The Vietnamese gastronomic specialty banh trang is usually rendered in English as “rice paper”. It is something of a misnomer. This stuff is not very good for writing on. But it is very good for eating. I and many others prefer to call it “rice wrapper”. It is a round, rather brittle sheet about eight inches across made from rice flour, salt and water. It is laid out on woven leaves or bamboo mats to dry in the sun. It adheres slightly to the mat, which gives the rice wrapper a crosshatched design. People use it as the casing for Vietnamese spring rolls, both the fresh and the fried versions.
The fresh version of the spring roll is known as goi cuon, or “salad roll”, so-called because it usually includes some green stuff. A goi cuon looks like a little burrito, wrapped in a small, translucent white tortilla. You can see the pink of shrimp and the green of basil peeking through the wrapper. They are usually served with a dipping sauce made of ground peanuts, chilli and nuoc mam. They are light, refreshing and stimulating to the eye and to the appetite. Two of them can make a fine snack. Four of them can make an adequate meal if you have enough beer. The concept is not unique to Vietnam, but this distinctive execution is found nowhere else.
And then we have the never-ending fried version of spring rolls, known as cha gio, sometimes called “imperial rolls”. They are ubiquitous in these parts. Indeed, they do sometimes seem to be the national dish of Vietnam, giving pho a run for its money, and making banh xeo look like a redheaded stepchild. When we think of Vietnamese food they tend to be the first thing that comes to mind. For many, they seem to be the touchstone by which we measure cuisine Vietnamien. The Vietnamese version distinguishes itself from the Chinese variety by using rice wrappings instead of wheat pasta, and different fillings. And, yes, cha gio are a tasty tidbit. Even more so when you wrap them in a lettuce leaf with a sprig of cilantro or a few leaves of fresh basil and dip them into nuoc cham.
And we can’t seem to get away from them. They’re like the honey-roasted peanuts on airliners. They’re like hamburgers, or locusts even, in their number. And while I am loath to think of them as McSpringRoll, or as a plague of cha gio, they do begin to tire. They all seem to taste the same. Many travellers to Vietnam, or even diners in Vietnamese restaurants in Melbourne, San Francisco or London, feel somehow obligated to down as many as possible, as though the more spring rolls they consume the more of Vietnam they will taste.
Let me humbly disabuse you of this notion, if disabusing you need. You could eat your way through the entire nation without ever tasting one of these little morsels and still have had all you needed to thoroughly understand Vietnamese gastronomy. I have nothing ill to say about the little nubbin. I would never counsel you to avoid the cha gio. But I would urge you to not to let it define for you, in even a limited way, the cuisine of Vietnam.
To prove that I have no hard feelings against them, I happily provide you with the recipe so you can have them at home. For my cha gio recipe, visit Richardsterling.me/spring-roll-recipe.