Cao Lầu, Hội An’s signature noodle dish is basically the history of the Vietnamese city in a bowl.
The cuisines of foreign traders have been added other ingredients over time but, in its traditional authentic form, can never be globalized.
Despite the dish is a melting pot of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese culinary techniques and its stir-fried, fatty pork and garnishes of herbs, crispy rice crackers, and pork crackling can be replicated almost everywhere, the dish’s star ingredient cannot: made with local wood ash and alum-rich well water, the starchy, thick rice noodles rely on the terroir of the city.
Once a key trading post on the Spice Route linking the Orient and the Occident, the ancient riverside port of Hội An in central Vietnam has always been a melting pot of cultures and cuisines.
This coastal city is extremely well-preserved.
Its canals, wooden Chinese shophouses, higgledy piggledy wooden Japanese merchant houses, French colonial architecture, and pagoda-topped Japanese bridge reflect its role as an international trading port from the 15th to the 19th century, with its food stalls that produce gutsy cooking infused with spices and fresh herbs. 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.
Hội An’s historic quarter has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, and today it is a flourishing tourist center.
Unique to the town, also the noodle dish called Cao Lầu brilliantly reflects the influence of waves of traders who came here to seek their fortune.
Its origins are hotly debated, but there is no denying that the rice noodles, given a distinctive soft yellow tinge and chewy texture, bear more than a slight resemblance to Japanese soba noodles, and the aromatic slices of stir-fried pork, marinaded in star anise and cassia bark, add a very definite Chinese taste. However, it is the handfuls of fresh herbs, lemongrass, bean sprouts, crispy fried rice cracker croutons and crunchy pork crackling that makes it really Vietnamese.
Historically, the water of Ba Le, a well located in the center of town, was said to gave noodles their distinct texture. The other key recipe component, ash, was obtained by burning wood from a tree that grows on the Cham Islands, about 13 miles off-shore.
If today about 150,000 people live in Hội An, it is one family the responsible for all of the cao lầu noodles in town.
Their empire extends back four generations, when a chef from China taught the current noodle-maker’s great-grandfather the recipe. It’s stayed a closely-guarded secret since.
In an interview, the family confirmed that they used to rely on Ba Le’s water, but stopped, as they now have their own well, which produces water with similar properties.
They also no longer source wood from the Cham Islands, but use the same kind of trees to produce their ash.
The process begins with boiling rice in ash-enhanced water, which lends the noodles their signature chewy texture.
The cook then pounds this into a dough and steams it.
Afterward, the batch endures kneading, rolling, cutting, more steaming, and, eventually, a cooling session beneath banana leaves. The family’s senior noodle-maker assumed his role at age 12, and his son delivers the goods to local restaurants.
Of course, water and wood matter, but one family’s tradition, dedication, and technique really makes cao lầu unreproducible anywhere else.
Images from web – Google Research