Now that you have a sense of how to buy rice paper and how to wrap rice paper rolls to create lovely summer rolls and cha gio imperial rolls, you may wonder if you should tackle making rice paper from scratch. It seems like an easy task as just a few simple ingredients -- rice, water, and salt are involved. So why not? Well, you may want to think again. I surely did when I first observed an artisanal banh trang producer in a small hamlet (it wasn't even an omelet!) outside of Phan Thiet (a city north of Saigon) in Vietnam.
She had been practicing her craft for decades and sitting in the same position for hours, day in and day out hurt, she told me. But, her livelihood and family depended on these skills, which she had honed to a seemingly effortless precision. Such level of culinary craftsmanship comes only from having done something tens of thousands of times. (You have to cook 1,000 steaks to know how to do them just right!)
"Our rice paper is made by hand and are bigger than normal so we can sell them at a higher price than the factory-made ones," she told me. We ate some of the fresh, hot rice sheets and they were delectable. I could not bring any back to the U.S. with me and now regret it. Here is how this woman makes Vietnamese rice paper:
Rice grinding: Soaked raw rice is ground with water into slurry by this very simple machine. The trough at the bottom of the bucket is made of stone. The grinding mechanism, which the family had obtained just a few years before, spins very quickly, so much so that the walls are splattered by the rice and water mixture.
Tangy addition: Nearby, there's a bit of thick old batter that is added to the slurry for a wonderful tang.
Making thin rice sheets: The banh trang maker sits on a low stool (a position that she said gets extremely tiring over time) to spread the batter onto a cloth that's stretched over a wide pot of boiling water. After the batter has been thinly spread (note the wide tool that she uses), a bamboo lid covers the rice sheet. The resulting rice sheet (sometimes also referred to as a rice crepe in English) is steamed for probably about 30 to 45 seconds.
Removing cooked rice sheet: A long narrow stick is used to lift and transfer the cooked rice sheet to a cooling "rack" (at far left corner). The cooling rack is a very wide convex (slightly domed) round bamboo rack with a cloth covering it. The rack spins around. Like as with a lazy Susan or roulette wheel, the banh trang maker gives the rack a spin and by the time the rack completes a full spin, the crepe is cool enough to handle.
(Thin, steamed rice sheets like these are called banh uot in Vietnamese. They may be served with a simple fish sauce dipping sauce or filled with a savory mixture of pork, shrimp and mushroom and rolled up into banh cuon -- a favorite Vietnamese breakfast item.)
Transferring to a drying rack: Another person then picks up the cooled rice crepe and places it on bamboo drying rack that resembles a narrow 6-foot-long stretcher. The two women work in this assembly line fashion to produce many rice papers each day.
Drying the rice paper: To dry the cooked rice sheets into rice paper, the racks are brought outside and placed under to hot sun for a day. The woven pattern of the racks gives the rice papers their distinctive appearance, which factory-made ones mimic. The dried, finished rice papers are stacked up, then tied into smaller stacks and taken to market. These rice papers, which were about 14-inches wide, are sold for a premium because they're made by hand.
These photos are from 2003 and I wonder if this woman is still making artisanal banh trang today.
- Guide to buying rice paper (brand recommendations, where to buy, how to pronounce banh trang)
- Step-by-step instructions on how to wrap rice paper rolls