Any visitor to the picturesque coastal city of Hoi An simply has to sample a bowl of cao lau; not least because it’s the only place where you can taste its intoxicating blend of smoky rice noodles, juicy sliced pork and fresh local greens, served on a bed of beansprouts.
Like any iconic dish, cao lau’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Some trace its roots back to the 17th-century Japanese traders and the Chinese merchants they lived and worked alongside in this once-bustling port. Another more apocryphal story goes that the distinctive firm texture of the noodles is the result of them being cooked in water drawn from the town’s ancient Ba Le Well.
Whatever the origins, it’s a fact that the noodles’ smoky flavour comes from the addition of lye water – water mixed with wood ash from local trees – to the dough mixture. The other factor that sets cao lau apart from better-known Vietnamese noodle dishes like pho and mi quang is the absence of broth. Instead, the juiciness comes from the pork, soy sauce and fish sauce.
Hawkers like Vu Thi Kim Van (see below) sell variations of this dish all over the UNESCO-listed town. Some opt to add pork rind, peanuts or rice crackers, while others favour different greens and herbs. However, a staple ingredient – agreed upon by most vendors – is local chilli jam, which gives the dish an extra fiery kick.
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.