Saturday, July 4, 2009

Food for Commoners

At least twice a week I pack my ribs with food from a local lady who serves cơm bình dân ("come bing zun") out of her house in an alley near my school. Even with room for about 15 people inside and another 20 some-odd chairs outside, it's often impossible to find a seat during the 11:00-12:30 lunch rush - a testament to the food's quality and economic value.

Cơm bình dân roughly translates as "rice for commoners," and true to the name, places like this are popular with workers at lunchtime. It's a point-and-chew experience, where you start with a mound of rice on a cheap plastic plate, and then try to choose what you want faster than the woman can pile it on. Once loaded up, you drop a 20,000 VNĐ note down, and find a spot to squat among the construction guys, soldiers, and office workers who are slurping and munching away.

The variety of food is astounding, and I often wonder how many people it takes to actually put out the spread. Victuals usually include: a couple of pork dishes, two different chicken dishes, deep fried fish, stuffed tofu, spring rolls, omelettes, stir-fried shrimp, deep fried insects called nhộng (weird, but popular), stewed eggplant, scalloped potatoes, a smorgasbord of boiled, fried, and pickled vegetables, and one of my favorites: bò lá lốt, which is minced pork and beef wrapped in the leaf of an herb called lá lốt, and grilled. This is usually served with a delicious cold soup called canh rau ngót, which gets its flavor from the ngót leaf. Whatever your fancy, you're guaranteed to find some combo you like, and walk away stuffed for around a US dollar.

A typical mountain of food

Vietnamese have an interesting way of eating these kinds of rice dishes: with chopsticks in the right hand, and a spoon in the left. You use the spoon to shovel the food into your mouth - some people actually use the chopsticks to put food on their spoon, though any combination of implements seems to be perfectly acceptable. At table, I like to make myself a little sauce, consisting of fish sauce, a few chilis, a squeeze or two of lime, and a couple of pickled garlic slivers, with maybe a splash of the vinegar. I dip my spring rolls into the sauce, pour a little of it over my rice, and basically use it to add another layer of flavor, as and when I please.

This is not Vietnamese haute cuisine; like its clientele, the food has a job to do, and does it with minimal fanfare. If you're getting your food mang về(to go), you can expect to have your food bagged and in your hand in seconds. On a busy day, this attitude of friendly efficiency is well appreciated; it reminds me of the kinds of busy diners we used to have in the States, before the fast food chains took over. I like it that, in Vietnam, you can still have your fast-food fast, delicious, and reasonably nutritious.


  1. funny your date stamp is tomorrow and i'm hours from then...glimpses into your today. i'm home, exhausted from gardening work and eating a pizza from Trader Joe's while enjoying the hell outa catching up on your blog. I think you should sell your stuff to the New York Times or something, seriously.

    I've recently collected a few books on french cooking, something i had intended to get into a few years ago but failed because i left the country. now, listening to all of your slurping and munching i am very inspired to create some of my own deliciousness.

    thanks for taking the time Hal to share with us. it is a delight and i look forward to more.

  2. Hmm! I think you have to think a little bit different because I'm going to correct for you some mistakes. First, "canh rau ngót", you know,get flavor from "ngót" leaf, and "bó" stands for a bunch of leaf(sorry for my poor in English). Second, this is the food stall for commoners, so you'll see they use the easiest way to have lunch: food and rice all on the dish. I think Vietnamese in general have a different way: they put food on the dish but rice in the bowl.They don't usually use spoon to eat, that's what children use when they're not able to use chopstick!!!WE just use chopstick to eat, but it goes along with bolw, we can't use only chopstick to eat with dish(Try it and you'll see)! Usually, the food in those stall is not as good as at home, we like it hot!Those food is for commoners,convenient but I don't think "hygien"(I forget the word).

  3. Duong,

    Thanks for the correction about ngót - I thought bó was part of the name. So, would people say rau ngót?

    And yes, I know people use chopsticks when they eat rice out of a bowl - I was talking specifically about the bình dân places, where people eat with their spoons.

    BTW, the adjective form of "hygiene" is "hygienic." This is why some people call these places cơm bụi (bụi="dust"), right?

    (Thanks to my friend Huong for telling me about cơm bụi!)

  4. Oh yeah! People say "rau ngót". You have the right opinion on "cơm bụi".

  5. I enjoyed reading you posts a lot. Thanks for sharing Hal. One Vietnamese fun fact: the phrase "Cơm bình dân" should be translated to "meal for commoners". The actual word for rice is "gạo". The word "Cơm" means cooked rice. In the old days (still common to many older Vietnamese) every meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) consisted of cơm (cooked rice) with some other dishes. Therefore, when people says "Ăn cơm" it means having a meal. You would often hear people asks one another "Ăn cơm chưa?". It means "have you eaten?" (implied breakfast, lunch or dinner).


  6. Sarom took one look at the food pic above and knew every dish. She pointed to a couple saying, "You'd like this one. That one too."
    How similar is Vietnamese and Khmer cuisine? Besides looking the same?
    (boom boom)