Recipe: Cao Lau
Hoi An Five Spice Powder
Though most recipes you will see for cao lau call for a straight Chinese Five-Spice powder, it's actually a little more complicated than that. Adding to the complexities, there are many elements of a Vietnamese dish that will be personalised by the cook. The recipe below was based on Madame Lien's recipe ( a small brick and mortor cao lau shop popular with the locals on Hoi An's Thai Phien St). Lien adds turmeric to her spice mix to give a more golden colour and extra cloves for a fuller flavour. Ms Trinh Diem Vy (Morning Glory, Cargo, Vy's Market Deli) prefers the addition of lemongrass.
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
4 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan for 3 minutes, pounded or ground into a fine powder
500g pork loin
Madame Lien's Chinese five-spice seasoning
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 cups of pork broth (1kg of pork bones, one small yellow onion and a generous pinch of salt)
¼ tsp black pepper
1 tbsp garlic, pounded into a paste
2/3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
Rub the dried spice mixture into the pork and leave to marinade overnight in the refrigerator, or for at least 3-4 hours.
To make the pork broth, start by cleaning the bones by covering in cold water and bringing to a 10-minute simmer over a medium to high heat (all the impurities will rise to the top). Discard the water, clean the pan and throw in the bones, onion, salt and 3 litres of water. Bring to the boil, and then leave to simmer uncovered over a low heat for one hour.
Once the pork is marinated, heat the vegetable oil in a large wok and seal the pork on all sides. Drain off the excess oil and add one cup of pork broth, the garlic, soy sauce and sugar and cook on a low heat till the pork is cooked through (approximately 40 minutes) and the sauce is further reduced.
Remove the pork and set aside. While the pork is relaxing add the final cup of pork broth to the sauce, taste and then add extra sugar and seasoning if needed. Bring quickly to the boil and turn off the heat.
¼ cup of buckwheat flour
Half a cup of rice flour
Pork fat or vegetable oil
To make your own croutons, mix the buckwheat and rice flour with enough cold water to make a dough. Knead well and with a rolling pin (or wine bottle as we make-do in Hoi An) roll out the dough quite thickly and cut into rough 1 cm squares. Flash fry till crisp in pork fat (this works very well) or vegetable oil and set aside.
Thinly slice the pork.
Noodles & Veg
Bean sprouts, blanched
Cao lau or Chinese wheat noodles, or ramen
Mixed herbs: anise basil, coriander, mustard sprouts and lettuce
Follow the instructions on your noodle packet and blanche the bean sprouts in boiling water for 30 seconds. Strain both really well. In bowls place a cup each of blanched bean shoots and some noodles. Arrange the herbs to the edge of the bowl so they stay fresh and crunchy. Top with pork slices, two small ladles of sauce and top with your croutons. Serve with soy sauce and thinly sliced fresh red chilli on the side.
Where to Eat Cao Lau In Hoi An
Cao lau can be enjoyed in practically every tourist restaurant and market in the old town. The best 'upmarket' places are Ms Ly's Cafeteria, Hai Cafe and Morning Glory - three of Hoi An's oldest and most established restaurants focused on delivering high quality, 'authentic' Hoi An specialities. In central market, Ms Thu (stall number 48) serves a decent bowl at the price tag of 20,000d, as does Madame Hang (stall 35) who served the dish to rapturous applause from Anthony Bourdain - she's got the photos on display to prove it.
Outside the old town there are very few street food stalls selling the dish, a good one can be found tucked in the entrance to a small alleyway on the far end of Phan Boi Chau. Other stall holders have either been moved on or made enough dough to set-up small brick and mortar shops, like Lien Cao Lau (16 Thai Phien) who's organic ingredients and commitment to quality make her the busiest lunch stop for local cao lau fans.