Vietnamese summer rolls are the perfect party food—especially when herbs are going nuts in the garden. One of Chicago’s best chefs shares his secrets.

By Kara Elder
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Vietnamese cooking is built around family and communal eating, says chef Thai Dang, who owns HaiSous Vietnamese Kitchen in Chicago with his wife, Danielle. “In a country full of poverty, you don’t just eat for yourself, you eat with others. Everyone shares it.” A prime example: summer rolls, or gỏi cuốn (goy-KWOON), which make a seasonal appearance on his menu and are a personal favorite for casual get-togethers.

Summer rolls are rice paper-wrapped bundles of shrimp, pork and tofu with crisp vegetables and aromatic herbs—light, refreshing and quite different from fried Chinese and Vietnamese spring rolls. A warm, garlicky dipping sauce is key. Growing up, Dang’s mother made fermented, unfiltered fish sauce, while his sister made peanut hoisin sauce. "That one with summer rolls is divine," he says. "I'd eat that every day."

Dang likes to set out ingredients and outsource assembly to friends: “You sit around and just make your own and laugh about whose rolls are horrible or too big.” By the end of the night, you’ll be a pro.

Summer rolls.
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Step One: Fillings

For 24 summer rolls (serves 6 to 8 people), you’ll need 24 (8-inch) round rice papers, 24 lettuce leaves, 6 to 8 ounces cooked rice noodles, 1 pound medium shrimp, 12 to 14 ounces extra-firm tofu, 8 ounces pork belly, 1 English cucumber, 1 to 2 red or yellow bell peppers, and assorted fresh herbs.

Tips:

 Pork belly lends a fatty lusciousness to the rolls. Just simmer it for 45 minutes in salted water, then drain, cool and slice ¼ inch thick. Dang’s mom seasons the cooking liquid with ginger and keeps the broth for sipping.

• Slice peppers thinly.

• Cut the cuke into 4- to 5-inch-long matchsticks—then use them as a ruler to guide the length of your roll.

• Cut tofu crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Fry in 1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels and cut into batons.

• Poach peeled, deveined shrimp for 2 to 3 minutes in gently simmering water. Transfer to ice water to stop cooking. Halve lengthwise.

• Find rice paper at large supermarkets or Asian grocers. It’s stiff, like plastic, but becomes instantly sticky and pliable in water.

• For herbs, Thai or sweet basil, mint, and cilantro are a perfect trio, but Dang also likes to hit the Asian market for garlic chives.

Step Two: Sauce

In a small saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium-low heat. Add 2 cloves garlic, minced; cook, stirring, until lightly golden, about 1 minute. Whisk in 1/3 cup hoisin sauce and 3 tablespoons peanut butter. Add 2 to 4 tablespoons water to reach desired consistency. If you make the sauce ahead, reheat before serving.

Tip: Dang likes the added texture of chunky PB. Or you can garnish with chopped peanuts.

Step Three: Assembly

Fill a couple of medium bowls or pie plates with warm water and place on table. For each roll, dunk a rice paper in the bowl, rotating if needed to moisten all over. Shake off excess water and lay the paper on your plate with about ½ inch hanging off the edge closest to you. (That way, it’s easy to pick up the paper and start rolling.) Place fillings in center. Layer up in any order. (Dang likes lettuce and noodles first.) Just don't overfill, or the roll will burst.

Lift the edge of the paper away from you until it covers most of your filling. Fold the two sides in, then start to pull it toward you as you roll forward. Your goal is to be tight, but expect floppy rolls at first—consistency will come with practice.

Tip: When dunking a rice paper into a bowl, go fast. The rice paper should spend only about three seconds in the water. It’ll soften more as it’s being filled.

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Get to know: Thai Dang

Youngest of nine siblings. Emigrated in the 1980s. Marries fine dining and Vietnamese fare at HaiSous.

Chef Thai Dang.

Get a printable version of this recipe here.