With autumn on its way, I follow the aroma of one of season’s best dishes, xoi com. Words by me. Photos by Nguyen Bao Ngoc. The article was published on Word Hanoi Issue October 2012.
Hà Nội mùa thu; Mùa thu Hà Nội
Mùa hoa sữa về; Thơm từng cơn gió
Mùa cốm xanh về; Thơm bàn tay nhỏ
Cốm sữa vỉa hè; Thơm bước chân qua
Written by the legendary Trinh Cong Son, often described as the Bob Dylan of Vietnam, these lines from the song Nho Mua Thu Ha Noi resonate strongly with Hanoians and Vietnamese further afield. Describing Hanoi’s autumn as the season of of hoa sua (milk flower), he also calls it the season of com xanh, the green rice flakes that are harvested around this time.
Time passes by. Hanoi grows rapidly. But such songs are still a spiritual part of this city. Hoa sua will forever be the colour and scent of Hanoi. And com is a symbol of this city in autumn.
Associated with Hanoi’s streets, com is just one of those street dishes not sold in shops. Instead it seems to appear randomly, sold by street peddlers along Hanoi’s streets in autumn. As people can only get com by chance, they wait longingly for autumn to come.
Together with the rice flakes themselves, a number of other dishes appear. These include xoi com or sticky green rice, che com, sweetened green rice paste, banh com or green rice cake and com xao, which is translated as stir-fried green rice. Among these dishes, xoi com is regarded as the perfect combination of Hanoi autumn tastes and scents. Yet, often served on a lotus leaf, even xoi com is difficult to find.
The Promised Land
The one place where you always seem to be able to buy xoi com is at Xoi Ba Quy, a small food stand at Cho Hom (Hom market) that has been selling traditional sticky rice dishes for two generations. It is not the varied selection of sticky rice dishes that amazes customers most. It’s the fact that the shop owner is a man.
“My mother started selling xoi at this market 40 years ago when I was only a toddler,” says the owner, Tuan. “At that time, Hom market was a slum. And my mother was the first peddler selling xoi in this area. She started by making xoi khuc, then banh com. We’ve been selling xoi com since the 1990s. During Vietnam’s subsidy era, our family business was particularly well-known among Hanoians.”
Tuan has nine siblings, who also own food stands at Hom market. Some of them also sell xoi. Together they make up a family business chain at the market.
“Since we were kids, we helped our mother make xoi,” explains Tuan. “Sadly, my mother passed away some years ago. We inherited her recipe and have expanded the business. Making xoi has become our family tradition. The most favoured variation is xoi com.”
Making and selling xoi has become part of Tuan’s family’s daily routine.
“As autumn is the season of fresh com, we have to stay up overnight to make xoi com for hundreds of orders per day,” explains Tuan. “To [do this] we have to be accurate in every single step and the perfect xoi com can only be made from the best com and the fullest rice grains that are found at Vong village.”
Just from spending a few minutes with Tuan I can feel the true Hanoi soul in him. When asked what makes him proud of this city, he tells me that his mother used to sing the Trinh Cong Son song when selling xoi com.