Is there a more perfect food than fried Vietnamese spring rolls? Maybe spicy macaroni is a close contender but for the mouth-shattering combination of salt, sweet, crunch and freshness there is nothing like cha bio (also known as Imperial rolls).
Perhaps you’ve had them in a restaurant pre-pho: Deep fried molten rolls filled with everything from tofu to ground pork and ingeniously wrapped with fresh crunchy lettuce and herbs. Pairing something delicious and deep fried with something fresh and green is one of the great culinary innovations of our time.
Now cha gio is usually listed on a short list of appetizers on the menu at most North-American Vietnamese restaurants. Also likely listed are summer rolls, which are not deep fried, and an egg crepe called ban xeo. But cha gio is the way to go.
I’ve always been intimidated by them. The perfect crispy skin and mystery filling feel out of reach to a simpleton home cook like myself. Without a deep fryer I feel deprived (this isn’t something I’m going to invest in for fear of abuse because I REALLY like french fries).
But on a slushy Saturday (see the snow covered patio table) I found myself deep inside a Youtube wormhole and came across Helen, a Vietnamese chef with very easy-to-follow videos. Inspired by her video for cha gio, I set off to the produce store for a fuck-ton of herbs.
Not totally taken with Helen’s idea of filling (taro, pork, shrimp, wood ear mushroom), I went in a different direction. In another video for vegan spring rolls she suggests using tofu crumbled with your fingers to mimic the consistency of ground meat. Helen is a genius. I’ve always used the soaking method when trying to rehydrate rice paper wraps but she says use a warm wet dish towel. A wet paper towel works even better.
Now this recipe is a bit involved but when all is said and done it’s quite easy. The frying can produce some mile-high splatters as the bubbles in the rice paper pop so use a splatter screen if you have one ( I don’t). It’s best to use a wok, you’ll use less oil.
The dipping sauce I’ve used here isn’t exactly traditional. Instead of a Vietnamese chili or chili paste I’ve used a Japanese crispy garlic chili sauce. Feel feel to go a more traditional route. Woodear mushrooms are traditional in these spring rolls but without an Asian grocery store nearby, you’re likely going to have a hard time finding them. A quarter cup each of dried and fresh shitakes will be just fine. If you want to make this vegan, just replace the pork with 1 1/2 cups of diced mushrooms.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
Makes about 20 small rolls
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon hot water
3/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 limes, juiced (about 4 tablespoons of fresh juice)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
sliced shallots (just a few thin slabs)
For the rolls:
20 large round rice paper wraps (available at most Asian grocery stores)
1/2 lb. lean ground pork
1/3 package of firm store-bought tofu (1/2 cup crumbled)
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup cooked thin rice noodles (soaked in hot water for 10 minutes)
1/4 cup chopped scallions (white parts only)
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh shitake mushrooms
1/4 cup finely chopped dried shitake mushrooms
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 egg white
1/2 cup neutral oil such as grapeseed or canola (you’ll need more if not using a wok)
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
20 small pieces butter lettuce
1/4 cup fresh mint sprigs
1/4 cup fresh basil sprigs (optional)
1/4 cup pickled daikon and carrots (New York Times recipe)
1. Whisk the sugar and hot water together in a small mixing bowl until the sugar dissolves. Add all the other sauce ingredients and let it sit out for at least 30 minutes. Refrigerate for up to a week.
2. Mix the ground pork in a small bowl with the garlic and shallot.
3. Over a large mixing bowl, use your fingers to crumble the tofu into tiny pieces so it resembles ground meat. Add the carrots, dried shitakes, fresh shitakes, chopped scallions, rice noodles, pork mixture, egg white, salt and pepper. Mix with your fingers until completely combined.
4. On a wet cutting board with a bowl of warm water nearby, lay a few wet paper towels down and a few on a plate nearby to store the spring rolls as they wait to fry. Lay a single rice wrapper down on the wet paper towel and dip your fingers into the warm water, splashing about 1/2 teaspoon on the wrapper. Use your fingers to spread the water around until the wrap softens a bit. Spoon about 2 tablespoon of the mixture in the center of the bottom edge and roll it once over tightly. Fold each side over and roll away from you, like you would a burrito. Repeat until you’ve used up all the filling. You should end up with about 20 rolls about three inches wide. It’s helpful to watch this video to get the technique right.
5. It’s easiest if you have someone helping you to start the oil. Set up a large plate or cutting board next to the stove lined with dry paper towels to drain the cooked rolls. Heat 1/2 cup oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Once you see little bubbles, add 2-3 rolls at a time. They may stick together but you can separate them with a spatula or kitchen scissors. Fry for about 3 minutes on each side until golden brown and crispy and drain on the lined plate. Rolls WILL stick to the paper and each other so handle with care.
6. Serve hot with dipping sauce, lettuce, mint and pickled carrots and daikon. To assemble a bite, hold a large piece of lettuce in your hand, add a spring roll, herbs, and pickles and fully encase the roll in the lettuce, dip each bite in the sauce. Dayum that’s good.
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