Cao lầu, or cao lao is one of those regionally specific things – like Champagne, or Cornish Pasties.
Historically, It can only be made in the Hoi An area because the noodles used in it are made from local well water and a specific ash, from a special tree endemic to an Island just off the coast. The noodles have a different taste, more like a buckwheat noodle and a slightly dirty colour.
Whether or not the traditional practice is still genuinely followed or it’s all the work of a clever Hoi An tourism PR team is not a question I can answer – It does seem unnecessarily elaborate but then, that’s all part of the charm, isn’t it?
Cao Lao is historically a pork dish. Thin slices of roasted meat, green leaves, beansprouts and mint are all added to the special noodles and topped with small flat croutons that look more like crackling than the croutons you would associate with European cooking.
Unlike other Asian noodle dishes, it’s neither soup based nor dry – it’s sort of in the middle. Once all the other ingredients have been assembled a spoonful of deep, rich pork stock is poured on to make everything wet, nothing more.
We ate this in a small street food restaurant although you can get cao lầu everywhere in Hoi An from pop up kitchens, to sit down restaurants. We also had local beer with our noodles, referred to as fresh beer, or bia hoi for a very reasonable 15p.
Some useful phrases
Sin chow – hello
Mot – one
Hai – two
Gam urn – thank you
Tra da – iced tea, a popular and cheap drink to accompany meals and usually available at hole in the wall restaurants
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