|Frying up the favourites: Cao lau and other local specialities are sold at many spots along the riverside in Hoi An.
Cao lau – a dish steeped in legend – offers unique flavours and textures, embodying the very essence of Hoi An in one bowl. Bo Xuan Hiep reports
Chewy noodles, smoky pork, crisp greens and crunchy croutons, as well as refreshing bean sprouts. Sound like a strange medley? Together, these ingredients create one of Viet Nam's most iconic dishes: cao lau, a must-try dish when you visit Hoi An.
A busy trading port from the 15th to 19th century, Hoi An in the central province of Quang Nam was once a major trade hub. It became the temporary, and often permanent, home to many people, mostly Chinese and Japanese, from all over the world.
Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, Hoi An, with a population of 120,000, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Viet Nam.
From Chinese temples and pagodas, to the iconic covered Japanese bridge, influences from Hoi An's trading days still exist everywhere in the town.
|Dive right in: Tourists sample the local dishes in Hoi An.
The French colonial architecture that still stands, often occupied by restaurants and hotels, lends a charming touch.
Mustard-yellow colonial buildings with vine-covered terraces line the dusty streets, and lanterns light up the old town at night. The relaxing atmosphere alone makes Hoi An worth a visit.
More importantly, the town is a mecca of international and homegrown flavours. From the lively street food scene to the renowned restaurants, there is no shortage of places to eat in Hoi An - from early morning to late at night.
Hoi An, in fact, is home to a few unique specialty dishes.
There's com ga (chicken and rice, in which the rice is cooked in chicken broth and topped with shredded chicken, coriander and onions). And white-rose dumplings: shrimp and pork dumplings topped with crispy garlic.
For me, however, the best is cao lau, the city's signature noodle dish, partly due to the legend surrounding its making, and its light yet complex rice noodles.
A dozen stalls sell cao lau among other local dishes at the central market.
In fact, you can see cao lau sold everywhere in town: "Cao lau! Cao lau! Please try my cao lau!" cry cooks and noodle vendors at crowded markets, food stalls and backstreet eateries.
|Intriguing dish: Legend surrounds the making of cao lau, a noodle dish with pork, greens, bean sprouts and a uniquesauce. — VNS Photos Bo Xuan Hiep
Recommended by my friend Tran Anh Khoa, a Quang Nam native, I tried the dish at Trung Bac restaurant, located in a 100-year-old house, a popular venue in the Old Quarter for local and foreign tourists.
Tran Tan Man, 70, the restaurant's owner, told me that cao lau demanded respect, and, when served at its best, reverence.
"It's the perfect balance of textures and flavours that make cao lau special. Each bowl is carefully crafted as if it's the last bowl ever to be made," he said.
Cao lau consists of thick rice noodles, barbecued pork, greens and crunchy croutons. The pork is sliced thin and grilled in the traditional Chinese method known as xa xiu (char siu).
There are options for cao lau as diners can substitute pork with chicken, beef or seafood. Personally I prefer the smoky pork, which makes my mouth water whenever I think about the dish.
In addition to the greens on top of the dish, it is also common to add bean sprouts, which, together with the greens, adds freshness and a crisp texture to the chewy noodles and meaty pork.
Trung Bac Restaurant
Add: 87 Tran Phu Street, Hoi An
Tel: (0510) 864 622
Comment: special noodle dishes, cosy ambience, attentive staff
Depending on the cook, an array of fresh locally grown greens will be piled on or beside the pork, such as mint, basil, fish leaf, rice paddy herb, crisp lettuce and coriander.
Crunchy deep-fried squares of cao lau dough are then put on top of the dish.
To enhance its flavour, I recommend some of Hoi An's famously fiery chili paste from the condiment basket on the table.
Next you should combine the ingredients to ensure that the chili paste and sweet pungent broth from the pork fat juices drizzled over the noodles is thoroughly mixed.
Apart from the noodles, it's the broth and pork grill that truly sets one cao lau apart from the next.
With a coarse but dense texture, cao lau noodles are dirty-brown in colour and have a subtle, smoky flavour.
While the exact recipe is known only to a few people, the tale behind the noodles is legendary.
People say that only true cao lau is made from water from an ancient well in Hoi An, but I remain somewhat skeptical.
The water is also supposed to be mixed with a specific type of ash that is believed to be taken from a type of tree found on the Cham islands off the coast of Hoi An.
More and more people are trying to get their hands on the recipe. Even today, it is difficult to find authentic cao lau outside of Hoi An.
Man, the owner of Trung Bac restaurant, told me the noodles were steamed, not boiled, as most noodles are.
Though cao lau has been popular for years, few people know about the origin of the dish. Some believe the noodles are similar to Japanese udon noodles, while the char siu pork, on the other hand, indicates the dish might have Chinese origins.
No matter where the origin, cao lau, with its murky, mixed roots and mysterious ingredients, is one-of-a-kind, just like its hometown Hoi An. — VNS