Think of the essence of Hoi An’s culture, the history of the city combining with its extraordinary culinary in a single bowl. Yes, we are talking about a noodle dish steeped in legend, Cao Lau – a quintessential must-try food of Hoi An Ancient Town!
What is Cao Lau?
If the recommendations for top 10 things to do in every Hoi An’s review and the abundant advertisement signs available all over the town is not saying enough of Cao Lau’s popularity, then the constant inviting calls from restaurants and food stalls to sample a bowl are hardly missed. Needless to say, Cao Lau is the most iconic dish in Hoi An, as well as the most mysterious.
Unlike other noodle dishes in Vietnam like Pho or Bun, Cao Lau is served with very little broth, more like a sauce to sprinkle on top. Distinctive soft yellow noodles, smoky pork, crisp greens, crunchy croutons, tasty sauce and refreshing bean sprouts; it may sound like an odd medley but we promise, it is the stuff of legends, one bite and it feels like all your taste buds are tingling with homegrown flavors.
Cao Lau – a pride of Hoi An Ancient Town
Once being a key trading port of Asia back in the 17th century, Hoi An is something like a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, thanks to the contributions of merchants from varied countries coming to Vietnam to do business. If anything, it is for the mix of different influences here and there that makes Hoi An even more effortlessly charming, to the point it crafts and brands the town’s distinctive signature. Cao Lau is no exception as it embraces the diversity of fused cultures’ heritage, which is probably the most preferred explanation for its debatable origins: the resemblance to Japanese’s udon noodles with a pleasant Chinese twist in how the pork is cooked, yet the addition of greens and small pieces of fried pork skins is unmistakably from Vietnamese.
Even the name “Cao Lau” is rich of history itself, a fun and tellable legend nonetheless. “Cao” means high while “Lau” means floor in Vietnamese, which indicates that the delicacy is an exclusive dish reserved for the rich. Hoi An’s (or anciently known as Faifo’s) upper classes would only sit at higher floors of restaurants decorated in luxury and beautiful lanterns, where they could enjoy their noodles while leisurely watching the streets bustling below, far away from the less entitled common people. Much to the relief, such hierarchical arrangement was long gone now as every people is free to enjoy Cao Lau whenever and wherever they want.
The secret recipe of Cao Lau
Admittedly the Cao Lau’s noodles are the star of the show. Legend has it that the exact recipe to make the noodles is known to very few people and highly guarded by one family. The water to boil the noodles with can only be retrieved from the centuries-old Ba Le well, the wood ashes which are used to soak them with have to be taken from Cham Island, only then will the noodles be chewy and sweet enough.
If asked, we honestly think it is just an exaggerated myth. Perhaps it is how Cao Lau was made back in old days considering its exclusive serving for the upper crust, but there are about hundreds of restaurants and eateries that sell Cao Lau nowadays, we doubt with only one supplier and such sophisticated process as well as rare ingredients are sufficient enough to serve the whole town.
Even if the dish is not as mysterious as myths would have you believe, its charm does not reduce any less. In fact, it is for the perfect balance of textures and flavors that earn Cao Lau all the respect it deserves. The thickness of chewy noodles, the aromatic juicy slices of tender pork, the crunchy deep-fried pork skins and the freshness from the locally-grown greens to balance out the rich-flavored broth made from the pork fat juices, all the ingredients comes together to create a beautifully crafted delicacy like no other.
Where to get the best Cao Lau in Hoi An
Despite the long preparation time, Cao Lau is usually cheap to eat – under $2 a bowl and served throughout the day until close. For an authentic taste of Cao Lau, we have listed below some of Hoi An’s best restaurants and where to find them:
- Cao Lau Madam Lien (16 Thai Phien street)
- Cao Lau Madam Thanh (26 Thai Phien street)
- Cao Lau Khong Gian Xanh (687 Hai Ba Trung street)
- Cao Lau Ba Be (food court, Hoi An market)
- Quan An Ty Ty Restaurant (17/6 Hai Ba Trung restaurant)
Cao Lau is not the only local must-try in Hoi An, if you are in the mood for a takeaway snack, do give Banh mi Phuong – the world’s best sandwich a try!