I love hand held foods.
What could be better than holding something in your hand and eating it? It’s the ultimate in minimalism. No utensils, no cutting – just grab and eat. I have a long list of favourite handhelds, but I’d have to say that my absolute favourite is Vietnamese spring rolls. Spring rolls are the one thing I can never refuse, no matter how full I am.
If you’re hungry and you feel like going to a Vietnamese restaurant and ordering a plate of rolls to munch on, you might get a little confused. On menus, I’ve seen Vietnamese spring rolls go by multiple monikers: imperial rolls, crispy rolls, or egg rolls. It isn’t so bad because they’re all really the same thing: meat rolled into a rice paper or wheat flour wrapper and deep-fried to golden brown deliciousness.
What’s funny is that the rolls don’t even go by just one name in Vietnamese. The name I’ve seen and heard the most is chả giò, which loosely translates to rolled meat, but they also go by chả ram, which specifically refers to pork and shrimp spring rolls. Their third name (and probably least common from what I’ve seen) is nem ran – meaning deep fried meat – which is what the Northern Vietnamese call their spring rolls.
Whatever they’re called, they are crispy and incredibly addictive. In restaurants, spring rolls are usually eaten as an appetizer or side dish. I have it on good authority that most Vietnamese people don’t eat spring rolls all that often at home. When they do though, it’s done differently from how you see them served in a Vietnamese restaurant.
From left to right: Thai basil, rau răm (Vietnamese mint), cilantro, mint leaves, shiso.
Unlike at a restaurant, where you’ll get two long rolls, cut into fours and placed on top a piece of lettuce, eating spring rolls the real Vietnamese way requires lots and lots of lettuce and an arsenal of fresh herbs. Whole rolls are wrapped up in a leaf of lettuce and lots of fresh herbs are added to create a kind of lettuce spring roll wrap. It makes for super fresh tasting spring rolls. The contrast between the hot roll and the cool, crisp lettuce is incredible.
* * *
I first had spring rolls like this one of the first times I had dinner at my in-laws’. They weren’t my in-laws at the time, and I was on my best behaviour. Before going over I had vowed to myself that I would not pull a typical Steph-like move and make a fool of myself (I’m an extreme klutz). Thankfully, I didn’t knock over a plate of food or walk into the kitchen table, but somehow I did end up both screaming and crying anyway.
The dinner started out innocently enough. It was a gorgeous summer evening. The sun was slowly setting and the heat of the day could still be felt without it being oppressively hot. It was such a nice night that Mike’s parents decided we’d eat outside, on the deck. The table outside was beautifully set up with giant bowls of fresh, leafy greens and herbs. There was a tub of fish sauce (literally, a tub with a ladle for serving ease!) and plates and plates of rice paper. I was super excited to be eating authentic Vietnamese food. And what’s more, Mike had told me before hand that his mom would be making spring rolls, my favourite!
My future mother-in-law was deep-frying when we arrived and I was eager to help. No mishaps here: I’m not scared of hot oil or deep-frying and it was fun chatting with her about the spring roll ingredients. We stopped frying after about 20 rolls, which I thought was plenty. I was in for a surprise though, because as soon as I was done plating up the rolls we just fried, Mike’s mom opened the oven door to reveal over a hundred more spring rolls just happily keeping warm.
My mouth literally fell to the floor and I started looking around to see if other people were going to be joining the spring roll party. But no, it was just the four of us. I’d thought I had a problem with over making food, but Mike’s mom seriously outdid me.
As we were sitting down, Mike and I had a lightening-quick whispered conversation:
Me: She doesn’t expect us to eat all that does she?
Mike: Yeah she does.
Me: What!? I can’t!
Mike: No, seriously, I told her you like spring rolls so she got really excited.
Me: Well, I do want to make a good impression…
All was going well until I saw a wasp hovering over the ruby-red container of fish sauce. I have an extreme wasp/bee phobia. I will run and scream if they come near me. I’ve survived my whole life without being stung and I am deathly afraid of one day losing my perfect no-sting record. I’m convinced I’ll go into anaphylactic shock and die. At the merest hint of a buzzing black and yellow insect, I’ll run away from conversations held outdoors, patios, and out of (almost) moving cars. When I was a kid I once locked myself out of my room for over 8 hours when a giant, angry hornet somehow made it past my window screen. My phobia is unfounded and severe, but I just can’t help myself. Their little black and yellow bodies are just so scary!
I tried to ignore the lone wasp buzzing over the fish sauce. I didn’t want to make a scene. I kind of “eeped” a bit and froze, but managed not to scream. Thankfully the wasp flew off after a bit. We were just starting to dig in when I heard a wasp buzz past my ear. It was the sound of my nightmares. Mr. Wasp decided the fish sauce was good stuff and he brought back his little waspy friends. I couldn’t help myself. I screamed like a 4 year old and grabbed on to Mike. I desperately wanted to run away but I was torn, I wanted to at least attempt to maintain some semblance of being a functioning adult.
Thank goodness Mike’s parents were understanding. They totally got that I was terrified and suggested we move inside. Mike’s mom even admitted to me that she too wasn’t fond of wasps. It made me feel so much better. Of course later Mike told me that his mom actually kills wasps with her bare hands.
With the screaming episode over, we finally got to the food. Mike’s family eats spring rolls with lettuce (the way I mentioned before), but they also one-up the lettuce by wrapping up their spring rolls, lettuce and herbs into a salad roll. That’s right: double roll! Imagine the heavenly crispiness of a deep-fried spring roll wrapped up in the freshness of a salad roll. Seriously food coma inducing stuff. I’d like to say that it was so good I cried, but no, I didn’t cry from joy. It was the fish sauce.
As we were ladling out the fish sauce-bright-red from all the chilis in it-Mike’s mom mentioned that she toned the chilis down a bit because she wasn’t sure how much spice I liked. I said it would be fine and happily dipped away. And it was fine – for a while. The fish sauce was delicious: tangy, sweet, and spicy. Oh so spicy. Tongue-numbingly, tears rolling down your face spicy. I felt like I was on fire, but after the screaming, I didn’t want everyone to see me crying too. I thought to escape to the washroom for a bit and cool off the fire on my tongue, but no such luck. Mike’s mom is very observant. She didn’t say anything though, she just kindly handed me a box of tissues and got out the special jar fish sauce she keeps in the fridge for little kids.
I felt so embarrassed. Screaming and crying. So much for a good first impression. I’m sure Mike’s parents must’ve thought I was such a baby. It was worth it though, I’d do it all again just to eat my mother-in-law’s spring rolls!
* * *
My mother-in-law has the best spring roll recipe ever. It goes something like this: Blend a bunch of pork and shrimp together in a processor. Add a little shredded carrots, shredded taro, onions, shallots and garlic. Then some sugar, fish sauce and pepper. Roll. Fry. That’s it.
Basically, it’s the typical a little bit of this, a little bit of that kind of recipe. Old school Asian cooks aren’t too big on measurements. I figured it out after a bunch of trial and error and now my rolls are almost as good as hers.
Vietnamese spring rolls come in two types of wrappers: the typical Chinese wheat spring roll wrapper or rice paper wrappers. Traditionally Vietnamese spring rolls are made with rice paper, which is a combination of extra crispy with a bit of chew. They’re a bit heartier and not as delicate as wheat roll wrappers. I always use wheat spring roll wrappers because I love the flaky, golden crunch.
This recipe makes a lot of spring rolls, but don’t worry, they freeze well and deep-fry great from frozen. Besides, if you’re gonna roll spring rolls, you might as well do it assembly-line style. Yes, they take a bit of work, but you won’t regret making these rolls: they’re addictive golden-brown, crispy deliciousness. They’re so good that I find myself “testing” so many random rolls while frying that I end up with about half a batch gone by the time I’m done.
Vietnamese Spring Roll Recipe
yield: 35-40 spring rolls
- 1 pound of ground pork
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1/2 cup dried wood ear mushrooms, soaked in hot water and finely chopped
1 cup shredded carrots
1 cup shredded taro root
1/2 small onion, finely diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 package spring roll wrappers (I like TYJ Spring Roll Pastry)
In a food processor, blend the shrimp until it comes together into a paste. Add the pork and blend until the pork and shrimp are thoroughly combined. Put the pork-shrimp mixture in a bowl and add the mushrooms, carrots, taro, onion, garlic, shallot and the seasonings. Mix thoroughly. Test the seasoning by frying a tiny patty of meat in a frying pan. Adjust the season accordingly.
Take a wrapper and place it in front of you like a diamond. Make sure the other wrappers are covered with a damp paper towel so they don’t dry out. Spread out 1 tablespoon of filling not quite in the middle of the wrapper. Fold the corner closest to you up and towards the corner farthest away from you. Pinch to make sure the wrapper is tight around the filling. Fold in the two sides to where it meets the filling. Try to keep the sides straight. Pinch and roll tightly. Lightly dampened the last corner with a bit of egg before rolling up all the way.
Roll all your rolls before you start frying. Line a baking sheet, or plate with parchment or wax paper to place your spring rolls on. Make sure you have a damp paper towel to cover your completed spring rolls and the spring roll wrappers. If you don’t cover them with a damp paper towel, the skin will dry out. If you want to stack your spring rolls, be sure to have a piece of paper in between the layers as well.
Fill a deep sided pot (I like to deep fry in my cast iron pan) with several inches of oil (enough for the spring rolls to float). Heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat until it reaches 350F. Gently add your spring rolls, being careful not to overcrowd. It’s best to deep-fry in batches. The rolls should bubble immediately when they hit the hot oil. If they don’t, your oil isn’t hot enough. Fry until the skins turn golden brown and crisp, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the rolls and drain on paper towels. These rolls stay hot for quite some time so be careful when you bite into one!
**If you want to try these rolls Spring-Roll Salad Roll style, grab some green leaf lettuce, a bunch of herbs (Thai basil, cilantro, Vietnamese mint, regular mint, shiso), and a pack of rice paper wrappers. Have a medium-sized bowl of hot tap water ready for softening the rice paper. Quickly dip the rice paper into the hot water, making sure the entire piece is wet. Lay the wrapper on your plate (it will continue to soften as you are assembling your roll). Lay down a piece of lettuce, add some herbs and then place a lovely golden spring roll in the middle. Wrap it up as you would a spring roll, dip into fish sauce and have your mind blown by the difference in textures and tastes.
PS – I’m trying out a new longer format. Let me know what you think!