If you have eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant more than a few times, you have probably encountered this particular item in one appetizer dish or another. These semi-translucent circles are made from a very thin batter made with rice flour that is poured into bamboo trays and then dried, usually in the sun. The trays are generally made with a lattice of bamboo and this leaves a visible impression on the dried sheets, as you can see above. The dried discs originate in Vietnam, where they are known as ‘Bánh tráng’, and I have always thought this is probably a better name for them, even in the west, as ‘rice paper’ actually has several different (non-culinary) meanings.
Rice paper was, for a long time, generally only available in Asian stores in larger urban centers in the west, but they have become much more widely available these days. They actually come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and there are even types with different textural and flavor additives like sesame seeds, or dried shrimp to be found. For this post, however, we will be focusing on the basic form, which is the most widely known and commonly available…
The typical use for the wrappers is in the making of the cold appetizer rolls known, in Vietnamese, as ‘Goi Cuon’. It is possible, however, to lightly fry the rolls, but this is less commonly seen. The rolls pictured above were served to me not long ago at a Vietnamese restaurant, where they actually appeared on the menu simply as ‘Salad Rolls’. These were stuffed with shrimp, chicken, salad greens and vermicelli. Vegetarian rolls are often served, but the filling can be just about anything, and Vietnamese herbs, cooked beef, as well as eggs are often used.
Nuoc Cham, or other fish sauce based condiments, are commonly served on the side for dipping but, again, the possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the cook. The ones above were served with a peanut sauce of the type you often see served alongside Satays.
In order to use the wrappers, they need to be moistened in order to make them soft and pliable. The quickest way is simply to dip them into a bath of warm water for 4 or 5 seconds. You need to shake off excess drops as you remove each wrapper and then let them sit for a moment or two on your preparation surface. It is easy to overdo the soaking but you can easily get the trick a couple of tries.
Another method is to cover the sheets with a damp cloth for a minute or two. This is a bit slower than the water bath method but it is effective and you can more easily control the speed of softening. This is probably the best method if you are going to fry your rolls.
Forming rolls is fairly straightforward. The above picture doesn’t show actual rolls being made as the shrimp are frozen and have their tails still attached. I have simply used then to show the basic process. Essentially, you lay the filling just below the center of a moistened sheet, fold both sides over towards the center, then roll from the bottom towards the top. Unless you are frying, you will want to serve the rolls quite quickly after they are made as the wrapper will begin to dry out in no time at all.