Deep red Thai chilies, translucent vermicelli noodles with green cilantro and mint, crispy brown egg rolls and sweet Nuoc Chan poured over chicken skewers—there are two things I know to be true of Vietnamese cuisine, it is both beautiful to look at and awakens the palate.
Although I am quick to relish in the symphony of flavors of a steamy bowl of Pho or enjoy the lightness of a neatly wrapped spring roll, I had never taken the time to learn about the nuances of Vietnamese cooking until now.
“My spring roll looks like a burrito…” I looked towards my fellow classmates as we all struggled to recreate the perfectly rolled spring roll stuffed with vermicelli, fresh herbs and Vietnamese sausage that our instructor had just whipped together. While the “model roll” sat neatly wrapped on a plate, mine resembled the blob of indistinguishable food that cafeteria ladies used to ladle on my plate during High School lunch. Our lesson in spring rolls was part of a larger class in Vietnamese street food cooking at Haven Kitchen in New York City, where each student would work to create a meal of sugar cane wrapped shrimp, lemongrass barbecue pork, golden brown egg rolls and Vietnamese sausage to be served with homemade sauces and enjoyed later that evening. Although the menu—casually scribbled on a chalkboard—seemed daunting to the room full of amateurs, our New Orleans loving, Vietnamese chef was ready to take us on an exotic culinary tour of her country.
As we learned, the Vietnamese food scene can best be defined by the region of the country from which it hails—the North brings thinly sliced fish, local vegetables and subtle flavors to the table, while the South pulls in Cambodian, Chinese and Thai influences that lend intense spice and sweetness to the cuisine. Our cooking class focused on replicating the flavors of Southern Vietnam, pulling inspiration from the street stalls of Ho Chi Minh to the floating markets on the Mekong-Delta. As our group squeezed limes, grated bright orange carrots, ground up fiery red chilies and seasoned pink pork, the kitchen resembled an art project awash with vibrant colors derived from the simplest of ingredients.
With groups of 2-3 people tasked with creating a different part of our meal, I began the pièce de résistance of frying up the much anticipated egg rolls. Pulling together a mixture of chopped mushrooms, grated carrots, diced onions, sesame oil, vermicelli and ground pork; our chef taught us the proper way to roll an egg roll before dropping it into hot oil. Using a trick she picked up from her grandmother, our chef used a simple chopstick to test the oil—observing whether the wood would start to boil—as a sign the oil was hot enough for frying. Similar to frying up beignets, she explained that dropping the rolls in the oil too soon would simply leave them soggy and greasy rather than light, crisp and crunchy—a clear faux pas for a cuisine that is admired for its fresh ingredients, minimal use of oil and reliance on herbs and vegetables.
As our cooking started to come together to create deliciously smelling dishes, so too did our group of strangers as we all bonded over a love of food and flavor. The elements of our Vietnamese street food captured the essence of a classic Vietnamese meal, appealing to the five senses with color catching the eye, crunch serenading the ear, spice dancing on the tongue, herbs wafting up towards the nose and the fragile spring roll wraps and slippery noodles satisfying touch. Although I’m still apt to claim the title of foodie over chef, I walked away from Haven Kitchen with a new found respect for Vietnamese cuisine and the thought and intricacies that go into every bite.
Vietnamese Egg Roll Recipe
1 lb ground pork, ½ fat
1 pack cellophane noodles, re-hydrated (optional)
¼ cup mushrooms, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, grated
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp fish sauce
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
egg roll wrappers
- Mix all of the ingredients except the wrappers together. To make sure that it is properly seasoned, fry a small piece of filling and taste. Adjust as needed.
- Once filling has been tasted, roll into egg roll wrappers making sure to seal the wrapper with an egg wash.
- Heat oil to 350 F degrees and make sure there is enough oil to deep fry.
- Drop eggroll into oil and fry until golden. The eggroll will float and turn golden. That is how you determine if it is done.