Cao Lầu is Hoi An‘s most famous and mysterious dish, and, I argue, the most delicious! This is a reason to visit as often as possible – for example, while you can get great ribs outside of Memphis (debatable, I’m sure), you literally can’t find Cao Lầu anywhere but Hội An.
But what is it? And what makes it so incredibly satisfying? And why can’t you get this dish – literally – anywhere else in the world?
First and foremost, it’s all about the noodles. These are a lye-water kneaded noodle, and are toothsome and thick, soaking up the scant sauce ladled on top. They are created using rice flour mixed with water and wood ash (specifically from the Cham islands, two dozen km offshore), and then cooked with firewood three times.
The one thing that is fundamentally required for Cao Lầu are these specific, delicious rice noodles – everything else is chef’s preference, but there are many traditional ingredients. They’re generally accompanied by greens, fried pork skin, bean sprouts, aromatics (basil, cilantro, sometimes mint, sometimes green onions), and a soy-sugar-chili sauce, along with garlic-soy pork.
The result is not a soup, although it’s served in a bowl and has most of the usual Vietnamese soup accoutrements, because there’s no broth involved at all, except possibly in the cooking of the pork (there’s got to be some reason it’s so tender and juicy!). Instead, this dish is served with a few ingredients on the side, and it’s up to the customer to mix to his or her personal taste preferences, including more fish or chili sauces if so desired (I desire, certainly).
I see a tendency in Vietnam to ‘have it all’ in a balanced way, and this dish is filled with personality: texture, aroma, and taste each have many representative notes, and the dish is visually striking as well, especially after dredging up the crispy bean sprouts at the bottom of the bowl. The fried pork skin on top is the absolute cat’s pajamas, finishing off bites with a lardy crunch.
There are all sorts of legends about the origin of this magical bowl of pure Vietnamese bliss. …But can we call it purely Vietnamese?
Hội An was a major trading port that included merchants from both China and Japan. Much attention has focused on foreign influences to the north, including Japanese udon or soba noodles. Major differences make these unlikely as an imported source, though, including the facts that soba noodles use buckwheat flour, not rice, and udon doesn’t use lye water. So, what about the Chinese? They also make a noodle kneaded with lye water, but of a flour variety.
To my mind, this dish is a miracle of coincidence, of “you got chocolate in my peanut butter”-like proportions.
Several distinct cultures co-existed simultaneously in one port town, with ongoing connections to their home cultures: Chinese and Japanese merchants even built a bridge together over more than a decade to commemorate and connect their peaceful neighborhoods. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to see these foreigners and their contemporary Vietnamese neighbors mixing and matching, curiously searching out the perfect noodle that reflected their unique mixture of time, place, and inhabitants. Whether it was out of necessity or curiosity is beside the point, but fun to think about.
The noodles are also special in that this lye water only comes from certain ancient Cham wells in the village, making it even more of a precious commodity, and un-exportable, given that the wells themselves are cloaked in secrecy. Given the explosion of tourism in Hội An in the last 15 years, it’s a minor miracle there’s enough water to go around for these noodles!
|A vegetarian version, missing the lime and massive scoops of chilis that inevitably go into my food here.|
And yes, you CAN get vegetarian versions! As I mentioned, the only SUPER-REQUIRED ingredient is these highly-specific and mysterious noodles.
|Best Veg in Hội An!|
Traveling with Lisa last July, we had several veg bowls from different vendors, and they were all delicious. The tofu was fried but custardy inside, coated in garlic and soy, and crispy fried tofu skins made up for the lack of pork skin (if such a thing can be made up for at all, that is).
The one we liked best was located here, at Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant, several blocks to the north of the Ancient Town district. A small hike, but worth it (and DO get the plate of roasted pumpkin and fresh-made beer!).
Along with the myriad boutiques and tailors lining Hội An’s peaceful streets, be sure and stop in for a bowl or three while you’re visiting this wonderful destination – it’ll be the only time you ever can.
…Although you can try! (Haven’t tested this… but I think I might! I’ll post if I do.)
What dish is your region famous for? Wisconsin does CHEESE, and it’s AMAZING… leave yours in the comments!