Fresh Spring Rolls (Goi Cuon in Vietnam or Nime Chao in Cambodia)
Summer calls for light, fresh and healthy snacks and this South East Asian fresh spring roll ticks all the boxes.
The humidity in Hanoi is startling and I valiantly mop my neck with a cotton scarf, hoping to appear the well-adjusted traveller. The instant I lag, I’m jolted awake by the incessant hooting of cyclos and motorbikes swerving in almost perfect harmony, in sync with what can only be described as chaos by my Capetonian sensibilities. We take a turn past the walls of the citadel in the Old Quarter and there it is. My moment of truth.
I extended my recent month-long stay in Vietnam and Cambodia by a further two weeks in Ho Chi Min City, for many reasons. Warm people often scant on English but keen to help with the google-translated phrases on my mobile. The ease with which one can catch a motorcycle or cab from almost anywhere in the city. The remnants of French architecture that make the Louis Vuitton store neigbouring the Opera House in central HCMC, look comfortably at home. It’s not called the Paris of the Orient for nothing. But then there’s that endless chapter called the food of South East Asia.
I ate from every street stall that caught my fancy, on low-lying stools, wiping the communal chopsticks down, saying both silent prayers and vocal hallelujahs as the flavours and textures left me buzzing. There was the evening I sought out bahn xeo (crisp rice flour pancakes) from a roadside stall in District 10, deep fried soft shell crab with tourists from Malaysia, crispy fried tarantulas in a regal villa restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and and caramel clay pot fish at a quan close to our apartment in HCMC.
I took cooking classes in every city I visited, I asked questions about food-culture and customs, about the new wave of child obesity in a country known for healthy food and healthy eating. I shopped at the Thi Nghe market on the edge of District 1 and cooked and cooked, making twists and tweaks. I ate sickly-sweet jackfruit and stinky durian and bunches of herbs, including the offensive one called ‘fish leaf’ knowing that I could never enjoy this abundance, essential to South East Asian cooking, at home. I salted the last meal I made there (a third attempt at pho) with tears, a bitter-sweet acknowledgement that food this simple and perfect can only truly be enjoyed in situ.
I ate balut (fertilized duck egg) on a street close to the old walls in Hanoi, with less fanfare than I expected. It was offered as a pick-me-up, not a venture into machismo or heaven-forbid, ‘adventure eating’. I ate it on the street standing awkwardly; it was prepared delicately with Vietnamese mint, fish sauce and chilli. It was the moment that gave me courage to venture fully present in Vietnam and Cambodia, to question the traditions and try to understand the people and their culture. It was a moment of truth.
These recipes are approximations of some of the street food I enjoyed, using our locally available ingredients. Swap items for more authentic herbs if you can get a supply.
This recipe appeared in City Press iMag 20 October 2013
Fresh Spring Rolls (Goi Cuon or Nime Chao in Cambodia)
Popular in Asia and the West, these fresh rolls are ideal on a hot day, healthy and bursting with fresh flavours. Ideally, use Vietnamese coriander and Thai basil.
6 round rice paper wrappers
1/3 cup mint leaves, washed and dried
1/3 cup coriander leaves, washed and dried
1 cup thin rice noodles, boiled, drained and cooled
1 cup bean sprouts
1 medium carrot, peeled and shredded or cut into thin strips
18 strips of cucumber, cut 10 cm x 0.5 cm
18 prawns, cleaned shelled and steamed
30 chives, approx. 15 cm long
- Keep a bowl of warm water on hand. Place a sheet of rice paper on a flat surface in front of you. Dip your fingers in the warm water, and apply to the rice paper turning it in a circular motion. When the paper softens, you can proceed with the filling.
- Start by adding 5-6 mint leaves and coriander leaves on the edge of the rice paper closest to you. Cover the leaves with 2 tablespoons of the noodles. Top with one heaped tablespoon of bean sprouts.
- Roll the rice paper forward, tightly. Now at three cucumber sticks and some carrots. Roll the rice paper again, making sure you keep it tight but not so taut that it tears. At this point you can tuck the side flaps towards the center.
- Add a row of three prawns, and roll once again. Now add five chives with at least half the length protruding outside the roll.
- Make the final turn and seal well with a little water. Repeat for the remainder of rolls.
- Serve as large rolls or cut in half and serve with dipping sauce of your choice.