Modest Cao Lau Hides the Charm of Hoi An

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Cao lau
Cao lau

Cao Lau at Faifo Pho Hoai Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Hoi An on the central coast has developed an exotic cuisine thanks to its long history as a port of call for ships from Japan, China and as far away as the Netherlands.

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Cao lau in Hoi An

It’s might not be as vibrant, colorful and eye-catching as Ho Chi Minh City’s cuisine, or as tempting in appearance as Hanoi’s, but it doesn’t matter as the food of Hoi An is all about taste, taste and taste.

Just like a shy, discreet girl who hides herself in a simple dress and shuns expensive perfume, Hoi An’s culinary offerings seduce the food lover in us with their best character: the inner quality of good taste. It lingers on the palate every time.

Cao lau is typical Hoi An. Like the town’s old quarter generally, it presents itself quietly and modestly, hiding the surprising taste inside.

Cao lau
Cao lau

Cao lau has something in common with Japanese and Chinese noodles, though more refined. It is always served with fresh herbs and tastes refreshingly free of fat and the noodles are not sour.

Unlike the flat, white, ivory noodles of Pho, Vietnam’s most popular noodle dish, Cao Lau noodles are much thicker and a bit raw. This lets them hold the full taste of the rice soaked in water from an old Champa well and lye made from the ash of the trees on Cham Island. The rice is then ground into a thick paste and processed noodles.

How to make Cao lau

To make Cao Lau, pork thigh is marinated in a mixture of garlic, soy bean sauce, fragrant Ngu Vi Huong (five-spice powder), and some salt and sugar for 30-40 minutes. After that, the meat is fried briefly in a small amount of cooking oil, covered with water or coconut juice to keep it tender, and simmered for 40 minutes.

The noodles are dipped in hot water just before serving with sliced meat, lime and fresh herbs. They say the best herbs for Cao Lau come from Tra Que, a village near Hoi An. It’s the fragrance of the fresh herbs that enhances the Hoi An specialty. That’s why Tra Que has become popular with tourists, who can spend a good part of the day there learning how to grow the herbs and get the most out of them.

There are several Ho Chi Minh City restaurants serving Hoi An specialties. The best known is Faifo Pho Hoai (Faifo is an old Western name for Hoi An). It has recently moved, from a small, quiet garden house at 77/13A Huynh Tinh Cua Street, District 3 to 51 Tran Nhat Duat Street in Tan Dinh Ward, District 1.

Besides Cao Lau, Faifo Pho Hoai serves other Hoi An and central region’s specialties such as My Quang (Quang Nam special noodles), Com Ga Hoi An (Hoi An chicken rice), Banh Trang Cuon Thit Heo (fresh roll of thinly sliced boiled pork and herbs) and Banh Hoa Hong Trang (steamed “White Rose” dumpling). Prices start around two dollars.

Cao lau
Cao lau

I visited the new premises last week and was a bit disappointed at first glance as there was no garden, just some bonsai, so I couldn’t sit under a shady tree and enjoy cao lầu in the late afternoon as I did at the old address.

It’s also smaller than the former place. However, the interior and the terrace were packed with diners. “Thank God, they must come for the good food as the venue is nothing special,” I said to myself.

My dining companions and I ordered two bowls of  Cao Lau and My Quang. Before long, these typical tastes of charming Hoi An took me back to the days wandering along the lantern-lit streets of the town’s old quarter under a full moon, and not one electric light or motorbike to be seen. Life is simple, peaceful, rich and charming in Hoi An, just like a bowl of Cao Lau

Last updated: 7/1/2011 10:00

Reported by To Van Nga