For Vietnamese, rice is life! Vietnamese eat rice from breakfast to lunch and dinner, and even dessert, albeit in different forms. Growing up in Vietnam, I do not remember a single day that my family skipped rice. The phrase for having a meal, ăn cơm, translates to “eating rice”—Vietnamese history and food culture revolve around it.
As one of the world’s leading rice exporters, Vietnam exported 6.4 million tons of rice in 2021, according to the USDA. But much of what Vietnam sends to the rest of the world are perfect rice grains, not the broken rice, or cơm tấm, Vietnamese love so much. Broken rice are the grains damaged during the drying and milling process, which, outside of Vietnam, are generally considered inferior to intact ones. Among the Vietnamese, however, the feeling is much different and demand for broken rice is so high that some manufacturers will manually break rice grains just to produce enough. While broken rice by itself tastes no different from regular whole rice grains, it does have a couple advantages: Thanks to their smaller size, the broken grains cook faster and soak up sauces and flavors better.
Historically, rice farmers in the rural Mekong Delta kept broken rice both as animal feed and for their own meals. Broken rice was originally served with just two ingredients: bì (shredded pork skin) and mỡ hành (scallion oil), and was often stigmatized as peasant food. As people from the Mekong Delta moved to Saigon after 1975 for better job opportunities, they introduced broken rice to the city dwellers. Since then, broken rice has become one of southern Vietnam’s most iconic foods, available from street carts and sidewalk vendors, and there are even restaurants dedicated to this popular dish.
Nowadays, broken rice has evolved from its humble beginnings; these days you’ll see it dressed with fancier cuts of meat and topped with many delicious add-ons. Besides shredded pork skin, you can choose from popular options such as grilled pork chop (thịt sườn nướng), grilled pork (thịt nướng), grilled pork paste (nem nướng), grilled chicken (gà nướng), steamed pork-and-egg meatloaf (chả trứng hấp), or a sunny-side-up fried egg. The whole plate is topped with scallion oil, pickled vegetables, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and a tangy-sweet fish sauce dressing drizzled over everything. Some places serve a bowl of pork broth to slurp along with the broken rice.
My favorite combination is grilled pork, shredded pork, and pork-and-egg meatloaf. Choose what your taste buds fancy, or go all-out with a special that includes everything on the menu.
The Main Event: How to Cook Broken Rice
Using a rice cooker is an almost foolproof method of cooking rice to obtain those perfect fluffy and sticky grains. Before cooking, I wash the excess starches of the rice with running water until it is no longer cloudy, which helps prevent the grains from excessively sticking to each other once cooked. Then, with a 1:1 ratio of broken rice to water, I put it all in the rice cooker and let it work its magic.
If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can of course also cook the rice on the stovetop, which this recipe also provides instructions for.
Component 1: Grilled Pork
For the grilled meat, I like to use pork butt, which has more fat and tends to be juicy after grilling compared to leaner cuts like the loin. Have your butcher slice the meat about 1/8-inch-thick so that it is easier to marinate and grill. The marinade is a simple mixture of fish sauce, water, sugar, freshly ground pepper, and vegetable oil, along with my favorite aromatics of shallot, scallion, and garlic. Marinate the meat overnight, or up to 24 hours, before grilling.
You will need six to eight 8-inch wooden skewers to thread the pork, and it’s best to soak them in water for 30 minutes to prevent them from burning during grilling.
I like to cook the skewers over a two-zone fire, in which the grill has burning-hot coals on one side but not the other. This way, you can sear the pork first directly over the coals to get some good browning and flavor development, then move them to the cooler side to finish cooking without the risk of them burning.
Component 2: Shredded Pork and Pork Skin
What I love about this topping is the textural contrast between the chewy pork skin and crisp-tender meat. Store-bought shredded pork skin is made from skin with the fat removed that is then boiled and sliced super thin. You can make your own pork skin, but I prefer the convenience of premade options widely available at Asian supermarkets.
The pork skin itself is pleasingly chewy, and it’s tossed with pork butt that’s been simmered until cooked-through and tender, then crisped in a hot pan and cut into matchsticks. Both the sliced pork and pork skin are mixed with minced garlic and toasted rice powder (thính), the latter lending an earthy, nutty aroma and pleasing grittiness to the pork and skin.
Component 3: Steamed Pork-and-Egg Meatloaf
Dubbed as “Vietnamese meatloaf,” chả trứng hấp is a humble dish made from ground pork, cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, shallot, scallion, fish sauce, sugar, and freshly ground pepper. Other proteins that work great with this recipe include ground chicken, shrimp, and crabmeat. Soak both the cellophane noodles and wood ear mushrooms in warm water for 15 minutes to rehydrate before incorporating them with the other ingredients.
South Vietnamese steam the mixture, while north Vietnamese pan-fry it. Baking it or cooking it in a pressure cooker are other options. If you do not own a dedicated steamer, fill a large pot with about 2 inches of water, put a wire rack inside with the loaf pan rested on top, cover with a vented lid, and proceed with steaming. The whole mixture is suspended in beaten egg whites, steamed for 25 minutes, topped with beaten egg yolks, and steamed for another 5 minutes, resulting in two beautiful, distinctive layers.
Assembling and Eating
Serving the broken rice and toppings goes something like this: fill small bowls with the cooked broken rice, then invert the rice onto a plate. It should hold a domed shape once the bowl is removed. Next to the rice dome you can assemble the toppings. The grilled pork should still be warm, the meatloaf is good just slightly warm, and shredded pork mixture can be room temperature or slightly warm.
Then drizzle the scallion oil over the rice, the grilled pork, and the shredded pork. Add a few pieces of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber next to the meat, and serve it with the dipping sauce and pickled vegetables on the side.
For the Grilled Pork: In a large mixing bowl, combine water, fish sauce, sugar, and vegetable oil and whisk until sugar has dissolved. Add shallot, scallion, garlic, and pepper to the bowl. Add pork to the marinade and mix well to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.
When ready to grill, thread marinated pork on soaked skewers. Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to high. Cover and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.
Set skewers over coals or burners and cook until lightly browned on both sides, about 2 minutes. Move meat to cooler side of grill and cook, turning frequently and basting meat with the marinade, until cooked through and no pink remains, 12 to 15 minutes; stop basting about 5 minutes before the end of cooking time to avoid contamination with raw meat juices. Set aside and keep warm.
Meanwhile, for the Pork-and-Egg Meatloaf: In a small bowl, soak cellophane noodles in 2 cups warm water for 15 minutes. Drain softened noodles, blot dry with paper towels to remove any excess water, then use kitchen shears to cut them into 1-inch strands. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in another small bowl, soak wood ear mushrooms in 1 cup warm water for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse them thoroughly; squeeze out any excess moisture, then blot dry on paper towels. Discard any tough stems. Chop into roughly 1/4-inch pieces, and set aside.
In a large bowl, beat egg whites until bubbly but still liquidy, about 1 minute. Whisk in fish sauce, sugar, and pepper. Mix in ground pork, cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, shallots, and scallions until thoroughly combined.
Line a 4- by 7-inch loaf pan or round ceramic baking dish with parchment paper (choose whichever vessel will best fit inside a steamer setup). Spoon in pork mixture, pressing down to pack tightly. Place a steamer over a saucepan of vigorously boiling water. Transfer meatloaf mixture to steamer, cover, and steam at medium-high heat until meatloaf is puffed and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 minutes.
Beat egg yolks lightly in a bowl. Open lid of steamer and pour egg yolks on top of meatloaf. Cover and steam until yolk is set, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Remove meatloaf from heat and set aside. Let cool for at least 1 hour (cutting into the meatloaf while still hot may make it fall apart). When ready to serve, unmold meat loaf and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices.
For the Shredded Pork: In a medium bowl, soak shredded pork in just enough warm water to cover for 15 minutes. Rinse and drain thoroughly. Squeeze out as much water as possible. Spread pork skin out on a tray lined with paper towels to absorb excess moisture.
In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups (710ml) water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon salt and stir to dissolve. Add pork butt and cook until meat thermometer registers 145°F (63°C) in the center of the thickest part, about 20 minutes. Remove from pan and plunge into a bowl of ice water to cool. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
In a 10-inch stainless-steel skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Sear pork butt on all sides until a nice brown crust forms, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. When cool enough to handle, slice pork into matchsticks. In a large bowl, combine pork matchsticks, pork skin, garlic, roasted rice powder, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt and mix well. Set aside.
For the Broken Rice: Rinse broken rice with cold water until no longer cloudy, then drain. In a rice cooker, combine 3 cups of water with rinsed broken rice and cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Alternatively, to cook on the stovetop, in a large 4- or 5-quart pot, combine water and rinsed rice and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let rice rest, covered, for 10 minutes, then uncover pot and fluff rice to allow excess moisture to escape. Keep warm.
For the Drizzling Sauce: In a medium bowl, combine water, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice and mix until sugar has dissolved. Stir in garlic and chile. Set aside.
For the Scallion Oil: In a medium microwave-safe bowl, combine scallion, oil, salt, and sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave for 60 seconds. Remove wrap and mix well.
To Assemble and Serve: Remove grilled pork from skewers. Divide rice onto serving plates. Arrange warm grilled pork (on or off skewer, as desired), slightly warm sliced pork-and-egg meatloaf, and shredded pork around rice. Drizzle scallion oil over rice and meat. Add lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber next to meat. Serve with drizzling sauce, pickled vegetables, and pickled leeks on the side.
Rice cooker, steamer, 4- by 7-inch loaf pan or round ceramic baking dish, 8-inch wooden skewers
If you have trouble finding a butcher to slice the pork butt thinly for you, try the butcher at a Vietnamese or Chinese market, as this is not an uncommon request for them. To slice your own, freeze the pork butt until partially frozen, then slice thinly with a very sharp knife.
You can make your own roasted rice powder using this Thai recipe, but note that Vietnamese use uncooked jasmine rice instead of the glutinous rice called for in the Thai version. For store-bought roasted rice powder, look for brand Thính Saigon in market’s seasoning section.
Pre-packaged pork skin can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section at Asian supermarkets. If you cannot find pre-packaged pork skin, you can make your own using this recipe.
Pickled leeks taste similar to pickled ramps and can be found at Asian supermarkets in glass jars in the canned food section.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Since this recipe has multiple components, marinate the pork, prepare the drizzling sauce, and cook the pork-egg meatloaf the day before. On the day of, make the shredded pork, scallion oil, cook the rice, and grill the marinated pork.
The drizzling sauce can be made 2 days ahead and diluted with water if it thickens in the fridge.
The pork-egg meatloaf can be made 2 days ahead and rewarmed in the microwave or re-steamed.