Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bac Gai’s Vegetarian Spring Rolls (Bi Cuon Chay)

I first tasted these vegetarian spring rolls when I moved to Vietnam in 1995 and was invited for lunch by one of the students in the English class I taught. Over the following years, that student became like a sister to me, her sisters became my sisters, and her mother called me con thu—daughter number four.

Years later, when I traveled back to Vietnam to write Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, the dish I wanted to learn to make most of all was my Vietnamese mother’s vegetarian spring rolls. She had learned them from her mother-in-law, so that she could make them for her husband on Buddhist holidays.

I’ve made these spring rolls a few times for family and friends, and the last time I made them, I served them at a reading at Skylight Books in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The crowd loved them, with the highest praise coming from a Vietnamese foodie group that had driven up from Little Saigon in Orange County.

With Tet (Lunar New Year) just around the corner, it’s a perfect time to post this recipe—these fresh spring rolls, laced with roasted rice powder and tasting like no spring roll you’ve had before, would be terrific for part of a New Year’s feast.

I’ll admit, the recipe is time-consuming, but it’s definitely worth it—I like to double it, since increasing the amount does not increase the effort, and the spring rolls are still good a few days later if kept in the fridge.

Preparation note: I use a mandoline to julienne the manioc and sweet potato. Don’t worry if you don’t come out with perfect little matchsticks. You’re going to blend everything together for the spring roll filling, and no matter how the ingredients look at the start, they taste terrific in the end.

Rolling the spring rolls

Bac Gai’s Vegetarian Spring Rolls

Serving: 10–15 spring rolls, depending on how big you roll them.

Ingredients for filling, Part One:
- 2 cups carrot, peeled and julienned (about 2 medium carrot
- 2 cups manioc (also called yucca), peeled and julienned (about 1 small manioc)
- 1 cup shredded cabbage
- 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, julienned
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. vegetable bouillon powder or concentrated liquid
- 3 tbsp. vegetable oil

Ingredients for filling, Part Two:
- 3 cups sweet potato (white flesh), julienned, mixed with 2 tbsp. white vinegar and 1 tbsp. sugar and set aside (about 1 medium sweet potato)
- 8 ounces baked tofu, unflavored, thinly sliced
- 3 tbsp. vegetable oil

Ingredients for final mixture of filling:
- 2 ounces green (mung) bean vermicelli (about 2 cups), prepared per package directions and cooled
- 4 sheets dried bean curd skin (tau hu ky), crushed into small pieces (about 3/4 cup)
- 3/4 cup toasted peanuts, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup roasted rice powder

Rice paper: 1 packet 10- or 12-inch rice paper, made with just rice and water (12-inch pieces are easiest to work with for this recipe)

Herbs: Fresh mint, Thai basil, rau dap ca, rau tia to, and other Asian herbs (if you can find only mint and basil, these rolls will still be terrific)

Directions for filling, Part One:

1. Heat oil in a large frying pan.

2. Fry carrots, manioc, and cabbage. Do not let the mixture get too soft. Test the manioc to make sure it remains al dente by the end of the following process.

3. Add mushrooms, and fry a bit longer.

4. Add sugar and vegetable bouillon to taste, and fry just a bit longer still.

5. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool. Drain any liquid.

Directions for filling, Part Two:

1. Heat oil in a large frying pan. Flash-fry the sweet potato until it is yellow-brown and crispy. Remove from pan and set aside to cool.

2. In same pan, flash-fry the baked tofu until crispy. Remove from pan and set aside to cool. (This step is optional. You don’t need to fry the tofu.)

Directions for final mixture:

Once all the cooked ingredients have cooled, mix them together in a large bowl with the rice vermicelli, peanuts, roasted rice powder, and crushed bean curd skin.

Directions for making spring rolls:

1. Using a hard surface, such as a wooden cutting board, lay out a piece of dampened rice paper. Dampen (soften) the rice paper in a wide bowl of warm water. (I like to put 5-6 pieces at a time in warm water in a skillet for efficiency.) Remove as much excess water as possible (let it drip off) before making the spring roll.

2. Line the lower center of the paper with herbs.

3. Lay 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the mixture into a cylinder shape on the herbs. The amount can vary depending on how large you want your spring rolls.

4. Fold the bottom fourth of the rice paper up over the mixture.

5. Fold the right edge of the rice paper in a fourth of the width of the paper, as if you are making an envelope.

6. Fold the left edge of the rice paper in a fourth of the width of the paper, as if you are making an envelope.

7. From the bottom, roll as fast as you can.

Ingredients and directions for dipping sauce:

1. Mix 1/4 cup carrot, peeled and shredded; 1/4 cup cucumber, peeled and shredded; and 1 tbsp. sweet white vinegar. Set aside to marinate. (Do this at the beginning, as you are preparing the spring roll ingredients.)

2. In a bowl mix the following:

- Simple syrup of 1/2 cup water and 1/8–1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup sweet white vinegar
- Juice of 1 lime
- 2 red Thai chilies, seeded and minced
- 2 tbsp. toasted peanuts, finely chopped

3. Cut the carrots and cucumber into small pieces.

4. Mix carrot and cucumber blend with remaining ingredients. Top with peanuts.

NOTE ON SAUCE: This sauce is to keep the recipe strictly vegetarian. I also like to use a basic nuoc cham sauce. A good recipe can be found at