Chewy 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.
Hoi An – the source of Cao lau
Hoi 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.
Cao Lau, One Of Vietnam’s Greatest Culinary Treasures
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 lau noodles.
The 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.
In 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.