russians coming to our 2,000sq.m, 700 guest-capacity restaurant love Vietnamese food very much, especially dishes made of com.”
Com’s origins are lost in the mists of time. Legend has it that one autumn thousands of years ago, torrential rain and heavy winds resulted in the flooding of the paddy fields around Vong Village. As a result, villagers were forced to quickly harvest the immature rice, which they then dried and stored for later use. Much to the villagers’ surprise, when they came to eat the rice, it had a unique and very pleasant taste.
As a result, the villagers duplicated the process and com became a staple in autumn. Its fame soon spread beyond the borders of the village and was soon made and enjoyed by villagers far and wide. Its renown reached such a pitch that a gift of com was regularly presented to the kings of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).
Although com can be made from any kind of rice, the best crops to use are the chiem [from January to April in the lunar calendar] and the mua (from July to September in lunar calendar), says Do Thi Thom, a com vendor from Vong Village.
“However, the best green sticky rice flake is the mua crop,” she adds.