It seems when someone cooks, whether it be a little or a lot, we all have our favorite dishes to make. It can be a dish that we enjoy eating or it may be a dish shows a certain flair. One of my oldest food memories formed one of my most favorite dishes to make. It's the Vietnamese appetizer called chả giò.
Living in the Maryland suburbs outside of DC meant you were introduced to an incredibly wide variety of people. Air Force kids whose parents worked at Andrews Air Force Base, the Hindu family whose mom's distinctively accented voice could carry for four blocks, calling her kids home for dinner. Then there were our next door neighbors whose son came back from the Vietnamese war with more than bad memories and worn green duffel bag. He came back with a Vietnamese wife and child. I was just another tom boy kid playing football in the yard to notice if Sun was happy in her new home. What I do remember is that she loved eating crabs at our backyard crab feasts and that made her OK by me. However when she first broke out the chả giò to the neighborhood picnic, yours truly first took her foodie baby steps. I had to know more. Luckily chả giò is one of those dishes that goes a lot quicker if you get a group together to pitch in and help assemble. Sun tried to teach me but I was not quick or neat enough to be of much help. I do remember the huge platter of already rolled chả giò, waiting for their turn in the deep fryer and making my mouth water in anticipation.
Chả giò as a recipe is fairly simple. A filling rolled into a moistened rice paper skin which is then deep fried. Nestle that hot roll in a bed of mint and green lettuce and dip it some spicy Nước mắm pha sauce and you've got yourself some good eatin'. The exact recipe is as varied as the many cooks and the places where they live. Ground pork seems to be one constant. To that you can add shrimp or crab. Vegetables may include bean sprouts, finely minced onions, shredded carrots and jicama or sweet potato. Don't forget the tree ear fungus (above) and cellophane or glass noodles. For more flavor I like adding fish sauce and white pepper. A beaten egg helps bind the mixture together.
The tough part of this dish is working with the rice papers. You have a choice of using dried round wrappers made from rice or a variety of spring roll wrappers made from flour. I prefer the rice. You have to moisten the wrapper briefly to make it pliable but not too wet or it will tear. The diagram shows how to roll a chả giò.Easy right? Next you get to deep fry your rolls. Peanut oil is my frying oil of choice. My hints on frying include using a pan that heats evenly, not crowding the pan with too many rolls and cooking and serving the rolls in batches. Cold chả giò is not something you should serve your guests and loved ones but don't worry, they will happily wait for hot, crispy goodness once they've tasted the first batch. To serve you'll need a big plate of green leaf lettuce and some nước mắm pha sauce. Depending on your preferences you could also add some cucumber, cilantro or mint to add to your rolling experience.
Or if all that's too much trouble, just come on over to my house and I'll be more than happy to share what I can whip up. Not as good as Sun's but a tribute to her cooking just the same.