Recently, I’ve had the occasion to enjoy Vietnamese spring rolls again. Crisp raw vegetables. Possibly cooked shrimp. Also there’s the cilantro and mint. Cilantro can be a divisive herb, but I have voted and the answer is yes. It’s difficult to even imagine not liking it. The lemony burst of freshness. But the impossibly thin wrapper on a Vietnamese spring roll is what truly fascinates me.
Vietnamese spring rolls are wrapped in the thinnest, the most transparent of materials, rice paper. This wrapper is nothing like the crispy, McDonald apple pie-ish covering you find on most mainstream Chinese restaurant menus. Vietnamese spring rolls wrappers are much more like the top layer of skin—deceptively fragile in appearance, yet stretchy.
The Vietnamese spring roll holds inside springy rice noodles, thinly sliced vegetables which may include pea pods, carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, various lettuce varieties, the herbs, and sometimes cooked shrimp. After this experience other spring rolls will begin to appear boorish, like they’re trying too hard to fit in in America.
Vietnamese spring rolls are served cold. Dipped in a peanut sauce.
I once made one at the library to celebrate the author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, Bich Minh Nguyen. She was not there. But we rolled spring rolls to enter her book of stories that told of being Vietnamese, becoming American, then Vietnamese again, then American . . .
Some local women seemed to have been invited to show us how to prepare the rolls. Their expressions and manner fell somewhere between sharing an intimate common practice and “I can’t believe white people are wrapping Vietnamese spring rolls!” As a Korean—a fake Korean—I wondered if they smelled my counterfeit Asian card. Calling me out as an imposter—trying to be white, someone to be pitied, a gentle knowing glance as a second generation returning to her roots?
The wrapper soaks in water first. We were invited to go up and make a roll whenever we wanted. This meant there was a polite pause as the audience decided who would go first. Then followed by the inevitable cluster. I tentatively rationed some ingredients onto my wrapper when it was my turn and wondered how the curly lettuce could be contained. I was graciously urged to take more vegetables. It felt like rolling a very compliant sleeping bag, stuffing everything inside. The water worked as a sealant, a glue in the end.
I’m somehow grateful that my first experience with the Vietnamese spring roll was making one myself. Now, even in restaurants, they feel more homespun. Not really from a heritage I’m trying to claim, but from a sense of becoming of evolving of expanding.
Rice paper, the impossibly thinnest of protection. See-through, slippery–no, ingeniously sticky. Through this layer you can feel the ingredients that stretch and threaten to poke through.
But everything remains in tact, contained until . . .
My friend and I will have some Vietnamese spring rolls today. Each bite will leave bits floating in the peanut sauce. No matter how stretchy, rice paper cannot protect against an appetite. No matter how tightly you roll them, Vietnamese spring rolls are made for a single purpose.
That’s when everything threatens to fall apart.