What better time than spring to make fresh spring rolls? In this Vietnamese-inspired recipe, a very thin rice-flour crepe is rolled up around lettuce, mint and the zesty filling of your choice: shrimp, chicken or mango, mixed with Asian flavorings, peanuts and cilantro. The rolls — not to be confused with fried spring rolls (called nems in France) — are served with a tangy sauce. They’re light, fun to make and a great way to exercise your creativity.
Rouleaux de printemps / Fresh spring rolls
These spring rolls differ from the original in that rouleaux de printemps, as served in both Vietnam and France, are mainly filled with rice vermicelli, bean sprouts and/or grated carrots, with a just tiny bit of chicken or pork tucked inside. By expermenting at home, I’ve found that leaving out the noodles and sprouts delivers a more intense burst of flavor.
The fillings presented here are my own creation. In the first version, chopped shrimp are marinated in lime juice, fish sauce (nuoc mam), sugar and hot sauce. In the second, shredded chicken is marinated in soy sauce, hoisin or oyster sauce, sesame oil and hot sauce. In the third, diced mango is mixed with lime juice, hot sauce and spring onion (scallions). Crushed peanuts and chopped cilantro are added just before rolling.
When you’re ready to roll, the rice-flour wrapper is dampened in hot water, then placed on a board. Lettuce and mint are placed on the bottom third and topped with a couple spoonfuls of filling. Shrimp halves are then placed on the middle of the wrapper. You fold in the sides and wrap up tightly, bottom to top. If making the vegetarian/vegan mango version, you can skip the shrimp and instead use cilantro leaves for decoration.
The rolling stage is a bit delicate — it may take you a few tries to get proficient. But once you get the hang of it, you can fill the rolls with anything you like. Spring rolls with leftover Peking duck are fantastic. You could fry up ground pork or ground beef with ginger and garlic, add some fresh cilanto and voilà. Or use your imagination. Sea scallops might be delicious. Quail? Smoked salmon? Why not? And if you like noodles, include them in.
As for the sauce, you can buy it ready-made at Asian groceries or make it yourself. According to my favorite Vietnamese cooking blog, Miss Tam Kitchenette, two different sauces are served with spring rolls in Vietnam. In the south of the country the rolls are accompanied by hoisin sauce, and in the north by a sauce made of nuoc mam, rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar, garlic, hot water and bird’s eye pepper. This is the kind served in France.
Miss Tam says that spring rolls are often served in southern Vietnam during the Tet festival, which celebrates the arrival of spring. In France they are served year round, generally as a starter, although they could also be part of a buffet spread. Dishes that would marry well include Thai duck salad, Vietnamese noodle salad, cockles in satay sauce, tuna tartare on black rice, Vietnamese beef-noodle soup (soupe pho) or chicken with lemongrass. And don’t forget a chilled bottle of dry rosé!