Several years ago now, I was in Lao for the Lao New Year. It’s a bucket list-type thing to do: if it’s not on your bucket list, you really need to look into it. For three days, the small northern Lao town of Luang Prabang was filled with throngs of locals and tourists engaged in the biggest water fight I’d ever seen or heard of. Buckets, hoses, little plastic guns. And sometimes paint, mud, brightly coloured powdered dye. It was safe to expect to be soaking wet most of the time.
Because of or in spite of the drenched mania that abounded in the streets, I have very fond memories of my time in Luang Prabang. I met some wonderful fellow Canadians with whom I hitched a ride to a waterfall where we swam in our clothes and talked about the dreams we had for when we returned home from the altered-reality existence of backpacking. I perched in front of a bonfire drinking Lao whiskey and crunching on cucumbers with the owners of the guesthouse where I stayed. A cool early morning run took me uphill to a temple where a line of hundreds of monks received donations of rice from the locals. I wandered daily through a street market filled with vendors selling everything from dead bats to silk skirts. It was there that I discovered fresh rice paper rolls.
Fresh rolls are so common on menus in Canadian restaurants and the ingredients so easy to source now that this discovery doesn’t really seem like a very significant revelation. But when I took my first bite of the cold, crunchy roll with a blend of herbs and a flavour that I couldn’t quite place at the time, it felt kind of revolutionary. One of those moments that has your mind racing to the next day, month, year, trying to figure out how you might procure more of these aromatic, noodley treats in the future.
When I moved home and met the man of my dreams and got a dog, we moved into a house with a fenced yard on the wrong side of town. Luckily for us, though, this house was located almost directly across from a pretty darn authentic Vietnamese restaurant. And this family-run mini-mall establishment was the oasis in my fresh roll desert until I took a cooking class with my best pal and learned how to make them on my own.
Here’s what you need:
Julienned napa cabbage
Julienne red peppers
2 tbsp mint, chiffonade
2 tbsp cilantro, chiffonade
2 tbsp basil, chiffonade
Cooked glass noodles
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp sweet chili sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
Rice paper wrappers
Here’s what you do:
Okay, I know I didn’t include quantities for the rolls. It’s sort of an eye-up-the-proportions-and-go-with-your-gut-instinct thing. I know you can do it. Mix up the vinagrette and add the vegetables and the noodles (note: drop them into boiling water very briefly, just until they’re pliable, then strain and allow to cool slightly). Let the mixture soak for at least half an hour.
Soak a rice paper wrapper in warm water until it is just soft. Lay it on a large towel on your counter and lay spinach in a line down the middle of the wrapper. Top with the noodle mixture and roll like a burrito. The rice paper should be tough enough that you don’t rip it, but flexible enough to make a wrap that will stick together. It might take a few tries to get into the swing of things (just eat the evidence). If you tear the rice paper you can always add another paper over top to seal the roll. Set rolls on a serving dish as you complete them.
Note: these are awesome served with sweet chili sauce. Also, I’ve added chicken, shrimp, and/or tofu with delicious results.
Recipe adapted from a recipe provided by Chef Michael Howell at a Vietnamese cooking class