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One of the greatest “grocery store discoveries” that we’ve ever made has been rice paper sheets for fresh Vietnamese spring rolls.
For starters, they’re light and nutritious. Each individual sheet is only ~34 calories! And it’s also a source for fiber and iron.
They’re incredibly inexpensive too! One packet of 35 sheets, which easily spans four different meals, is only $3.
But most importantly, they’re fun! “Vietnamese spring rolls night” is a favorite of ours, largely because we have a blast experimenting with different tastes and fillings in each roll. Each sheet is like a blank canvas to an artist, although thankfully it’s very easy to start anew should a spring roll not turn out so good…
We actually discovered rice papers as we prepared for a trip to Vietnam and were studying Vietnamese cuisine. Yes, we are really that nerdy. Unfortunately, while we didn’t find this food as readily available as we’d expect when we were in Vietnam, it was really rewarding learning about the staples to a typical Vietnamese meal.
At its core, each Vietnamese meal has to contain each of the “five fundamental flavor elements”: sour, sweet, spicy, salty, and bitter. These five elements can be expressed in terms of color too: green, white, yellow, red, and black. Either way, you need to have all of them, and why many consider Vietnamese cuisine to be so healthy.
To achieve this balance of elements, each dish might mix a combination of rice, fresh herbs, vegetables, soy sauce, fruits, and so much more. The real beauty of the Vietnamese cuisine is having so many fresh ingredients to choose from and being able to get creative with ingredient combinations and unique spins on traditional tastes.
Now, for the record, when we made our first ever batch of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, we had no idea about any of this and had very little idea of what we were doing. I actually remember one time where I was silly enough to put lima beans as the staple to our filling! How far we’ve come from there…
For this particular meal, we did at first try to go more “by the book” and follow more traditional Vietnamese spring rolls recipes from one of our cookbooks. And yet, even then, we couldn’t do it. The recipe we followed seemed kind of… bland to us. We had such a multitude of fresh ingredients at our disposal, and felt like we were doing them a disservice by not getting creative with them!
In the end, we got creative and yielded the recipe you see in this post. This filling was a fantastic combo of raw ingredients (carrots, cucumbers, basil, mint, some chilis) with cooked ingredients (vermicelli noodles and shrimp cooked with red chilis, shallots garlic, ginger, and lemongrass). And since we set up a small “workstation” to assemble the rolls together, each roll had its own different proportions of all the different ingredients. I like to think it added a little bit more spontaneity to the meal.
Then there were the sauces. Wow did these sauces turn out incredible.
My favorite sauce personally (as you’ll see in the recipe) was Sauce #2. For this sauce, we sautéed the garlic, red chilis, shallots, and sesame oil together to meld the flavors and to soften the harsh taste of each individual ingredient. By the time we added the cold liquids and let the sauce cool back down to room temperature, I personally found it divine.
Oh, and we always play a little game when we have Vietnamese spring rolls nights… we make one “booby trap” roll. Now usually, the roll is still very tasty and enjoyable, except it might be extremely heavy on an ingredient or might have some sort of funky twist added to it. In this case, it was a roll doused in Sriracha and sprinkled with the seeds from a bird’s eye chili.
Unfortunately, I lost this time, and it was incredibly spicy.
And even then, it was still delicious ☺