Andrea Anastasiou goes exploring in Vietnam’s culinary capital.
As I’m busy chomping on cao lau, an odd medley of chewy, thick brown noodles, thin slices of pork, crunchy croutons, crisp greens, beansprouts and a caramelised broth, I get the feeling that all my senses have been awakened. It’s one of those dishes that has that sort of an effect – the crunchiness of the croutons vibrates in my head, the aromatic broth teases my nose, while my tongue is delighting in each mouthful. Collectively, these ingredients work in a beautiful symphony, and with every bite my stomach begs for more.
Cao lau is just one of the many dishes that have made my tastebuds sing, which I’ve sampled with 12 other food lovers on a food tour through Hoi An – a coastal town in central Vietnam. Over the last few hours we’ve walked through the streets, trying various delicacies at the many food stalls that pepper the pavements. As I chow down on the last of the noodles, resisting the urge to lick clean the small ceramic bowl, I ask Neville, our guide, what the secret is to these highly delectable Hoi An dishes.
“It’s khéo tay,” he replies. “A Vietnamese expression that means dexterity, and is better described as loving care.”
I’m discouraged by Neville’s revelation, which to me loosely translates as you need a certain magic touch – one that comes from years of practising in the kitchen with your mum and grandma – to get Hoi An dishes right. I love this town’s food and the thought of not having the ability to recreate any of it back home is disappointing.
Located a one-hour flight away from Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An has an enchanting appeal. It’s not just the food and secret recipes that drew me back here for the second time in a year; it’s also its distinct vibe. Despite now being firmly on the country’s increasingly popular tourist trail, Hoi An manages to retain a certain charm. A major trading port between the 15th and 18th centuries, the town reflects a fusion of the cultures that passed through over the years, including Chinese, Japanese and European. When other ports in Vietnam began to rise in popularity and Hoi An’s harbour silted up, the town’s fame waned and it seemed to have frozen in time ever since. Now what remains are its characteristically mustard-yellow buildings, numerous Chinese temples and a wooden Japanese bridge, all of which make up Hoi An’s ancient town – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The sight of hundreds of colourful Chinese lanterns reflecting off the ink-black Thu Bon River at night and the bursts of pink bougainvillea crawling up many of the buildings are two enduring images that I have of the town. When you’ve visited Vietnam’s larger cities, Hoi An comes as a welcome respite; the old town is mostly pedestrianised, meaning you can stroll around at your leisure without worrying about a motorbike running you down.
And while Vietnamese cuisine is certainly having a moment around the world, and you get great food all over the country, I can, having travelled extensively around the country, safely say that Hoi An has the best food in Vietnam. I’ve feasted on pho bo (beef noodle soup) in Ho Chi Minh City, bánh bèo (steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp and crispy fried shallots) in Hue and cha ca la vong (fish cooked with turmeric and dill) in Hanoi. I’ve dined in local establishments, makeshift roadside shacks and in high-end restaurants. And yet despite all of these experiences, my taste buds are always most nostalgic for the wonderful dishes that I tried in Hoi An.
During this visit, I want to delve a little deeper into the town’s food scene. Taking Neville’s ‘The Last Great Taste of Hoi An Food Tour’ seemed like the natural next step in increasing my knowledge on the subject, while giving myself the excuse to sample almost 50 dishes (some of them were bite-sized, I assure you!).
Neville Dean and his wife Colleen have been running their food tour since 2011. After several visits to the country, the 67-year-old Australian decided he wanted to discover and share the food and food culture of Vietnam. “I did not like the idea of retirement,” he says. “Hoi An is becoming known as the food lovers’ capital of the country, so it was the logical place to start up a food tour.”
And it was a wise decision. His tours are very popular; so popular that he barely gets a day off. And while this is partly down to the great humour that he brings to the table (no pun intended), it’s also owed to the rich variety of local dishes that are on offer here, and the interesting stories that surround some of them.
Take cao lau as an example – it’s one of the few dishes that are exclusive to this town. Neville explains to us how the cau lau noodle-making secrets are held by Ta Ngoc Em and his family, who have been cooking this dish for five generations. “They mix aged rice flour together with 1000-year-old Bale well water sourced from the well under Hoi An’s old quarter. They then add ash from trees grown on the nearby Cham Islands,” he tells us.
With unique ingredients, secret recipes and, as Neville reminds us, a dash of ‘khéo tay’ being thrown into the mix, you can see why no one outside of Hoi An attempts to make cao lau. This, alongside banh bao banh vac, which are also known as White Rose dumplings because of their resemblance to white flowers, are on the top of any visitors’ ‘must-try’ list when they arrive in town.
White Rose also has an interesting story surrounding it, which Neville explains to us while we sample some. The recipe is a secret that is held by a family that supplies all the restaurants in Hoi An with the dumplings. “Tran Tuan Ngai is the third generation secret-keeper of the traditional recipe, which uses both rice flour and tapioca flour in the making of the translucent paper,” explains Neville.
And personally I’m glad that the recipe is a secret. White Rose has the honour of being my all-time favourite dish. The small dumplings are filled with shrimp and then topped with toasted garlic and a deliciously-sweet dipping sauce consisting of fish sauce, hot chillies, lemon and sugar. They’re a palatable blend of sweet and sour – one that you only get to sample whenever you’re in Hoi An. Somehow I believe that part of the dish’s appeal is the fact you know that you will only get to taste it a few times in your life. The tour concludes with more samples of various dishes from around the country, as well as a discussion on the topic of a hot chilli sauce that’s exclusively available in Hoi An. Neville yet again utters the words ‘khéo tay,’ and I realise that unravelling this town’s culinary secrets is no easy feat.
One of the questions I want answering while I’m here is secret recipes aside, what is it that makes Hoi An so rich in food offerings?
I’m hoping that a successful restaurant owner will know the answer. Tran Thanh Duc owns and runs three different dining venues in town – The Mango Mango, Mango Rooms and Mài Fish. Born in Vietnam, the 46-year-old arrived in the US as a teenager and subsequently spent three years with his foster family in Mexico, where he learnt to cook the Mexican way. After stints in Cuba, Latin America and New Zealand among other places, he ended up back in Vietnam 12 years ago.
He opened Mango Rooms (www.mangorooms.com) – a Latino influenced restaurant by the river – in 2004, where he combines his knowledge of Vietnamese and Latino cuisine. Duc, who mainly uses local products in his kitchens, explains how the produce that you find in Hoi An is one of the things that make the town special. “I love the duck,” he muses. “Hoi An has the best duck. The seafood here is also amazing and fresh. It may be limited in choice, but what is available is fantastic,” he says.
I ask him what the secret to great Vietnamese food is, and he replies with the words freshness and balance. “You have to balance sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Vietnamese dipping sauce is a perfect example of this – fat from anchovies, sea salt, fresh lime juice, garlic and sugar. You get all these flavours in one bite,” he says.
Speaking of balance, some of the most well-balanced dishes I’ve tried in Hoi An have all been at atmospheric little restaurants – such as Son Restaurant (www.sonhoian.com), a great little place just outside of the old town with an exotic garden setting, and Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant (+84 93 240 39 05), where the banana blossom salad with peanuts, and tofu grilled in a banana leaf is divine.
In fact, when compared to other cities in Vietnam vegetarians will find good food options in town. I was surprised to come across numerous impressive meat substitutes at some of the restaurants. The majority of the population here is Buddhist, and there are certain days when they’re expected to abstain from meat. As the Vietnamese are meat-lovers, they’ve come up with ways to ensure they don’t feel like they’re missing out on those days. During one of my eating expeditions, I tried slithers of substitute chicken, and I was astonished at its resemblance to the real thing – from the way it looked through to the way it tasted. These substitutes, I’m told, are mainly made from seitan, tofu and texturised soya protein.
Undeterred by all the intangible descriptions of the cuisine, and determined to uncover at least some of its secrets, I decide to sign up for a cookery class at Green Bamboo Cooking School (www.greenbamboo-hoian.com), which was established by Hoi An-born Le Thi Thu Van – most commonly known as Van – in 2011 and has a great reputation in town.
You pre-choose one dish off an extensive menu, which Van teaches you to cook while the other students (there’s never more than ten) watch. I shun the idea of trying to make cao lau and decide on learning how to cook stir-fried shrimp with lemongrass and chilli knowing that the ingredients involved are fairly easy to find wherever I am in the world.
While sweating our way through class, Van, who learnt how to cook from her mum and grandma, explains to me how fresh ingredients are integral to good Vietnamese food – echoing what Duc had also told me. “Vietnamese people don’t like freezing food. Older people are used to going to the market everyday and shopping for their lunch and dinner, and do the same thing the next day. There’s no concept of a weekly shop here,” she explains.
After I successfully complete my shrimp dish, another student takes to the cooking station to make cao lau. The famous noodles that are used have been brought in, but everything else has to be prepared – the meat, the croutons, the greens, the broth.
When it’s time to sample the dish, I’m curious to see how it works out and wonder if I’ll end up regretting my decision not to choose to learn how to cook it myself. I take a bite, and all the ingredients are right – the crispy croutons, the chewy, thick noodles, the sweet broth. And yet, it’s not on par with what I’ve tried when it’s cooked by the locals. It’s tasty, but not quite at the level that I’ve come to expect from the dish. Must be missing the khéo tay, I think to myself.
Getting there: Etihad and Emirates fly daily to Ho Chi Minh City (tickets from Dhs6,000), from where you can catch a one-hour domestic flight to Da Nang with Vietnam Airlines. From Da Nang, Hoi An can be reached by cab in less than half an hour.
Where to stay: The Anantara Hoi An Resort is perfectly located just a stroll away from the historical old town of Hoi An. The hotel has a scenic view of the Thu Bon River, and offers guests the choice between 93 rooms and suites. There’s also a great spa that you can check out after a long day of sightseeing (http://hoi-an.anantara.com).
Useful info: Visit www.tasteofhoian.com to find details of the Last Great Taste of Hoi An Food Tours.