Among the things we miss most during this pandemic quarantine is not traveling (we had several international trips canceled). We miss not be able to inhale local sights, meeting new people, basking in scenery, and enjoying good food. But clearly, its a small price to pay for staying healthy and we pray for all families affect by COVID-19. But the thrill of being able to enjoy a dish tied to a place, a tradition, and a people at it’s origin is special and something we look forward to. Having said that, it’s also been almost 8 months since we’ve dined out and as a consolation, quarantine cooking has taken us virtually to locales across the world with hyper-local specialties. It’s been close to 10 years since we’ve stepped foot in Huế but one of unique dishes (among many) is cơm hến. While you can find this dish all over Huế, the most popular–and by local accounts, the best– is from a small islet in the middle of the Sông Hương river named Cồn Hến. You would imagine that this islet would be the source for some of the best baby clams in the region. Traditionally, this dish is served with a clam broth from boiling the clams, but here we present a shortcut version using already cleaned and cooked clams that comes together in minutes!
Frozen cooked baby clams is a good substitute for fresh clams without the worry of removing any dirt and sand. We prefer this over canned clams. Since it’s pre-cooked, we forego the boiling process but sacrifice the broth–however, you can certainly use canned clam juice if you opt for that option. Just bring to boil the clam broth and season with squeeze of lemon and salt to taste. The clams are quickly sauteed with turmeric, paprika, garlic, shallots, salt, pepper, sugar and nuoc mam. When cooled, the clams are tossed in some herbs and ready to serve.
The other key component of this dish is room temperature rice. One of great things about this dish is the contrasting textures–hot or even warm rice may wilt the fresh vegetables and dull this contrast. You can also use room temperature vermicelli noodles for a variation of bún hến.
Regarding vegetables, the two main things to consider are tart and crunch. Tart fruit such as green apples, green papaya, green mango or star fruit is a commonly used. Crunchy vegetables are also a key–peeled taro stems add great crunch, but if that’s not available use other crunchy substitutes such as iceberg lettuce.
The dish is tied together with mam nem, a prepared shrimp paste sauce, crunchy peanuts, crispy shallots, bánh đa and even some crispy chicharrons. Again, texture is everything in Vietnamese cuisine!
Com Hen Baby Clam Rice
Yield: 4 portions
Prep Time: 35 min
Cook Time: 5 min
Total Time: 40 min
A Huế specialty of sauteed clams, rice, and variety fruits and vegetables for a uniquely satisfying dish. Rice can be substituted with vermicelli noodles. See notes above for clam broth.
Mam nem sauce
1 tbs vegetable oil
1 tbs garlic
1 tbs lemongrass
2 tbs lime
2 tbs fermented shrimp paste
2 tbs sugar
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon of chopped pineapple, preferably fresh
Chopped birds eye chili, optional
1 tbs of vegetable oil
1 tbs of chopped shallots
2 minced garlic cloves
1 ts turmeric
1 ts of paprika
1 ts salt
1 ts ground pepper
1 ts sugar
1/2 tbs of fish sauce
12 oz bag of frozen baby clams, defrosted according to instructions
1 bunch rau ram (substitute with mint or basil if not available) and additional herbs if desired
1 cup of julienned taro stem
1 cup Julienned green apple (1 apple or other tart crispy fruit)
1/4 cup roasted peanuts
Fried crispy shallots
Cooked room temperature rice
Mam nem sauce
In small pan, heat the oil and sauté garlic and lemongrass till fragrant and remove from heat. Add all mam nem ingredients except pineapple and stir until sugar dissolves. Then add pineapple and birds eye chili. Adjust to taste and set aside.
In a pan, sautéed garlic and shallots in oil over medium heat until fragrant. Add clams, turmeric, paprika, salt, pepper, sugar, fish sauce. Cook only until seasonings are combined, about 2 minutes, do not over cook. Season to taste and allow to cool. When cooled, add herbs and toss together.
In a wide shallow bowl, add room temperature rice, top with clam mixture, taro stems, green apples, any additional herbs, crispy shallots, peanuts and bánh đa.
Finally add about 1 tbs of the mam nem sauce. Stir well and enjoy.