Young Green Sticky Rice: Autumn’s Arrival in Hanoi

Young green rice, com, for sale in Hanoi

A quick glance at the fruits and vegetables stacked in the baskets of roaming food vendors in Hanoi reveals what season it is.  Now in early autumn, you can find a couple handfuls of such vendors wandering the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter or settled on the sidewalk to sell a favorite Hanoi fall snack called cốm or young green sticky rice. Cốm is favored by Hanoians for its subtle fresh nutty sweet flavor and fragrance.

I was recently invited by a Vietnamese television show to experience a taste of autumn in Hanoi. We shot over three days on the streets sampling sour autumn fruits like ambarella and dracontomelon (quả cóc and sấu chín) tossed with a sugar, salt, chili mixture; collecting then preparing a dish using lotus seeds from the lotus pond near my house; learning how young sticky rice is transformed into com, fragrant flat jade colored flakes; and then onto a local restaurant to make a few autumn dishes that incorporate the young green rice.

My day harvesting, threshing, roasting and pounding the rice was a delight and I shot some photos to record the entire process how cốm is made from start to finish.

Farmers readying to go home by bicycle after harvesting young green rice

A farmer carries young green rice stalks in the fields outside of Hanoi

The unripen rice is harvested each year from August to October. When farmers see the rice stalks beginning to bend and a pressed grain releases a milky droplet of moisture they know it is time to begin the harvest.

Cut rice stalks are carried using a carrying pole

I drove about 50 kilometres outside of Hanoi to a village and met some farmers in one of their fields. Arriving just around 5am I noticed the farmers busy at work and had been for some time as a quarter of the rice stalks of the approximately 30 X 40 metre field were already cut. They waved at me to join them in the harvest. The thin sharp sickles were not hard to use but Chi Mam showed me exactly where to cut, about 15cm (6 inches) from the base of the plant. After a couple hours of being hunched over slicing the stalks we took a short and much needed break eating sticky rice with mung beans for our breakfast. In typical fashion they asked my age, if I was married and did I have kids. They giggled as they found it funny that I could answer those basic questions in Vietnamese but then produced a blank expression as their questions became more detailed and I wasn’t exactly sure what they were asking. I switched the conversation back to the rice and the female farmers explained that this work tends to be done by women as the rice is not as heavy when unripen (compared to when fully ripe) and it allows the men to perform other chores.

Moving cut rice stalks from the field to tractor

Loading rice stalks on a tractor

Checking out the rest of work to be done while standing on a pile of rice stalks stacked in a tractor

A few of us began to load the tractor with the cut rice stalks as a couple others finished harvesting the field. Although just 8am the sun shone brightly and with such strength I understood why this laborious work begins so early in the morning. They encouraged me to climb on top of the pile of rice stalks and ride through the village to Chi Mam’s house just a few kilometres away. I got some bemused looks by their neighbors unsure of what to make of the situation.

The stalks were unloaded and then the husbands and wives teamed up to thresh, wash and pack the grains.  I was amazed at the grip and efficiency of the electric threshing machine. Moving at such a high speed you need to delicately move the bunch of stalks over the drum. Pressing too hard can shave off more of the stalk than required.

Teamwork: Threshing young green rice after the harvest

Mechanically threshing rice stalks

Rice stalks being mechanically threshed by farmers after harvest

Sweeping up the threshed young green rice

A woman carries a basket of young green rice kernels

The washing helps to separate the hollow grains and remove any unwanted parts of the stalk. These are kept and fed to the pigs. The grains are then loaded into 50 kg bags and three of these heavy bags are expertly balanced on the backs of motorbikes and driven to Vong Village 30 kilometres away an now within the city limits of Hanoi. Traditionally the families of Vong village would grow, harvest and then process the grains but as an urban village they no longer have any land to grow the rice and must purchase the rice from other farmers. Only about ten families in the village remain who hold the knowledge and maintain the tradition of processing the unripen rice grains into fragrant chewy jade rice flakes.


Washing young green rice

Washing of young green rice

Taking a break after the harvesting and threshing of rice

Bicycle with threshed rice stalks

I made my way to the home of Ba Hai, the family matriarch who has been making cốm for over 40 years. She and her son guided me through the process. The roasting, husking and pounding used to all be done by hand but each family has been creative in mechanizing the process while retaining the key elements that produce the well-loved cốm.

Freshly harvested young green rice kernels waiting to be roasted

Adjusting the fire during the roasting of young green rice

The roasting of the grains starts early around 4am and heat quickly surrounds the room. I thought working on the line in a busy kitchen is sweat producing but this wins hands down. They move the wood around to maintain a constant heat and use a mechanical arm to keep the grains constantly moving and to prevent them from becoming too dark or burning. If overcooked the final rice flakes will not retain their beautiful shade of green. The grains are roasted for about 90 minutes and are ready when the roaster judges that they retain a malleable sticky firmness and remain flat when pressed.

Young green rice kernels start the roasting process

Young green rice kernels being roasted

Checking to see if the rice has finished roasting

The roasted grains are left to cool and then passed through a machine 3-4 times to separate the rice from the husks and to begin the process of being slightly pressed. The discarded husks are used to start the fires for the roasting of the grains but generally they are sent back to feed the pigs.

Roasted young green rice cooling before husking

The roasted rice being husked

Husked young green rice before being pounded

The rice is then pounded using a large wooden mortar and pestle contraption until it is sufficiently flat. The flakes are then raked by hand to separate any clumps.

Husked young green rice being pounded into flat flakes

Checking to see if the young green rice has been pounded sufficiently

Removing clumps from the pounded young green rice

Hanoians can purchase freshly made cốm in autumn from vendors on the streets who are identified by the rice stalks attached to their baskets. Some vendors will sell two or three types of cốm based on freshness: made that morning to a week or so old. The cốm is wrapped in a bunch in two different leaves, first lá dáy and then lotus leaves and stored in a fridge to keeps fresh.


A street vendor with young green rice, com, for sale

Look for the green rice stalks tied or lying on the basket as indication vendor will be selling cốm.

Dried cốm can be purchased year round from shops on Hang Than street as it is used in different events such as wedding ceremonies or on ancestral alters.

A stack of green rice cakes for sale in Hanoi

Bánh cốm (green rice cakes) for sale at a shop on Hàng Than street in Hanoi.

Cốm can be used as an ingredient in spring rolls, to make che (a sweet dessert),  in ice cream (at 35 Trang Tien street) as a coating (like bread crumbs) on shrimp (Andrea Nguyen of Viet World kitchen has a nice recipe) or blanched pumpkin slices or simply accompanied with fall fruit (banana/ persimmon) or a simply eaten on its own.

Young green rice goes nicely with bananas



A warming beef and root vegetable curry

Indian beef curry with root vegetablesThis recipe is one that I recently wrote for our local community newspaper.  Inspired by some of the dedicated farmers who sell locally raised, hormone and anti-biotic free meat at the Landsdowne Farmer’s Market. The vegetarian dishes of India are fantastic but so too are many of the meat dishes.  This recipe, one could interpret it as a spiced beef stew, is a good introduction to a simple meat curry.  Play around with the spice combinations to tailor it to your own preferences and tastes. Lamb, pork, bison or elk can be substituted but cooking the time may need to be adjusted.  Typically, vegetables would not be added to such a dish but by doing so you end up with an easy substantial meal.  I love making the curry at this time of year as I find the shades of orange, rust, yellow, white and speckles of green on the plate mimic what is happening in the fields and forests during mid-autumn.

A warming beef and root vegetable curry
Serves: 4
  • 2 pounds (1 kg) stewing beef in 1 ½ inch cubes
  • 2 medium white onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp garlic cloves (3 cloves), finely chopped
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger, finely chopped plus 1 tbsp julienned ginger for garnish
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • ¼ tsp cayenne powder (family friendly); ½ tsp for a spicier curry
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 green chilli- seeds removed- finely chopped
  • 2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 ½ cups assorted root vegetables (carrots, turnips, potatoes, squash) cut into bite sized pieces
Preheat a heavy bottomed large saucepan at medium heat. Add cumin seeds and dry roast for about 2 minutes or until aromatic and dark brown. Remove cumin seeds and set aside.

Pour vegetable oil into pan and increase heat to medium high. Toss in onions and cook for about 5 minutes or until golden brown. Add cayenne powder and cook for 30 seconds or until oil starts to separate from the onions. Add chopped garlic and ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in cumin powder and cook for 2 minutes. Add stewing beef and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring regularly, for about 15 minutes until all of the meat has changed colour and has lightly browned. Toss in tomatoes, green chilli, toasted cumin and a quarter cup of water. Cover and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes or until tender. Occasionally give the meat a stir. Once the meat is tender, remove the cover and simmer until most of the liquid has reduced but still lightly coats the meat.

While the curry is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Toss in one type of root vegetable and cook until tender. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Repeat with other vegetables, if using.

When you are happy with the consistency and tenderness of the curry gently stir in the cooked vegetables. Check and adjust seasoning, if need be. Garnish with julienned ginger and roughly chopped coriander and serve immediately.
  1. The beef curry can be served with rice, naan or homemade paratha.

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog India On My Plate on November 2, 2011

A Dal for Fall: Squash Red Lentil Coconut Dal

Squash and Red Lentil DalThe subdued shades of green, so dominant throughout the summer months, in our gardens and at farmer’s markets, are quickly being replaced with fantastic bursts of golden yellow and brilliant orange. Acorn, butternut, crooked neck, hubbard, and kabocha are some of the different squash varieties, which can easily be substituted for each other in your favourite squash recipes.  This creamy textured squash and red lentil dal will guarantee to provide warmth as the autumn chill arrives. Toss in a generous handful of chopped spinach or bitter greens near the end of cooking to add more vegetables to the dish. It is worth searching out fragrant fresh curry leaves, whose aroma will nicely blanket your kitchen, and whose flavour, I promise, you will quickly find addictive!  Serve with rice as a light meal or all on its own as a satisfying soup.

Squash Red Lentil Coconut Dal
Serves: 4
  • 2 ½ cups squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 inch cubes
  • ¾ cup split red lentils (masoor dal)
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • ¼ tsp cayenne or chile powder
  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 cup of canned coconut milk
  • 1 to 1 ½ tsp salt
  • Tempering
  • 2 shallots or 1 small onion, finely sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 branch (8-10 leaves) fresh curry leaves
  • 2 dried red chiles
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp coriander, roughly chopped
Put squash, red lentils, spice powders and water into a medium sized pot. Bring to a boil and skim off scum. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Add salt and check to see that both squash and lentils are cooked. If not, cook for another 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in one cup of canned coconut milk.

Prepare the tempering:
Heat vegetable oil over medium high heat in a small frying pan. Add mustard seeds. When they begin to pop add sliced shallots, curry leaves and dried red chiles. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shallots are light brown and translucent. Add the chopped garlic and cook for a minute. Spoon all of the tempering mixture into the dal. Adjust seasoning, if needed.

Garnish with chopped coriander and serve.

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog on September 26, 2011