imperial rolls

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WHOA!! Did these babies just come out of my kitchen? Soft, juicy, umami meat filling, in a crispy, golden rice paper. Wrapped in a blanket of lettuce and herbs then dipped into a sweet, savoury dipping sauce. It’s an explosion of flavour and texture in your mouth I tell you. And you know you’ve hit a home run when:

– your significant other is more than willing to go down to the grocery shop to pick up extra lettuce and herbs after just one bite of the supreme roll

– 20 rolls that could easily feed 4 to 6 people were gobbled down in a flash by two very greedy hungry people (ahem)

– there is no sound to be heard around the table except for the crackling sound of rice paper when one bites into one

– the look of pure bliss can still be seen in your significant other’s face (complete with dipping sauce still dripping off his chin) 5 minutes after dinner has finished

It may seem like a complicated and long recipe, but it’s not really. Once you get past the mixing process of the filling, you only have to roll and fry. Go and get someone to share the burden of rolling if you don’t feel like doing it by yourself. And although I wouldn’t make these for a weeknight dinner, do try them for a weekend lunch. Or… make them ahead of time and freeze them before frying (assuming all your meaty ingredients had not been frozen prior to rolling that is). That way you can enjoy them whenever you want. Oh, and they’re the perfect picnic food. Now, if you can manage to not finish them all in one go (ahem, ahem..) and have some leftovers, just store them in an airtight container in your fridge and flash fry them the next day. They’ll be good as new.

Imperial Roll – Nem Rán

Adapted from: Luke Nguyen, Songs of Sapa, p. 60

makes 20 rolls

For the dipping fish sauce (nuoc mam cham) – makes 250ml/about 1 cup:

  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 125ml water
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bird’s eye chilli, thinly sliced (deseeded, if you’re a wimp like me)
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced

For the rolls:

  • 50g fresh wood ear mushrooms (if you can’t find fresh, dried is fine)
  • 40g dried rice vermicelli noodles
  • 200g raw small tiger prawns, peeled and deveined, roughly chopped
  • 150g boneless, skinless chicken breast, roughly cut into chunks (you can substitute pork here but I think chicken gives a cleaner and less fatty taste)
  • 250g crabmeat (definitely NOT surimi heaven forbid. Frozen crabmeat is fine though, just rinse it well under running water)
  • 1/2 onion, finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt – to taste
  • 20 dried round rice paper wrappers (16cm in diameter)
  • vegetable oil, for shallow-frying

To serve:

  • iceberg lettuce, leaves separated
  • a bunch of mint leaves
  • a bunch of coriander leaves
  • dipping fish sauce

Directions:

I would START WITH THE DIPPING SAUCE first while you’re still fresh and not yet sweaty and smelly from all the frying that is to follow. Combine the fish sauce, rice vinegar, brown sugar, water, garlic and chilli in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir well and cook until just before it boils. You want to just dissolve the sugar without cooking the sauce too much. Remove from heat.  Add in half the lemon juice and have a taste. Now this part is very personal, only you can decide if you need more vinegar, water, or sugar. It should have the right balance between salty, sweet and sour. If you want more kick from the sourness, add in the rest of the lemon juice (I normally do, but my husband would make a soury grimace as a sign of disapproval). Set aside.

Now, on to the more serious stuff: THE ROLLS. If you’re using dried mushrooms, cover them with water in a large bowl. While you’re at it, throw in the rice vermicelli in the water too. Let them soak for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, using a food processor, pulse the prawns, crabmeat and chicken chunks until you get a homogeneous grayish paste. Transfer to a large bowl.

When the 20 minutes are up, drain and dry the mushrooms and rice vermicelli. Using kitchen scissors, cut the vermicelli into 4cm lengths and the mushrooms into strips. Discard the tough centre of the mushrooms. If you’re using fresh mushrooms, well.. cut them into strips anyway.

Combine the mushrooms and the vermicelli to the meat paste. Add in onion, fish sauce, sugar, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Then eagerly plunge your hands into the mixture and pretend it’s good for your skin. Knead the whole thing for 10 minutes or until your arms get tired. Now, some frozen crabmeat (if you’re using the frozen kind) can still taste quite salty even after rinsing it (twice). To test the seasoning, I suggest you make a walnut-sized meatball and fry it until golden on all sides. Let cool.. You’ll have a better judgement of the seasoning when it has cooled. Now have a taste and season the rest of the mixture accordingly, adding more salt if you feel the need.

Working with one rice paper wrapper at a time, briefly dip the rice paper in a large bowl of warm water until just softened, then lay it flat on the work surface. Take 1 1/2 heaped tablespoons of the meaty mixture and place it on the bottom edge of the rice paper. Fold the two adjacent sides, one on top of the other, into the centre. Roll it up to form a nice firm roll. Repeat until you have filled all the rice paper wrapper. Careful not to let each roll touch against each other as you line them up. They can easily stick to each other and you’ll have a hard time pulling them apart without ripping them. If they do stick to each other, spray them with a little water to loosen them and gently pull them apart.

Pour the oil into a pan and heat to 180 C. Don’t have a thermometer? Stick a chopstick into the hot oil and if bubbles start to foam around the chopstick, it’s ready. Don’t have a chopstick? Throw in a cube of bread into the oil and if it browns in 15 seconds, you’re good to go. Now shallow-fry the rolls in three batches for 3 minutes each side, or until lightly browned and crisp. Whatever you do, don’t crowd the pan! Using a spider, remove and drain on paper towels.

To serve, take a large lettuce leaf and stack some mint and coriander leaves on it. Put the imperial roll on top of the herbs and wrap it up. Dip it into the nuoc mam cham. And you’re done! Phew..

Imperial Rolls Trivial Fact

In Vietnam, people enjoy them Bun Cha-style: floating in a bowl of nuoc mam cham, cut into bite-sized pieces, with a serving of rice vermicelli and lots of fresh herbs on the side.

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