Cốm (Grilled green rice)


When autumn comes, you may notice on a gentle breeze the pleasant scent of new rice as you walk along a quiet street of Ha Noi. Look across the street, and you'll see a woman vendor shouldering a pole with two baskets covered with large lotus leaves. The young green rice (cốm) she is selling refreshes the air with countryside fragrance. What bliss after a hot humid and dusty summer!

For centuries, com has been part of autumn in the Red River Delta, with the sound of pestles heard pounding young green rice day and night. Mothers present com in large lotus leaves to their children, who watch to make sure their shares are equal. Alexandre de Rhodes, the first French Jesuit missionary to visit Viet Nam, included cốm as an entry in his Dictionarium Annamiticum-Lusitanum-Latimim (Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary) published in Rome in 1651, though he defined com only as "pounded green rice." However, the process requires a skill (and sometimes even an art) that has been perfected over generations.

Making com is a family secret, which parents teach only their sons and daughters-in-law but never their daughters. They fear that married daughters will reveal the secret to their husbands' families and create competition.
Making cốm demands a high level of skill. First, the artisan must select the perfect rice. A special kind of sticky rice, nep hoa vang, is best because its gr
ains are smaller and rounder than other varieties. The artisan plucks grains in the paddy and gently bites them to check for ripeness. If the taste is as sweet as milk, the rice is ready for making cốm.

Cốm is eaten fresh, a pinch at a time, so the gentle sweetness can penetrate. Persimmons and bananas add subtlety to the taste.
Ha Noi has two well-known specialties: phở (noodle soup) and cốm. If the two are compared, some will say that phở is delicious but not noble. However, cốm is both delicious and noble. Hanoians may enjoy eating phở, but they never set it as an offering on their ancestral altars. However, some Ha Noi families do offer their anc
estors in the other world cốm at the beginning of autumn before they themselves enjoy this treat.

In the Oriental balance of yin and yang, green cốm represents yin or the female principle. Eaten with red persimmon, which denotes yang or the male principle, cốm gives one the feeling of perfect harmony with the universe. Perhaps for this reason, cốm continues to be a delicacy held dear by Vietnamese wherever they are, whether in Viet Nam or abroad.