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Unbeatable Vietnamese Spring Rolls

The other night, I was sitting at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, one that has been known for years as the best place in town for authentic Spring rolls. While dipping those lovely and fresh morsels made with thin rice noodles, shrimps, pork and vegetables enclosed in an uncooked rice paper into a pungent sauce, I was struck by a simple thought: spring rolls are a perfect camp meal for paddlers! Why’s that? Because they are mostly made of dry ingredients that are light, that travel extremely well and that can be easily reconstituted with a short bath in fresh water. They are healthy, flavorful, easy and quick to make (with a bit of practice) and can be created with a large array of ingredients, to suit everyone’s needs and tastes.

Although the original receipe calls for pork and shrimps, Vietnamese Spring rolls can easily be adapted into vegetarian or meat lovers’ versions. They can also accommodate all sorts of leftovers from your fridge (or cooler).

Not fried

Contrary to Vietnamese imperial rolls or Chinese Spring rolls, the version that I am proposing to you this month is not fried but rather made with uncooked rice paper that looks like very thin crepes and that is served cold, which makes these Spring rolls much better for your waistline. But they are still loaded with flavor and interesting texture. This explains why they are the rage in France and throughout North America’s best restaurants. And because they can be made with all kinds of ingredients they are a challenge to many chefs’ creativity. What’s even more interesting is that if you serve four of them, just like they do in Hanoi or Tonkin, instead of two, they turn into a delicious al fresco complete meal because they contain starches, lean proteins and vegetables. They can also be made in advance and wrapped tightly in plastic to be served for a quick lunch on the beach. In that case, make sure to use ice paks or ice in the cooler to keep them at a safe and cold temperature.

A few helping tricks

When preparing Vietnamese Spring rolls, keep a few simple, helpful tips in mind:

  1. The most important thing is to soak the rice paper in warm water just long enough for it to become easily foldable; not to the point where it will easily tear. 20 to 30 seconds should do the trick. At this point, a few areas will still be a bit stiff but the thin paper can easily hold its shape without tearing because it’s not too soft. Once the paper is ready, place it on a wet cloth, one at a time. Work quickly.
  2. The second most important thing to bear in mind is to fold the rolls properly to avoid spilling the filling. To achieve that, sprinkle the filling onto the first lower third of the rice paper, leaving one inch on each side to fold the extremities and keep the ingredients inside the Spring roll. Roll tightly once, then fold the edges and finish rolling. It’s the same technique as for wraps.
  3. If you don’t serve the Spring rolls immediately, wrap them tightly in plastic to prevent the rice paper from drying. Don’t forget the dipping sauce!
  4. Once you are comfortable with the rolling, have fun, experiment with any combination of vegetables, meat, fish and seafood (and, why not even fruit) to create your own version of the classic Vietnamese Spring roll.

Recipes for Paddlers

Classic Vietnamese Spring rolls (8 rolls; 2 person-meal; 4 person-appetizer)

    Dipping Sauce
  • 8 tbsp lime juice
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp fermented fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp fresh cilantro* *like any fresh herb, cilantro travels well for one week wrapped in a few wet paper towels placed in a plastic bag.
  • 2 tsp rice vinegar
  • Pinch dry chili flakes

Mix all ingredients together and set aside, keeping one tbsp to marinate the vegetables. The rest will be served with the Spring rolls.

    Spring rolls
  • 8 round rice paper sheets (9 inches in diameter each)
  • Half a small package of extra-thin rice noodles (vermicelli)
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1/2 cup grated carrots
  • 1 small Napa cabbage, shredded
  • 8 green onions
  • 1-4 oz can shrimps, rinsed and drained

Mix grated carrots, shredded napa cabbage and green onions with 1 tablespoon of the dipping sauce. Let stand. In the meantime, place rice noodles in a bowl and cover with slightly salted boiling water. Let stand 5 minutes, than remove the noodles and set aside. Keep the hot water. Add 1 rice paper sheet at a time in the water and let stand for about 20 seconds, until it softens but still holds its shape. Remove from water and place on a wet cloth. Work quickly. Divide the rice noodles into 8 portions. Place one portion on the lower third of the rice paper. Add some marinated vegetables, cilantro and fresh mint, finish with some shrimps. Roll tightly, as explained above. Repeat the operation until the 8 Spring rolls are completed. Serve with the dipping sauce.

Note: depending of the length of your paddling trip, you can add cucumber, sautéed mushrooms, mung beans to the list of vegetables. Those veggies won’t keep for more than 48 hours.

Different variations on the Vietnamese Spring roll theme

Salmon Spring rolls
Replace the shrimps with a large can of salmon, the Napa cabbage with Bibb lettuce and one grated cucumber. Add one fresh mango, sliced thinly. For the dipping sauce, add one tbsp fresh ginger and one clove of garlic, crushed. Slice the water melon into slices 2 inches thick. Than slice again to form pieces of 2 square inches. Remove a bit of each water melon flesh to form a small cavity into each cube. In a small bowl, mix the remaining ingredients together. Stuff each cavity with the tuna-mayonnaise mixture. Serve immediately. You can also replace the mayonnaise with some pesto, which travels easily for trips longer than 2 days.

Vegetarian Spring rolls Replace the shrimps with 8 oz of extra-firm silken tofu marinated 30 minutes in ginger, garlic, soy sauce and lemon juice. Add one red bell pepper thinly sliced lengthwise, dry shitake mushrooms soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and sliced thinly lengthwise with some fresh sprouts instead of mung beans.

Luxurious lobster or crab Spring rolls Replace the shrimps with 8oz of canned lobster or crab meat. Replace the shredded carrots and Napa cabbage with slices of avocado, cucumber and peaches or mango and remove the mung beans.

Dessert Spring rolls Replace the ingredients of the first recipe with the followings: melted chocolate, thin slices of apples and pears sprinkled with lemon juice, then coated in maple sugar, pecan nuts, dried cranberries. Roll tightly.

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