I first came across fresh spring rolls, also known as summer rolls, at a Vietnamese restaurant in Palo Alto. I’d eaten fried Chinese spring rolls many times, so ordered them thinking I would be familiar with them. But what arrived was a very different thing. These were light and springy, full of fresh mint and basil, and came with a thin, sharp dipping sauce instead of a gloopy sweet one. I was very excited when we covered Vietnamese cuisine briefly at cooking school, and I got to make some of these spring rolls. It was then that I discovered how hard they can be to get right. Like rolling burritos, there is a lot of practice needed to get the rolls tight enough to hold together.
Since then, I haven’t often had the chance to taste them. But when I started marking up Rick Stein’s book Far Eastern Odyssey to decide which recipes I would make, this was a must-have. Spring rolls aren’t an everyday dish, but you can prepare most of the ingredients in advance, and then assemble them with a little help in a few minutes. And as they are served cold, this is a really useful, fresh starter or canape to have on hand.
Making spring rolls, like making your own pizzas, is a production line job. You need to prepare all the ingredients ahead, and lots of chopping and slicing needs to be done. This means it makes more sense to make them for a crowd than just for yourself. It probably took me about an hour to put together 8 spring rolls for myself, but I could have made three times as many with just a little more time. Once you have all the pieces prepared, actually making and filling the rolls is fairly quick. This also means that having helpers to do some of the preparation would make things much easier too. You can see (just) in the photo below, my setup for making the rolls:
The critical ingredients for fresh spring rolls are:
– rice paper wrappers
– fine rice noodles or mung bean (glass) noodles, briefly boiled or soaked in hot water (according to the packet instructions), then drained and rinsed with cold water.
– herbs – traditionally mint, thai basil and garlic chives. I used mint leaves, Italian basil and spring onions. The spring onions were sliced thin to go into the roll, but the herbs were left whole or in large pieces, to make the rolls more attractive. As rice paper wrappers are so thin, you can see through them, so the layout of the contents affects the appearance.
– vegetables – I used carrot, cucumber and lettuce, but beansprouts are often added. All these were chopped into long, thin strips. The lettuce was torn into small pieces.
– cooked protein – in this case, cooked prawns, and cooked pork. I simmered some slices of belly pork in salted water, then left them to cool, removed the skin and surface fat, and sliced them thinly. The prawns were steamed and then cooled, and sliced in half.
The rice paper wrappers are very thin, and usually have marks on them a little like galvanised drain covers, from the bamboo mats that they dry on. They need to be soaked for about a minute in cold water until they become just pliable.
Then you can pile on just a little of all of the ingredients, starting with the prawns and herbs face down, to give an attractive appearance. Add the other ingredients on top, and roll it up, tucking in the sides to hold everything together. As the rice paper wrapper is slightly springy, you can stretch it a little around the filling, and that will help to hold the roll tight. It will take a bit of practice to get the right tension, so that you stretch but don’t break the wrapper. Some of these are neater than others, but you can see where the prawns show through.
Vietnamese spring rolls are served with a dipping sauce common in Vietnamese cooking, nuoc cham. This is made of fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and chopped chilli, ginger and garlic: all the essential Vietnamese flavours in one sauce. Vietnamese food is all about balancing the key flavours of salty, sour, hot and sweet. The fish sauce is salty, the lime juice sour, the sugar balances with sweetness, and the chilli and ginger provide heat (although very little in this dish). Make sure you dip in a little lettuce and taste the dipping sauce – you want it to taste balanced to you, so adjust the quantities if you think it is too salty, sour or sweet.