Com Ga Ba Luan Tam Ky. The name is quite a mouthful. But this chain, air-conditioned eatery is probably the only purveyor of ‘traditional’ chicken rice that you’re likely to find in Ho Chi Minh City. When we say traditional, what we mean is the dish as it has been served in Central Vietnam for well over two centuries, possibly even three. It’s the dish originally coming from Hainan Island, China’s most southerly province. And like cao lau, the Japanese soba noodle-influenced dish that Hoi An is so proud of, com ga Tam Ky is a remnant of the once cosmopolitan inhabitants of what is now Quang Nam, the province south of Danang that includes Hoi An and its provincial capital, Tam Ky.
Yet unlike Hainanese-influenced chicken rice available elsewhere in the region and sold in a number of eateries in Saigon, the actual chicken in the Tam Ky version is surprisingly plain. Coming with innards in a separate bowl of spicy sauce, the rice is saffron-coloured and boiled with only a tiny amount of chicken stock or fat. On top of the chicken are fresh herbs including mint as well as bean sprouts. Vietnamese pickles sit on the side. The offering differs distinctly from the rich-in-taste version that has become one of Singapore’s national dishes and is so readily available in Ho Chi Minh City and increasingly in Hanoi. And yet, with this dish comes a history that says much about the once important trading prowess of Central Vietnam. Even the taste talks history — it comes from a period where food was eaten with little embellishment.
A Place Called Faifo
Look back at the development of Southeast Asia, and a few important trading ports come to mind — Malacca, Penang, Singapore and Faifo, the city now known as Hoi An.
Originally established by the Cham, who located their spiritual capital at nearby My Son, in 1535 the Portuguese explorer António de Faria tried to establish a major trading port in what was then known locally as Hai Pho (‘seaside town’) — thus the foreign pronunciation, Faifo. With the support of the Nguyen Lords, early-17th century Hoi An began to flourish and became the most important trading port on the East Sea. In the 18th century, it became considered by Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination for trading in all of Southeast Asia, with the city rising to prominence as a powerful and exclusive trade conduit between Europe, China, India and Japan. Such importance saw the establishment of a large cosmopolitan population — by the 18th century the city was home to 5,000 Chinese, Arabs, Japanese and Europeans, mainly Dutch. With them came their cuisine.
The link between Hoi An and Tam Ky (meaning three flags), 40km further south, is tenuous. But Tam Ky itself is a Chinese name and one can only guess that the town (now city) was at one point populated by Chinese associated in some way with Hoi An. One thing is clear, Tam Ky chicken rice is distinctly influenced by Hainanese wenchang chicken, the oily looking, boiled chicken that has become the darling of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The chicken is seared and then boiled in the same manner as its forebear. The skin becomes a glutinous yellow and the flesh comes with a rubbery look that belies how tender it is.
The Hoi An Version
When Hoi An started to open up to tourism in the 1990s, there was no such thing as Hoi An chicken rice, or com ga Hoi An. Instead, local eateries sold the Tam Ky version of this Hainanese dish. Yet 20 years later, it is one of the town’s must-eats. So, on a recent visit to this popular tourist destination, we decided to try it out.
Regarded as probably the best chicken rice joint in Hoi An, like almost everywhere else in this heritage-sensitive town Com Ga Ba Buoi has maintained its traditional look — wooden signage, old wooden tables and benches on top of a concrete floor interior, Hoi An-style lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the table with all the ingredients on top in the far corner of the dining space.
Yet, like its compadre to the south in Tam Ky, the chicken by itself has little taste. While the saffron-coloured rice is moreish, the overall effect of the dish seems to be down to all the added tastes — fresh onions, fresh herbs, pickles and a warm sauce that is doused on top. Taken as individual elements, the ingredients lose all meaning. But coming together as one whole dish, they make for a tasty meal.
For me, I still prefer the Hainanese version that comes from Singapore, the version that first arrived in the Lion City in the 1850s. Here the chicken is chopped on the bone and the rice is boiled with chicken stock, giving it a rich, buttery melt-in-your-mouth sensation. And despite a few embellishments such as cucumber, spring onions and coriander, all the other on-the-side accompaniments you would find in the Tam Ky version are missing. Even the innards.
Yet, as Singaporeans have been at pains to tell me, you can’t get good chicken rice in Vietnam — at best it will be ‘average’. The rice is not as rich, the chicken less oily and lacking in flavour, and as for the chilli… well, for Singaporeans, if you don’t have good chilli, you just won’t have a good meal. Yet eaten at Com Ga Hai Nam in Saigon’s District 1, with some char siu (xa xiu or sweet barbecued pork) on the side, I’m not one to complain. It’s cheap, too. At VND45,000 for a plate of the good stuff, you can’t go wrong.
Ba Luan Tam Ky has four eateries in Ho Chi Minh City including their original spot at 21 Pho Duc Chinh, Q1. Go to comgabaluan.com for more information. Com Ga Hai Nam is at 55 Le Thi Hong Gam, Q1 and Com Ga Ba Buoi in Hoi An is at 22 Phan Chu Trinh, Hoi An. To taste the good stuff in Hanoi go to Tao Quan, 74 Bui Thi Xuan, Hai Ba Trung