My Favorite Food is Vietnamese Spring Rolls
But when I lived Vietnam, I discovered the actual dish is not what I expected.
For as long as I can remember, my favorite food has been gỏi cuốn, known outside of Vietnam as Vietnamese salad rolls, summer rolls, or fresh spring rolls.
Unlike Chinese spring rolls, Vietnamese spring rolls are served fresh, not deep-fried. They’re made with rice vermicelli noodles; roasted pork belly and boiled shrimp; vegetables including lettuce, shredded carrots, and/or bean sprouts; and herbs including cilantro, basil, lemongrass, chives, and/or mint. It’s all rolled up in a thin, moistened rice paper wrapping.
Salad rolls are usually served as an appetizer in Vietnamese restaurants, chilled or at room temperature, and eaten with a dipping sauce — either a thick, hoisin-y peanut sauce or a lighter one made with fish sauce, vinegar or lime juice, garlic, sugar, and peppers.
Why is this my favorite food?
May I direct the jury to the list of ingredients I just cited? All those flavors? How could this dish not be impossibly delicious?
But it’s also the incredible mix of textures: the crunchiness of the fresh herbs and vegetables; the plump richness of the meats; the pliability of the tightly packed noodles; and, of course, the viscous, tangy dipping sauces.
I no longer eat pork (for ethical reasons), but I really do love the combination of everything else. Indeed, my all-time second-favorite food is another Vietnamese dish, bánh xèo, also known as the Saigon crepe, which includes most of these ingredients, minus the noodles, pan-fried in a light egg wrapping.
I also like that Vietnamese salad rolls are light. After fifty-something years on this planet, I’ve finally come to understand that I like deep-fried food more in theory than I do in practice. Less is always more.
But salad rolls may be a case of more actually being more. According to a Vietnamese friend, this is not a dish that most Vietnamese make at home, at least not for casual meals. Why would they? Again, please review that long list of ingredients — and keep in mind that the noodles must be boiled, and the wraps must be prepared too.
In short, this is a really complicated dish that takes a lot of time to put together.
As such, the Vietnamese are more likely to order these rolls in restaurants or from street food vendors, where they’re always a popular offering.
On this general sentiment, I very much agree with the Vietnamese. To this day, when I’m ordering out in a restaurant, I lean hard toward the dishes that I can’t make myself at home. I’m always far less inclined to order pasta, even in Italy — to my own detriment, probably.
Outside of Vietnam — or in bigger Vietnamese cities — salad rolls come in different varieties: vegetarian, for example. Michael is a fan of chicken and avocado.
When it comes to food, I’m no purist. And like almost everyone who travels widely, I find the notion of “appropriating” another culture’s cuisine to be fairly ridiculous. Almost every cuisine and food item on Earth is, of course, a wild and glorious mix of influences from immigrants and also the surrounding cultures and cuisines.
That said, I’m also aware of what a cultural and economic behemoth America has become, and that humility and respect are always good things.
All this said, I still prefer the “classic” salad roll — shrimp, sans pork these days, but with everything else they can cram into that sucker.
When Michael and I lived in Vietnam for three months in 2019, I was expecting to love the food — especially the salad rolls.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered something disappointing and a little shocking: the Vietnamese don’t shell their shrimp — not when grilled, not when boiled.
Yes, you’re reading this correctly: in Vietnam, salad rolls come rolled up with unshelled shrimp. Sometimes the legs are still even attached! You can find shelled shrimp in Vietnam, but mostly only in the restaurants catering to tourists.
As chance would have it, the best Chinese spring rolls I’ve ever eaten also included unshelled shrimp. But these were, of course, deep-fried, which is a different situation.
I lived in Vietnam for three months, but I never got used to unshelled shrimp in my salad rolls. Did I take the shrimp out of the roll, de-shell it, and put it back in again? If I did this, the whole thing became impossibly messy — and always drew confused stares. But if I didn’t do it, it tasted, well, very, very chewy.
Anyway, here I was, living in the birthplace of my all-time favorite food dish, and I didn’t really dig what was being offered. Even at the time, I was certain that this should have resulted in a major life-lesson.
I did learn a major culinary lesson: just because something is more “authentic,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better — because, of course, “better” is subjective. Taste and sensibilities can be relative, like everything else.
One night in Vietnam, this lesson was underlined when Michael and I went to a local restaurant and ordered their “signature” dish, which was chicken with herbs and lemongrass, fire-roasted inside a banana leaf.
Sounds great, right?
It turned out to be the whole chicken — as in, bones and heads and beaks and feet. The poor thing looked like it had been roughly hacked apart with a huge cleaver. The bones even had sharp edges.
No disrespect to the Vietnamese, who are lovely people, and environmentally speaking, I absolutely support meat-eating humans using every part of any animal they butcher.
But this particular dish was, uh, a bridge too far for an unsophisticated plebeian like I.
In the end, my time in Vietnam did teach me a major travel lesson: the best, most interesting aspects of any trip are almost never what you expect.
When we arrived in Vietnam, I was expecting to be in salad roll heaven, but I ended up very disappointed in that respect. But I did discover that the town where we were living, Hội An, was famous for something called white rose dumplings — lovely little dumplings that look like small roses, said to be boiled only in the water from one particular well.
And Hội An, Vietnam, was also the location of an Indian restaurant with the best Indian food I’ve still ever had.
Hey! I just realized that maybe the life-lesson here is about travel:
Life, by definition, is full of surprises. But when you travel, the surprises are more frequent — and often more interesting.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at www.BrentHartinger.com.