Paris is undoubtedly among the top gastronomic destinations for travelers seeking to indulge their appetite for culinary experiences. Yet, the city still has a ways to go when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the Vietnamese restaurants are concentrated in the 13th arrondissement, while a number of take-out eateries are scattered throughout the city. I have dined at most of the restaurants in the 13th, but I’ve found only one where I go back to time and again for their house speciality, bún bò Huế. As for the take-out places, you couldn’t pay me to eat the foods served there. Everytime I look through the windows of these joints, the unpalatable food looks like highly processed frozen junk sitting in gelatinous sauces.
Consequently, to eat good Vietnamese food, I always have to make it myself. This is especially the case when I’m feeling homesick and craving my mom’s cooking. There’s no better remedy for my homesickness than biting into a crispy homemade egg roll, which never fails to transport me back to the familiarity of home in the US. My mom taught me how to make her egg rolls when I was still in high school, and she has changed up her recipe a number of times to adapt to my ever evolving preferences. Typically, Vietnamese egg rolls contain seafood, such as crab and/or shrimp. I can’t stomach the taste nor texture of shrimp though, so she started omitting them from her egg rolls. And then, when I stopped eating meat after discovering how most farm animals are raised and slaughtered in the US, she made a meat-free version of her egg rolls for me.
I eventually added meat back into my diet when I found farmers who raised their animals humanely and didn’t fortify their feed with chemicals and antibiotics. Today, I’m much less stringent about my food choices than when I was in my 20’s. Yet, I continue to gravitate towards meat-free dishes and still prefer the taste of my mom’s vegetarian egg rolls over the meat-based version.
Though these egg rolls are composed of only a few ingredients, they are far from bland, especially when served over a bed of vermicelli noodles and fresh Vietnamese aromatic herbs and dressed with a nước mắm sauce. Tofu has a subtle nutty flavor and frying them inside these egg rolls enhances that distinctive taste. The shitake mushrooms impart an earthy aroma as well as a meaty texture that balances the crispy crunch of the outer wrapper, while the julienned carrots and sliced onions round out the filling with their added sweetness.
The filling is rather easy to make, but it’s the rolling of the egg rolls that can be a bit tricky. I was always eager to help my mom roll egg rolls when she made them, but mine always came out looking atrocious and fell apart when fried, while hers were always perfectly uniform. It wasn’t until I moved to Texas that I finally perfected the art of rolling egg rolls. I was the chair of my precinct and volunteered a huge chunk of my free time to the Obama campaign. Every time I went into the East Austin office to help man the phone lines, I would bring a ton of egg rolls for the staff and volunteers. After rolling hundreds and hundreds of egg rolls, I finally got the hang of it. Rolling the vegetarian ones is slightly more difficult though because the filling doesn’t stick together like the filling with ground meat does. So, you have to roll them more meticulously to ensure that they are tight enough, but not so tight that you tear the wrapper. It’s a delicate balance, but you get the hang of it after rolling a few of them.
Vietnamese Vegetarian Egg Rolls
Makes 25-30 egg rolls
500 g firm tofu
450 g carrots (about 3-4), julienned
50 g dried shitake mushrooms (about 7-8)
50 g beanthread noodles
2 tbsp dried woodear mushrooms
1 large onion, sliced
1.5 tsp salt (+/- to taste)
¾ tsp sugar
¼ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp potato starch
25-30 spring roll wrappers*
1 egg, beaten
In separate bowls, soak the shitake mushrooms, woodear mushrooms, and beanthread noodles in warm water until softened. Slice the shitake mushrooms after rinsing and draining them. Rinse the woodear mushrooms and drain them as well as the beanthread noodles. Then cut them into smaller pieces.
Thoroughly drain the tofu of its soaking liquid and place in a large bowl. Break the tofu up into smaller pieces, like crumbled feta. Then, place the tofu in a cheesecloth and squeeze out any excess liquid (similar to how you would prepare the tofu for this dish). Return the tofu to the bowl, add the julienned carrots, sliced onions, shitake mushrooms, woodear mushrooms, and beanthread noodles. Add the potato starch and season the filling with salt, sugar, and ground pepper. Mix thoroughly to ensure that the seasoning is evenly distributed. After mixing the ingredients with chopsticks, I then switch to mixing with my hands, gently squeezing the filling as I mix to soften the carrots a bit.
Rolling the egg rolls
Carefully peel a spring roll wrapper sheet from the stack and place it before you so that one of the ends is pointed towards you, like a rhombus. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the filling onto the sheet 2-3 centimeters from the corner pointing towards you. Fold the corner over the filling and tightly roll it one full rotation. Then fold each side over so that it looks like an elongated envelope. Continue to roll, being sure to roll it tight enough that it won’t fall apart. Seal the egg roll by brushing some of the beaten egg with your finger along the edges of the remaining corner.
The best way to fry these egg rolls is in a deep fryer, but I hate cleaning the fryer afterwards. So, I usually fry mine in batches over medium-high heat in a pot filled with at least 4-5 cm of cooking oil (enough oil so that the egg rolls are fully submerged when frying). To gauge if the oil is hot enough, insert a wooden chopstick and if the oil starts to bubble rapidly, then it’s ready. When putting the egg rolls into the pot, don’t overcrowd them. Allow them to cook until they they reach a light, golden color. Immediately, transfer the egg rolls into a fine-meshed sieve to cool.
The egg rolls are best served over vermicelli rice noodles and a bed of Vietnamese aromatic herbs with a drizzle of nước mắm sauce. Or if served as an appetizer, they can be eaten by wrapping them in lettuce and aromatic herbs and dipped in nước mắm sauce. For those who would like a truly animal-free version, my nước mắm sauce can be made with soy sauce instead of fish sauce.
It’s important to thoroughly drain the tofu, mushrooms and beanthread noodles of any excess liquid. Otherwise, the egg rolls will not remain crispy after frying. Also, the spring roll wrappers are usually sold frozen, so take them out of the freezer before you prepare the filling. By the time the filling is ready, the sheets should be defrosted. While rolling the egg rolls, keep the sheets covered with a lightly moistened dish towel to keep them from drying out.
*Authentic Vietnamese egg rolls use rice papper wrappers, but I use the Tee Yih Jia brand spring roll wrappers, which are also available at Asian grocery stores in the US. They’re much easier to work with than the rice paper, so I highly recommend this brand because the sheets are thin and the egg rolls always come out crispy. A package of 30 25cm sheets should suffice for this recipe.
Bonne dégustation & thanks for reading!