Friday, January 28, 2011

Vietnam: A Culinary Retrospective - Appetizer Rolls

Vietnamese Appetizer Platter at the Spices Garden Restaurant, 
Hotel Metropole, Hanoi

After a fabulous month of exploring the cultural and culinary pulse of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and delving into the regional ingredients used in the aromatic cuisines of these fascinating cultures, it's now time for some recipes!

One of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cooking is the abundant use of fresh herbs and dipping sauces served on the table to enhance the flavours of any dish. Another hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine, is their love of wrapping parts of the meal in rice paper or leafy greens, and the variety of simple dishes that normally comprise a typical meal — from delicate soups and stir-fries, to well seasoned grilled dishes served with rice or noodles. With the widespread popularity of Asian cuisine these days, most ingredients can be found in supermarkets, local Asian Markets, or of course, T & T Supermarket at 222 Cherry Street which sells fabulous Chinese and unusual Asian produce.

Grilled Leaf-Wrapped Beef Rolls (Thit Bo La Lot)
Makes 8 skewers

This is one of my favourite Vietnamese appetizers. Lot leaves, or Wild Betel, grows in great abundance across Vietnam, and can be found growing on the side of many country roads. Slightly harder to find in Canada, they sometimes carry it at T&T Market — or vine leaves can be used instead.

1 lb ground beef
24 large wild betel leaves*, or grape leaves soaked in water to soften
8 bamboo skewers, soaked in water before using (optional)
1 tbsp vegetable oil

2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp minced lemongrass, from the inner part of the stalk
2 shallots, minced
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp oyster sauce
2 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper

Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Pour the marinade over the ground beef and mix well until blended. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

To make the beef roll, place 1 tbsp of the beef mixture onto the betel or vine leaf. Fold one end of the leaf over the filling, fold in the sides, then roll up tightly. Thread the rolls onto bamboo skewers or place on an aluminium covered baking tray, seam side down. Or, if you want to be really tricky, try using the Betel leaf stem to secure the roll in place. Continue to make all the rolls, brushing with oil, then placing on baking sheet.

Set the oven on broil and grill the rolls in the pan for about 5 minutes each side, until all the leaves are slightly shrivelled and charred.

Serve on a decorative serving platter with Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip (see below).

* COOK'S NOTE: Wild Betel leaves are known as la lot in Vietnam, daun kaduk in Malaysia and Indonesia, and cha phluu in Thailand. If you can't find them in local ethnic markets, try T&T Supermarket at 222 Cherry Street in downtown Toronto. They sometimes have them.

Classic Pork and Crabmeat Spring Rolls
Makes 12 rolls

12 dried rice paper wrappers (8" round)
Vegetable oil for deep frying

2 oz. dried glass noodle (also known as cellophane noodle) 
1 large egg, beaten
8 oz ground pork
1 cup cooked crabmeat
1 small onion, diced
 2 spring onions, minced
1 small carrot, grated to make 1 cup
2 cups bean sprouts, seed coats and tails removed, blanched and drained
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tbsp fish sauce

12 butter lettuce leaves
Sprigs of mint
Sprigs of cilantro
1 small cucumber, cut into matchsticks

Soak the glass noodles in water until they become soft and translucent. Drain and cut into 2" lengths. Make the filling by combining all the ingredients in a large bowl, and mix well until blended.

To make a roll, briefly dip a rice paper wrapper into a bowl of water, then remove and place on a dry surface. Place 2 tbsp of the filling along one side of the wrapper. Fold the closest edge of the wrapper over the filling, then fold in the sides and roll up tightly. Repeat until all the ingredients are used up.

Heat the oil in a wok or saucepan over medium heat until hot. Gently lower in the rolls into the oil in small batches, using a wire mesh strainer if you have one. Deep fry for 3-5 minutes until golden brown and crispy on all sides. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all the rolls are cooked.

Place the rolls on a decorative serving platter with the garnish and serve with Vietnamese fish sauce dip (see below). The spring rolls can be rolled within the butter lettuce leaves and mixed herbs, or enjoyed on their own. Try it each way and decide which one you like best.

Chef Tinh's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip (Nuoc Mam)
Makes 1 cup

This is my favourite recipe for fish sauce dip that I had while in Vietnam, courtesy of Chef Tinh at Six Senses Resort, Ninh Van Bay outside of Nah Trang. It's full bodied due to the peanuts and wonderfully flavourful. It works well with fresh spring rolls too.

2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp fresh red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp chopped unsalted peanuts

Blend all the ingredients together and mix to combine. Serve in small dipping bowls for each guest, along side the platter of spring rolls.

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