The Story of the Noodle
ever has a noodle got under my skin like Hoi An's famous cao lau. If I'm honest, I don't much like it - which is fortunate as very few of my local friends do either for much of the year, and they'd certainly never cook the dish at home.
Despite this ambivalence practically every time I delve into Hoi An's history, somehow it always comes back to this bloody noodle. The notes below are taken from six years of research projects - none that were particularly focused on noodles.
My reasons for writing this all down came with the realisation that through noodles, Hoi An's history is finally beginning to make sense to me, and maybe you'll find it helps you understand the city and it's people a little more too.
The Roots of the Noodle
Though many have tried to unravel the story of this complex carb and it's origins, few really know. It's perhaps one of Hoi An's most clever marketing ploys - a noodle unlike any other in the world, with a recipe known only to a few local families and ingredients that can only be sourced locally. A dish so intrinsically tied in with the history of the old town that it is almost as famous as the place itself. However, ask any Hoi An elder if they grew up eating the dish and you'll get a resounding 'no'. In fact to this day, very few enjoy it, the noodle is too 'kho' (dry), the pork 'beo' (fat) and the dish 'nong' (warming), which makes it unsuitable for most of the year in Hoi An's tropical climate.
It was something only 'foreigners' ate.
When you understand the recent history of Hoi An the older generations animosity towards the dish makes perfect sense. After the reunification of the country in 1975, Hoi An experienced over a decade of poverty and famine and food was heavily rationed. The cessation of trade and government bans on all kinds of worship had already led to the city's more affluent and educated foreign settlers to evacuate on boats - seeking refuge in other countries. It wasn't until several years after the Doi Moi (1986) that Hoi An began it's recovery.
In a similar vein, the cao lau noodle didn't really make a reappearance in Hoi An's marketplace until after UNESCO had set it's sights on the tiny city in central Vietnam. UNESCO were drawn first by the Ming architecture left by the five communities of south western Chinese who had built almost 3,000 traders shops, warehouses and assembly halls in the old town. A form of architecture that had been thought was lost to the world, but in Hoi An, was was found not only intact, but also still inhabited. This meant that Hoi An's government began to recognise the importance of the lost cities heritage, and while working with UNESCO they began to understand that to push the town towards heritage status the re-establishment of Chinese customs and community festivals would help pave the way. At the same time the city fostered 'speciality dishes' like cao lau, wontons and white rose - previously forgotten 'heritage dishes' that could not be found in any other province of the country, where through war and immigration the roots and origins were blurred enough for the town to take ownership of the recipes and turn them into signature dishes of the area.
According to legend the noodle get's it's texture and colour from the 'tro', a tree that only grows on the neighbouring Cham Islands, and if you visit any of the Hoi An families that make the cao lau noodle you'll see tall stacks of wood piled under tarpaulin. These day's when questioned about the origins of this wood you'll get a giggle and confession that is not strictly Tro, though it is a special type of tree that only grows on coastal mountains. When pushed further, we were told that the wood in situ had been bought from the inland mountainous border that skirts nearby Laos.
The most popular reason given for this is that the locals are truly concerned by sustainability. With the amount of cao lau produced daily (and these days, that's a lot of noodles) if all the tree's were sourced from one small island it would not be long until it was wiped out.
The main use for the wood, is to create the lye water. To do this they boil the ashes of a hardwood fire in soft water, the lye rises to the top and is skimmed off to use in the noodle dough, giving the noodle it's smoky flavour.
The chewy, dense texture? Amaranth, and though some have told us it is the dried ground leaves that give the noodles their yellow colour, something tells us it's more likely the gluten free cereal grain produced by the plant, a yellow coloured pseudo-cereal harvested from the flowering buds of the Amaranth, which when cooked have a very heavy texture and high mineral and protein content. Purely guesswork on our behalf.
Ba Le Well
Sticking with the Cham theme (and one of the most controversial ingredients) is that the noodle can only be made from water sourced from the Champa built well - Ba Le (found off an alleyway that feeds light traffic between Tran Hung Dao and Phan Chau Trinh streets just on the edge of the old town). To some degree, this once was true - before Hoi An had access to clean water, the water from any one of the 80 Cham wells in and around the old town was the purist and cleanest available (Hoi An wasn't to get treated water until sometime in the 1990's). It makes perfect sense that this water would have been used for all culinary activities before the time, and it still is to a small degree, but to imagine poor old Mr Ba Lo Le (Ba Le Wells self appointed, 80 plus year-old well keeper) syphoning enough water from the well to produce 100's of kilos of noodles each day is ludicrous.
When we spoke with the oldest family producing cao lau noodle in the city, they agreed with this and showed us that they have built their own well next door to their home noodle factory to provide the water. They stressed how the soft water that comes from a well is still very important for the lye water recipe, but the inconvenience of transporting enough water for each days orders meant that they moved away from the old Cham well years ago.
Soba - Japanese
Another fanciful tale is the likeness of the cao lau noodle to Japan's soba (buckwheat) or udon noodles and to this day, a tiny war still rages locally over the Japanese influence of the recipe. This is mostly fuelled by the story of a Japanese merchant trader who in the lived in Hoi An's Japanese quarter in the early seventeenth century. Missing the comforts, flavours and textures of his home cuisine employed the help of a Hoi An street vendor to create a more familiar dish. Together they worked experimenting with local ingredients until settling on a recipe incorporating locally grown ground rice with mineral rich water found only in the ancient Cham wells in the old town, a lye made from the ash of the ‘Tro’ tree sourced from Hoi An’s Cham Islands and a kneading process so labour intensive that Hoi An natives would never even tried to replicate it. Though a beautifully romantic story, there really is no evidence to back this up and it's more likely that Japan's strong ties and continued sponsorship of the upkeep of the old town was a more influential force in linking the noodle to the small community of Japanese who set up home in Hoi An at this time.
The Proof is in the Pork
Historically, the Hoianese were never huge fans of pork, it's heavy, fatty consistency and high price made it more of an ingredient that was pulled out for festivals and community celebrations rather than a daily source of protein. More important was a healthy (khee hon) diet and a slim (om lam) figure. You have to remember that back in it's heydays as a major trading port, Hoi An was making a very good living farming the land and waters surrounding it and the local diet was focused around grain, vegetable and sea and river fish. Pork and chicken were considered too expensive; glutinous even, and were products mainly enjoyed by the wealthy Chinese, making cao lau a rather strange choice of signature dish for their towns people.
Another identifying factor to cao lau's origins is the use of five-spice to marinade the pork. Going back centuries, cinnamon - one of the main spices used was rarely used in Japanese cooking. The choice of soy, rather than fish sauce pretty much rules out the Vietnamese influence on the dish completely. Finally, the red/gold colour of the glaze is exactly that of the glaze commonly used for the celebratory whole roasted pig that took centre stage at any Chinese community gathering or festival.
Cao Lau's Popularity
Going back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there is very little known about the dish. It's name cao lau (which translates as high floor), combined with it's dry, warming and fatty characteristics could lead one to imagine that this was a dish enjoyed from the second storey of the traders houses during the winter monsoon when the waters were high.
It's also clear that this dish was not at all popular during the end of the last century. From historical research and guidebooks it would seem that it really only started to increase in popularity as the first back packers arrived on day trips to Hoi An back in the early 1990's and for the most part it is still thought of as a foreign (tourist) food by the older generations today who prefer the less complicated, and cheaper mi quang (a dish they can make at home).
A recent change is that more of Hoi An's younger generations are beginning to enjoy the dish, they are proud and excited by how famous it has become both nationally and internationally and it has become fashionable to eat it (generally in small serve bowls as it's difficult to digest).
In Hoi An's central market food hall (which is locally considered to be 'just for tourists'), the vendors are getting younger and it's not just the offspring of the older generation cooks taking over the family business. Take Ms Thu, a 35 year old local from Cam Nam Island who spent eight years working at the Victoria Hotel before embarking on her cao lau and Hoi An speciality enterprise at stall number 47 two years ago, learning the recipe and proclaiming to prepare it by hand every morning from her stall. This is however unlikely, as the pork alone takes up to six hours to prepare and cook, the more likely scenario is that Thu, like many small restaurants sources the more complex elements of the recipe ready-made from the market and fuses them together at her stall.
As for the noodles, if you were to believe the tales of four local families holding the secret to the recipe and producing enough to meet Hoi An's ever growing daily demands, you'd be concerned that at some point in the not to distant future these mysterious noodles will no longer be available - which is probably why Hoi An has loosened up a little over certain factors in their making.
As long as there is money in these golden noodles, there will always be plenty of producers.
Where to Eat Cao Lau
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.
Making Cao Lau At Home
The recipe for cao lau is fairly simple and most ingredients can be found easily around the globe - except for the actual noodle. Japanese soba or udon noodles are a popular replacement, but if you are visiting Hoi An it is possible to buy the dried cao lau noodle from the vendors that line the Tieu La Street side of the market.
Just like dried pasta, when stored correctly these noodles can be kept for months without spoiling. If duty free allows it (do check first as each countries rules are different), put them on your culinary shopping list.