Deep in the lush Mekong River delta, rice paddies are carved into mountainsides in serene terraces of green. In this bucolic setting, the work of a rice farmer was hard, back-breaking.
Threshing, the process which releases the rice from the stalk, was done by hand. The whole kernels, after being separated from those that have shattered, were sold for a meager profit, usually to the colonial aristocracy in what was French Indochina. The broken pieces, however, were kept for home consumption, or sold cheap to fellow laborers.
Because of this, broken rice, or com tam, became day-to-day sustenance for the peasant class, steamed to humble platefuls, and eaten with simply-grilled meats, fresh cut vegetables, and a bowl of sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham.
Here in present-day Garden Grove, deep in Orange County's Little Saigon, virtually every restaurant and pho joint has a version of this Vietnamese work-a-day dish, but few actually specialize in it like Com Tam Thuan Kieu, a plain-looking place located in a dingy strip mall indistinguishable from all the other dingy strip malls along Brookhurst Street.
Out front, toothless, chain-smoking old men sit and chat, no doubt reminiscing about a time in recent history when Ho Chi Minh City was still called Saigon. Inside, the menu -- which features broken rice and meat pairings in sixty-four permutations -- is dizzying.
The specialty of the house is #7 and #8 on the roster, two dishes which takes the name of the restaurant itself.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 mon A ($7.95) and Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 mon B ($7.95) are masterpieces of seven mouth-watering items heaped on top of a generous mound of rice.
It's a meal fit for a fat French Imperalist or a family of hungry rice planters. Seriously, it is enough food to feed two people at one sitting, or one person for two days.
I chose, for a recent lunch outing, a #7, which included the following:
Bi (Shredded Pork) - Wispy strands of translucent pork skin and julienned meat tossed with toasted rice powder.
Cha (Baked Egg) - A slice of something similar to quiche, with wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, and pork cooked together with beaten egg.
Nem (Charbroiled Meat) - A mixture of pureed pork meat, aggresively seasoned with pepper, formed into racquetball-sized spheres, and cooked to a springy, bouncy firmness.
Lap Xuong (Sausage) - Sweet Chinese sausage, splayed on the diagonal into bite-sized sections, pan-fried to an oily sheen.
Tom Nuong (Charbroiled Shrimp) - Grilled shrimp skewered on a stick, basted with a sweet barbecue glaze.
Tau Hu Ky (Bean Curd Skin w/Shrimp) - A golden brick made of shrimp minced to a paste, wrapped with a thin sheet of bean curd skin, and deep fried crisp.
Suon (Charbroiled Pork Chop) - A grilled, marinated pork chop, cut to the shape of a baseball mit.
The rice, steamed perfectly to pleasingly-perky, pebble-shaped granules, acts as a blank canvas for the protein piled upon it.
The short stubby pieces form a matrix well suited to sop up the juices that leech out from the meats, the oil-wilted scallions, and Thuan Kieu's Nuoc Cham, a pungent sauce with vinegary, sweet, and fishy overtones, meant to be drizzled over everything you eat.
The Nuoc Cham -- garnished with pickled pearl onion bulbs -- is the heart and soul of the dish. Com Tam without it, is pancakes without syrup; cereal without milk; sushi without wasabi...you get the picture.
Palate cleansers in the form of thickly sliced cucumber and pickled carrot provide a fresh counter balance to the meal. But true com tam aficionados won't overlook the whole Thai chili peppers, offered on each table next to the spoon and fork receptacles.
For every spoonful of food, bite off a piece of the chili as you would a dill pickle. It's a scorching ordeal, but essential for the full experience.
Dissipate the resulting burn with a sip of the broth, served with every plate of com tam. Its flecked with chopped scallions and sweetened with deep-fried shallots. If you're lucky, the soup will also come with a chunk of gristly pork from the stock pot.
For a less gut-busting lunch, opt for the #22, Com Tam Bi Cha Thit ($4.95) which includes the familiar trio of "baked egg cake", "shredded pork", and Thit, charbroiled pork marinated to a deep shade of rouge. The pieces are as tender as they are flavorful.
But whatever you order at Com Tam Thuan Kieu, heed the first two words on its name and don't ask for pho.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
14282 Brookhurst Sr., #2
Garden Grove, CA 92643