August 20th is Thất Tịch festival in Vietnam, the occasion for 196 flavors to feature a country with a rich history, including culinary history.
Thất Tịch is actually a festival that was inspired by the Chinese Qixi Festival, which celebrates the annual meeting of the cowherd and weaver girl in Chinese mythology. It falls on the seventh day of the 7th month on the Chinese calendar, which is why it is sometimes called the Double Seventh Festival. It is an important festival for young girls. This festival is also called Chinese Valentine’s Day.
But it is also the summer, and with the summer, I have to say we are less inclined to cook and more inclined to eat fresh, simple and sometimes raw ingredients to spend more time outside.
That is why I chose a recipe that literally rhymes with summer: gỏi cuốn. I already sense a lot of people perplex about the name. Gỏi cuốn is nothing more than summer rolls, also called Vietnamese Spring Rolls.
As a matter of fact, they are called a number of different names even within Vietnam. They are called gỏi cuốn or salad rolls in Southern Vietnam, nem cuốn or nem rolls in Northern Vietnam, and rice paper rolls in Central Vietnam.
Gỏi cuốn are pork, prawn, vegetables, bún (rice vermicelli), or other ingredients, wrapped in Vietnamese bánh tráng (rice paper) as opposed to wheat dough which is used as a wrapper for traditional deep fried egg rolls or spring rolls.
Vietnamese spring rolls also differ from fried egg rolls when it comes to the filling as different ingredients are used in the fried version.
Gỏi cuốn is emblematic of Vietnamese cuisine. It was voted #30 out of 50 most delicious foods in the world by CNN Travel.
A number of 196 flavors recipes actually appear on this list, such as Neapolitan pizza (#2), rendang (#11), egg tart or pastel de nata (#16), persian kebab (#18), phở (#28), Texas BBQ (#36), tacos (#43), som tam (#46).
Gỏi cuốn can be served with tương xào also known as hoisin sauce. Hoisin sauce is made with tương, a fermented bean paste made from soybean. It is then mixed with coconut water, before being stir-fried with garlic and sugar. It is then sprinkled with chili powder and ground peanuts.
Summer rolls can also be served with peanut sauce or with nước chấm, a condiment based on fish sauce (nước mắm).
The ingredients used for the filling can vary quite a bit and include standard pork slices, pork sausage slices (chả) and shrimp, fish, fried squid, poached beef, tofu, grilled Nem Nướng̣ sausages, braised pork and egg.
The Chinese ruled Vietnam for about 1,000 years between 111 BC and 938 AD. The French also ruled the country for 100 years until WWII, when Vietnam was part of Indochina. The French influence can definitely be noticed in recipes like banh mi, which uses French baguette or phở, which only came to prominence 100 years ago, and which gets its origins from French beef stew “pot au feu”.
Summer Rolls are a Vietnamese creation but it ties in ingredients common to many countries in Asia.
The version of summer rolls I chose to make are gỏi cuốn chay. This is the vegetarian version, also called Buddhist fresh spring rolls. Buddhists do not eat vegetarian or vegan but they eat “chay”, which is slightly different. They exclude all root vegetables, so no onion or garlic will be used if you happen to go to a chay restaurant.
Although Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world, Buddhism is the first organized religion in Vietnam (12%). 73% of the population is not religious or following Vietnamese folk religions. This is the reason why a number of Vietnamese recipes have a “chay” (or vegan) version.
I made gỏi cuốn chay for a picnic at the park. They can be made ahead for picnics but I would not recommend keeping them for more than a few hours. Contrarily to what their name says, summer rolls are delicious and can be made any time of the year. The key is to use very fresh herbs and ingredients.
- 12 rice paper wrappers (bánh tráng)
- 2 oz. lettuce (optional)
- 1 oz. dried shiitake (or wood ear mushrooms), rehydrated, and thinly cut in strips
- ½ bunch basil (leaves only)
- ½ bunch mint (leaves only)
- ½ bunch cilantro (leaves and stems)
- 1 carrot , julienned into thin matchsticks
- 1 cucumber , thinly julienned
- 8 oz. very thin rice vermicelli
- 12 oz. firm tofu , thinly sliced
Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the rice vermicelli for 2 minutes until tender.
Drain and rinse in cold water. Set aside.
Fill a large bowl with hot water to moisten the rice paper wrapper.
Submerge one dry rice wrapper in the water.
Place the moistened wrapper flat on a plate, cutting board or dampened cloth.
Place a small portion of each ingredient, including salad, herbs (basil, cilantro, mint), tofu and vegetables (carrot, cucumber, mushroom) on the bottom side of the wrapper closest to you.
Add rice vermicelli.
Wrap the roll up by taking the edge closest to you and flipping it up over the filling.
Gently roll the filling up until you’ve just past the halfway point, then pull the sides in and roll it the rest of the way.
Serve with hoisin sauce, peanut sauce or nước chấm.