Chả Giò (Vietnamese Spring Rolls) and Nước chấm (Southeast Asian Fish Sauce)

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Chả giò

Image via Wikipedia

Chả Giò (Vietnamese Spring Rolls)

This is one of the most magical tastes in the world. Chả giò translates as minced pork roll. What we have here a basic kitchen sink recipe. You can put in whatever you have on hand that appeals to your taste buds. This is just the basic, jazz up or down as you like. You can make ‘em strictly vegan if you like. We like protein. Well, I suppose you could use some hard tofu for protein, but it is not quite the same.

2 oz cellophane noodles OR rice vermicelli
vegetable oil (peanut works well)
1-2 garlic cloves, minced (your taste rules)
4 oz shrimp, raw, peeled, deveined and chopped
4 oz pork, minced OR fine chopped chicken
1 carrot, grated
3 green onions, sliced
1 oz mung bean sprouts OR 3-4 Napa cabbage leaves
2 tsp nước chấm (fish sauce)


2 Tbs Vietnamese chile sauce
2 tsp cornstarch (optional)
2 tsp water, cold (optional)
~32 spring roll wrappers

Boil the cellophane noodles for about 5 minutes. You can also use rice vermicelli if you can’t find the noodles. Drain and cool a bit and then cut into 1 inch pieces. You don’t need to get fancy, just dump them out of the strainer onto your cutting board and chop them up in 1 inch strips, then cut another path of 1 inch strips at right angles. Set aside on a plate.

You should use a wok if you’ve got one, if not, a large skillet will do. Put a little oil in the wok and when it is hot add the chopped garlic. You do know how to tell if the oil is hot enough, don’t you? OK, simple: shove the end of a chopstick into the oil, vertically, to rest on the bottom of the wok. If you see bubbles coming up the oil is hot enough, if no bubbles, it is not hot yet. When the garlic aroma starts to diffuse (about 45 seconds) add in the meat. Pork is traditional, but chicken is also good. When it is just about halfway done add in the shrimp. When they are done take them out and chop fine. Add everything to the pan – meat, veggies, fish sauce, chile sauce, and noodles. If you don’t have bean sprouts you can use 3 to 4 leaves of fine shredded Napa cabbage. Cook until the veggies, particularly the carrots, are softened. Immediately transfer to a plate and let it cool down.

Wrappers: What you want is the Chinese wrappers which are wheat based and need refrigeration; they are not rice paper. Rice paper is mostly for the uncooked party rolls and can be a whole lot of fun to handle. If you have trouble getting the flap to stick down mix up the cornstarch and water so you can glue it down. Keep a damp (almost wet) towel over your skin stack as you work, otherwise they will get dry and unworkable. (You could do something radical like follow the directions on the skin package.) If you can’t find them at the local grocery try to find an Asian store. They will have them. Our local Publix does not carry them, but they do stock egg roll skins. Not quite the same, but they could be used in a pinch.

If you’ve got square skins set with a corner pointing directly at yourself. If they are round, it doesn’t matter. Put a tablespoon full of cooled filling in the skin off center near yourself. Fold the bottom up and around the filling, fold in the sides, and roll from the bottom into a tight cylinder. For Vietnamese style they should be rather long and thin. The Chinese style rolls are shorter and fatter. Brush the edge with the cornstarch water mixture if you need it to seal. Chinese skins don’t always need the extra since they are wheat based. Square skins tend to seal a little better also. If you have trouble there are beau-coup videos on the web showing how to roll them.

You can fry them up with the same wok you used earlier. You will need enough oil to float the rolls about 4 at a time. I use a deep fryer, specifically a Cool Daddy, or an electric skillet because it is much easier. Anyway, get the oil between 325°F and 350°F. Cook them between 1 minute and 5 minutes, depending on the inside goodies and your individual taste. Let them drain and cool for a little while and then serve with nước chấm (dipping sauce).

Just for info: most of the stuff is actually made in Thailand or Taiwan and is quite satisfactory. Vietnam is still not exactly a favored trading partner.

Nước chấm (Southeast Asian Dipping Sauce)

This is the basic Vietnamese fish sauce the secondhand smell of which every GI shipped to Southeast Asia in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s learned to identify. The Vietnamese would curl up and die without their fish sauce. The smell gave away many an ambush in the jungle. You can get the basic ingredients on the internet or at a local Asian grocery. If your grocery has much of an international selection you may find it there. If there is a Whole Foods near you, you probably can find much (or all) of what you need there. Good luck.

You can’t say that there is any one way to make the dipping sauce that goes so beautifully with spring rolls and egg rolls and the like. I’ll give you the basic basic, but the variations are endless and are totally up to you. And when you get it to your liking it is now the dipping sauce known as nước chấm.

The basic ingredients:

2 parts water
1 part sugar
1 part lime/lemon juice. Fresh is best, but bottled juice will work in a pinch.
1 part fish sauce (nước mắm)
Optional additions:
garlic, minced
minced Serrano peppers or
minced small chili peppers or
chili paste
rice vinegar

It best to heat the water and stir in the sugar while the water is hot, then set aside to cool. You get much better combination this way. After things cool down add the citrus juice and the fish sauce and stir together. That’s it. You now have the basic dunking sauce. However, I do not regard the garlic or the rice vinegar as optional. I think the sauce is incomplete without it. My normal would be 1/4 cup water, 1/8 cup sugar, 1/8 cup fish sauce, 1 Tbs rice vinegar, 2 cloves garlic, minced. I’m not a big fan of peppers so mostly I don’t.

Also however – big time. There is no cast in stone way to make this stuff, the proportions and ingredients vary all over the map. If you want more or less of any given ingredient – fine. If you want to add something else or subtract something – also fine. The only constant is that there is fish sauce in there somewhere. And even so there are a million and one different kinds of fish sauce. Mostly the stuff I’m used to is fermented anchovy based, but there are many other variations. Experiment. Enjoy.

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