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Mar 10, 2022 / 17:04

[Quintessence of Hanoi’s cuisine] Quintessence of Vietnamese cuisine: Hanoi spring rolls

Hanoi’s typical dishes with many variants always cause nostalgia for children who live far from their homeland.

As famous as pho (rice noodles soup with beef), spring rolls are also a dish imbued with the “Vietnamese national spirit”: if you see spring rolls somewhere, people from the S-shaped country must be around the corner.

A familiar food on a Bangui Street

 The typical Hanoi's dishes are prepared by Helen Green, a housewife who lives in Ho Chi Minh City 

The fateful meeting happened when the soldiers realized that a dish they ate on the street was so similar to the Vietnamese fried spring rolls. They weren’t wrong: it was real fried spring rolls, made by an old woman who  came from Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.Many years back in time, Vietnamese soldiers in the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Mission in the Central African Republic happened to meet an old woman, she was the only one from Vietnam to live in the capital, Bangui.

Seventy years before, she and her husband, a legionnaire in the French Far East Expeditionary Corps, left Vietnam for his hometown in the Central African Republic. The Vietnamese specialty, made  with the diligence of a Vietnamese woman, helped her overcome poverty and hardship to bring up four young children after her spouse passed away.

Fried spring rolls are the most frequently present dish in Vietnamese people’s parties around the world. Despite the fact that systems of supermarkets and express delivery services have thrived to a surprising extent, and goods are shipped everywhere, Vietnamese expats, after visiting their home country still always leave with some vermicelli, wood ear mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, rice paper, the main ingredients of spring rolls, in their luggage.

Vietnamese soldiers in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan or the Central African Republic often cheerfully talk about the different spring rolls they have made to treat their international colleagues there.

Some came up with the idea of using seaweed for lack of kohlrabi, carrot or beansprouts as the filling, some other substituted instant noodles for vermicelli. These “spring-up” rolls still tasted good, somehow!

How many ways there are to make spring rolls?

The squared spring rolls are made from sea crab, lean pork mince, spring onion, glass noodles, shiitake mushroom wood ear and egg by Nguyen Thanh Huong.

According to local culinary experts, in reality, nem (as called in Northern Vietnam) or cha gio (in the south) can be prepared in more ways than one. Old Hanoians’ ingredients include pork shoulder, kohlrabi, carrot (or jicama, beansprouts), glass noodles, shiitake mushroom, wood ear, egg, pepper – all thoroughly minced and mixed, wrapped in rice paper and fried until the coating turns golden brown.

Nem is eaten with herbs such as cilantro, sawleaf, savory, perilla, marjoram, lettuce and so on. The dipping sauce for nem contains fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, garlic, chili pepper, pepper, among others; sometimes, pickled kohlrabi or papaya is added.

It may sound simple, yet is at the pinnacle of cuisine. Not anyone can make a good sauce, even with the recipe at hand. Different people’s sauces taste different, hardly the same. At times, making a good or bad sauce is inexplicable, so it may be attributed to luck or some spiritual reasons, like “gifted sauce-making hands”.

However delicious the rolls may be, a bad dipping sauce will spoil the whole meal, especially when served with fresh rice noodles. That’s why well-known stalls of rice noodles with spring rolls or grilled pork in Hanoi possess “top-class sauce-making hands”.

In addition to pork spring rolls, there are numerous variations. For instance, sea crab rolls are cooked using the same recipe, but with sea crab meat removed from the shell and mixed into the filling.

A bad dipping sauce will spoil the whole meal, especially when served with fresh rice noodle. Photo: Pham Thi Van Hong  

According to Hanoian culinary expert Phuong Hai, the Hai Phong sea crab rolls are named square spring rolls, since they are wrapped into a square shape, tied with bamboo strings when fried, and cut into four pieces when served. Likewise, minced pork can be replaced with ground beef, prawn, mantis shrimp, to name a few.

“Around three decades ago, seafood spring rolls served at weddings used to be a lavish treat in Hanoi,” he told The Hanoi Times.

In addition, the Hang Be Market’s seafood rolls in Hanoi have been really famous, with the filling consisting of prawn and squid, still wrapped in rice paper yet into small rolls, dipped in smooth frying flour, fried and eaten with mayonnaise and ketchup. This type tastes good...until the third piece - it easily cloys your appetite.

Another kind is fish spring rolls: fish are dipped in frying flour, wrapped with dill in rice paper and served with dipping sauce. This dish has a pretty interesting taste, particularly with some beer.

For Hanoians, the snail spring rolls are rather new, with apple snails parboiled, diced, mixed into the usual filling, wrapped in two-finger-sized rolls, and also eaten with sweet-and-sour dipping sauce and rice vermicelli.

“We can’t miss ragworm spring rolls - a variation of fried ragworm omelet,” Phuong Hai suggests.

The filling consists of ragworm meat, lean pork mince, spring onion, dill, tangerine peel (from smelly tangerines for good smell), baby jackfruit leaf, chili pepper, pepper, fish sauce, among others.

“This type will surely leave a strong impression on those who try it,” he added.