Crispy Vietnamese spring rolls (Cha gio)

9 May

My grandmother always visited my parents’ home every year to take advantage of the tropical “winter.” One of my most treasured memories is sitting in the kitchen with her, my aunt and my mother wetting rice paper, placing the sheets between kitchen towels and rolling up “spring rolls.” Everyone would then gather once they had been fried, to roll them in lettuce with herbs and dip them in nuoc mam for a big chomp. My grandmother and aunt would make several batches during their visit, enough for my mom to pack up and freeze. We would then re-crisp them in the toaster oven and remember the warmth of the winter.

Here, not cooking for half-a dozen people, I decided to save the filling by itself – in the refrigerator or freezing for more than a few days. For a quick on-the-verge-of-getting-sick dinner alone, I made a few meatballs and simmered them in chicken broth with some noodles. I didn’t have to call in sick the next day. Not too shabby. I also made these for lunch a few days later – there’s something calming about rolling spring rolls when the world is whirling by.

Pork is not commonly available here. Well, raw pork is not commonly available here. Many Christian mini-markets will carry limited supplies of ham and bacon. In Jerusalem, there is a butcher who prides himself on his pork selection, but it can be a hassle to get there while the store is open, especially to carry raw meat home.  So I substituted ground chicken thighs (on the finest grind available at our butcher) for a vegetable-heavy mix with ground shrimp (zapped in my $25 mini food processor). It ended up moist and tender inside the fried rice paper. Other ingredients I am planning to try include grated tofu, finely ground lamb, and finely ground beef (to keep it as moist and tender as possible.)

Rice paper is somewhat difficult to find – one Ramallah supermarket is purported to carry it. I have sourced mine from Israeli supermarkets and health food stores. The Thai rice paper I have found is very durable – almost too durable, creating a thick skin, in contrast to the thin, crispy shells back home. However, I am coming to appreciate the crisp outside shell, contrasted with a soft, chewy steamed layer of rice paper, before hitting the savory filling. It’s different, but it’s still a taste from home. I also use this rice paper with my fresh spring rolls (goi cuon), since it is so forgiving of clumsy fingers – and, it’s the only one available. My aunt would probably direct me to the “right” paper – but it all works for now.

For the OCD types — the rice paper I used also has one smoother side and one textured side. I found myself rolling with the smooth side out. I could make up something about how it creates a tighter seal with the textured side in and the smooth side out creates a more shiny, crisper roll. But I’d just be guessing. I’m sure my aunts would have something to say about this though. After they lectured me about how I’m using the wrong rice paper.

My mom always did the frying outside in the backyard, using an electric skillet and an extension cord. I started out using a sloped wok, but have now shifted to using an high-walled aluminum dutch oven, so oil doesn’t splatter all over my gas stove – in theory at least. (And watch out for arms – wear long sleeves and use long tongs.) Keep baking soda and/or a big towel handy to smother the rare flare-up. Close all bedroom doors and open the windows – unless you like the lingering smell of oil. But if you’re immersed in it the whole time, at least you won’t notice. And the taste makes it all worthwhile.

Crispy Vietnamese spring rolls

A light meal for 4 people, with filling for 30-40 rolls

1 pound raw shrimp, tails removed and finely chopped (or you can process or chop finely by hand)
½ pound boneless chicken thighs, finely ground (or you can process or chop finely by hand)
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
3 Tablespoons fish sauce (I use a thai version I have found here)
½ teaspoon sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup grated carrots
2 cups sliced green onion
½ head small green cabbage, shredded
4 portabello mushrooms, stems and gills removed, medium dice
1 package rice paper

Sunflower of other vegetable oil for frying

For serving:

1 recipe nuoc mam
1 head lettuce (iceberg or romaine)
1 chopped chile (optional)
1 cup leaves from cilantro, mint and other sweet fresh herbs

Mix together meats and seasoning, taking care not to tightly compress the meats and make them too sticky. Gently combine egg with meats. Finally, add vegetables and mix, creating a mixture that can hold together by itself without too much effort. Place mixture in the refrigerator, just in case you get distracted and/or are as paranoid as I am about raw chicken safety.

Set up a large bowl full of tap water, a dinner plate to serve as your base for rolling, and a clean kitchen towel, laid out so it has a few wrinkles (preferably non-linty, but hey, use what you’ve got.) Rotate the rice paper in the water, so it all gets wet. It will need a tiny bit of time to soak, so lay the first one on your plate. Then lay the second and third moistened sheets on the kitchen towel, using the wrinkles to keep the whole sheet from sticking to the towel itself. By the time you’ve done this, the first sheet should be ready for rolling. As I go along, I roll one, pick one sheet off the towel, placed it on the plate, moisten another, place it on the towel to soak, and then return to roll another one. This way, your sheets are flexible enough, but not too mushy.

If this is your first time, don’t overstuff! I had visions of my grandmother’s humongous spring rolls – but the rice paper kept bursting and I couldn’t “heal” the tears sufficiently with extra rice paper scraps. So start small – no one ever complains about too much crispy fried part.

I went with one tablespoon of filling the first time, working up to two on my second go. Distribute it in a short row along the bottom of the rice paper sheet. I pull up the bottom and press to try and get rid of air pockets where oil can sneak in. Then I fold up the sides and roll to the top of the plate, like a burrito. But you get to eat half a dozen of these, instead of just one.

I put them on a plate so they aren’t touching – I noticed that they like to stick to each other. Again, this may be my rice paper. If you need to wait a bit – I went up to 1-2 hours – Moisten a paper towel, squeeze it so it’s not drippy, and drape it over the spring rolls. You want them to be dry enough to not splatter, but moist enough to stay resilient.

When you’re ready to cook, heat your oil in a large vessel. It should be enough to go at least halfway up your spring rolls. Put on a long-sleeved shirt and grab your tongs or chopsticks (or slotted spoon in a pinch). Heat the oil until tiny bubbles emerge around the handle of a wooden spoon stuck into in the oil. (It means it’s hot enough to heat the air in the pores of the spoon.) Gently lay your spring rolls in the pan, so they are sizzling away. Let the spring rolls sit in the oil and fry for 2-3 minutes, then check to see if the undersides are getting browned (usually in patches and along seams and the ends, where the rice paper is thinnest.) When they are, turn so the other side gets the same treatment.

Place on a brown paper bag, so they drain, but don’t get soggy (or have paper toweling stick to them.)

Serve with lettuce leaves and herbs for rolling and nuoc nam for dipping.

Nuoc Mam

1/4 cup fish sauce
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar (optional)
2 lemons worth of lemon juice
1-2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 Tablespoon sugar
1-2 minced chili peppers
Shredded carrot (which my family always puts in — I have no idea why. Maybe to make it look pretty?)

Combine liquids in jar or other container. Stir in sugar until dissolved. Add solid ingredients and stir to integrate. Let sit for a few minutes before distributing to small bowls for each person to dip (and double dip) their lettuce and herb-wrapped spring rolls.

Note: See Sunday Nite Dinner and Wandering Chopsticks for more variations. I used their timing suggestions as a rough guide, though more experienced deep fryers will be able to eyeball for doneness – and then you get to eat the first spring roll for “testing” without worrying about whether it’s done or not.

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