Today’s recipe is very special to me: it’s a treasured family recipe, passed on to me by my mother, who got it from my grandmother. It’s our recipe for Vietnamese imperial rolls, and it is spectacular.
I know every food-loving person goes around saying “My mother/grandmother (occasionally father) makes the best *insert homey, usually culture-specific food here* in the whole world!”, and swearing on my blender that in my case, it’s the pure and simple truth probably won’t convince anyone. But that fact is that I’ve been to more than my share of Vietnamese restaurants, and I have never found a cha gio (the Vietnamese word for imperial rolls) that even comes close to my grandmother’s. Well, okay, once: at my uncle’s restaurant in Brussels. And guess whose recipe he was using? My father agrees with me on this one: his mother-in-law’s rolls are unequalled worldwide (and we mean that literally: we’ve eaten Vietnamese food in a lot of different countries).
What makes a good cha gio? Well, for one thing, it has to be made with rice paper: wonton wrappers are for Chinese egg rolls, and have no place here. It also has to be crispy. And the rest of the secret lies in the filling. A few years ago, when I first expressed an interest in making cha gio, my mom made a few phonecalls to her siblings, nephews and cousins to get their input, and they all had different advice for the filling. Finally, she just gave me her own recipe – because who would use a recipe they weren’t convinced was the best ever?
This version uses a mixture of pork and veal, which actually isn’t entirely traditional: Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t normally use veal. However, my mother argues that using different meats makes the flavour more interesting, and I, having made versions with pure pork, pork-beef-veal, and pork-veal, agree that the latter is the most balanced one: pure pork was comparatively bland, and the version with beef was too fragrant. Did my grandmother use veal? Probably not in Vietnam, but given that she’s been living in France since before I was born, it’s likely that she did include veal in the later versions of her recipe.
Now, the big question: do my rolls measure up to my grandmother’s? Of course not. However, they are as close as I’ve ever tasted (except for my mom’s and my uncle’s). The method and ingredients are all there, now it’s just a question of tweaking and intuition – something I’ll only achieve with more experience. But in the meantime, I’m happy to share the basic formula with you all.
A note on mung bean vermicelli: in their dried state, they look like rice vermicelli, but are much tougher. Their purpose here is to absorb some of the filling’s moisture. If unavailable, don’t try to replace them with rice vermicelli, as the resulting texture might be too mushy – just leave them out and add only one egg to your filling.
Chinese wood ear mushrooms are easy to find in Asian grocery stores. In Montreal, they are usually labelled “black mushrooms” or “black fungus” – which doesn’t sound very appetizing, I know, but let’s face it, that’s what they are. They don’t have a lot of flavour, but they’ll add a slightly squishy texture to the filling, in a very good way.
Cha Gio (Vietnamese Imperial Rolls)
Yields about 30 small rolls
200g (7 oz) lean ground pork meat
200g (7 oz) ground veal
One 120g (4 oz) can of shredded crab, drained
One whole egg
One onion, very finely minced
1-2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
One medium carrot, very finely chopped
2-3 tbsp dried Chinese wood ear mushrooms
Dried mung bean vermicelli
1 tbsp nuoc mam (fish sauce)
1 tsp sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rice paper discs (bành tràng), 15 cm (6 inches) diameter
Romaine lettuce leaves
Fresh cucumber slices
Fresh soybean sprouts
Fresh coriander leaves
Fresh mint leaves
For the nuoc cham (dipping sauce):
5 tbsp nuoc mam (fish sauce)
5 tbsp tepid water
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp hot chilli paste (optional)
1 clove garlic, finely minced or crushed
Cover the dried mushrooms in water and let them rest for about 20 minutes, or until fully rehydrated. Drain, pat dry, and mince very finely
In a large bowl, combine the pork, veal, crab, onion, garlic, carrot, and mushrooms, by stirring with a wooden spoon or by clean hand. Then stir in the egg. Your filling should be slightly wet, and hold together well. If it still seems too dry, add another egg.
With a strong pair of scissors, cut off 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces off the tip of the mung bean vermicelli. Take care to protect your eyes, as the pieces have a tendency to fly in every direction. As you go along, mix the vermicelli pieces into the meat filling (don’t worry if they crack or break). Quantities are variable: your filling is ready when enough moisture has been absorbed by the vermicelli to give it a significantly drier feel; it should still hold together.
Stir in the fish sauce and sesame oil, and season with pepper to taste. At this stage, you can take a small piece of filling, form it into a ball, and cook it in oil, to check the seasoning.
Take a sheet of rice paper, dunk it into cold water for 10 seconds, then lay it down flat. It will soon soften and become pliable. Place a heaped tablespoonful of filling on top of the rice paper, about 2.5cm (1 inch) away from the edge closest to you. Shape the filling into the form of a small cigar. Fold the edge of the paper closest to you over the filling and roll the filling over once. Then fold both edges of the paper over, and finish rolling. Try to roll as tightly as possible, and avoid leaving air pockets inside the roll.
Set the finished roll aside, and repeat until you run out of filling. Take care not to let the finished rolls touch each other, as they will stick and tear.
To make the dipping sauce: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, making sure to dissolve the sugar. Taste and adjust seasoning (if too salty, add more water).
In a large skillet, heat 1-2 tablespoonfuls of canola oil over medium high heat. Working in batches, place as many rolls as you can into the skillet, without letting them touch each other. Fry turning over as needed, until nicely browned and crispy on all sides. Serve hot, and eat each roll by wrapping it in a lettuce leaf and dipping it in the sauce. You can also serve do chua (pickled daikon and carrots) alongside. For a good do chua recipe, check out Andrea Nguyen’s website.
You can easily freeze the cooked rolls by putting them in a single layer on a baking sheet and putting them in the freezer for an hour, then put them in a Ziploc bag and keep frozen until needed. To reheat, bake the rolls in a preheated 200ºC (400ºF) oven, about 10 minutes per side, turning over once, until they are warmed through and crispy on the outside.