More than just an appetizer, the roll in Asian cooking is a conduit of proteins and veggies that is as essential as a pair of chopsticks. Like a tortilla for Latinos, a bao for Chinese or matzoh for Jews, rice paper holds that position of importance in Vietnamese cuisine.
There are six Vietnamese rolls that are not as well known as their cousin the egg roll. Each roll is accompanied by an appropriately paired dipping sauce, usually nuoc mam cham, a fish sauce mixture of lime juice, sugar, garlic and chile pepper, or tuong, a hoisin peanut sauce with a drop of sriracha or chile sambal.
Goi Cuon (also known as Spring Rolls)
The roll most familiar to non-Asian eaters may very well be the most boring. A traditional spring roll is filled with boiled shrimp, halved so they lie better in place; thinly sliced pork shoulder or belly, usually boiled or roasted; rice vermicelli; a sliver of cucumber; shredded lettuce; cilantro; sprouts; and fresh herbs all rolled up inside a piece of rice paper. It's the hoisin peanut sauce that makes this roll special. Many if not all pho restaurants that offer spring rolls don't actually use pork shoulder or belly, but rather a protein called cha lua (Vietnamese pork ham/roll). On top of that, the shrimp has disappeared from some restaurants' versions of goi cuon altogether, enabling them to add an another cost to a "shrimp spring roll."
Bi Cuon (sometimes called Summer Rolls)
Popular among Vietnamese eaters, bi cuon, are filled with shredded pork skin and pork meat, as well as lettuce and Vietnamese herbs. Bi cuon is a treat that usually shows up at every Vietnamese family's celebration buffet table. Summer rolls should be dipped in nuoc mam cham, which often has tangy strips of pickled daikon and carrots floating on top.
Bo Nuong Cuon (sometimes called Autumn Rolls)
This grilled meat roll can be found on some menus as an autumn roll.. The autumn roll is any kind that comes stuffed with grilled beef (bo nuong), grilled pork (thit nuong) or grilled chicken (ga nuong), along with the rice vermicelli, lettuce, herbs and sprouts. These rolls can be served with either the hoisin peanut or the nuoc mam cham sauce.
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Dau Hu Cuon
This a vegetarian version of the spring roll with fried tofu as the protein. Some places make a lemongrass-marinated fried tofu, which is much more flavorful. Strips of mango, carrots and cucumber have also been used as an alternative filler for these rolls.
Nem Nuong Cuon
This roll is very popular among Asian eaters. With no more seasons to name it after, the nem nuong cuon is, deliciously, known as the common best roll on the menu. It's filled with grilled marinated pork sausage, lettuce and herbs, and for a crispy kick, a rolled-up fried egg roll wrapper is added smack dab in the middle. This roll packs a "crunch" that is both satisfying in texture and full of flavor. The accompanying sauce is not as straightforward as the other two dips commonly available with other rolls. The nem nuong cuon sauce is prepared from dozens of ingredients, including egg, minced pork, crab paste, sweet rice and garlic, making it sweeter, thicker and all-around more interesting.
A less familiar roll is bo bia, which is a Vietnamese version of the Chinese roll popiah. This roll is filled with jicama, Chinese sausage (lap xuong), egg omelette and dried baby shrimp. It usually appears thinner and lighter than other rice paper rolls. With or without the hoisin peanut sambal, bo bia's proteins make this one more flavorful than the others. The components in bo bia are more accessible and easier to prepare than with the other rolls, thus making it one of the most common street foods in Vietnam.
Next time, skip the fried "egg," try something different and order one of these fresh rolls.