Earlier this year, we went on an arts and eating tour of Southeast Asia—three weeks of studios, galleries, temples and meal after wonderful meal. And the best meals of all, for me, were in the wonderful, central Vietnamese, ancient coastal trading village called Hoi An.
Hoi An was a particularly active trading post between the 15th and 19th centuries. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its architecture and cuisine reflect the many cultures that traded there, including Chinese, European and even Japanese traditions. Prior to the isolationist Tokugawa era, the Japanese merchant class grew and there was an active Japanese presence throughout Asia. There is even an ancient Japanese bridge in Hoi An that was built in the 1590’s.
There are many different types of wonderful restaurants and street food throughout Hoi An, but what truly distinguishes the town is its unique cuisine, which differs from the light, bright foods of the south and the Chinese-influences of northern Vietnamese cuisine.
Hoi An food is influenced by Japanese, Chinese and Mediterranean cuisine. It is heaven! Crab sopped with tamarind sauce, charcoal grilled meats on sticks or molded over sugar cane, crepes made with rice flour, and its famous cao lau, which is like a Vietnamese version of Japanese udon.
You cannot have authentic cao lau outside of Hoi An, because the noodles are made with well water and wood ash that can only be found in the immediate area. That having been said, it is worthwhile to attempt an approximation of cao lau that still tastes damn good, using either thick fresh rice noodles or fresh udon. You can find these fresh noodles at Uwajimaya or a Vietnamese grocery.
Not-Really-Authentic Cao Lau
First, marinate 2.5 pounds of pork chunks in 2 tablespoons of shoyu, 2 teaspoons each of five spices powder and sugar, 5 minced cloves of garlic, 1 teaspoon of paprika and a couple pinches of chicken bouillon. Let it soak for at least an hour.
When you are ready to cook, sauté the pork, saving the marinade. Once brown, add 2 tablespoons of water to the pork and stir until the water has evaporated. If you like, you may slice the pork—it depends on how big the chunks are. Mix the leftover marinade with a teaspoon or so of corn starch and stir that into the pork over high heat, so that it is coated with a rich gravy.
In the meantime, quickly (like maybe 30 seconds) boil about two pounds of fresh noodles and then throw in about 8 ounces of bean sprouts for another 30 seconds or so. Do not overcook the noodles. They can turn to mush quickly. Once they are cooked, drain them immediately and toss them with your pork chunks in a large pasta bowl. On top of the noodles, artfully arrange a couple cups of shredded lettuce and/or watercress, ¼ C each of shredded basil, mint and cilantro, and a bunch of slivered green onions.
Sprinkle something crunch on top, some pork cracklings or peanuts or crispy chow mein noodles (presented in order of authenticity). Serve with sriracha and/or sliced hot chiles.
Another ubiquitous dish in Hoi An is a simple, but yummy dish, Com Ga Hoi An, which translates into English as “Chicken Rice.” Chicken Rice sound boring and bland to me, but I’ll go for Com Gan Hoi An any day. The poaching makes it silky and the flavors are lip-smacking.
Com Ga Hoi An
Before you get to the chicken, slice a sweet onion thinly and marinate in a mixture of equal amounts of sugar, fish sauce and rice vinegar.
This is how I poach the chicken. Get a few whole chicken breasts and plop into a big pot of water with a few slices of ginger, a smashed garlic clove or two, a spoonful of turmeric and a glug of sake or shaoshing wine. Bring to a full boil and turn the water off. Keep the lid on until the broth is comfortable to the touch. Take the now-cooked chicken (believe me!) out of the broth.
Strain the broth and remove any yucky bits and use this liquid to cook the rice with a teaspoon of salt. You want to end up with about 2 and a half cups of cooked rice. I refuse to tell you how to cook rice. It depends on the kind of rice and whether you do it on the stove or in a rice cooker.
As the rice bubbles away, you will make a dressing for the chicken made from a juice of a lime, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of fish sauce, chopped chile peppers to taste and some minced garlic. Taste it—the flavor should explode in your mouth. Also it should taste good. Need more salt? Add a little more fish sauce. A little too much kaboom? Add a little water.
Now you will remove the skin and bones from the chicken breast and shred it by hand. You may wish to use plastic gloves, unless you like yellow fingernails. Toss the chicken together with the dressing you just made.
When the rice is done, plate the dish with the rice, some shredded lettuce or cabbage on the side, chicken over the rice, put the marinated onions on top of that, and embellish with mint and cilantro. If you can get a type of Vietnamese mint, known as rau dam, go for it. It is actually pretty easy to grow (get the seed at Uwajimaya or through Amazon) and just like regular mint, it s-p-r-e-a-d-s.
But don’t stop there! You can also garnish with slices of lime and grilled jalapeños if you wish. I’d even think about throwing some chopped peanuts on top, at the risk of violating the authenticity of the dish.
And it is really good with beer.