There are many magical lunches to be had in Quang Nam. But the first time you eat an amazing cao lau in the Hoi An sunshine, you’ll never forget it. The freshest, greenest lettuce, tossed with baby herbs, gradually wilts as it’s mixed with the hot chewy noodles, crispy crackers and savory broth. A squeeze of lemon and dab of chili jam heightens each bite.
At its simplest, cao lau is a dish of thick rice noodles topped with char siu-style pork, fresh herbs, a ladle of thin gravy, and a sprinkle of fried dough pillows. Cao lau is unique in Vietnam in that this dish can only be found in and close to Hoi An. Here’s the backstory to this Hoi An specialty.

How to make Hoi An cao lau noodles

A mysterious start

According to food lore, cao lau first appeared in the 17th century, during Hoi An’s heyday as a busy trading port, welcoming merchants from all corners of the globe. Because it stars pork marinated in five spice powder, some think this dish was first brought by Chinese settlers. However, its udon-like noodles suggest cao lau was a contribution from the Japanese, more than 1,000 of whom were living in Hoi An at the time.

It’s likely that a blend of Chinese and Japanese influences and ingredients played a part in the creation of the first bowl of cao lau.

The ingredients

The secret to cao lau’s uniqueness comes from three ingredients only available around Hoi An. Traditionally, rice is first soaked in lye water containing ash from a certain type of tree found on the nearby Cham Islands. The rice is then rinsed and ground into flour using water from Ba Le well, one of more than 80 wells that were dug more than a millenia ago during the Cham era. After kneading the rice flour into dough and cutting it into strips, the noodles are then steamed.

While restaurants today no longer follow this strict recipe, the combination of ash and alum-rich local water is how cao lau gets its milky brown, chewy noodles. Lemongrass is an important ingredient in the meaty broth, which is poured over a handful of blanched bean sprouts, noodles and sliced meat. The finished dish is served with fried crackers, lettuce, sprigs of herbs, chili and lime.

The name

cao lau literally means “high floor”, possibly because it was originally served in restaurants to patrons sitting upstairs where they could observe what was happening on the streets below as they ate. As Hoi An became more prosperous, merchants began building two-storey houses, where there were only single storey houses before.

Eating on a high or second floor was something wealthier people could enjoy, and cao lau’s mix of textures and flavors likely appealed to the tastes of merchants from China and Japan.

Where to try it

While you’ll find many signs advertising cao lau around Hoi An’s Ancient Town, here are a few local favorites:

Cao Lầu Bà Bé: (19 Trần Phú, inside the Hoi An Market) Grab a stool at this food stall’s single table located within the market’s food court area and order the only thing on the menu.

Quán Cao Lầu Liên: (21B Thái Phiên) This Hoi An fixture has been serving cao lau for nearly 30 years, each bowl assembled to order.

Quán Cao Lầu Bá Lễ: (49/3 Trần Hưng Đạo) After enjoying a bowl of cao lau at this eatery tucked down a small alleyway, walk a few minutes to see the original Bá Lễ well.

Read more: 5 Vietnamese dishes you must try when in Hoi An

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