Any visitor to Hoi An is bound to stumble upon the bustling riverside market in the Old Town. Come in the middle of the day and you may find yourself stuck behind bus-loads of tourists but it’s in the morning that I think is the best time to visit.
Arrive before 7 am and you’ll witness some frantic wheeling and dealing of seafood down at the riverside wet market. The air is thick with the smells of fish while it teems with market-goers, predominantly women, clambering to score the best and most affordable fish, shellfish and molluscs to peddle at their tiny market stands.
Just about anywhere you look throughout the market there are tell-tale signs of Hoi An’s signature dish. Cao Lau. On slabs of concrete or beneath torn canvas awnings, large shallow bamboo baskets hold a couple of ingredients for this delicious noodle dish. The noodles are put out to dry, both the long and square variety, before being purchased by cao lau cooks from all over town. Yes there are other delicious foods to be tried at the market as well as that (see above curious and starchy “cake” we were given to try by a friendly old lady, but it was the cao lau that we had our minds and tastebuds set on.
Many months prior to arriving in Vietnam I did some research to try and find Hoi An’s best cao lau. A very big task when you know the town has loads of places to try it, but through much reading I discovered one lady in the market apparently dishes up the cream of the crop. Now, the big task was to find the food hall and the lady that spins the magic. The only clue I had was a photograph of the her stored in my iPhone but once we found what I call “cao lau” alley, a corridor of concrete and chipped tile open kitchens, all I needed to do was recognise the face.
And there she is. The beaming cao lau master. To be fair, I’m sure the neighbouring ladies dished up a mean cao lau themselves, not that we tried them.
So what constitutes a great cao lau? First of all it comes down to the water. Not just any water as it must come from a Hoi An well. Pre-steamed noodles are blanched with bean sprouts and placed into the bowl, followed by some shredded herbs like curly lettuce, mint, coriander and Thai basil. Next comes a generous layer of tender sliced pork that has been braised in some kind of delicious concoction of soy and other delectables. Pre-fried squares of crispy noodles (the same fabric as the long ones) are scattered on top, a few squirts of soy and a couple of spoonfuls of her beautiful, very dark and savoury broth over everything. Voila! A squeeze of juice from a tiny lime, a good splodge of bright red chilli relish and you’re slurping like a pro.
Just look at it. Magic, isn’t it? A textural masterpiece bitching with flavour. All that for $1.15.
A post-cao lau waddle through the congested market passages made me aware how women seem to rule the roost down there by the Thu Bon. It’s a whole community of vendors, cooks, artisans and shoppers. It really is a one-stop shop for kitchen and housewares, fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables, spices, meats, seafood and just about anything else between. Keep your eyes peeled for the great little bamboo vegetable peelers or ginger graters.