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What's the Deal With Cơm Tấm-Flavored Potato Chips?

A quirky legend surrounds the invention of the potato chip, and its identity has only gotten odder over the years.

This review was not sponsored by O'Star potato chips.

According to popular lore, in 1853, a New York chef was dealing with a particularly curmudgeonly patron who kept sending his fried potatoes back with complaints that they were cut too thick. Fed up with the claims, the chef sliced them so thin they couldn’t be recognized as fries at all. Ironically, the diner loved them, and the modern-day potato chip was born.

For several reasons, this story is probably apocryphal, but it is hardly the weirdest element of potato chips. Despite it being a deep-fried starchy indulgence slathered with salts and other chemicals, it was once billed as a health food. It was even marketed as an aphrodisiac!

The innocuous texture, mild taste and absorbent surface perfect for placing on a tongue’s taste buds-filled surface has made the potato chip one of the most popular snack items for flavor experimentation in recent decades. From squid to pizza to maple syrup to pickle to cinnamon, different chip companies have rolled out a baffling array of varieties specific to certain markets. While such incarnations often seem odd to people outside of the culture they are marketed to, they traditionally attempt to capture a country’s most beloved dishes. While the Vietnamese chip market is robust, with domestic producers and those from Japan, South Korea and America all vying for shelf space, until now the flavors have been pretty conservative: BBQ, cheese, seaweed, etc. That has changed with an ambitious new release.

Vietnam’s O'Star chip company, a mainstay at tạp hóa and convenience store chains across the country, recently began selling their “3 Miền Chất Việt” line that features three flavors of chips that pay homage to three of Vietnam’s regions: cơm tấm with egg from Saigon, buffalo jerky from the north, and spicy grilled squid from the central coast. Saigoneer picked up each via a convenience store delivery to sample for our inaugural entry in our new Snack Attack series that assesses various local snacks.

Vị Cơm Tấm Sườn Trứng

What is the essential element in this Saigon standard? Most would understandably say the pork: that grilled strip of juicy rib meat with just enough grease and seasoning to compel people to swerve in traffic to get a whiff. There could be some arguments made for the broken rice, a sterling example of turning something otherwise unwanted into something prestigious. The pickled vegetables, sliced cucumber and fish sauce topping of course have merit as well. But the egg? What’s the point? It’s the uninvited tag-along that is neither offensive enough to remove nor appreciated enough to miss if forgotten. Think about it: if you ordered cơm tấm for delivery and it arrived without the pork you’d certainly call them up and demand a replacement, but if it lacked an egg, oh well. (Editor's note: We are deeply sorry about Paul's rubbish food takes, but this is, after all, a personal review.) 

Thus, it is somewhat baffling that the cơm tấm chips take such a yolk-forward approach. If you had told me that these were egg chips, I wouldn’t have questioned you. Rice is certainly difficult to capture as a flavor, to say nothing of the edible silence that is cucumber. But deliciously seasoned pork with a charcoal-smoky charisma should be easy. Why O'Star decided to give center stage to the egg, a fine source of protein, but hardly a food to conjure excitement, is certainly odd.

The one-dimensional nature of the chip is certainly disappointing considering how cơm tấm so nicely balances flavors, textures, and even temperatures. For me, the chips don’t rise above an important culinary standard I apply to everything from durian cakes to bún đậu mắm tôm pizza: Does it taste better than the pure and unadulterated version? If not, don’t bother.

Vị Thịt Trâu Gác Bếp

The Saigoneer office freezer contains a half kilo of buffalo meat. (Editor's note: this is also Paul's fault.) Part impulsive act of whimsy in response to falling down a rabbit hole exploring what oddities can be found for sale on Facebook (you can get a baby ostrich delivered within 24 hours!) and part legitimate appreciation for the northern item, I purchased the snack from a social media seller.

The seasoned meat is a great accompaniment for a cold beer: salty, a bit spicy, chewy and sharable. Especially prevalent amongst the Black Thai ethnic group in the north, the dish demands slow smoking cuts of buffalo meat marinated with salt, chili powder, ginger, and ắc khén, an aromatic herb found in the mountainous forests. Vietnamese cuisine is rightfully praised for its ability to balance different flavors, and thịt trâu gác bếp is a perfect example, as it adds a whisper of sweetness to the salty meat and spicy, earthy sauces.

So how are the chips? Pretty damn good! Unlike the cơm tấm ones, they balance the various elements of the original dish, with hints of flesh, chili powder and herbs arriving in waves. Meat-flavored chips, interestingly, are not common in the west, but Vietnam has been selling them for quite some time, and the experience shows. By adding a special twist via local flavors, the thịt trâu gác achieves a new level of symmetry. While not as healthy, I argue they are a great replacement for the real thing, and worth picking up the next time you and your buddies are having a “coupletwotree” brews along the canal.

Vị Mực Nướng Cay

I have a theory: an animal can be either interesting or delicious, but not both. Consider the cow — delicious and boring; jellyfish — mesmerizing but bland. Squids threaten this belief.

The fastest-swimming invertebrates are a marvel of biology. As old as dinosaurs, they branched off from their relatives in astounding ways, developing beaks, three hearts, the ability to shoot stupefying ink and, in some cases, their bodies serve as Technicolor Dreamcoats of fluorescence used to communicate. I like to reflect on these facts every time I’m having a beer on the street and the squid seller passes by with delicious dried squid, a top-tier snack thanks to the sheer brilliance of the creature, to say nothing of the mildly salty, sea-reminiscent taste.

Dried squid, I would contend, is eaten for its texture as much as its flavor, which is pretty blasé. But how does this translate to a chip? O'Star’s mực nướng cay are rather similar to plain potato chips, with only a subtle bit of cephalopod complimented by muối ớt chanh sauce. The crisp crunch of a fresh chip is nothing like the stringy, chewy delight of a grilled squid, but no less pleasurable. They won’t satisfy a craving for actual dried squid, but if considered independent of the food they are aiming to imitate, they are as nice as any other generic chip.

So What?

These snacks are, of course, a gimmick, but why does one eat potato chips anyways? Stuffed with fats and empty calories, it surely isn’t for any nutritional purpose, so why not consume them for the sake of novelty? In this, they excel. Anyone in Vietnam who has fond memories of the dishes they attempt to capture will certainly purchase them out of curiosity, and that should constitute a success for the O'Star marketing and development teams. Considering their affordable cost and availability at numerous stores in the city, as well as online, it wouldn’t be a decision to regret.

It’s impossible to discern exactly what makes the chips taste the way they do, as the ingredients lists run nearly as long as this article. But it’s clear that it is a lot of chemicals. So even if you are not a chip enthusiast, nor one drawn to oddities the way a concussed whale is lured to the beach, they are worth trying as a means to appreciate humans’ ability to concoct flavors. Whether they taste like their namesake inspirations is almost beside the point.


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