Hội An isn’t just another tourist town. Its rich heritage extends to the culinary arts and includes a number of dishes unique to this city and region.
Hô Hà is a native of Hội An, born and raised in the colorful and historic coastal city. In the years before tourism boomed, she grew up on the city’s street food, the mì quảng and cao lầu, the bánh xèo and nem nướng. Now her adult son is a chef at one of the finest French restaurants in nearby Da Nang. I could not have found a better person to show me what her city offers a gourmand like myself.
I met Hà on my second day in Hội An. An athletic long-distance bicyclist, she had just parked her wheels at the pedestrian entry point to the Ancient Town and was strolling briskly down Hai Ba Chung street, softly singing to herself. I looked at her and she at me. We laughed.
Coffee with a friend became an invitation to attend her bicycling club’s banquet that evening at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. It was a family-style feast, with skewers of barbecued pork and shrimp, stir-fried noodles with seafood, fresh leafy greens and so much more, washed down with the local LaRue lager, bottled water and harsher homemade Viet “wine.” (By any Western definition, it’s not. Wine, that is.)
It’s the water
But a meal like this didn’t represent the one-bowl meals that are more typical of the everyday diet of a Hội An resident … or visitor. In the days that followed, my new friend gave me a introductory course in some of the best simple meals this historic port city has to offer.
At the Giếng Bá Lễ restaurant, I learned that the secret to fine cuisine may not lie only in the quality of the ingredients nor the skill of the chef. It may also be in the water — in this case, water drawn from the tiny Bá Lễ well, an unremarkable brick cistern that’s just around a corner and down a narrow lane from the eatery. Locals, apparently, have sworn by its excellence for more than 1,000 years.
A combination plate gave me the opportunity to sample several local foods, including pork grilled two ways, nem nướng and thit nướng. The former is a satay served with a peanut sauce, the latter more of a sausage. Deep-fried spring rolls (ram cuón) with meat and vegetables were outstanding.
Best was bánh xèo, sometimes misleadingly labeled a Vietnamese rice pancake. I’ve had this dish elsewhere, but never as good as it was in Hội An. A cross between a folded omelet and a grilled rice-flour crêpe, it is filled with savory slices of pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. Perhaps with a nod to tourist preferences, the shrimp at Giếng Bá Lễ were bite-sized and gratefully shelled. (At some restaurants, the crustaceans are grilled whole.)
Another dish widely available throughout Vietnam, whose origin is often traced to Hội An, is mì quảng. It is served at casual restaurants throughout the city and especially in the Ancient Town, from Phan Chu Trinh street to the riverfront.
Every cook has his or her own recipe for mì quảng. Invariably, however, preparation begins with broad rice noodles prepared in a broth that is seasoned with turmeric, bestowing upon the noodles a yellowish color. Unlike most other Vietnamese noodle dishes, it is served relatively dry — with only a splash of broth, and not as a soup.
Protein comes from meats, typically tender sliced pork belly and whole (sometimes unshelled) shrimp. Chicken, beef or fish may also be used, and boiled quail eggs or pork rinds may be added.
Then the dish is served with a variety of herbs (rau, sometimes translated as vegetables), typically green, leafy and uncooked. In addition to lettuce, these often include basil, cilantro (or Vietnamese coriander), onion leaves, sliced banana flower and bean sprouts. Finally, it’s garnished with crushed peanuts and toasted sesame rice crackers, and served with limes and chilies.
The best mì quảng I had in Hội An was at an open-air bistro near the Thanh Hà pottery village, not far from my friend Hà’s childhood home. The secret to its particular flavor, I learned, was that the broth, restrained though it was, had been simmered overnight with pork bones, pepper, garlic and nước mắm, a fermented fish sauce widely used in Vietnamese cooking.
Water and lye
If Hội An has a single trademark dísh, it is cao lầu. It seemed to me that every small restaurant along riverfront Bach Dang street posted a sign offering this noodle plate. From the three meals I had here, the taste was universally excellent.
Locals take great care, however, to follow the traditional recipe. That means the water used for soaking the rice must come from the Bá Lễ well, and it must be treated with an alkaline lye made from plants that can be foraged only from the offshore Cham Islands. After hours of soaking, the rice is processed into noodles that have a grayish color and a chewy texture.
Cao lầu is served with thinly sliced pork that is marinated char siu-style in five-spice powder with soy sauce, crushed garlic and other seasonings. Then it is served room-temperature with a similar blend of greens and vegetables as is offered with mì quảng, and presented with lime and chilies.
More street food
A legacy of French colonialism, the crispy baguette sandwich known as bánh mì — literally, “bread” — is at its zenith in Hội An. Naturally, Hà knew just the place, at a block of mobile kitchens where Trần Cao Vân crosses Thái Phiên street.
Sliced lengthwise, the perfect baguette is freshly baked, with a thin and crispy flame-grilled crust and a soft, fluffy texture inside. Then it is lightly spread with mayonnaise and chile sauce, and filled with meat — an ample quantity of chopped pork: pâté, sausage, pork belly and head cheese. Veges follow: carrot-radish slaw, sliced peppers, cucumber, maybe some cilantro.
After an appetite-sating sandwich, we needed some dessert. Down at the corner of Lê Lợi and Phan Chu Trinh, another vendor had just the solution — deep-fried banana fritters in a coconut-flour batter. What wasn’t to love?
Yet I confess. My Western palate still yearns for other than Asian food from time to time. And Hội An satisfied that craving as well.
From the very modestly priced steaks and nightly specials at Herbal Pizza, to the Greek specialties and imported wines at Mix, to the ample Italian meals at Good Morning Vietnam (which, contrarily, is not open for breakfasts), this tourist town kept me fat and happy.