Vietnamese Spring Roll Recipes – a Series of Fresh and Fried Favourites
These Vietnamese spring roll recipes have been a long time coming. We fell in love with Vietnamese food over thirty years ago when we became addicted to fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. We thought it time we shared some of our favourite spring roll recipes – fresh and fried, old and new, from north to south Vietnam.
Fragrant of the most mouth-tingling of herbs, mint and basil; crunchy from crispy sprouts and lettuce; sweet and savoury from our favourite combo of shrimp and pork; and served cool (perfect for a sultry summer’s evening) it was impossible not to become smitten with this perfectly-formed snack wrapped in rice paper when we first sampled them in Sydney several decades ago: the fresh Vietnamese spring rolls called goi cuon, or, more correctly, gỏi cuốn.
When Terence and I fell in love with goi cuon we fell in love with all fresh Vietnamese spring rolls and Vietnamese cuisine itself. I fell in love with them all over again on the recent Vietnam culinary tour I hosted. A bite into a fresh spring roll is a bit of a Proustian moment for me. It takes me back to a period several decades ago in inner-city Sydney when we were introduced to Southeast Asian cuisines by my intrepid young uncle who had travelled all over Asia.
As I’m busy planning our next Vietnam foodie trip, I’m already finding myself dreaming of rolling salad and noodles into rice paper wrappings on tiny plastic stools again, and looking for any excuse to make them now that I’m back home in Siem Reap. Here it is…
Vietnamese Spring Roll Recipes – a Series of Fresh and Fried Favourites
Terence and I have my uncle Sandy to thank for introducing us to Vietnamese food three decades ago. It was soon after I got into uni and moved back to my hometown Sydney from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where I’d left my parents, sister and Terence. I lived with my maths school teacher uncle in his small flat on a leafy street in the historic inner-west suburb of Glebe.
Several nights a week after lectures, I’d join Sandy and his girlfriend, teacher mates, and his brother, my uncle Jerry, for games of pool and beers at the local pubs. After, we’d all head out for cheap eats at one of the countless ‘ethnic’ eateries in the neighbourhood. When Terence joined me in Sydney six months later and we moved into a terrace-house basement flat in Balmain together, we continued the ritual with my uncles and their friends.
In those days, we never called to book a restaurant. It was before mobile phones. So we’d just wander along Glebe Point Road or head down to George Street in the Haymarket-Chinatown area and slip into some crowded, noisy Asian eatery my uncle knew, hoping to get a table. If we couldn’t, we’d put a name down and head to the nearest pub for more beers and pool.
Our favourite restaurant at the time was Lien’s, a simple, family-owned place with a long narrow dining room decorated in pink hues of musk and cooked salmon. It wasn’t far from our beloved old Valhalla, where we’d go to watch European art-house cinema and cult classics. Lien’s was popular with local residents, especially academics and students from the nearby universities. They served Vietnamese, Thai and Malaysian and I can’t tell you why they offered all three cuisines, as we didn’t question such things back then. The owners were Vietnamese-Australians and they appeared to have some Malaysian- and Thai-Aussie staff, so we knew we were in safe hands.
In fact, the food we ate at Lien’s wasn’t all that different to the food we’d discover years later living and travelling in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia – even the stir-fry chicken that someone in every group always suggested tasted like cat, we’d later learn was Cantonese-influenced. And now that I know so much more about those cuisines, and their historic roots and connections, it actually makes sense. As I know now, ‘Lien’ is a Vietnamese name of Chinese origin that means ‘lotus’.
We all thought the food at Lien’s was great. We’d order a heap of dishes – it didn’t matter which menu they came from – and they’d go in the middle of the table and we’d share them family-style, as they were intended to be eaten. Everyone knew how to use chopsticks. My mother, who had lived and worked in Japan when she was young, taught me years ago as we used to go out for Chinese at least once a week.
We all had our favourite dishes at Lien’s, but among an array of appetisers that would also include satay sticks, there were always Vietnamese fresh spring rolls. When there was a big group, we’d order large portions of both the gỏi cuốn and bi cuon (bì cuốn) made with shredded pork, no shrimp, rice vermicelli noodles, sliced cucumber, mint and basil, and wrapped in rice paper.
Years later when Terence and I were earning more money and dining out at more sophisticated Vietnamese restaurants than Lien’s, like Miss Saigon in Balmain, we still started our meal with fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. Light and healthy, the fresh aromatic wraps cleansed the palate and didn’t fill us up too much so we still had plenty of room for a few more substantial dishes that we’d order as mains.
When Terence and I began cooking Vietnamese food at home, I was always tasked with making the spring rolls because he thought I was better at rolling. I have my Russian babouskha and my mum to thank for my dumpling making skills and I think if you can make good dumplings you can make good spring rolls.
Whenever Terence and I test out Vietnamese cooking classes together, we generally share one place so we can take turns making notes and taking photos, and he always has me take over when it comes to making Vietnamese spring rolls.
The participants on the recent Vietnam culinary tour I hosted got to make a lot of Vietnamese spring roll recipes. I think spring rolls often get included in cooking classes because they’re so easy to make once you get the hang of the portion control and rolling. Guests on our recent Halong Bay cruise were making them tipsy during happy hour.
Also, the ingredients are readily available or easily substituted and Vietnamese spring rolls are just so versatile – you can serve them for lunch or dinner, as picnic stuffers or finger food, for a casual meal, or a fancy dinner party.
Around ten days into our 22-day trip my participants admitted to being a bit over the old Vietnamese spring rolls – they were bored with both rolling them and eating them. I have to admit that I was a tad disappointed. After thirty years of Vietnamese spring roll consumption, I’ll always have room for more.
I love that there are different Vietnamese spring roll recipes in every region of Vietnam and that these days the Vietnamese are getting creative with them. In Saigon a few weeks ago, we had fresh spring rolls with avocado, as well as roast duck, and another that was akin to a sushi roll.
And that’s why over the next weeks, I’m going to bring you some of my favourite Vietnamese spring roll recipes, starting now, with the fresh rice noodle roll Hanoi-style phở cuốn.
Vietnamese Street Food by Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl – the former owners of Hanoi Cooking Centre and authors of several Vietnam cookbooks have ten Vietnamese spring roll recipes in this book, which is one of our favourites. When we last met Tracey she was talking of writing a book 100% dedicated to spring rolls. Fingers crossed.
The Songs of Sapa, Stories and Recipes from Vietnam by Luke Nguyen – the Aussie-Vietnamese chef who splits his time between Sydney and Saigon and owns the excellent GRAIN Cooking Studio has half a dozen different Vietnamese spring roll recipes in this beautiful book that charts his discovery of dishes during his travels through Vietnam.
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