It’s time for me to present to you one of the traditional foods of Vietnamese culture: crispy rolls. It is not to be confounded with fresh spring rolls, the unfried ones. The English translation hasn’t done these two dishes justice, since they are as different as day and night: different in ingredients, the way of cooking and even the sauces to eat them with. I will eventually get to fresh spring rolls “goi cuon” but today I will talk about crispy rolls.
I call crispy rolls the traditional food of Vietnam because from North to Center to South, all cuisines have them. Although they’re named differently (“Nem” in the North, “Cha Ram” in the Center, and “Cha Gio” in the South) and people may add additional ingredients here and there, the main ingredients remain the same. Furthermore, all big celebrations, memorial days are never complete without crispy rolls. This dish is popular to the extent that some Vietnamese claim if you don’t know how to make crispy rolls, you don’t know how to cook. So what is so special about this traditional dish that it becomes the standard for Vietnamese cooking?
I can’t pinpoint the exact time Vietnamese started making crispy spring rolls. The history of the country shows it was first a small land in the North and extended to the South through an immigration process. And since crispy rolls are presented everywhere in the country, it’s just logical to say the recipe derived from the North. Some may say our crispy rolls originated from Chinese spring rolls. But Vietnamese crispy spring rolls are different from the Chinese spring rolls/egg rolls. Chinese spring rolls are made with flour/starch wrappers and sautée vegetables, usually cabbage, to celebrate spring and that’s why, when the Brits took govern of Hongkong in the XIX century, they called these spring rolls or egg rolls. The Vietnamese rolls however are made with thin rice sheets and uncooked vegetables until the frying process, not to mention the sauce to eat them with is purely Vietnamese. And the rolls are not just to celebrate spring, they’re for celebrations in general. When the Brits saw these two kinds of rolls with seemingly similar wrappers, they called them both spring rolls. But by now we know better. So from now on in this article I will call the Vietnamese rolls “Nem” when it is clear they’re not just another kind of “spring rolls”.
The main ingredients of Nem are minced meat, carrot, onion, vermicelli, wood ear mushrooms and rice sheets. The Northern version also has mung bean sprouts and eggs, the Southern version: sweet potatoes. Today I’m going to show you the simplest version of Nem using only the main ingredients. Let’s begin!
- 200 gr of pork, shoulder part with a bit of fat
- 1 medium carrot
- 25 gr of Vietnamese vermicelli/ glass noodles
- 2 to 3 wood ear mushrooms
- 1 onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 shallot
- Salt, pepper
For the sauce:
- Fish sauce
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 chili pepper
- Lemon juice
- A bit of water
My rice sheets have a diameter of 18 cm and I made around 20 rolls with this amount of ingredients.
First we need to prepare the filling.
Submerge the vermicelli in warm water to soften it because we will cut it short. After 15 minutes, the vermicelli turns soft so use a knife or scissors to cut it into pieces of 3 cm/1 inch long.
Do the same and submerge the wood ear mushrooms in warm water for about 10 to 15 minutes. When they are soft and regain their original shapes, cut them into thin slices then mince.
For the pork, ground the part where the meat has a bit of fat. This fat will help keeping our filling moist when the rolls are fried.
Grate the carrot into thin slices. Dice the onion. Mince the garlic and shallot, they’re to make our filling more fragrant.
Put all the ingredients that we prepared (vermicelli, grounded pork, carrot, wood ear mushrooms, onion, garlic and shallot) into a big bowl and then season with salt and grounded pepper. I use the black pepper here. And then comes a very important step: mixing. Use your hand to mix everything well, really well. You should make sure that there is no lump of meat or vegetables sticking together so that when the roll is cooked and you take a bite out of it, you can taste everything from carrot to vermicelli to mushroom and onion.
I mentioned earlier that for the Northern version, people add mung bean sprouts and eggs to the filling. Mung bean sprouts are meant to add water and make the filling moist, not dry. And because mung bean sprouts may make the filling watery, they add eggs for everything to stick together. The purpose of using sweet potatoes in Southern version is the same, to stick the filling together, and also to add a natural sweetness and creamy texture to the rolls. I myself find the main ingredients stick together well without having to use eggs or sweet potatoes, thanks to the grounded meat; and the fat in the meat keep the filling sufficiently moist so I decided to stick to the main ingredients. But you’re welcome to try other versions for the rolls. Using sweet potatoes to substitute meat is also a great way to make vegan Nem, the rolls are delicious!
And now we roll…the filling.
Prepare a big bowl of water enough to submerge a whole rice sheet or at least a half of it so we can turn it around and wet the other half. We can’t roll the filling in rice sheets when they're in their dry state. They must be softened by water first. The water should be cold or warm? It depends on the thickness of the rice sheets. If they’re thick, you should use warm water to speed up the softening process.
You can use a plate as a base for rolling. I like to use my wooden cutting board for this because they also absorb excess water from wet rice sheets. Now let’s start! Quickly dip a rice sheet in the bowl of water and put it on the plate/cutting board. Use a tablespoon to scoop a small amount of the filling and place it at the end of the wet sheet, as showed in the photos below.
Span the filling evenly and start rolling from the side that is closer to the filling to the other side, remember to close the two “edges”. Do the same for the other sheets until you ran out of fillings. From time to time use a napkin to wipe the excess water on the plate/cutting board away. It wouldn't do if your rolls are squishy with water, they will break.
If you make a lot of Nem and couldn’t eat them all, you can store them in the freezer in their unfried state. You will never run out of Nem this way. When you want to eat them, just defroze them and fry them like you would normally fry the rolls.
It’s time to fry the rolls. Nem must be deep-fried, there’s no other way to cook them. They’re originated from the North and as I said in another article, Northerners love deep-fried food.
In a small pan, put in a generous amount of vegetable oil, enough to submerge each roll, and put it on medium heat. The oil should not be too hot. If it is, the rice sheets will be burned before the filling can be cooked. And if the oil is not hot enough, the rolls become a squishy pale lump. You can test if the oil is ready by putting a wooden chopstick in the oil, when you see bubbles appear rapidly around the chopstick, it’s time to fry the rolls.
Lightly put in the rolls one by one in the hot oil pan. You will notice the rice wrappers become thicker and harder. Roll the rolls around for them to cook evenly. If they stick together at this point, do not worry and just let them cook until the wrappers harden. By then you can separate the rolls without breaking the wrappers. It takes about 3 minutes to cook each roll. When the rolls are cooked, take them out and put them on paper towel. Do the same for the whole batch.
And now comes the secret for crispy Nem: we deep fry them a second time. When you fry the rolls the first time, it is to slow cook the filling without breaking the wrapper. When you fry the rolls for the second time, everything is cooked so this step is all about making the wrappers as crispy as possible and giving them a golden color. This step won’t take much time, just about 2 minutes. You will know if the rolls are done when you touch them with your chopsticks: they feel hard as rocks. But don’t worry, that means they’re crispy.
For the fish sauce, you can follow the recipe here without adding the pickles.
Serve Nem when they’re still warm with salad and herbs.
A dish of Nem is deemed successful if the rolls are crispy not burned, the rice wrappers still intact not broke and the rolls are similar in size and shape. The complexity of Nem made it an aristocratic dish long ago then gradually it became a common dish served in ceremonial occasions to offer love and respect for our ancestral origin. A plate of Nem is not just another exotic dish, it’s a happy celebration of Vietnamese culture.
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!