Dishes of DIVERSITY

Hoi An’s multicultural past plays a role in the ancient town boasting its very own delectable food specialties.

By JIN NGUYEN on June 06,2019 10:49 AM

Dishes of DIVERSITY

PHOTOS: LIAM PRODUCTION, BANH MI PHUONG

A leading trading port in Southeast Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries, when ships from Japan, China, and Europe arrived to exchange goods, Hoi An ancient town is a heritage site not only for its exotic architecture of old houses but also its cuisine. Some dishes include Hoi An in their name because of their unique taste and they express the essence of multicultural exchange and the creativity of local people.

CAO LAU

Dishes of DIVERSITY

Any talk of Hoi An is usually accompanied by “cao lau” being mentioned as its most popular specialty. First appearing in the 17th century, “cao lau” has been described as resembling a “beautiful mixed-race child”.

Some say it has a Japanese father, with noodles like Udon, a Chinese mother for its char-grilled “siu” meat, and an adopted Vietnamese child for its other ingredients like fish sauce, pork crackling, peanuts, and fresh herbs.

The only authentic “cao lau” is found in Hoi An, as the noodles are made from rice soaked in water mixed with ash from wood on nearby Cham Island before being kneaded in water taken from the ancient Ba Le well in the ancient town.

“Cao lau” used to be a dish for rich businesspeople in the old days. At that time, restaurants in Hoi An usually had two levels, and only rich customers sat on the second level. The dish was the most ordered on the menu, resulting in the name “cao lau”, which means “high story”. Many visitors to Hoi An choose to eat the dish in a multi-story restaurant, sitting high up and looking over the ancient town.

BANH MI HOI AN

Dishes of DIVERSITY

Arriving in Vietnam with the French, baguettes became a new type of local cuisine and one of the most popular for many people, known as “banh mi” (Vietnamese sandwich).

It can be found on virtually every corner in the country with a diverse range of fillings. But there is no Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Da Nang “banh mi”, only “Hoi An banh mi”. The ancient town’s variant was listed among the world’s Top 10 sandwiches by Austrian travel website Traveller, joining American cheeseburgers, English bacon butties, and Japanese Katsu Sando.

Compared to what’s found elsewhere, “banh mi Hoi An” has crispier bread rolls and various fillings of local favorites like roast pork, Vietnamese sausage, homemade pate, and egg, as well as familiar Western fillings such as ham, bacon, sausage, beef, and cheese, together with thin layers of radish and carrot, slices of cucumber, and a generous sprinkling of cilantro leaves. It may sound as if everything lying around is simply used, but it blends together in a delectable treat. And the way of preparing the meat, homemade pate, and sauce give the baguettes a particular Hoi An style.

The most popular places selling “banh mi” in town are Madam Khanh, also called the Banh Mi Queen, at 115 Tran Cao Van Street, and Banh Mi Phuong at 2B Phan Chu Trinh Street. Famous American chef the late Anthony Bourdain popped in to Banh Mi Phuong and described it as a “symphony in a sandwich”.

BANH BAO AND BANH VAC

Dishes of DIVERSITY

Another food with a Hoi An “copyright” is the pairing of “banh bao” and “banh vac”. They are always served together, as if they come from the same “family”, because of their similarities in style and certain ingredients.

Both have two main parts - the cover and the filling. The cover of both is the same, made from rice flour. The difference is in the filling, which is a mixture of minced pork, mushrooms, and onions in “banh bao” and shrimp, onions, pepper, garlic and lemongrass in “banh vac”. Both are steamed and served with a sauce and salad.

The dish is usually arranged like petals on a plate, which explains its English name of “white rose” at the Hoa Hong Trang (White Rose) Restaurant at 533 Hai Ba Trung Street, one of the most popular places where it’s served.

Some restaurants in Hoi An also have open kitchens where you can see the entire process of making the dish. Then you will understand more about how perfectly matched the pairing is, for their cover and the combination of fillings.

COM GA

Dishes of DIVERSITY

“Com ga”, or chicken and rice, is popular everywhere in the world but the version found in Hoi An has its own style that created a saying: “You haven’t been to Hoi An if you didn’t try its chicken and rice”.

Some say the dish comes from the traditional Hainan chicken and rice found in Singapore. But the only similarity may be that the rice is cooked in the broth of boiled chicken. The main ingredient, the chicken, is cooked and served in a different way in Hoi An.

While Singaporeans boil it, with a ginger, green onion, and soy sauce stuffing, and chop it into pieces, in the ancient town it’s simply boiled with some salt. The meat is then torn into small strips and mixed with pepper, sugar, onion, lemon, and some herbs. Though offered separately on the plate, the local way of eating the dish is to mix the chicken and rice together with the sauce, in a similar way to how Bibimbap, or Korean mince and rice, is eaten.

There are many places serving chicken and rice in Hoi An, but the restaurant of Ba (Mrs.) Buoi at 22 Phan Chau Trinh Street is known as the oldest, having started in 1955. The owner, the son of Mrs. Buoi, still remembers the taste of the new dish his mother made for him and his siblings as her “first customers”. After inheriting her restaurant, he offers different kinds of rice to meet the tastes of people from different areas, making his mother’s brand the most popular.

HOANH THANH

Dishes of DIVERSITY

Based on wonton, a common Chinese dumpling, “hoanh thanh” was given a Hoi An style to make it more suitable to the tastes of local people.

While wonton generally comes with a filling of ground pork and shrimp and is served in a soup, “hoanh thanh” is more varied for both in the filling and the cooking method. Fillings of vegetarian, pork, chicken, and shrimp are on offer, served in a soup with noodles and a sweet and sour tang. The deep-fried version is the most popular “hoanh thanh” among Hoi An residents, especially in the wet season.

Each “hoanh thanh” is truly heaven in each bite. In Cantonese, wonton means “swallowing cloud”, and the cover actually does resemble a cloud about to swallow the moon - the filling.

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