Cao Lau, One Of Vietnam's Greatest Culinary Treasures - Alison Spiegel
noodles, smoky pork, crisp greens, crunchy croutons and refreshing bean
sprouts: it may sound like an odd medley, but together these
ingredients compose one of Vietnam's most iconic dishes, also its most
mysterious. The dish is called cao lau, and it hails from Hoi An, a town
in central Vietnam.
An is a special place for many reasons. An important port from the 15th
to the 19th century, Hoi An was a critical center of trade for Vietnam
and became home, temporary or permanent, to foreigners from all over,
most importantly the Chinese and Japanese. From Chinese temples and
pagodas, to the iconic Japanese covered bridge, influences from Hoi An's
trading days are still
visible everywhere in town, and the French colonial architecture added
to the mix makes Hoi An effortlessly charming. The town retained much of
its old-world character by a turn of bad luck when the Thu Bon river
silted up, preventing ships from docking there and essentially halting
all commerce and development, and then a turn of good luck when the
tourism industry revived the town in the early 1990s. Hoi An was
declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999, and today it is a
flourishing tourist center. Mustard yellow colonial buildings with vine
covered terraces line dusty streets, and lanterns light up the old city
at night. The delightful atmosphere alone makes Hoi An worth the visit,
but perhaps the best reason to visit Hoi An is the food.
of all the international influences, Hoi An is something of a melting
pot when it comes to cuisine. All of Vietnam can make the same claim,
but Hoi An, a small city of only 120,000 people, is a concentrated mecca
of international and homegrown flavors. From the lively street food
scene to the renowned restaurants, there is no shortage of places and
ways to eat in Hoi An -- at all hours of the day. The central market is
at its busiest before 7 a.m., when locals can be found slurping noodle
soups and doing their daily food shopping. And the city comes alive at
night when the temperature cools and the night market wakes up. Hoi An
is also home to a few specialty dishes that are unique to the city.
There's com ga: a chicken and rice dish in which the rice is cooked in
chicken broth and topped with shredded chicken, coriander and onions.
There's white rose dumplings: shrimp and pork dumplings topped with
crispy garlic. And then there's cao lau -- Hoi An's
signature noodle dish.
Cao lau consists of thick rice noodles, pieces of barbecued pork, greens and crunchy croutons. The pork is
sliced thin and cooked in the traditional Chinese method known as char siu.
In addition to adding greens on top of the dish, it's also common to
add bean sprouts, which together with the greens adds a burst of
freshness and crisp texture to the chewy noodles and meaty pork.The
final touch is the crunch of the croutons, which are made from dried cao
cao lau noodles are the star of the show and the ingredient that makes
this dish unique to Hoi An. While the exact recipe
is known only to a few people, the tale behind the noodles is
legendary. First, cao lau noodles are said to be made using only water
from one ancient well in Hoi An called Ba Le well. The well is
surprisingly unmarked in a town that depends on tourism and would
undoubtedly profit on making it a better-known stop on the tourist
circuit. Tucked inconspicuously in an alley, however, wedged right up
against a house, the well looks like nothing special and could be easily
missed if you're not looking for it. This obscurity makes the well all
the more mystical, adding to the esoteric quality of the noodles made
with its water.
addition to the water for cao lau noodles supposedly coming from this
one, special well, the water is also supposed to be mixed
with a specific type of ash to create a lye solution. The ash is said
to come from a type of tree found on the Cham islands, which are off the
coast of Hoi An.
precise process of making cao lau noodles also sets them apart. The
recipe is a secret, known only to a few families in Hoi An. More and
more people are trying to get their hands on the recipe, of course, and
in 2012 writer David Farley for AFAR magazine ventured
to Hoi An to get to the bottom of it. While he was allowed to watch the
process by one family, he didn't walk away with the recipe, which is
still largely protected -- at least enough to keep the noodles a unique
specialty that you can't easily find outside of Hoi An.
Farley did find out is that the noodles are steamed, not boiled, like
most noodles. And while the family that Farley visited used to make the
noodles with water exclusively from the Ba Le well, they now use water
from a well they dug themselves next to their house. A family member
also told Farley that for the lye solution, they use ash from local
wood, not wood from the Cham islands. Whether or not cao lau is made
with water from the Ba La well and ash from the Cham islands these days
is besides the point, however. The dish is still a local a speciality
made using local ingredients, and it's absolutely worth traveling for.
The combination of textures, like the legends behind each ingredient,
come together to create a beguiling whole.
top of it all, cao lau's origin is still unknown. Some speculate that
the noodles, because of their heft and thickness, were inspired by
Japanese soba noodles, while the char siu pork, on the other hand,
indicates the dish might have Chinese origins. With its murky, mixed
roots, legendary ingredients and guarded family recipe, cao lau is truly
one-of-a-kind, just like its home town.