Twenty years ago, as a new college grad setting up my own household, I asked my mom for her recipe for Vietnamese spring rolls. Hers was the best I’ve ever tasted. Her sister, my aunt, also agreed no one else could make them as good. They were present at every celebration; my engagement party, out-of-town guests, 4th of July barbeque, Thanksgiving, or Christmas.
Cha goi, pronounced “chai-yawh”, is smaller, crisper, and less dough than Chinese egg rolls. The authentic version use rice paper for the outer wraps but today many Vietnamese cooks prefer spring roll wrappers that are thinner than egg roll wrappers and tend to tear less.
My Vietnamese-born mother’s technique combined the stuffing’s ingredients and allowed to meld overnight to deepen flavors. My father would wake up early the next morning and fold them into perfect little rolls. After 40 years of marriage the white boy from Idaho had become a pretty good roller. The rolling part is time consuming, so she’d often make extra batches to freeze for future meals.
My mom has been gone for 6 years. She died suddenly a week before Thanksgiving. Between her and her 2 sisters, it was her turn to host the family dinner that year. We gathered at my aunt’s house in a show of family solidarity and attempt for normalcy after the sudden shock of loss. My father was dismayed when he couldn’t find her cha gios in the freezer. It was at that moment that his pent up emotions came out. He cried. A symbol of her nurturing was missing. After a week of numbness, it had finally sunk in for him that she was truly gone.
Since I’ve had her recipe, I’ve only made them twice. I’ve avoided making them because my version doesn’t taste as good. This year, I offered to try again for a friend’s Super Bowl party. After referring to her recipe, I notice that she omitted (purposely?) some key ingredients. Did she do this intentionally or was it her style of measuring ingredients in her hands or by sight?
Luckily, I recall the ingredients and technique from watching her cook with awe and fascination over the years. Like most great cooks, she kept her recipes in her head and cooked from her heart.
A quick search on youtube.com confirms that there is more than one way to wrap cha gio. Just like the American hamburger or pizza, each family or restaurant have their own favorite combination of ingredients and recommended cooking techniques. Consulting several Vietnamese cookbooks, all with slight variations, I’ve devised the following recipe.
It might not be exactly like mom’s but it’s pretty close. I think of her when I mix, roll, fry, eat and share them. Isn’t that what really matters?
INGREDIENTS - mix all together in large bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator overnight before rolling.
1 lb. Ground pork
8 oz. Shrimp, cleaned, shelled, devined, minced
4 oz. Crab meat, minced
1 med. Carrot, shredded
1 med. Onion, minced
3-5 Black Chinese mushrooms, soaked in hot water for a few minutes then minced
1 1/2 oz. Mung bean vermicelli noodle, soaked & diced
1 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. Pepper
WRAPPING and DEEP FRYING
Spring roll wrappers, 8-inch squares cut in half into triangles.
Vegetable oil, for frying
Place wrapper on surface with long side facing you (and tip pointing away). Place a heaping tablespoon (almost 1/4 c.) of stuffing mixture near the bottom of the wrapper. Take sides, one at a time, and fold over mixture heap. Starting from the bottom, begin rolling upwards towards the point. You can either seal with lightly beaten egg white or a paste of flour and water before sealing. Place finished roll single layer in container. Place plastic wrap between layers. My mom would freeze the rolls before frying. No need to thaw before frying. But you can fry at this stage as well.
Fry on med. high until golden brown. Drain on paper towels or metal racks. Serve with nuoc mam dipping sauce.