Anyone who has ever had the success rate with rice paper wrappers that I used to have has probably already navigated away from the page in total disgust, trying to erase the nightmarish visions of gloopy sheets of glutinous slop sticking to the bottom of the pan, the side of the pan, the slotted spoon in the pan and everything else within a 3 meter radius. The end result of trying to make anything with rice paper is usually a pitiful little clump of oil logged veggies with a shredded piece of wrapper stuck pathetically to one end, clinging on for dear life like a snotty tissue. Enter the chef on board one of the Bhaya Cruises vessels to clear up all the confusion in a cooking class on deck. What I thought was revelation shining down on me in amber hued rays as we cruised around Hulong Bay in Vietnam turned out to be just a break in the passing storm cloud, but the discovery was no less eye opening. Why, why, why has everyone always said you must dip the wrappers in a bowl of water? Worst. Idea. Ever. Unless you like having sticky bits of rice paper stuck to your plates, working surfaces, fingers and eyebrows. No. The secret is to place the rice paper wrapper on a wet tea towel and just pat it lightly. It should be just soft enough to become pliable without ever becoming sticky. Once you have the knack of it, the rolls can either be deep fried in oil or you can serve as is. If you choose the latter option, serve a dipping sauce with the rolls to make them softer and easier to eat. These have been claimed to be the best spring rolls ever made. The claimants were my friends, but don’t let that diminish their observational powers for you.
Deep Fried Spring Rolls (Nem Rán or Chă Giò)
60g vermicelli (glass noodles)
100g lean ground pork, prawns or a combination of both (omit for a vegetarian option or add cubed tofu)
4 pieces of wood fungus, soaked and finely chopped (this is not really available at your average supermarket, so if you’re not going down to the woods today then stay at home and use one large, black mushroom fried in a little butter till done)
1 large egg, lightly beaten (omit if you won’t be frying the spring rolls)
2 spring onions, finely chopped
1 carrot, grated
2/3 cup of cabbage and onion mix (Okay, this wasn’t in the original recipe at all, but I really like cabbage in spring rolls. Besides which, if you’ve come here for light and refreshing meals you’ve come to the wrong place. To make the mix I chop up about half a head of white cabbage and one or two onions and fry slowly until caramelised. The leftovers are great spiced up with a bit of curry powder and added to lentils and brown rice. (There you go. That’s my healthy tip for the day.) I would leave this out if you aren’t going to fry them.)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
a twist or two of black pepper
1 tablespoon of sesame oil. This is absolutely essential!! Do not, under any circumstances, leave it out. Unless, of course, you are deathly allergic to sesame seeds and it will kill you.
24 sheets of rice paper
2 cups oil for frying
Dipping sauce (nước mắm):
3 fresh red chillies, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
a handful of roasted peanuts, crushed
1/4 cup caster sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons water
Combine all the ingredients in a dipping bowl and stir.
1) Soak the vermicelli in boiling water for 5 minutes to soften. Drain and cut more or less in half.
2) Combine the noodles, egg, pork, mushroom, spring onions, carrot and cabbage and season. Add the sesame oil.
3) At this point, ignore whatever any recipe using rice paper says (even if you have those really thick, hard rice paper wrappers). Just take a clean tea towel and wet it thoroughly. Place each piece of rice paper on the tea towel and press down until you feel it becoming slightly more pliable. Place a tablespoon full of filling in the center of the wrapper. Fold in the sides and roll up tightly. Wet the last edge with a bit of water and stick it down.
4) Heat the oil over moderate heat and fry the spring rolls till golden and crispy, turning them several times. Drain on a paper towel and serve with the dipping sauce or a bit of soy and some sweet chilli.