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.
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 lầu is typical Hoi An. Like the town's old quarter generally, it presents itself quietly and modestly, hiding the surprising taste inside.
Cao lầu 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 phở, Vietnam's most popular noodle dish, cao lầu 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.
To make cao lầu, pork thigh is marinated in a mixture of garlic, soy bean sauce, fragrant ngũ vị hương (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 lầu 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.
FAIFO PHO HOAI RESTAURANT
77/17 Huynh Tinh Cua,
Ward 8, District 3,
Ho Chi Minh City
Besides cao lầu, Faifo Pho Hoai serves other Hoi An and central region's specialties such as mì Quảng (Quang Nam special noodles), cơm gà Hội An (Hoi An chicken rice), bánh tráng cuốn thịt heo (fresh roll of thinly sliced boiled pork and herbs) and bánh hoa hồng trắng (steamed "White Rose" dumpling). Prices start around two dollars.
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 lầu and mì Quảng. 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 lầu.