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summer rolls
Photo: henks on Flickr

It was a sweaty, sunny August afternoon, the type of day that demands you to fill a cooler with cold beer and fire up the grill. My graphic designer wife had other designs. “I want Vietnamese summer rolls,” she commanded, as imperiously as a mad queen demanding her servants draw her a bath of children’s blood.

“Baby,” I said, “how about we BBQ instead?” I motioned outside our Brooklyn apartment, where our $25 grill was locked to our front stoop. “It’s too hot,” she said, fanning her face with a limp hand. “I want to eat something cool.”

For a millisecond I fantasized about crashing my clenched fist into the table and screaming, “Daddy wants his hot coals!” But in love, you must only fight battles that you really want to win. And summer rolls did sound pretty good. Known as gỏi cuốn (which translates to “salad roll”), the summer roll is a translucent log of rice paper tightly wrapped with shrimp, mint, rice vermicelli, pork, bean sprouts, scallions — the chef’s imagination is the only limit. They’re a lighter, fresher alternative to deep-fried spring rolls, which my doctor would rather I not eat due to my elevated cholesterol level.

I’ve never made summer rolls. Like dumplings and gnocchi, they’re one of those foodstuffs that require hours — or at least determination — to replicate. It’s easier to fork over a few bucks than spend an evening crimping and folding. But perhaps this old dog could learn a few tricks. I headed to Chinatown and purchased a packet of rice paper wrappers, which are found at any decently stocked Asian supermarket. Alternately, you can buy them online. For fillings I opted for shitake mushrooms, chives, jasmine rice, carrots and pressed tofu — dense, meaty bean curd so good, you’ll sing a different tune on soybeans.

Back home, I boiled the rice, chopped the ingredients into matchsticks and, for a dipping sauce, mixed equal parts of sweet, rich hoisin and spicy Sriracha. I filled a shallow pan with water, submerged a circular rice paper sheet for several seconds and laid it on a cutting board. The rice paper was slightly tacky, which helped the vegetables, rice and tofu cling to the wrapper. Like making a burrito, I tucked the filling inside an apron of wrapper, folded over the sides and rolled everything into a tight, fat cigar. Start to finish, the roll took about 30 seconds. Within half an hour, the package of rice paper was empty, and 30 or 40 completed gỏi cuốn were laid out before me like Havana’s finest cigars in a humidor.

“Isn’t this better than BBQ?” my wife asked, dipping a roll into the spicy hoisin and taking a giant bite.

“They’re good,” I said, mimicking her dipping routine, “but don’t you go talking bad about BBQ.” That, dear readers, is something worth battling over.


Have you ever made gỏi cuốn? Tell us in the comments.