I've always thought of goi cuon as fairly mainstream. I mean, it's like pho - ubiquitous. Mention Vietnamese food and most people automatically think of pho and goi cuon. Or even if they've never seen rice paper before, the concept of wrapping something shouldn't be all that unusual. Especially if you're Asian, doesn't everyone have their own variation of eggrolls? So while the filling may be different, the wrapping or rolling of it is more or less the same. Or even if you're not Asian, I think burritos and fajitas are common enough to make the concept of wrapping food, well, rather common.
But I guess for someone who might have never actually encountered banh trang (rice paper) before, it would be a complete mystery. So back to my story about Golden Deli.
While waiting for a spot, I was standing beside a table of three Asian women. One of them asked the waiter how they were supposed to eat the rice paper. He said they were supposed to put a little bit of the meat and salad onto the rice paper and roll. I could tell they still didn't understand the concept because well, because I actually looked over to see what they had on their table.
So picture this: a plate with a six-inch triangle of rice paper on it, with an entire large green lettuce leaf on top of that, one 1-inch piece of nem nuong (Vietnamese grilled pork patty) in the center, and dipping sauce drizzled on top. And because the waiter had left with his not-so-precise-instructions, I decided to be helpful. I said to only take a small piece of lettuce so it would fit inside the rice paper. She tore off a few inches of the lettuce to put back on the plate of herbs, but still left the entire rest of the lettuce leaf on the rice paper. She also gave me a dirty look and said she could figure it out on her own. Oookay. Well, at least the rice paper was already soaked or else she would have been truly lost. As it was, they never did figure it out.
Which made me remember when a Chinese-American friend had tried to make salad rolls from a Cooking Light recipe. She followed the directions exactly and couldn't figure out why she always ended up with mush instead of pliable rice papers. The exact directions? Soak rice paper in cold water for two minutes.
And that memory triggered a long buried one from a decade ago when my American Intervention in Vietnam college class dined out on Argyle, the main street in Chicago's Vietnamese area. (I refuse to call the area "New Chinatown" but that's another rant.) Classmates thought the rice paper was plate lining. I couldn't figure out whether they thought it was merely decorative or if the plates were dirty or what. But I do know they were really surprised when our prof said the rice paper was meant for eating. At least the confusion my classmates had was somewhat understandable. They were all white. I guess I just expected Asians to be a little familiar with other Asian cuisines.
If it seems like I'm emphasizing too many words, well, it's probably because I'm always surprised when people aren't familiar with rice paper. Oh dear, this probably makes me sound snotty but really, where have these people been? It's been more than three decades since the Vietnamese have been in America and contributed to the transformation of the American culinary scene.
Goi cuon literally translated is salad rolls - goi (salad) cuon (roll). I have no idea where summer rolls originated from but it's most likely because the herbs or salad that we use to wrap them up with are usually in season during the warmer months. Or perhaps it was to distinguish from fried egg rolls, which are sometimes called spring rolls.
When you buy goi cuon in stores or restaurants, they usually come already rolled for you. But when eating at home with the family, everyone rolls their own. Perfect for the lazy cook.
Goi Cuon (Vietnamese Salad/Summer Rolls)
1/2 to 1 lb pork, preferably with skin attached, or without, for those concerned about fat content
1/2 to 1 lb jumbo shrimp, plan on two shrimp per roll, or one shrimp per roll if you plan to slice shrimp in half
"salad" can be any kind of lettuce and herbs, preferably mint, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), cilantro, perilla, etc.
package of rice paper
package of rice vermicelli noodles, not to be confused with bean thread vermicelli noodles
Boil pork and shrimp. Boil noodles and allow to drain in colander.
More precise instructions you say? Fill 5-quart stock pot halfway with water and a dash of salt. When water boils, add pork and turn heat down to medium. Allow to simmer until meat is fully cooked, when a knife or fork jabbed into the meat runs clear and not bloody. Take meat out and allow to rest for about 15 minutes, or until pork is cool enough to touch. Slice thinly.
While pork is resting, toss shrimp into pot. It should take only a few minutes for the shrimp to turn pink and be fully cooked. Scoop shrimp out and onto a plate. For optimum juiciness, keep shells on, and allow guests to peel the shells at the table. But shelled shrimp is perfectly acceptable. You can also halve shrimp if they're very large, or you're frugal.
Save the broth, I've got another recipe below.
At the table, you would see a plate of the sliced pork, shrimp, noodles, herbs, and rice paper, along with a bowl of warm water for soaking the rice paper.
Gently slide the rice paper into the water until it is all covered. You want the rice paper to be just wet enough that it will turn pliable in a few minutes, but it should still be stiff when you take it out. When you're assembling your goi cuon, the stiffness will turn pliable. If you literally soak your rice paper, in a few minutes it'll turn to mush and fall apart.
Now here comes the assembly part. I also have video instructions on how to roll rice paper.
Place two shrimp on upper portion of rice paper. As you can tell, the step-by-step photos were from an earlier batch when I only had iceberg lettuce on hand. Notice how the rice paper is wet but still stiff. It'll become pliable in seconds.
Then add noodles, lettuce and herbs, and a slice or two of pork.
Fold in the two sides. You want it to just touch the edges of your filling so that it will be tight enough to hold everything in.
Then fold top edge down, gently pushing in filling as you go along.
It's basically how you would roll an eggroll, but because the rice paper is so thin, more gentleness is needed so the fillings don't push through the wrapper.
Also, don't be too greedy and try to wrap everything in your roll at once because it will become a mess.
A perfectly wrapped spring roll. Placing the shrimp first when you're rolling means the pretty color shows through on the outside of the rice paper. Adding the noodles second helps emphasize the pinkness.
If you want to serve a bunch of these as appetizers, you shouldn't make them more than a few hours before you plan to eat them because the rice paper will turn hard again. Cover with wet paper towels to keep rice paper soft and pliable if you do so. Or wrap them individually in plastic.
Assembling at the table is much more sociable though. And since the preparation is so quick, they're great for lunch or dinner parties.
You can serve these with Nuoc Mam Cham (Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce), hoisin dipping sauce, plum sauce, sweet chili sauce, or as I prefer it, fermented shrimp sauce.
Now, about that broth. You can use it to make Canh Cu Sen (Vietnamese Lotus Root Soup).