Chinese New Year always brings back fond memories for me, fireworks in Hong Kong, fire crackers in San Francisco and the fiery questions in Vietnam. In a Catholic Seminary in Saigon, as the South Vietnamese natives call this vibrant town. I was helping student priests practice their English, being asked every question they could think of, some inappropriate. One in particular still stands out in my memory, "Why do Americans have sex before marriage?". As the hour wore painfully on the questions kept coming. "Why are so many Americans divorced?" and "Do you pray for your son to have a vocation?". As they shot these questions at me, and many more, I struggled to answer without offending anyone. They seemed so naive I just couldn't give totally honest answers. I mean how do you explain sex to a priest?
But once my hour of torture ended we were herded downstairs to have dinner in the communal dining room. It was a typical Southeast Asian room, chest high walls with screens stretching to the ceiling. Too much light and floral table cloths, stretched on long family style tables. In other words, utterly charming. As the first course sat before me I remember thinking, thank heavens everyone would be eating and the questions would end. What I was unprepared for was the sweetest, freshest and most tasty Spring Roll I had ever eaten. It consisted of rice noodles, pork, carrots, bits of hot pepper, mint and cilantro. They were served along side a spicy sweet and sour sauce that had been made with Vietnamese fish sauce. It was that moment I fell in love with Vietnamese food. The rest of the meal was delicious pork meatballs with rice noodles in broth, a platter of fresh fruit and fresh coconut juice to drink. But the memory of those spring rolls stayed with me.
Recently I had a request for Spring Rolls from Susanna, an eleven year old who was having a "Chef's Birthday Party". I began researching and making different versions. This one is the closest I have found to the original I enjoyed on that hot, uncomfortable January evening.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
adapted from Nina Simond's Asian Noodles
½ pound thin rice stick noodles, softened in hot water, cooked until just tender, rinsed under cold water and drained,
1- 6 ounce package Teriyaki Baked Sprout Tofu, julienned*
2 large carrots, peeled and shredded or grated
¾ cups fresh mint leaves, coarsely shredded
¾ cups fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely shredded
1/4 cup finely sliced scallions
35 round rice paper wrappers (about 8 inches in diameter)
2 heads Boston lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed, dried, and tough center ribs trimmed
1 ½ pounds shrimp, poached in boiling water until pink, peeled, sliced in half lengthwise, and deveined
Place rice noodles, tofu, carrots, mint and cilantro in a large bowl and toss to mix.
Place 1 rice paper wrapper in a large skillet filled with 2 inches of warm water. Keep it submerged for 3 seconds, it will begin to soften immediately. The hotter the water the quicker the wrappers soften.
Remove the wrapper from the water and place it on a clean dish towel. Immediately place a piece of lettuce on the side of the wrapper nearest you.
Top it with a handful of the noodle mixture.
Fold the wrapper over the noodle mixture and add 3 shrimp, side by side, below the lettuce and wrap tightly. The shrimp will show thru the wrapper and make a beautiful presentation. Fold the sides in and roll tightly to to seal.
Serve immediately with Spicy Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce and Peanut Sauce.
Spicy Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
juice of 3 limes or lemons
¼ cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons grated carrots
In a medium bowl, soak the crushed red pepper in lime juice for 2-3 minutes. Add the fish sauce, sugar, and garlic and stir to dissolve the sugar. Just before serving, add the carrots. Refrigerated, in a covered container, the sauce will keep for up to 5 days.
¼ cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1 ½ teaspoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon safflower or corn oil
1 ½ teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
In a small bowl, combine the hoisin, peanut butter, tomato paste, sugar, and water and stir until smooth.
Heat a small heavy saucepan over high heat. Add the oil and heat until hot, about 20 seconds. Add the garlic, and crushed red pepper and stir fry about 5 seconds, until fragrant. Stir in the peanut butter mixture and cook for 3-4 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
*Sold at Whole Foods Market
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