(Top) Closed-end rice paper rolls. (Bottom) Opened-end rice paper roll.
Rarely does a week go by when I don't use rice paper. Called bánh tráng, rice paper is among the main staples in the Vietnamese kitchen. Think of all the goi cuon rice paper rolls (a.k.a, summer rolls and salad rolls) and the sinfully delicious fried imperial rolls called cha gio that you've eaten. They're encased in translucent rice paper. If you're new to Vietnamese food, chances are that someone else pre-rolled the rice paper rolls for you. Ever thought of rolling your own?
If you’ve never wrapped with Vietnamese rice paper, don’t be daunted. Wrapping rice paper rolls is like making a burrito and you don’t have to be perfect. Buy some good rice paper (see rice paper buying tips for guidance) and then review these helpful hints before diving in:
Have water handy. To make rice paper pliable and usable, just use water. I typically fill a wide shallow bowl partway with water; a baking dish may be substituted. The water temperature depends on the type of rice paper. In general, thinner rice paper requires cooler water. When making hand rolls at the table, set out one or two communal dipping bowls for guests. If the papers require hot water, consider using a portable electric burner. Warm it up in advance and boil the water on the stove first. Then pour the hot water into a wide shallow pan and set it on the electric burner.
Dip by sliding or rotating. When dipping rice papers in water, aim to moderately wet (not completely softened) both sides. Horizontally slide or rotate each rice paper. If rice paper lingers in water for too long, it goes limp and may collapse on itself and stick. After dipping, put the paper on a flat work surface. If you’re making a bunch of rolls in advance of serving, work in batches and use a large work surface like a cutting board, inverted baking sheet, tray, or dishtowel. For do-it-yourself hand rolls that are part of a meal, have guests put wet rice papers on their dinner plates.
Wait for the right moment. After a rice paper is dipped, it takes a minute or two to fully soften and become usable. It’s ready for wrapping and rolling when it’s pliable and slightly tacky – like a Post-it note. Sip a beverage or have conversation as you wait. Dining Vietnamese style is a social activity and the wait time is great for gossiping, trading rice paper wrapping techniques, etc.
Wrap like a burrito. When wrapping with a rice paper circle, mentally divide it up into 3 — horizontal if you're doing the closed end method #1, and vertical if you're doing the open-end method #2. Center the filling in the bottom third or center, respectively. Bring the lower edge up over the filling, then fold in the two side flaps, and then roll the entire thing up. With triangles, position the curved edge closest to you and follow the same guidelines for positioning your filling and wrapping. Below are details for working with 8 1/2-inch-wide rice paper circles, the most common shape and size; if you use small or large circles of rice paper, the idea is just the same.
HOW TO WRAP RICE PAPER ROLLS
METHOD 1: CLOSED-ENDS RICE PAPER ROLLS
It's the classic presentation and very pretty. You horizontally place the filling ingredients.
Regardless of how you wrap something up in rice paper, remember to tear off the
stiff spine from the lettuce leaf before
laying it down on the rice paper, lest
your roll tears. Herb leaves
should be torn off their stem or torn into small
bite-size pieces. Also, don't over stuff or the roll may burst. How you layer
the ingredients does not matter too much, though do consider how
you want to experience the flavors. In general, ingredients should be
shaped as thin and long to conform to the shape of the roll.
After placing the filling, pull up the bottom flap of the rice paper, making sure you
go over the filling. Give it a full roll (photo #2) to make sure that the rice paper roll
is secure, then fold in the side flaps (photo #3). If you want to place
shrimp in the rolls (as for goi cuon salad/summer rolls), do it now, orange side
facing down. (You can also place the shrimp in before folding in the side flaps.)
Hard-core, traditional rice paper rollers may want to place some garlic chives (he)
after the shrimp are placed. After that, it's time to roll everything up to close. If
garlic chives are part of the roll, trim them with scissors so that there's
about 1-inch of garlic chive protruding (it's part of the charm).
That's a classic version of the goi cuon salad/summer rolls.
METHOD #2: OPENED-END RICE PAPER ROLLS
more into the rolls, they can be a bit sloppy and you can drizzle sauce right into the top.
Center the ingredients vertically, layered however you'd like,
positioned about 2 inches from the lower edged. Note that I've
added some pickled daikon and carrot for tang and crunch. The meat is
sliced leftover grilled lemongrass pork (same as above). Pull up the
bottom so there's good support. Then roll up the rice paper from
one side to the other (I go from left to right). You're done. Eat!
Final words of encouragement: If you mess up, remember that rice paper is forgiving. Plus, an 8- or 12-ounce package contains plenty of papers for you to practice with in your initial forays. Boo-boos are yours to eat!
Need something quick and easy for dipping your rice paper rolls? Try the basic Vietnamese fish sauce dipping sauce called nuoc cham.
A few things you can roll up in rice paper:
- Grilled Shrimp on Sugarcane (chao tom)
- Vietnamese Restaurant-style Grilled Lemongrass Pork (thit heo nuong xa)
- Korean-Vietnamese Grilled Pork Belly (add a few carbs for an extra layer of flavor!)
- Pickled daikon and carrot (do chua) adds nice tang
- Round rice noodles (Bun)
Also check the Recipe Index for more ideas.
If you need brand recommendations and guidance, see the rice paper buying tips post!
Have any special techniques to add? Don't hold them to yourself. Do share!