Com chay (crispy rice crust or rice crackers) is a wonderful treat best enjoyed with a thick meaty sauce. I first tried com chay in Ninh Binh province with a scrumptious sauce of beef, onion, carrot, mushroom, tomato, dill, mint and other herbs and spices. The rice crust cracked as I dipped it into the mouthwatering sauce and it was simply heavenly.
Vietnamese people customarily mixed jasmine and sticky rice together and cooked the grains in a heavy cast iron pot over a fire. The crispy crust – called com chay – of toasted golden rice that stuck to the bottom of the pot was considered a treat in itself. Today using a rice cooker you’ll still often get a layer of burned rice at the bottom, which Vietnamese will also call “com chay”.
Another, more elaborate way of making com chay is to leave cooked rice out to dry then deep-fry the grains in oil until they puff out (it takes 30 seconds or so) to make crispy rice crackers. These rice crackers can then be stored in a well-sealed container for several weeks. They make a handy pantry item. You can drop them into hot sauce or soup as croutons or use them to scoop out a savoury sauce as I did in Ninh Binh.
Ninh Binh is considered the homeland of com chay. The story goes that once there was a young man by the name of Hoang Thang from Ninh Binh who worked for a famous Chinese restaurant owner in Hanoi. The young man was a sharp and creative chef and soon he was creating chefs more delicious than the master chef. But then the young chef fell in love with the restaurant owner’s daughter but his boss disapproved of his intentions so Thang returned to his hometown. There he opened a restaurant which made a special style of com chay thanks to the techniques he’d learned from the Chinese chefs.
Hoang Thang’s restaurant was a success and he soon turned the dish into a local speciality. Impressed by the young man’s achievements, the owner of the Chinese restaurant in Hanoi changed his mind and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to Thang. The two men then worked together and opened a number of successful restaurants.
Today in Ninh Binh you will find com chay everywhere – often served with goat meat. But for those of you in Hanoi head to Ninh Binh Goat Meat & Rice Crust Restaurant, 5/22 Luong Khanh Thien street, Hoang Mai district, Hanoi, Phu De – Truong Yen Restaurant, 391 Nguyen Khang street, Cau Giay district or Ha Restaurant, 63 Pham Hong Thai, Ba Dinh district.