Shrouded in mystery
If there ever was a recipe shrouded in mystery, it’s got to be Hoi An’s cao lau noodle. Misinformation runs rife. Only made from the water of the Ba Le Well? Sort of. Brought to Hoi An’s shores by foreigners during the 16th century marine trading boom? Apparently not. Japanese/Chinese origin? All Chinese whispers.
One thing you learn from living in Hoi An is that there is nothing the Vietnamese like more than a good tale — and the history of the cao lau noodle and the ‘secret’ recipe behind it is the most famous of the lot here. Its origins are thought to be held by Ta Ngoc Em and his wife (both of Hoi An descent), who like to have a bit of fun with any foreigner who should turn up asking questions.
It’s just a noodle after all and her family have been making it for five generations — “Since the 15th century!” she smiles — and her husband hoots with laughter. Do the maths and that’s about 500 years, making the mean age for each generation 100. Cute.
The sacred Ba Le Well water? It’s true, almost. During the American war when production boomed as troops became particularly fond of cao lau, the water was sourced from the wells in the old quarter of Hoi An, not for its nutrient-rich water, but because it was considered safe — there were quite a few nasty chemicals hanging around at the time.
Before and after the family were using the water from the well in their yard. The quality of well water in each commune and ward in and around Hoi An is a discussion that can rage on into the night, with each thought to have its own unique properties. We’ll leave that one alone.
What about the ash used to make the water mixed into the dough? This is the ingredient X that gives the noodle its colour and texture. It’s said to come from the sacred Cham Islands – and this was originally true, but the cost involved in getting the timber over to Hoi An combined with the out of bound military zones and the fact that the islands are now protected areas meant that an alternative was sourced many moons ago. It’s the dried timber from the gum tree, which can be sourced from anywhere, but is cheapest in the mountains. The smoky flavour of the noodle comes later in the process when the noodles are smoked in layers over the ash-burning furnace.
Can it really only be produced in Hoi An? We’re saying yes to this one even though we are aware of the recipe and Ta Ngoc Em has offered to teach us how to make the cao lau noodle for free. Past and present, the generations of this family have been getting up at 01:00 every day for centuries producing an incredibly labour intensive product to order. At the moment, because tourists are slurping up cao lau in droves, they produce 100 kilograms a day at just 16,000 VND a kilo. This equates to $80 a day to pay a workforce of at least six (no longer family members), not including overheads. Very few people around Hoi An would choose this existence nowadays; the couple’s kids have all bailed on the family tradition, choosing more lucrative careers working in shops and as tour guides. Ta Ngoc Em and his wife are looking forward to a well earned rest.
But what about the noodle? Although these guys are the biggest producers, they are not as legend would have you believe, the only ones producing. There are many registered families in Hoi An slaving away to keep supply up with demand and a whole underbelly of ‘secret’ manufacturers.
The cao lau noodle won’t die with Ta Ngoc Em — just one of the oldest families’ version of it will.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 24th July, 2014.