One of my best Vietnamese experiences was the day we all piled into a long boat and went off down the soupy green Mekong River. We were on our way to the home of a local family for a New Year’s lunch. Our boatman at the back kept saying, “Okay ladies, little bit to the left, little bit to the right. Forwards! Backwards!” We had to keep the boat balanced, because trust me – the last thing we wanted was to capsize into that water.
The river is the lifeblood of the people who live along its banks. We saw an old lady plucking a chicken, washing and rinsing it; a bit further downstream was a man bathing his dog; then there were people doing the dishes and washing their clothes; and finally someone with his bum perched out over the water! The locals obviously have to boil every drop of that water and filter it for drinking.
We eventually made it to our destination, scrambling and digging our way up the bank to the home of our hosts, where we received a wonderful warm welcome from the family and their neighbours.
The table was beautifully set and I can’t even begin to describe the wonderful aromas – star anise, hints of ginger, garlic.
There were bowls brimming with enticing ingredients: flaked brisket, slow-braised with lots and lots of love; the fattest plump pink prawns; fresh mint, coriander, basil and what they call morning glory; water weed, also known as swamp cabbage, which gives lots of texture to the food; slivered cucumber and carrots; and a gorgeous dipping sauce.
The idea was that the man of the household would show us how to roll all of this into crystal spring rolls, after which we would make our own. It’s a fabulous idea for entertaining at home, in any country.
As it was New Year, they offered us chrysanthemum wine, a bitter drink with no alcoholic kick. We reciprocated by offering our own New Year wine from Cape Town; one of the women in our group had a bottle of whisky in her bag. Needless to say, it had much more of an effect on them than the chrysanthemum wine had on us!
The head man was knocking it back and loving it.
After quite a few shots, he took some of the spring roll wrappers, which he soaked in a little warm water, laid them out and proceeded to fill them. While he was doing this, all the attention was on his hands and when I looked down – well! – I have never seen such filthy, grubby fingers or such black nails.
I was heaving deep inside and thinking, “Please don’t let him touch my food, I won’t be able to eat it.” Of course he rolled the most perfect, tight little spring roll and offered it to me.
I couldn’t let him lose face and neither could I so I said, “I am not worthy of this.” So he gave it to a friend sitting next to me – and she didn’t love me for that!
He continued to partake of the Cape Town New Year wine for the rest of the meal and when we eventually got down that hill, into the boat and back onto the river, we were telling one another which way to lean to balance the boat.
We hadn’t realised that the spring roll man and our boatman were one and the same, and he was no longer in any condition to keep himself or us upright.
Spring Rolls can be filled with any type of filling that grabs your fancy, beef, pork, chicken, duck seafood or just all kinds of crunchy veggies.
Prawn Crystal Spring Rolls
I learned to make these at the home of a tipsy boatman on the banks of the Mekong River. They are utterly delicious – fresh, crunchy and tasty – and are really easy to make, even though they take a little time to put together.
Get someone to give you a hand soaking the rice paper. The trick is to soak one at a time as they are very delicate, and by the time you have filled one, the next one will be ready to roll with a little help from a friend.
Ingredients for the Dipping Sauce:
½ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup boiling water
½ cup castor sugar
1 Tbs fish sauce
2 small chillies, chopped
1 Tbs chopped fresh coriander
1 tsp sesame oil
1Tbs finely-diced fresh cucumber
Ingredients for the Spring Rolls:
24 prawns, deveined, lightly steamed and shelled
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly julienned
1 cup freshest bean sprouts
1 medium English cucumber, julienned
24 large fresh mint leaves
24 fresh basil leaves
12 coriander sprigs
24 butter lettuce leaves
12 dried rice paper rounds
Make the dipping sauce first. Place the vinegar and water in a saucepan over medium heat and add the sugar, stirring to dissolve. Bring to the boil and let it bubble away for a few minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the fish sauce and chillies. Stir in the chopped coriander, sesame oil and diced cucumber when cool and set aside.
To make the spring rolls, place one rice paper at a time in a bowl of warm water to soften it slightly.
Remove to a flat surface and place a little red cabbage, carrot, a few bean sprouts and some cucumber in the centre of the rice paper, top with two fresh mint and basil leaves and a sprig of coriander.
Now top with two prawns and a lettuce leaf – if the leaves are too big, trim them to size.
Fold in the sides of the rice paper and gently roll up nice and tight. Do the same with the remaining rounds of rice paper.
Pack onto tray with enough space between them so they don’t stick together, and cover with a damp clean cloth.
When you are ready to serve, slice the rolls in half diagonally, place on a plate and serve with dipping sauce
I sometimes make these with shredded duck breast, rare thinly-sliced beef fillet, shredded chicken breasts, or even leave out the meat and go vegetarian.
If you can lay your hands on some Vietnamese mint please add a leaf to your roll.
Tip: You can make these up to two hours ahead – just cover them with a clean damp cloth to prevent them from drying out!
© Taste The World with Jenny Morris 2013 -2015