“Kiss Me Honey Honey Kiss Me…” blares at life-threatening volume from a people-carrier that has stopped outside the restaurant we’re in. It’s a rather incongruous aural assault in this quiet lane that is home to our favourite local noodle shop in Hoi An.
This modern people mover, filled to the brim with a well-to-do Vietnamese family, is a rare sight on this alleyway on the edge of the old town. Many wealthy visitors from the nearby city of Da Nang head here on weekends to visit their favourite eateries, but this weekday lunch visit is a little out of character.
Shirley Bassey’s 1958 hit song is also as incongruous here as the shop itself, occupying what might have been the modest living room and patio of a typical modern backstreet Hoi An house. Eating here is a very different experience to eating at stalls or dining in restaurants in the old town.
The shiny stainless steel monochrome of the tables is broken with bursts of colour from the bright red plastic containers holding chopsticks, spoons and condiments. Back inside the room there’s a glass display cabinet holding family mementoes and trinkets, a huge calendar on the wall, a shrine, and a couple of motor scooters parked inside.
And while I call it a noodle shop, it’s one that locals come to for just two noodle dishes, cao lau and mi quang. That’s it. You might get asked if you want a drink with your choice – if you’re lucky. And, if you’re really in favour, they might provide some crisp, smoky, plate-sized rice crackers speckled with poppy or sesame seeds.
While there are plenty of hotels dotting the surrounding streets, the shop doesn’t see many foreigners pulling up a bright red chair. One reason may be that the hotels mainly steer guests toward restaurants where they can get kickbacks and away from any street food stalls and backstreet eateries for fear of their foreign guests getting sick.
Occasionally we see a tour guide bring a small group of hot and flustered travellers here – probably because the guide wants a break from the tourist-focussed food of the guidebooks and TripAdvisor approved eateries.
As this seemingly endless stream of well-dressed locals disgorges from the van and heads into the shop, it’s clear they do come here often. The owners lazily arrange a table for the eight of them, working slowly in the omnipresent humidity as they always do. There are the well-dressed parents, an aunt or two, a son dressed like an Asian hip-hop star, and a daughter in impossibly spiky high heels and a wildly patterned sundress.
As they settle, the bidding war between the two dishes begins and quickly reaches a crescendo. “Cao lau! Mi quang! Mi quang! Cao lau!” The patriarch of the family tallies the numbers and the order is placed.
While there are other regional specialty noodle dishes available in Hoi An, cao lau and mi quang are undoubtedly the noodle-based culinary divas of Hoi An, requiring an exacting mix of ingredients to constitute a codified version. The noodles for cao lau are unlike any noodles we’ve tasted before – similar to udon noodles, they have a rougher texture and a smoky flavour due to several factors in what is a complex production process. Their history is much discussed and often wrongly deduced, but food writers love a good mystery story.
The pan juices from the roasting of the succulent ‘char siu’ Cantonese-style pork (cut thinly with surgical preciseness and placed on top of the dish), is reserved to form the basis of the ‘soup’ of the dish. However, calling it a soup is a little deceiving, as only a couple of ladles of the stock are poured onto the noodles.
Next goes a pile of fragrant herb mix of butter lettuce, basil, mint, coriander, and Vietnamese fish mint (a taste for which I’m still acquiring), followed by a sprinkle of small deep-fried squares of the noodle dough (often wrongly called croutons). These give the dish texture, as do the wonderfully crunchy fresh bean sprouts that are quickly blanched, sometimes in the same basket as the noodles, and can be found tucked beneath them.
There are minor variations of this, but vendors had better have a very good reason or a very good reputation for messing with this dish.
Mi quang, the other equally popular dish on offer in Hoi An, is also not a soup. While there is a base stock like cao lau, the noodles could not be more different. Silky soft, they’re almost impossibly bright yellow colour due to the addition of turmeric. Here, nested on top of the shiny noodles are two plump, firm, freshly blanched prawns, a quail egg, bean sprouts, the same aromatic herb mix, and – used sparingly – caramelized onions, crispy fried shallots, roasted peanuts, and prawn crackers.
It’s always a difficult decision to order one over the other. Even if you desire one dish more on a certain day you feel as if you’re betraying the other. It’s a choice that demands frequent visits to strike a karmic balance.
The visiting family, now settled in, prepares for the imminent arrival of their bowls of choice. Chopsticks are pulled out of the bright red plastic containers and held upright on the table; suitable lengths and thickness of chopsticks are paired off like teenagers at a high school dance.
Tissues are pulled from the ever-present box on the table and the recently-mated chopsticks are given a cursory rub down – more a polite ritual than a serious effort at exemplary hygiene – before being passed around to the rest of the diners.
A plate of rice crackers arrives on this occasion and everyone at the table breaks off pieces, dunking them into the vinegar and sliced chili condiment that’s always present as an accompaniment to these dishes. To use this condiment or not, however, is dependent upon the individual vendor and the individual.
I’ve seen vendors at Hoi An market grab people’s wrists when customers have attempted to reach for the condiment, while at the next stall the vendor liberally pours it over the five-spice pork before handing it to the customer. The nuances of eating rituals and dish preparation in Vietnam are a thing of continual fascination.
Conversation and the sound of breaking rice crackers continues at the family’s table as the first bowl of noodles arrive. The lucky woman recipient smiles and begins to embellish the dish to suit her personal taste, oblivious to the fact that no on else has a bowl in front of them.
A splash of vinegar and sliced chili, a swirl of soy sauce, and a small red chili that could strip a foreigner’s throat bare are added. Before she has finished, more bowls arrive and the whole table becomes a mass of hands reaching for, passing and receiving chili, vinegar, chili and vinegar, soy sauce, and even more chili, to personalize their dish of noodles.
Once the act of eating begins in earnest, the table goes quiet. The two-dish menu is so good here that we also are reduced to silence when we visit. The precision used in preparation and presentation and the clean flavours and freshness of the ingredients are what keep us coming back.
The size of each bowl is just enough to sate a normal appetite. On one occasion we watched as a local couple came for two bowls of mi quang and ordered a second bowl before they finished the first. I’ve often been tempted to do the same.
Just a few minutes after the last bowl hits the family’s table, it’s all over. A huge plastic jug of tea arrives and the family partakes in another ritual, rinsing each cup in turn with a little tea and handing out the cups of brew.
The conversation amplifies to the same level that the TV was at before they arrived and the television soap opera was muted. Toothpicks are distributed and hands cover mouths, only slightly muting the conversation.
After the blip-blip of the van’s doors being unlocked, the family starts to methodically pile back into the vehicle and Shirley Bassey begins to croon again.
This is a fast food restaurant, Hoi An style. And it’s our favourite.
“Kiss me, honey, honey, kiss me
Thrill me, honey, honey, thrill me
Don’t care even if I blow my top
But, honey, honey, don’t stop.”
Update: Lara’s Hoi An Hit List - with my photos – which appears in the July 2013 issue of Australian food magazine Feast, features our favourite noodle shop, above. The October issue will include our piece on Hoi An’s famous chili relish. Also look out for Lara’s pieces on Hoi An’s Top 10 Dishes in The Guardian very soon, also featuring my photos.