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Meet the Hội An Family Making Cao Lầu Noodles From Scratch

Amid Hội An’s treat-filled culinary landscape, cao lầu emerges as something that’s both simple and one-of-a-kind.

A bowl of cao lầu encapsulates a range of flavors including sour, hot, bitter, tannic and sweet; the savoriness of char siu; and the fragrance of Trà Quế herbs. Cao lầu strands are yellowish in color, with a bite to their texture, and a thickness that surpasses many of its contemporaries. Due to a complex manufacturing process, few cao lầu artisans remain in business in Hội An today — the family of Tạ Ngọc Trái is one of only two households in the area still making fresh cao lầu the traditional way.

Cao lầu strands are light yellow with a chewy texture.

Aware of the intricacies involved in the making of cao lầu, I managed to find the homestead of Trái after asking around in Hội An. “Of all the 365 days of the year, I only have the first day of Tết off. You can just drop by any day at 1am,” he told me. One evening, I found myself plunging into the thickness of the night, on the dirt path leading to the quaint hamlet by the paddy fields of Cẩm Châu Ward. While everybody else was deep in slumber, Trái’s house was still brightly lit like it had always been for the past half a century. The light from inside the kitchen was like a blade slicing the rural darkness in half. The deeper in I ventured, the more intense the heat became; a complete contrast with the dewey climate outside.

The cao lầu workshop at Trái’s home.

The walls in the small kitchen were covered in layers of thick soot. A giant vat of water for blanching the noodles was bubbling above a wood fire. Trái, holding an oversized chopstick in each hand, was hard at work mixing the concoction of viscous dough on the heat.

 When I asked why the family had to begin their work day at 1am and not later so they could have more sleep, Trái explained: “To create cao lầu, the flour must be milled several times, in addition to a few rounds of flattening and steaming. Every steaming cycle takes nearly an hour. So the entire process requires four hours. At 5–6am, I deliver the freshly made noodles to the Hội An Market for my daughter to sell, and to distribute to eateries across town. I have no choice but to start at 1am to make it to the market in time.” After sharing, he immediately focused his attention once again on the vat of dough.

When there was a moment to spare, Trái opened the fridge to retrieve one of many prepared glasses of no-sugar black coffee, the indispensable companion to his late nights. “My working hours are very bizarre. I work when people go to bed and sleep when people are starting to get up. I have to stay away from beer and liquor in the afternoon so I don’t accidentally fall asleep,” Trái told me.

Tạ Ngọc Hồng, Trái’s son, in the middle of milling rice into the gruel paste.

Rice dough used to make cao lầu.

Only by witnessing in person the process of how rice grains are transformed into cao lầu noodles could I grasp how arduous and intensive this craft is. To make cao lầu, the variety of rice is carefully selected to ensure consistent sizes, colors, and shapes. The grains are soaked in water before being pulverized into a paste.

In the past, Hội An’s noodle makers collected the ash of a special species of wood on the Chàm Islands and mixed them with water from the Bá Lễ Well, a thousand-year-old well once used by the Chăm community. The noodle makers filtered out the detritus and then used the liquid to drench the rice. Today, it is unclear if these hyper-local ingredients are still required for the water and ash, but the recipe remains unchanged and the drenching process is crucial as the alkalinity of the ash water helps remove acid from the dough, thus increasing the shelf life of the final product.

After soaking, the rice grains are turned into a paste and cooked in a metallic vat until the texture turns more viscous. Trái constantly mixes and molds the mixture so it doesn't burn. The fire mellows out in between occasion flares. Right next to the burner, an electric fan runs at maximum speed to help ward off the unbearable heat. The whole process takes one hour.

Trái molds the dough on the fire.

Working on the noodle dough takes around one hour.

The congealed dough is then rehydrated with some ash water and arranged neatly on trays for steaming. Following the initial preparation, Trái calls out for other family members to take over the steaming phase. While I watched, Tạ Ngọc Hồng, his son, woke up and made his way to the workshop to immediately start distributing the dough across the trays. Hồng probably didn’t have much sleep, but managed to operate with surprisingly alertness. In a small space of just 15 square meters, every member moved at a hastened pace. One hour into steaming, the dough was pulverized into a smooth consistency. “Previously, it was processed with millstones, but after we bought these machines, our workload became much lighter,” Hồng explained. Then, he used a set of tools to flatten the dough and began slicing it into strands.

The dough is pulverized and steamed.

The ambiance of urgency in the workshop. 

After steaming, the dough is blended again to achieve a smooth consistency.

The dough is flattened into sheets and then sliced into strips.

Cao lầu strands are cut using a machine to achieve a uniform thickness.

Besides the father-son duo, the workshop also hires locals to help out.

Resulting cao lầu bundles are arranged neatly according to lengths.

The noodles are then steamed once again after being sliced.

Once the hunk of dough makes its way into the slicer, cao lầu noodles start taking shape. A worker uses a knife to make sure the ends of the noodles are equal. The result is thick, squarish, amber-colored, 20-centimeter-long strands arranged neatly on a tray. These bundles a re once again steamed for around one hour. In every round, four trays are stacked on top of one another in the steamer.

Cao lầu trays on the steamer.

It takes on average four hours to go from flour to noodles

After four hours of constant milling, steaming, flattening, and slicing, the moment everyone has been looking forward to arrives: the first batch of fresh cao lầu noodles is done. At just a smidgen past 5am, the sky outside began to feature some bright strips of sunrise. Trái gingerly opened the lid, letting out fluffs of hot moisture. Amid the heat, I noticed a small smile on his face at seeing the product of his four-hour labor luxuriating in the sun. The bamboo trays filled with noodlers were stacked neatly on his bike before making their way to the market. Gradually, all the dough was cut, steamed, and delivered. On average, Trái’s cao lầu workshop produces around 200 kilograms of noodles per workday, which often finishes at 9–10am.

The end product.

Trái belongs to the fourth generation while Hồng is the fifth generation of their family’s cao lầu craft. Even when he was a little boy, Trái reminisced, he was already chipping in when he could with the cao lầu tasks. It has been over 50 years since those days, and now, even as a 60-year-old, he still keeps to the routine of starting a new day at 1am in the workshop. Cao lầu is a treasure of Hội An, one that’s relished by visitors from all over the world, so Trái feels the need to keep the family flavors going even though the work is strenuous. Whenever I hold a bowl of cao lầu in my hands, I always feel as if I can smell a whiff of the rustic wood fire in his kitchen in the middle of the Hội An night.

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