Recipe: Vietnamese Summer Rolls

February 7, 2012

Lately I’ve been reading As They Were, a memoir by M.F.K. Fisher. Fisher was a food and travel writer who grew up in Whittier, California in the early 1900s. Perhaps this is merely mark of a good writer, but as I’ve read her memoir, which is older than I am, I’ve felt a connection with her that goes beyond our mutual enthusiasm for food and foreign countries.

In fact, Fisher and I share a third obsession—nostalgia. Here’s what she has to say of it:

“Nostalgia must always be a strange bedfellow, but an increasingly familiar one as we grow past the years of pick-and-choose. In the case of the views of freighter life that follow, it seems natural that they stay together, instead of being slotted in their chronological rhythm. This bunching is not based as much on wistful remembrances as on a realistic look at some disparate happenings at sea that by now are plainly part of my own nostalgic pattern.”

While I appreciate Fisher’s description, it does nothing to explain my preoccupation with nostalgia since college—the height of my pick-and-choose years. The idea of nostalgia holds a certain allure for me that I don’t fully understand. It’s what drew me to Egypt—a nation built on the fragile foundation of competing nostalgias—and the Middle East in general, a region whose identity is inextricably linked to the past. My fascination with nostalgia is probably, in part, what made me fall for a man who is self-professedly and prematurely nostalgic for his current self. Or would that be better described as narcissism, not nostalgia?

But getting back to the subject of nostalgia, and M.F.K. Fisher, another chapter of As They Were, called “Palaces, Etcetera,” states that “every life has at least one fairy palace in its span. Usually these miracles happen when a person is young, but still wide-eyed enough to catch the magic that older people have forgotten or pushed away.” She goes on to talk about one of the palaces from her childhood, an ice cream parlor in Los Angeles called Pig ‘n’ Whistle that she describes as a “scarlet den of sin and iniquity” notorious for its exotic flavors. Naturally, when I saw a Groupon deal for Pig ‘n’ Whistle a few days later, I snatched it up, hoping to immerse myself in Fisher’s childhood palace.

The Pig ‘n’ Whistle of today’s Los Angeles is another location of the original Pig ‘n’ Whistle that Fisher visited as a child. However, the name may be the only connection left between the two establishments. Pig ‘n’ Whistle is now a bar and restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. It was opened in the 1920s and frequented by movie stars until it closed in 1949. For the second half of the 20th century, the location housed a clothing store and several other unrelated entities; it was reopened as Pig ‘n’ Whistle in 2003. There’s nothing at all magical about the contemporary Pig ‘n’ Whistle, with the possible exception of its ornate, vaulted ceilings. Like a one-time child star who grew into neither his looks nor his career, Pig ‘n’ Whistle is sadly a ghost of its former self—both the self that boasted such patrons as Shirley Temple and Clark Gable and the one described by Fisher. Oh well.

If I had to name a childhood palace in line with Fisher’s definition, it would probably be Saigon Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My brother and I were in love with this place as kids, particularly the beef and papaya salad and the satays. As I grew older and my tastes more “sophisticated” I fell in love with Saigon Grill once more after trying their deep-fried whole sea bass in sweet-and-sour sauce. I have many fond memories in connection with Saigon Grill—trips to the city with my aunt as a child, a birthday party in college, and at least one date. For a time, however, I was not allowed to go there per my aunt’s instruction because of a protest by the delivery men. The delivery men seem to have since settled on an agreement with the owners, but there are still sometimes picketers outside, whom my brother exploits to torment my aunt’s sensitive conscience.

My favorite dish at Saigon Grill is the vegetarian summer rolls. Summer rolls are similar to spring rolls, but not deep-fried. They’re basically salad in a chewy rice wrapper—a lighter, vegetarian version of sushi rolls sans the seaweed. I’m not entirely sure what makes them so delicious. Perhaps it’s the combination of fresh herbs and crunchy veggies, or maybe the two dipping sauces—hoisin and a vinegar-based one. Either way, I finally managed to recreate them at home after an initial failed attempt during which my rice paper inexplicably disintegrated. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!


Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Makes 6 rolls

<br><br><center>Vietnamese Summer Rolls

2 oz bean threads (vermicelli)
12 rice paper wrappers
½ head red leaf lettuce
2 medium carrots, julienned or coarsely grated
½ a large cucumber, peeled and julienned
2 large or 4 small scallions, julienned
½ cup Thai basil leaves, torn
½ cup cilantro leaves
½ cup roasted peanuts, chopped
Pickled serrano chili, from the dipping sauce

Hoisin sauce, to serve
Vietnamese dipping sauce, to serve

Bring a pot of water to a boil, turn off the heat and add the bean threads. Let them soak until tender and translucent, 5-10 minutes.

Submerge 2 sheets of the rice paper in cold or room temperature water for about 30 seconds. They will be pliable but still hold their shape. Place them on a cutting board or plate, overlapping by all but an inch on either side. Pile your filling in the center in a horizontal line—first the lettuce, then the bean threads, and then everything else. Fold the sides in first and then roll the whole thing up tightly, just like you would a burrito. Cut the rolls into fourths or thirds and serve with the two dipping sauces.

Variation ideas (add one or some of the following): mung bean sprouts, julienned red bell pepper, shrimp, chicken, mint


Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
1 Tbsp sugar
1/3 cup water
¼ cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
1 serrano or Thai chili, thinly sliced (see note*)
2 tsp fish sauce (omit if you don't eat fish)

Put the sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook without stirring until the sugar is melted and lightly golden (i.e. caramelized). Pour in the water all at once and swirl the pan to dissolve. Add the vinegar, chili, and fish sauce. Let stand for at least 15 minutes and then strain the chilies out if you want to use them in the summer rolls.

*Note: Depending on what kind of chili you use and how hot it is, this sauce can be fairly spicy. Feel free to cut back on the chili or omit if you want it to be mild.


Obviously, I bought the rice paper wrappers for the label!


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