Cơm Hến – A Bowl of Clam Rice or Salad?

com hen, clam rice

Whenever I crave a tasty, spicy, fresh, and healthy breakfast, I turn to clam rice (cơm hến). If the famous Huế beef noodles were the king, clam rice would be a queen in disguise to people in Huế –  the former capital of Việt Nam. One will need more than two dozen ingredients to make it yet you only need to pay less than half a US dollar to get one savory bowl right from any street side here.

No one knows the history of clam rice but it’s believed to be the food for low-budget people as the ingredients are inexpensive and easy to find. Clam rice is not only made with clam and steamed rice but also from a myriad of different ingredients hence, for me, cơm hến is not a rice dish but a bowl of salad. This is how Phượng – my favorite clam rice lady – often prepares my clam rice so you can picture what is in a typical bowl of clam rice. Phượng usually starts by putting a handful of sliced fresh vegetables including taro stalk, basil, and Asiatic pennywort into a bowl. She then adds a few spoons of room-temperature steamed rice, liquefied shrimp paste, sliced red chili pepper, garlic soaked in fish sauce, chili paste, roasted peanut, annatto oil, and stirred fried baby clam with wood-ear. After that, she tops it with coriander, sliced star fruit, some poached mung bean sprout, fried pork skin, and fried yellow noodles. And finally, she never forgets to give me an additional bowl of steamy clam broth to which she adds a pinch of salt. 

Clam broth is boiled with fresh ginger to make it less bland. Ginger is also believed to be the yang element that helps to balance the yin in the clam. While a bowl of clam rice is filled with different ingredients, tastes, and textures, a bowl of clam broth is pretty plain. Clam rice is served cold while the clam broth is steamy hot. They are, unsurprisingly, made a nice pair as they complement each other. 

Diners, of course, can ask the seller to tailor-make their order, which is taking off one or a few of the ingredients that they don’t want to have. Some will go with a bowl of clam rice without fried pork skin or chili paste, others would prefer their clam rice without the sliced vegetables, etc. The seller can cater to them all and even remember them for the next orders. 

I usually have clam rice from Phượng whose food stall is just a few steps from my house. Like many other breakfast sellers in Huế City, Phượng wakes up at around 3 am to prepare some main ingredients for this dish such as stir-fried clam, clam broth, sliced vegetables, steamed rice, etc. For the toppings such as fried pork skin, fried yellow noodles, or fried onion, she can make them one or a few days in advance. She then transfers them to her food stall in Kim Long District on her scooter and starts selling at around 6 am so that local people here can have early breakfast before going to work.

Looking at Phượng’s hands quickly preparing bowl after bowl of clam rice for her customers, I sometimes think about her as a musician or painter, and each bowl of clam rice is an edible piece of art. And like art, each bowl never tastes exactly the same. 

Phượng sells clam rice and its variations such as bún hến (fresh noodles with clam) and mì hến (instant noodles with clam). While clam rice is the first choice of elderly people, bún hến and mì hến are favored by most youngsters. I am a nostalgic person so I usually stick to clam rice.  

I love having her clam rice as it is tasty and somehow I feel that she prepares it with care and love. She also treats her customers as if they are her own family. She remembers each customer’s taste, shares her stories with them, and is happy to listen to them. Whenever I sit down at a plastic chair in her food stall, I will run into one or two familiar faces who are her faithful customers. Phượng, indeed, has a community that loves her clam rice and I am also one of them. 

Clam rice wasn’t my comfort food until I changed my diet a few years ago. When I started to reduce eating red meat, clam rice became an optimum choice. It’s hard to gain extra weight eating clam rice as it’s stuffed with many vegetables and herbs. I sometimes think that this dish should be introduced to those who are on a diet. 

Although clam rice is made from very inexpensive ingredients, it’s a truly delicious and healthy meal. If life happens to lead you to Huế one day, don’t hesitate to try this dish and find out why Anthony Bourdain exclaimed “Where have you been all my life?” when he ate clam rice in Huế for the first time.