Last week I discovered a vendor doing brisk trade in Haiphong's contribution to the spring roll collection. That if they can be called rolls! Known as nem cua be, they are more parcel than roll, held together with a strip of rattan until they come out of the oil. Apart from the design aspects, this spring roll is unique because into the mix of normal ingredients, crab is added.
While I was getting these crunchy specimens into me, I got to thinking about spring rolls in my life...which is something only a truly food-obsessed nut could think, utter, write! Spring rolls in my life...I mean really!
I remember Chiko rolls growing up in 70s Australia. I'm not sure that I associated them with Asia back then but they were, in hindsight, my introduction to one of the region's most morish snacks, the spring roll. Deep fried in fish and chip shops, these pastry-covered rolls are in fact far removed from their Asian counterparts in almost every respect, except perhaps shape.
Later, in Chinese restaurants, my sisters and I indulged in serves of crisp golden dough-covered spring rolls filled with mostly cabbage, dipped in soy sauce. My dad used to make off-coloured remarks about what else was in them. In the 90s, when the term foodie gained currency in Australia, anyone purporting to be one was stomping up and down Melbourne's 'Little Saigon' in search of the best Vietnamese fried and fresh spring rolls, the latter known as 'summer rolls'.
I was there, too, getting carried away by the ingredients in the Asian grocery stores and the live fish in the fishmongers' windows.
And then I lobbed into spring roll land.
Upon arrival, in Saigon's Ben Thanh market eight years ago, I gourmandised myself on the fresh spring rolls (goi cuon). In Nha Trang every year since, while on holidays, my default lunch has been nem nuong, a meal requiring a bit of work at the table rolling together many of the country's bounty of special ingredients. This variation on the spring roll theme remains one of my culinary epiphanies.
In Hanoi, the fried spring roll (nem ran) is surprisingly a side player in the city's famed barbeque dish, bun cha. When ordered, the spring rolls are cut into bite size chunks with scissors. Another spring roll of sorts is pho cuon, available at dozens of eateries all packed into the streets of Truc Bach village. Here, quickly stir-fried beef is combined in fresh sheets of rice noodle with fresh coriander and mint..
The list of rolls, not to mention the variety of accompanying dipping sauces, goes on.
It's quite a collection and I don't intend to stop until I have eaten the full set.
Two serves of nem cua be - 40,000VND (USD$2.10,AUD$2.35)
Nem Vuong Pho Co
58 Dao Duy Tu
(on the door step of late night bar, 'Half Man Half Noodle')