Vietnamese-Style Summer Rolls with Shrimp or Tofu

Ughhh… I am not recommending you go into making this for the first time late on a Wednesday night. Ughhh… Of all the finicky nonsense that plagues much of gourmet, frou-frou, highbrow cooking, why this common street food snack so ridiculously delicate a process? I’ll chalk it up to two major things: my inexperience with the ingredients — the rice (or “vermicelli”) noodles and the rice wrappers — and with how to handle them. How wet can the wrappers get before they just flop and tear when you attempt to roll them up? How dry can they really get before they stick together intolerably like a hot fruit roll-up? Ughhh… (!)

I did get vastly better at making these up by the last few rolls. By then, my frustrations were so sky-high that it’s a wonder I got to them in the first place. I must admit that I was taken to making summer rolls because I was going to a  summery potluck with other food bloggers this Thursday. (The first day of summer is officially June 20, but if you want to get all technical about it, neither “summer” nor “spring” are direct translations of the Vietnamese word for this dish, gỏi cuốn, though both names are often used in English.) What a pretty and appropriate name for such a light, cool and refreshing appetizer, I thought.

the fried tofu block version — safe for vegans

the popular shrimp version, boxed up to go

I’ve never been to Vietnam, unfortunately, and haven’t tried this dish in its native land. But for those who, like me, have snacked on them at Vietnamese restaurants elsewhere, I’d have to say there’s little difference between the homemade version and those — once the agonizing rolling process is through. It’s basically salad in a roll; you can’t really mess up fresh herbs and vegetables with cold proteins and noodles. Such is the beauty of summery eats.

One of the most intriguing things about this dish for me is its transparency. Besides Jell-O salads of the fifties, I can’t think of too many other (or very good) foods that are meant to showcase its ingredients through an edible veil. And for good reason, too — you can just see how crisp and fresh-tasting those basil leaves or the fleshy poached shrimp are going to be from looking at the showy little bundles. This must be why people created this arduous use of such fine rice sheaths instead of just using it for tracing paper and stopping there.

now you see the lovely rice wrapper pattern

(1 second after submerging in boiling water) now you don’t

Since I was taking this to a potluck, I went with two different versions: one made with poached, shelled and veined shrimp. If you don’t want to burden yourself with the extra task of all that fussing with the fresh shrimp, you might skip it and buy some pre-cooked shrimp instead — though freshness is key in this appetizer, so I’d be very wary about the quality of the kind you buy. For the vegetarian version, I chopped up a block of firm, fried tofu. This is a quick and simple substitute for meat, since you can purchase it ready to slice in a package. (I also substituted it for meat in my last Vietnamese-inspired party food adventure, the Bánh “Me” Sandwiches.)

raw shrimp gets a rinse, pre-poaching

a basic fried tofu block, chopped to squares

the assembly room

So after doing this for the good part of my evening (not that this would be unusual for me and cooking), eschewing all book and blog work except for a few crappy photos, I went to bed with a renewed sense of respect for light, summer fare. Fresh? Of course. Simple? Oh, never count on that.

Vietnamese-Style Summer Rolls with Shrimp or Tofu
(makes 4 of each, 8 rolls total)

8 round Vietnamese rice wrappers (specifically for spring/summer rolls)
4 oz. thin Vietnamese rice noodles (“vermicelli” or “rice stick”)
about ¼ lb, or 12 total shrimp in their shells
about half a small block of fried tofu, cut to 12 quarter-inch thick squares
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 scallions, thinly julienned
1 bunch cilantro, long stems trimmed
16 basil or mint leaves
optional: 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and julienned, or mung bean sprouts

simple Hoisin-lime dipping sauce:
1/4 cup Hoisin sauce
juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon brown sugar
(blend all ingredients thoroughly until sugar is dissolved)

Heat a pan of water deep enough to submerge the shrimp and the rice noodles. Once it’s boiling, drop in the shrimp. Cook for about 1 minute (or 2-3 if they’re larger). Remove with a slotted spoon and place into ice water to stop the cooking. Peel and de-vein the shrimp (a tedious process, but it’s made easier if you dunk the shrimp under water after splitting the backs and removing the “vein” with the point of the same knife). Set shrimp aside and reserve boiling water.

Bring water to boil again, and turn off heat. Drop the rice noodles in and let sit 1 minute. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water. Once noodles are relatively dry, turn into a large bowl and sprinkle with the rice vinegar. Fold with a spatula or tongs to distribute evenly.

Bring a pan of water wide enough to submerge the rice roll wrappers to boil. Dip each wrapper one at a time into the hot water for no more than ten seconds each (closer to five), removing them carefully with a slotted spoon and placing into a cold water bath immediately afterward.

Set all your ingredients around a large board or surface large enough to fit one round wrapper. Carefully remove a wrapper from the cold water with your hands. Gently shake off excess water and place flat on the board. Pat top dry with a paper towel. Space three shrimp or three tofu squares in a tight line about 1/3 from the edge of the circle. Top with a handful of the rice noodles and arrange it evenly on top of the shrimp/tofu. Arrange the julienned scallions, cilantro, optional cucumber or bean sprouts and basil or mint leaves neatly on top.

Fold the small edge of the rice wrapper over the pile of ingredients, horizontally. Take the two edges of the roll to the right and left of the pile of ingredients and wrap them over the edges. Carefully lift the roll with the ingredients inside it and flip it over. Continue to flip and roll until you reach the end of the wrapper. Slice roll in half, and serve with Hoisin-lime dipping sauce (recipe above), or another sauce of your choice.

the goods: round rice wrappers, thin rice noodles and fried tofu

Cost Calculator
(for 8 rolls, or 16 once cut in half)

8 rice wrappers (at $1.50/pkg of 50): $0.24
4 oz. thin rice noodles (at $1.39/10 oz. pkg): $0.55
1/4 lb shrimp in shells (at $4.99/lb): $1.25
12 squares of tofu (about 1/3 of a $2 block): $0.67
1 bunch cilantro: $1.00
3 scallions: $0.50
16 basil leaves (mostly from house plant): $0.25
2 tablespoons rice vinegar: $0.10
1/4 cup Hoisin sauce: $0.50
1 lime: $0.25
1 tablespoon brown sugar: $0.05

Total: $5.37

Health Factor

Two brownie points: As long as you go easy on the preservative-addled dipping sauce I mixed up for these (or try it with a different sauce altogether, that doesn’t use bottled Hoisin sauce), food doesn’t get much cleaner than this. There’s a lot of cholesterol in the shrimp, but as mentioned with other seafoods, the payoff is its valuable omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Plus, it’s not like you’re eating a whole roll of shrimp or oily fried tofu what with all the nutritious fresh veggies and filling rice carbs each bite of these comes along with. It’s like this with a lot of Vietnamese foods — more balanced, and generous on the vegetables than the traditional American diet.

Green Factor

Two maple leaves: Yeah, so we’re not in Vietnam. So… the imported dried rice foods that I bought in Chinatown were chugged across the sea. I imagine there probably are some outfits that manufacture these ingredients in the States, but I didn’t find them, and sure as heck don’t know how to make them. Then, because I was already in Chinatown, and to make my shopping more streamlined, I simply bought the rest of the ingredients there, instead of looking for the scallions and cilantro at the Greenmarket (the basil I already had), and succumbed to their cheap seafood as well. Seriously, $4.99/lb for fresh shrimp (albeit farmed in Thailand or China and shipped across the sea)? It’s a steal. And yet this dilemma is why I hardly ever make shrimp on this blog (or otherwise).

20 Responses

  1. rachel

    Just a tip: I normally soften them in warm tap water in a shallow bowl and never have had a rip. Maybe the water was too hot and dissolving the rice paper.

  2. kittensinthekitchen

    These look delicious – well done in persevering!

  3. Jo

    I used a very large Rubbermaid round bowl lid. I’d say the lid is about 14 inches. Water in the lid, dip the sheets, let drip a little bit, then onto the cutting board. Depending on the temp of the water, I let it sit a few seconds to soften up. Another thing I like to do, is use red or green leaf lettuce. I wrap the vermicelli and herbs in the lettuce leaf, place shrimp halves on wrapper, then the lettuce bundle on top of shrimp, and then roll. I like the look of the shrimp under the soft white of the wrapper in contrast with the lovely green of the lettuce. Plus the vermicelli sometimes gives me a headache while rolling, and it’s not so bad when it’s in the lettuce. Helps achieve a tighter roll. After I have made about 4 rolls, If it’s for a party or to be eaten later than 15 min, I wrap each roll in plastic wrap and stick them back in the fridge. They will keep for a few days. Very convenient in the summer when you are hot, and have the urge to snack late in the evening.

  4. jnl

    Oh honey, who came up with boiling the wrappers? I’ve always just let them sit in some water, like suggested, and then kept a damp towel around them.
    I’d love to hear some alternatives to the Vietnamese-Style fillers!

  5. Moose

    I love making these rolls but getting the rice paper to cooperate can be tricky. I’m very open to suggestions, as I always end up burning my fingers while trying to get them out after dipping them!

  6. Julia

    i had been thinking about trying to make rolls like these but hadn’t realized working with rice wrappers would be tricky…thanks for the warning.

  7. Yvo

    They were delicious anyway! Mmm. Maybe using peanut sauce (organic/fresh ground?) would make it a bit more healthy (in reference to your note about the hoisin).
    Anyway, everyone already said what I found – I took a peek, and for some reason I consistently confuse your blog with another (I think I started reading around the same time)… so I found who made the summer rolls.
    It doesn’t say in the post, but in the comments, she mentions just a quick dip in warm water for it to get wet all over. That totally makes sense to why they were a bit soft.

    I maintain that it didn’t matter in the end because they still tasted darn good 😉

  8. JustNancy

    Argh, I feel your pain! The rice papers are a pain in the a** when I used them for the first time a couple weeks ago. I used warm tap water as suggested by rachel, but while the center of the paper was soft enough to work with, the edges were still crisp and brittle and refused to yield to my rolling or keep a seal. A very challenging experiment for me, too.

  9. EB

    hee hee “hot fruit roll-up” that’s *exactly* what they’re like!

  10. Dr. Food

    I second the suggestion that you use warm tap water, as I have almost never had any difficulty with that method.

  11. cathy

    This is awesome. Just what I needed to hear/know. Thanks so much for the advice, everyone! Now I know what to do with the rest of the 40 rice rounds left in the package!

  12. jennifer

    i am vietnamese. Here are my tips:

    no submerging in boiling water. ahhhh!!! noooooooo

    You can dip them for a few seconds in warm water or dip your hand it warm water and spread it on the rice rounds, if you’re scared of it getting too delicate.

    those 40 rice rounds will keep for awhile. you could make eggrolls with them and fry them . we do that as a special type of eggroll in vietnamese cuisine. and it is sooooo good. you wrap the eggroll in lettuce, mint leaves, etc. dip in nuoc mam (cham, sweet).

  13. Deborah Dowd

    While these wrappers are a pain, the resulting spring rolls are great, especially in these hot summer months and it is fun to play with different fillings!

  14. Ryan

    My suggestion: ditch the hoisin sauce. Just squeeze some lime juice or use nuoc mam (water, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, maybe some garlic or chili). These are also great with julienned mangos.

  15. shana

    This might be a dumb question, but by Fried Tofu, is it purchased that way, or did you fry it whole, yourself? I’ve never see fried tofu. Thanks.

  16. Princess Velveeta

    I love these Vietnamese wraps. Yummy. A few “tricks” to make their assembly easier.
    1st off do your mise en place…..(Have all your items ready and in little bowls)Shrimp that has been cut in 1/2 makes for a more subtle and easier to roll,roll. I always use warm water (not hot) and don’t mess with ice bath. Sauce I prefer is hoisin, fresh peanut butter, chilli sauce all loosened up a bit with warm water.

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