Greatest Wrapper of All Time
Cha gio, the Vietnamese answer to the Chinese spring roll, are a heck of a lot more than a crispy wrapper around a bit of filling. The complex mix of tender pork, delicate shrimp and crab, and savory vegetables and spices form an addictive amalgamation that trumps the few shreds of cabbage and roast pork in a traditional spring roll. Combine this roll with the delicious crunch of herbs and lettuce, and finish the whole thing off with a dunk into some sweet and salty nuoc mam, and you are in for a treat.
I always order cha gio with all the fixings at Vietnamese restaurants, and feel that the presentation lends an air of luxury to the dish. And yet, when I was young, our Vietnamese friends would make the rolls in large quantities and share with anyone deserving of a little treat – cha gio were unpretentious and meant to be shared. I feel the same way about feijoada completa (the Brazilian national dish of black beans, rice, and assorted condiments) – in a restaurant, the many dishes of food that make up the meal add an element of grandeur to the meal, when in actuality, feijoada is the people’s food at its best. Just good, honest cooking meant to be shared with friends and family.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that in making cha gio at home, you’re doing yourself such a lovely service. The process isn’t complicated or fussy, but the resulting taste is complex and rich – one of those food moments that lends itself to memories.
If you have vegetarian and vegan friends in the mix, try out the recipe for Summer Rolls and make both at the same time. The condiments are all the same, and you’ll only have to go shopping once for two distinct tastes.
Also, half the fun comes from the process of rolling the cha gio up in a bundle of toppings – I enjoy mine with a leaf of lettuce, a couple slivers of pickled daikon and carrot, and a sprig or two of cilantro and mint. Grace your lettuce roll with a quick dunk into some nuoc mam (or nuoc cham) – a zesty combination of fish sauce, vinegar, lime juice, sugar and water. I add a dollop of chili sauce to mine as well, and further flavor the mix with a smash of garlic. Goodness.
I’ll leave you with a quote from my hubby, by way of the Chappelle Show’s “Making the Band” – “If I had to name the best vegetables of all time, I’d have to say…daikon, daikon, daikon, daikon, and daikon.” I’m pretty sure this cha gio recipe will make you spit hot fire.
Cha Gio (Vietnamese Crispy Spring Rolls)
1 3/4 lb. of ground pork
12 oz. raw shrimp, minced
1/4 c. of crab meat, picked of shells
2 shallots, minced
2 carrots, finely chopped
8 oz. straw mushrooms, chopped
2 cl. of garlic, minced
3 tbs. of fish sauce
1 egg, scrambled
3 tsp. of white pepper
3 tsp. of black pepper
1 tbs. of soy sauce
1 tsp of sesame oil
4 oz. of bean thread noodles, chopped
2 tbs. of corn starch
rice paper wrappers (called banh trang)
Garnish: pickled daikon and carrot slices (recipe from NY Times), green leaf lettuce, nuoc mam, mint sprigs, cilantro sprigs
Begin by mixing the following ingredients in a large bowl: pork, shrimp, crab, shallots, carrots, straw mushrooms, garlic, fish sauce, egg, white pepper, black pepper, soy, sesame oil, bean thread noodles and corn starch. Stir until well mixed.
A note on the straw mushrooms – if you can’t find them in the Asian foods aisle with the canned veggies, you can substitute finely chopped shitake mushrooms. If you want to go super authentic, reconstitute some dried wood ear mushrooms (sometimes called black fungus – ominously named, I know) and use them instead. The wood ear mushrooms are hella good, so if you see them at the store, give them a buy and a try.
Also, the bean thread noodles (or thin rice noodles) can be found at most Asian markets (and many times at your regular grocery store). They need to be reconstituted in boiling water, drained, and roughly chopped. If you can’t find them, just leave them out.
Lastly, the rice paper wrappers are an essential for this recipe – if you can’t get them from your local Asian market, you can also order them (and many of the ingredients on this list) from Amazon. I was able to snag the wrappers and the bean thread noodles for a song. If you replace chinese spring roll wrappers or egg roll wrappers, it won’t be the same. Not to say that it won’t be delicious – just not the same.
Back to the rolls – with filling mixed, set up an assembly station. Fill a large pie plate (that will hold one of your rice paper wrappers completely flat) with warm water. Set a cutting board next to that, and a cookie sheet or tray next to the cutting board. Begin by slipping a rice paper wrapper into the water and let it sit until it becomes a bit pliant but not soft, about 30 seconds. Always air the side of caution and make sure that your wrappers don’t become too soft or they will rip. Pull the wrapper out and place on the cutting board. Plop a portion of filling onto the wrapper and form into a cigar shape. Fold the left and right side of the wrapper towards the middle of the roll, and then roll the bottom up to the top, like a burrito. Place the roll onto the cookie sheet and let it hang out while you roll up the rest of the filling. Make sure that you don’t let the rolls touch each other or they will stick together.
Fry the rolls in hot vegetable oil in batches (3-5 minutes) and drain on paper towels. Because you are dealing with raw pork, keep in mind that if you use large wrappers, you’ll need to cook your rolls for longer. Cut one of your rolls in half to make sure that they are cooked all the way through and adjust your cooking time accordingly.
Serve with lettuce, herbs, pickled daikon and carrots and nuoc mam.
1/4 c. of fish sauce
1/4 c. of water
1/8 c. of rice wine vinegar
juice of one lime
2 tsp. of sugar
1 clove of garlic, smashed
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Use as a tasty bath for crispy cha gio.