During the summer, whether I’m enjoying the dry heat in California or stepping out into a moist blanket in Boston, I always crave one dish: gỏi cuốn, fresh spring rolls made of pork, shrimp, fresh herbs, crunchy vegetables, and vermicelli, all wrapped up in bánh tráng, or rice paper.
These rolls, which you can find on the appetizer menu in most Vietnamese restaurants, have been around for years, and in Vietnam they are fresher than you can imagine—even the rice paper is made from scratch. In the U.S., they're one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes you can find (other than pho), and with good reason. In the hotter seasons especially, there’s something irresistible about their freshness. But even if you aren’t making the rice paper from scratch, you can still achieve a refreshing, cooling roll at home.
The beautiful thing about Vietnamese spring rolls is that everyone can make these according to their own preference—the customizations are endless and tantalizing, and every restaurant has its own rendition. Include pork, shrimp, or prawns and different types of vegetable and herbs; leave the rolls open on the ends or seal them shut; and serve them with various dipping sauces. Prawns are the traditional filling, but here I use shrimp. Some people omit the pork for a lighter roll; some add mung bean sprouts for some extra crunch. I’ve also had spring rolls with shredded mango or shiso leaves.
In this particular version, In this version, I use thinly sliced lean pork, shrimp, vermicelli, carrot, cucumber, mint, Thai basil, cilantro, and garlic chives. I poached the shrimp with lemongrass to add some extra flavor, but that is completely optional. (I tasted lemongrass-poached shrimp at a restaurant a while back and the subtle aroma stuck in my mind; I thought it'd add an interesting savory note to balance the herbs in this roll.)
You may choose to omit some of these ingredients, but I urge you to include Thai basil if possible: I’m not going to claim to be an authority on Vietnamese food, but I do know that the distinctive taste of Thai basil gives the spring rolls a stamp of authenticity. You should be able to find Thai basil in most Asian supermarkets, but if you can’t, omit basil altogether and use additional cilantro, mint, or shiso in its place.
The rolling method varies as well: Sometimes the rolls are are open-ended, with garlic chives poking out; sometimes only one end is left open; and sometimes both ends are closed, as shown here.
There are two things that will ensure a successful spring roll: mis en place and properly moist rice paper. Prep all of the ingredients before hand so that you have everything at the ready for assembling the spring rolls.
Once you’ve prepped all of your filling ingredients, it’s just a matter of assembling the spring rolls. I’d say the part that takes the longest isn’t the actual assembly but prepping the ingredients. The rice paper is dipped in warm water, but it is important to only dip until the paper starts to become pliable but is not yet super soft. I let the rice paper soak for about 10 to 15 seconds, until it still has some structure but can be bent, before laying it on my rolling platform (a wooden cutting board). The water will continue to soak through the rice paper as you assemble the roll and it should become soft at the right consistency by the time you’ve finished rolling.
If you’re serving these immediately, you can cover the finished rolls with a slightly damp kitchen towel. If you want to store them for a longer period, stack layers of rolls, separated with plastic wrap, on a plate, cover the whole plate with plastic wrap, and keep refrigerated. —Betty
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour
- Serves 4
pork (loin, shoulder, and/or belly)
shrimp, peeled and deveined
stalks lemongrass, crushed (optional)
package (12 ounces) 8 1/2-inch rice paper wrappers
leaves lettuce, iceberg or romaine, torn in half
carrots cut into matchsticks
cucumbers cut into matchsticks
Fresh Thai basil
- Cook the pork: In a medium pot, add pork, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Add enough water so that the pork is submerged. Bring water to a boil and then lower heat to medium. Boil for 30 minutes, until the pork floats and a chopstick inserted into the meat does not run pink. Let cool, then remove the meat and slice it into very thin slices. Reserve some of the broth to make dipping sauce: https://food52.com/recipes/37472-vietnamese-spring-rolls-dipping-sauces.
- Cook the shrimp: Add a pinch of salt and the lemongrass to a large pot filled with water. Add the shrimp and return the water to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until shrimp is no longer translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the shrimp and poaching liquid cool together to room temperature.
- Cook the vermicelli according to directions on the package. I added vermicelli to boiling water and cooked for 4 to 5 minutes, until soft but al dente. Rinse in cold water to stop the cooking and drain thoroughly.
- Fill a large shallow plate with warm water. Dip one sheet of rice paper into the warm water and let it soak until it starts to become bendable but still has a structure, 10 to 15 seconds. Transfer to your rolling surface. At the bottom third of the rice paper, lay down a torn leaf of lettuce. Top with cucumber and carrot. Top with slices of pork and arrange some vermicelli over top. Top with torn herbs and garlic chives. Place 3 or 4 shrimp halves across the center of the rice paper. Begin rolling, tucking the sides in as you roll. Transfer roll to a platter and repeat until you've used up all of the ingredients.