Cơm hến (baby clams rice) is a popular Vietnamese rice dish originating in Huế, and many Vietnamese believed that the best-tasting cơm hến could only be had in Huế, as the tiny baby clams from the Perfume River (Vietnamese: Sông Hương) are sweeter in flavour than any others to be found elsewhere. Huế people are also sticklers for perfecting their dishes - careful preparation techniques and the use of good ingredients, in generous quantities, are the hallmarks of Huế cooking.
The Perfume River, which meanders lazily through Huế, providing the city with much of its freshwater seafood, besides ensuring fertile agricultural land for the city’s vegetables and herbs to grow. Cồn Hến is an elliptical islet in the middle of the Perfume River (sometimes nicknamed the “eye of the dragon”. The other dragon’s eye is Cồn Dã Viên further upriver).
Here at Cồn Hến, the baby clams were dug up from the river, and boiled, before the clam meat were extracted. The boiling water was reserved as a stock for the soup pot. The clam meat would be stir-fried with minced garlic, shallots, and Vietnamese mint, seasoned with nước mắm (fish sauce). The clam-meat would be served with cold rice or noodles, accompanied by herbs and vegetables, pork crackling and the must-have mắm ruốc (fermented shrimp paste). The warm soup will be served separately - either to be poured over the whole dish or consumed by itself.
Every morning, boats from Cồn Hến islet would ferry the cơm hến vendors to Chợ Đông Ba (Dong Ba Market) and Đập Đá to hawk their baby clam dish. On Đập Đá itself, there’ll be a row of eateries serving cơm hến.
We had our first taste of cơm hến here at this eatery on the corner of Đường Trương Định and Đường Phạm Hồng Thai:
Over here at Quán Cơm Hến on 26 Đường Trương Định, the eatery utilises an eating area which they seemed to share with Thuy Bun Bo Hue (which offers the famous Huế noodle dish, bún bò Huế) which Anthony Bourdain apparently ate at.
More on cơm hến: it’s basically a baby clam dish, topped with with pork crackling, fried peanuts, fresh beansprouts, and chopped scallions. Ultra-spicy chili flakes in oil, mắm ruốc and nước chấm are provided on the side.
We poured our clam broth into the dish, and ate it like rice porridge. It was an interesting combination - rice and ingredients at room temperature, with warm broth. But it was utterly delicious, and we polished off every grain of rice in there, even though we just came from another meal at Bà Đỏ earlier.
This place is a definite keeper. Don’t miss this dish if you’re ever in Huế!
Quán Cơm Hến
26 Đường Trương Định - Huế (corner with Đường Phạm Hồng Tha)
Tel: +84 775 464 466 (don’t think they speak English, though - ask your hotel concierge to help)
Opening hours: 24-hours.