Smooth skin teases my tongue with sweet hydrous flavor. My salivary glands seep fluid that soaks my palate in a warm, bubbly bath. Taste buds flare from the steam stimulating my incisors to chop down, ripping apart the skin. Discovering the core, my molars crunch, breaking down refreshing, crisp straw strands. Suddenly saltiness kicks, followed by dribbles of mint and pungency. I melt in my seat, loosing myself in the yellow walls at the Vietnam Café Restaurant in Telford, Pennsylvania at the invigorating taste of the Vietnamese spring roll, also known as Gỏi Cuốn.
The Vietnamese spring rolls are wrapped in a translucent blanket called rice paper. Through the rice paper, the consumer can distinguish the shrimp, vegetables, and herbs that reside in the filling of the roll. Removing the tails of eight shrimps, the chef wedges the shrimp down the back. Then prepares the vegetables by slivering two to three carrots, preparing mung bean sprouts and chopping four lettuce leaves. To add the Vietnamese tang, grab a handful of cilantro, Thai basil, and mint leaves. After submerging the rice papers in the warm water, the chef stacks the shrimps, lettuce, herbs, mung bean sprouts, and rice vermicelli. Finally, the chief folds the ends, rolling the rice paper to keep the filling in and voilá! Harmonizing on the pinks of the shrimp, oranges of the carrots, and greens of the vegetables, the Vietnamese spring rolls are ready to be served.
The ancestors of the Vietnamese Spring Rolls date back to the Chinese egg roll. Both the wonton and the egg roll, both egg paper foods, are part of the ancient Chinese tradition of dim sum. The practice of dim sum dining characterizes serving an array of hors d’oevres that the Cantonese people traditionally enjoy in restaurants or teahouses for breakfast and lunch. Dim Sum is a typical practice after Chinese New Year when families would invite friends and extended family members to their homes. Chinese New Year occurs during the spring season in China; hence the name “spring” rolls as another name for egg rolls. The golden brown color of the egg rolls or spring rolls symbolizes a nugget, which portends prosperity in Chinese customs.
Moving away from Chinese tradition, the Vietnamese spring roll lacks the egg paper and instead uses rice paper. Creating their own identity, the Vietnamese and Thai both use the rice paper and raw or uncooked fillings countering the Chinese cooked egg rolls. In comparison to its Asian counterparts, the Vietnamese spring rolls have put substantial emphasis on vegetables, which gives it its second name: “summer rolls.” Fresh herbs in Vietnamese cuisine come from the spicy foods from India. Flourished with vegetables and lean meat, the Vietnamese diet is considered healthy, balanced, and beneficial. Additionally, the mosaic of colors in the Vietnamese spring roll can be attributed to Vietnam Emperor Tu Duc who demanded fifty eloquently prepared dishes every day, influencing decorative high-class cuisine.
Mixing the saltiness of fish sauce, sweetness of sugar, and the pungency of vinegar, nuoc mam sauce returns the Vietnam back to its roots in Asia.
Vietnamese spring rolls are frequently dipped in peanut sauce and nuoc mam sauce, both common condiments in Vietnamese food. The peanut influence in Vietnamese cuisine comes from European influences in the region. The peanut sauce takes the sweetness of honey and consistency of maple syrup, giving Vietnam a kick of European aroma. The syrupy taste of peanut sauce is distinctive from the dulcet touch of sweetness in Asian flavor. In contrast, the nuoc mam sauce plays with the classic sweet-and-sour taste of Asian foods. Mixing the saltiness of fish sauce, sweetness of sugar, and the pungency of vinegar, nuoc mam sauce returns the Vietnam back to its roots in Asia.
Crunching on the Vietnamese spring roll dipped in nuoc mam sauce reminded me of Lumpia, the Filipino spring roll that surrounded my childhood. The nuoc mam sauce of Filipino cuisine has honeyed essence of duck sauce, lacking the sharp spiciness of Vietnamese nuoc mam sauce. Both sauces still have the salty and vinegary intensity. Lumpia is a distant cousin from the Vietnamese spring roll using egg paper and meat while prepared by deep-frying. Whereas the Vietnamese spring roll highlights vegetables and herbs. Yet both come from the same roots in China.
Finishing the last gulp of the spring roll, I savor the last hits of the exotic juices.
Drooling at the saltiness of the fish sauce, melting the sweet peanut sauce, crunching on the fresh vegetables, chewing on the tangy herbs, holding on till the last bursts of yumminess exit through my esophagus. Remnants of the Vietnamese spring roll slide down my throat, reaching the point of no return. Hold my tongue. Pause. Lick my lips. Drink.
I’m ready for more.
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