Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls

Ees and I were both quite excited about D’s pot luck. I jumped at the idea of us joining forces and cooking a storm to make our ‘pot’. We were going to be the indomitable cooking duo. We originally planned to tackle sushi, but fear of the unfathomable depths of Japanese cooking made us take a more conservative route. So we decided to go with Vietnamese rice paper rolls. That is a favourite dish amongst most of my friends and colleagues. And knowing who’s going to the gathering, we were pretty sure contributions would be very heavy on meat and light on greens. So this light and refreshing appetiser would hopefully balance the other courses.

We spent the night before looking at online recipes and you tube videos on how to roll it. A vegan colleague of mine also gave me tips on how to make them. She says you can basically put anything in them, leftovers even. And use hoi sin for the sauce.

You might find it odd that I wouldn’t know how to make this dish, but back in Singapore, we don’t have many Vietnamese eateries. I only began discovering this refreshing cuisine when I started living in Australia. I chomped on my first rice paper roll in London. Cousin Dawn had meticulously prepared some and I was mystified by the pale, raw-looking, green rolls. My taste buds drew a “?” then. They tasted weird. I was young, maybe. With an unadventurous palate. But since then I’ve grown to love eating these rolls and would unhesitantly order a plate whenever I’m dining Vietnamese.

So Ees and I decided to kinda wing it. We met for brunch at Sapa Hills in Footscray and ordered rice paper rolls with prawn. We started inspecting, nibbling, tasting the commercial version of the dish. The ingredients were simple: tiger prawn, ‘bun’ vermicelli, lettuce, a few vietnamese herbs, tightly wrapped. Can’t be that hard. I was more inquisitive about the sauce though. The base is hoi sin, we were sure, but the sauce was lighter in colour, more watery, less sweet and more tangy than what’s in your average jar of hoi sin. And it was topped with strips of pickled carrots, vinegared chillies and crushed peanuts.

Rice Paper Roll with Prawn @Sapa Hills (Footscray)
Sauce that went with it.

We spent a chaotic hour in Little Saigon Market searching for ingredients. Our biggest confusion was finding the Bun (rice vermicelli). It’s obvious now that we’re not seasoned cooks, we didn’t even know for sure what rice vermicelli to get! The packages were labelled in Chinese & Vietnamese. We asked ourselves, isn’t “bun” the same thing as “bee hoon” back home?? There was also confusion about the herbs… haha! Fortunately, we bumped into Billy, author of Half-Eaten. Billy was familiar with the herbs & ingredients and we were promptly led in the correct direction. A Vietnamese woman also helped us. She looked into our shopping basket, surmised that we were clearly attempting rice paper rolls, and pointed out which lettuce to buy. I sniffed the leaf, and stowed it into memory.

A lovely array of herbs & greens.

So we reached home & embarked on our project. I think what I like about this dish is the huge amount of herbs and curious greens that go into it. I love vegetables. And best thing is, these are fresh! I’m not 100% certain what the names are but I think it’s, from left to right:

coriander, iceberg lettuce, purple mint, garlic chives, vietnamese mint, fish mint?

The prawns were soaked in sugar water (mum says it keeps the colour vibrant and the flesh crunchy). They were then steamed in my wok for 5 minutes, peeled, deveined and halved.

The other ingredients didn’t need much preparation. The greens were washed and leaves separated. Tofu cut into small slices. Vermicelli soaked in hot water for a few minutes and drained. And we were ready to start!

We deliberated for awhile whether the tofu should be pan fried with some marinade of sorts to have more flavour, but decided against it. We think rice paper rolls taste so refreshing because of its subtle flavours covered in a light bed of herbs supported by a tasty sauce.

Ees was my hand model. And I took the pictures. Getting everything together was easy, and quite fun actually. We dipped the rice paper into tepid water & placed it on the table. And then started arranging the ingredients in the centre. Prawn/tofu > herbs > lettuce > vermicelli > chives for garnish at the edge. And let the folding begin!

All in all, I would say it has been a very fun enterprise. The garlic chives peeking out of the roll were nothing more than an aesthetic flourish. But they somehow made the rolls look more exciting and appetising. I lightly brushed the outsides of the rolls with olive oil so that they would not stick together. I really like the contrast of colours between the bright orange of prawn against a green bed of fresh foliage.

We tasted a few, furrowed our brows, and decided that fish mint (originally thought they were perilla leaves) had a weird seafoody aftertaste & omitted that herb early on. In retrospect, I think a small amount of fresh mint would go very well in this dish as well. I also think we could’ve rolled the paper over the ingredients more tightly. It was all very homemade. Some were long, some were fat, some were broken, and some had the prawns facing the wrong way. But it was still very fun!

Our final flourish was the sauce. And in this arena, I think we weren’t as successful. The rolls themselves were easy to be good at. All you needed were the fresh ingredients to speak for themselves. But I couldn’t re-enact the sauce in Sapa Hills and other Vietnamese eateries.

I tried added soy sauce and sesame oil like Bill Granger suggested. I tried watering it down with water. I even tried squeezing some lemon juice in. And even resorted to adding peanut butter!! But our sauce remained too thick and sweet for my liking. Next time I’ll experiment with other brands of hoi sin, and maybe play with fish sauce, bean paste, or lime perhaps?