CAO LẦU is a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is found only in the town of Hội An, in the Quảng Nam Province of central Vietnam. Its unique taste and texture is achieved by using water from an undisclosed ancient Cham well, just outside the town. This story is promulgated in a popular guide book and has become something of an urban legend. It is likely that the unique origin of CAO LẦU in Hội An, is due to the town’s history as a trading port. Some incorrectly state that prior to the Chinese establishment in Hội An, in the 17th century, the town was also a centre of Japanese trading activity. The famous Hội An bridge (built by the Japanese) also dates to this period. Therefore, some have speculated that Cao lầu noodles could be derived from Japanese SOBA noodles. However, this theory is flawed, because Cao lầu doesn’t contain buckwheat flour. Also, the bridge was built as a symbolic gesture of peace, connecting the Chinese and Japanese quarters, so both trading merchant groups were present in Hội An at the same time. Japanese UDON noodles is another possibility, but UDON doesn’t use lye water. On the other hand, some Chinese wheat noodles are similar to Cao lầu (made with RICE flour), because both are lye water KNEADed noodles (an innovation that originated in ancient southern China). The dish usually includes sliced pork CHAR SIU, another Chinese influence. There are many variations of this dish in Hội An, some vary the way the pork is cooked (or omitted), using different greens (or absence of mint), sometimes topped with fried pork rind, peanuts, rice crackers (Southern Vietnam: BÁNH TRÁNG, Middle of Vietnam: Bánh RAM, Noorthern Vietnam: BÁNH ĐA) and/or scallions; and sometimes served with lime or chili jam. In the last few decades, new restaurants with modern versions have added shrimp or chicken, and additional herbs. And the pork broth is sometimes blended with dried shrimp/squid or chicken stock. The only consistent item are the noodles. So if you see Cao lầu noodles, then you have CAO LẦU.
In Hội An, Cao lầu restaurants typically have two levels, no air conditioning and various red and green lanterns hanging as decoration. If you want to eat Cao lầu, you will have to go to the second floor of the restaurant. Cao lầu differs from typical Vietnamese noodle dishes because it has no soup. In Vietnamese, locals call it a “mixing dish” because it includes vegetables, fried lard (Vietnamese: tóp mỡ) and sauce on top of the noodles. The ingredients are placed in the dish, but it’s the customer who mixes them together. Cao lầu is therefore a special variety of noodle dish. It is also different from Mi QUANG, another Vietnamese noodle dish, because of the amount of sauce, the additional ingredients, and the type of noodles used. To make Cao lầu noodles, the rice has to be stone ground and mixed with ash and water. The ash is made with firewood from the Cham Islands, around 19 km from Hội An. The noodles are cut and then cooked three times with firewood. The water to cook the noodles is also very special because it only comes from specific wells in Hội An. This is why CAO LẦU is a dish that can only be prepared in Hội An. Cao lầu combines various flavors (sour, pungent, bitter, astringent and sweet) in the vegetables, soy sauce and fried lard. Cao lầu is served at room temperature.
For meat and marinade:
- 1 kg pork shoulder (or leg)
- 50 gr Shallots finely chopped
- 1 tbsp chili sauce
- 2 tbsp brown sugar (Raw sugar)
- 1/2 tbsp salt
- 1 tsp five-spice powder
- 50 ml (reduced-sodium) soy sauce
- 1 tbsp chopped garlic for saute (step 3)
For noodle and assembly:
- Fresh or dried CAO LẦU noodle (UDON can be substituted) – cooked as package directions
- Bánh RAM (BÁNH TRÁNG) or deep-fried wonton skins (or pork crackers)
- Mung bean sprouts
- Fresh herbs (Mint, cilantro, Vietnamese basil, …)
- Sliced chili, Chili sauce, or dried chili flakes
- Marinated pork: Combine shallots, soy sauce, chili paste, salt, sugar, and five-spice powder in a large bowl. Add pork shoulder and toss to coat. Cover and chill at least 3 hours.
- Remove pork from marinade, scraping excess back into bowl; set marinade aside. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-high heat. Cook pork, turning occasionally, until browned all over, 10–15 minutes; transfer to a plate.
- In the same pot, pour off all but 1 Tbsp. fat from pot. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant but without taking on any color, about 1 minute. Add reserved marinade and 4 cups water and bring to a boil. Add pork, reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered, turning pork occasionally, until fork-tender but not falling apart, 1–1½ hours. Let cool in liquid.
- Remove pork from braising liquid and slice ¼” thick. Bring braising liquid to a boil (it will be concentrated, like the juices in a roasting pan). Add ½ cup water. The flavor should still be intense and slightly salty; adjust with more water if needed. Simmer 2 minutes, remove from heat and add sliced pork. Keep warm.
- For Serving: Blanch the noodle in boiling water then put in serving bowl along with blanched sprouts. Remove sliced pork from cooking liquid and place on top of noodles. Ladle some cooking liquid over. Top with sliced chile, lime wedges, crackeds, a handful of herbs, and a dab of chili sauce.
- For the PORK: can be marinated 1 day ahead of braising; keep chilled. Pork can be braised 2 days ahead; cover and chill.
- Crackers (Pork crackers, or deep-fried won ton skin) can be cooked a few days ahead and store in airtight container at room temperature.