Especially for my dear friend Yi Meng,
Cơm nước mắm (steamed rice with fish sauce) is my forever favorite dish. It is a dish of the old poor time when my mother could not afford meat, or fish, or eggs for every of our meal.
In those days, my mother served nước mắm, boiled vegetables and its broth for our modest lunches or dinners. While boiled vegetables were good with nước mắm, the broth from boiled vegetables added some salt helped to wash down the food.
Sometimes my mother bought vegetables from the market but many times she just picked up the eatable wild plants in the garden or on the field in the neighborhood. We knew they were eatable because our pigs were happy with them. When I was bored with boiled vegetables, stir-fried vegetables or vegetable soup, etc., I pleased myself with only cơm nước mắm. How I loved and missed dripping each honey yellow drop of nước mắm onto the steamy white rice in the cold and rainy days of Huế. Sometimes, I poured a spoonful of nước mắm into my rice and mixed them together, some other times I enjoyed slightly dipping my spoon in the fish sauce and then used that very spoon to scoop some steamed rice and ate it with joy. The nước mắm remaining on the spoon was only salty enough for each spoon of rice; therefore, the rhythm of fish-sauce-dipping and rice-scooping repeated over and over again until my stomach was filled with satisfaction.
I was especially addicted to nước mắm with hot chili. A spoon of steamed rice, a little nước mắm and sliced chili was funnily a big attraction to me. Until now, I still feel quite excited when my tongue mixes the hot rice with salty nước mắm and a slice of spicy chili together in my mouth. That very chili slice makes eating cơm nước mắm more interesting as you will not know when you will “accidentally” bite that scary bit. I always try to chew very fast when I know I just put a slice of chili in my mouth. It is weird that I love spicy food but I am scared of fresh chili slices. They are always more spicy than the chili powder yet fresher and more inviting.
To make cơm nước mắm more tasty and “aromatic”, some people even put not only sliced fresh chili but also smashed garlic in it. I see many people here love to smash the garlic with a knife. This is how they do it: put a piece of peeled garlic on a chopping-board and smash it with the blade of a knife.
When I could not afford bánh lọc or bánh nậm for my afternoon tea in those days, I would make cơm nước mắm a special snack. I would spoon some leftover steamed rice and put it in my palm, then squeeze it to make a fist-shaped rice ball, and dip it into the honey yellow nước mắm. It’s such a simple yet mouth-watering bite of my childhood.
Cơm nước mắm is always my favorite. Try it and it will be yours as well, I’m sure.