In Vietnamese cuisine, nem rán (fried spring rolls) and nem cuốn tôm thịt (fresh shrimp and pork rolls) are among the most popular and tasty of the hundreds of local dishes that residents and foreigners alike enjoy.
Nem rán (or chả giò as it is known in the South) is such a popular traditional dish that it is hard to attend a Vietnamese wedding, death anniversary or Tết (Lunar New Year) party without seeing a tray loaded with these delicious spring rolls.
There are many modern iterations, including vegetarian and seafood variations, but the traditional dish remains beloved by the people of Vietnam.
When one of my son’s friends, Chiam Jia Xin, arrived from Malaysia for a recent visit, we decided to treat him to traditional dishes such as bún chả (fresh vermicelli and grilled pork), phở (beef noodle soup) and bánh cuốn (steamed rice roll). Of course, we also had to include nem rán and nem cuốn tôm thịt.
I ordered rice paper – fragrant and not too salted – and wood ear mushrooms from the wild forests of Cao Bang Province.
On the day of Chiam’s arrival, I made spring rolls. I minced one kilogram of lean pork and a large onion, then cut the mushrooms and a carrot into thin threads. I prepared 0.1 kg of glass noodle and mixed all of the ingredients with four chicken eggs, a table spoon of quality fish sauce, peppers. After letting the mixture sit for 10 minutes, it was ready to be wrapped in the rice paper.
Thanks to the quality of the rice paper, my spring rolls held their shape and did not break during the 15-minute frying process.
To achieve the right crispy texture and yellow colour, I filled the pan with cooking oil and fried them over a light fire.
Whether the dish is a success also depends on the dipping sauce. Unlike in the South, northerners often prefer a sweet and sour sauce. Ingredients include vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, boiled water, chili and garlic.
After two hours of preparation, the dish was served.
Chiam was intrigued by the dish and he ate with gusto. “It is very enjoyable,” he said, noting he had never tried anything with a similar aromatic flavour.
He enjoyed the spring rolls so much he asked my son to teach him how they are made so he can recreate the dish for his family in Malaysia.
My son told him how the dish has been passed down by our ancestors for hundreds of years. It is considered one of Vietnam’s national dishes, a representation of our spirit.
Famous professor Do Tat Loi, in his book on traditional medicine, wrote that nem rán has many health benefits, particularly for weak patients and children.
Chiam said one of his motivations for visiting Vietnam was to experience the rich culinary culture he had heard about for so long. He also wanted to enjoy the beautiful landscapes and historical sites such as Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
The next day, we invited Chiam to join us for gỏi cuốn tôm thịt at Quán Ăn Ngon restaurant in downtown Hanoi.
The restaurant was buzzing with local and foreign diners when we arrived. While we waited on the food, the restaurant’s culinary expert Le Kim Chi told us about the shrimp-pork rolls that have drawn so much praise from customers.
“The dish is particularly enjoyable in summer because it is very tasty and fresh,” said Chi.
Chiam ate two full big plates of the dish, saying he enjoyed the mix of fresh shrimp, pork and fragrant fennel. They pair perfectly with the dipping sauce of soybean and roasted peanuts.
He asked Chi for the recipe so he could share it with his family at home.
For four people, the recipe calls for 0.5 kg of shrimp, 0.7 kg of pork belly, 50 pieces of rice paper, dill and shallot. The shallot is key – it provides the aromatic flavour.
Chi also shared the secret of the tasty dipping sauce. First, fry garlic in oil. Then add ground soybean sauce, sugar and powdered chili to the pan and cook it for five minutes, stirring well.
Chi said the dish is very nutritious, so local families often make it during the weekend.
The dish has become a popular staple in Vietnamese restaurants around the world, Chi noted.
Nem rán and nem cuốn tôm thịt are key part of culinary culture in Vietnam; be sure not to miss them if you come for a visit.