A Leftover Story From Vietnam

Posted: May 7, 2012

Flummoxed by leftovers? We have a tasty solution for you – rice paper rolls all the way from Vietnam!

By Somali Roy

Leftovers make me nervous.

They have this annoying habit of disrupting perfectly charted out meal plans.

And for someone with a fetish for order and harmony when it comes to food, they are ridiculously incongruous kitchen contingencies that stick out like a sore thumb.

And yet, once in a while everyone has to deal with the wrath of leftovers. 

You don’t have the heart to throw them, but are not really psyched about keeping them. And if you keep them, there’s that burden of consuming them before they go stale. And if they go stale, which isn’t uncommon in my kitchen, you are ridden with the guilt of wasting food. What good comes out of all this anyway?

I found out after a Sunday lunch of roasted chicken.

Though I pressed my guests to consume more – as politely as the art of entertaining would permit – I had this ominous inkling of inheriting leftovers at the end of the party, which I did. But that night, Luke Nguyen, a Vietnamese Australian chef, initiating home cooks to Vietnamese cuisine in a television series, gave me just the idea.

I set my mind on making Gỏi Cuốn, one of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine that most importantly promised to subsume my leftovers. These delicate rice paper rolls stuffed with goodies are a minimalist’s dream come true – outright simple design and technique, fresh basic ingredients yet divinely balanced flavours – and a perfect antidote to a sinful meal of fried, roasted calorie-ridden food or perhaps an entrée before such a meal.

So, the first task of making this salubrious summer roll, was to acquire the rice paper or Bánh Tráng, which is a thin steamed rice crepe that has been dried on bamboo mats under the intense Vietnamese sun in family courtyards or manufactured in factories. They can be used only once rehydrated in lukewarm water.

Shopping for rice papers is not daunting if you remember two things – buying a size that you’ll be comfortable working with and choosing your rice paper wisely. Circular rice paper sheets of the size 8.5 to 9 inches are now widely available in specialty stores in most Indian metros and considered easy to manipulate.

Secondly, you’ll notice that rice papers are made from just rice, a mixture of rice and tapioca starch or just tapioca. More the amount of rice in the rice paper, thicker and opaque it will be and needs relatively hot water to be pliable. However my vote goes to the rice and tapioca combos that are thinner and translucent and soften in lukewarm water.

Once the rice papers arrive, next up is the stuffing, which is the exciting part. Traditionally Gỏi Cuốn is stuffed with thinly sliced pork meat, shrimps, rice vermicelli, lettuce and fragrant herbs like mint and Perilla leaves. Keeping the noodles and herbs as standard, I like to add pretty much anything I wish. If I don’t have leftover chicken, I lightly sauté mince meat with finely chopped onions, garlic and ginger and use that along with the greens. Crabmeat makes for a fantastic filling too.

Adding sliced prawns to the filling is optional. However the pink outline of the cooked prawns visible over the translucent rice paper enhances the aesthetics as well as the taste. If you’re not in the mood for fancy, another great idea is to cut an omelette into thin strips and add that to the fillings. To score on the health factor, I also add julienned carrots, mushrooms and green peppers. Just make sure that all ingredients are thin and firm to conform to the shape of the roll.

The last and most crucial stage is to assemble everything and roll the rice paper. Rice papers have a nice woven pattern on one side rendered by the bamboo mats upon which they are dried, while the other side is smooth. Put the smooth side down and the rough side up to encase the filling. It’s a good idea to keep a shallow vessel of lukewarm water nearby to soak the rice papers and a clean working space to place the soft sheets on. Also, while wrapping, try not to overstuff the rolls, to avoid chances of bursting.

Wrapping rice papers can be lot of fun. If you’re not keen on rolling them all by yourself, you can choose to take the entire activity to a communal DIY level by letting your guests pick fillings of their choice and wrap their own customized rolls amidst the usual bantering.

These delicate rice paper rolls stuffed with goodies are a minimalist’s dream come true – outright simple design and technique, fresh basic ingredients yet divinely balanced flavours…

My leftover story will remain incomplete without a mention of Nước chấm, the ultimate dipping sauce of Vietnam. It’s a condiment made from fish sauce (Nuoc mam) and has the four flavours of sweet, sour, savoury and spicy in a tantalizing combination.

While eating, dunk your nimble bundles of rice papers in this dipping sauce and I am confident you’ll be praying for leftovers.

Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls with Dipping Sauce Recipe

Fish Sauce or Nước mắm, the most essential ingredient in this dipping sauce is the lifeblood of Vietnamese cuisine and is used as a dipping sauce, flavouring agent and dressing for countless dishes. It is made from the liquid that comes from fermenting fish (anchovies) with salt.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

For rice papers rolls 

16 rice paper sheets

200 gms minced chicken sautéed in chopped onions, garlic and ginger / leftover roasted chicken cut in thin slices

25 gms cooked rice vermicelli

16 cooked prawns (one piece sliced in two per roll)

1 carrot cut into fine matchsticks

Lettuce leaves (remove the spine)

1 green pepper cut into fine matchsticks

Fresh mint leaves

Chives or coriander leaves with stems

For dipping sauce

2 tbsp lime juice

1 tbsp vinegar

½ cup water

2 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp fish sauce

½ tbsp soya sauce

2 chopped garlic cloves

1 or 2 birds eye chillies

Method

Soak a rice paper in lukewarm water for 15 to 20 seconds and place it on a clean working space.

Mentally divide the sheet horizontally into three parts and place the filling roughly on the third part.

While layering the filling, place a sliced prawn cut in two, side by side at the bottom, then a lettuce leaf on top of the prawns for support, followed by mint leaves, handful of rice vermicelli, slice of chicken and lastly the veggies.

Pull the bottom flap of the rice paper over the filling, then fold both sides of the rice paper like an envelope to secure the filling and keep rolling towards the top with a bit of pressure, keeping everything firm and tight. On the way, tuck in some long springs of coriander leaves or chives, half sticking out of the roll for decoration.

You can either slice the roll in half or serve as whole.

Repeat the process with other sheets.

For the dipping sauce, mix all the ingredients together and taste for flavour consistency and balance. The sauce is usually a bit pungent owing to the fish sauce and has a very distinct taste of all the flavours.

Arrange the rolls on a plate and serve with the dipping sauce.

*Photo credit: Subhashish Dasgupta

Somali Roy is a freelance writer, foodie and a passionate traveller based in Singapore. She

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Comments

2 Comments


  1. It was an interesting read…though I would like to know whether u have tried stuffing in some mustard flavored fish, vegetables or chicken…

    not sure how it might taste but seems worth trying 🙂

  2. Hi Nivedita, I am glad you liked the story. I haven’t tried mustard flavoured fish as stuffing, but can’t see why it shouldn’t work? Along with the fish, you can throw in some finely chopped cabbage, onions and a drop of lemon, maybe.
    Since the rice paper doesn’t add to the taste, a distinctly flavourful stuffing stands out. You may also consider deep-frying these rolls which works great with any filling, especially the vegetable only ones.

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