Let me just start off by being honest: Buying rice paper confounds me. Whenever I have to purchase rice paper (bánh tráng) I find myself standing in the Chinese or Vietnamese market staring at the various brands. There are things that I look for in the labeling and there are brands that I prefer. However, there are usually so many different brands and several kinds that it’s hard to choose. Plus, hyper-competitive entrepreneurial manufacturers constantly tweak their products to attract customers so there seems to be something new to consider and try every time I shop for rice paper. Because I’m curious by nature, I tend to buy several kinds and test drive them.
Last week Laura C. asked me about how to buy rice paper for rice paper rolls that she fills with seared ahi tuna. (Sounds delish, no?) When I inventoried my cupboard and refrigerator, I discovered that I had 12 (!!) kinds of rice paper in various shapes, sizes, and composition. I purchased most of them in the U.S. but also have some that I brought back from Vietnam. There are many partially opened packages and each one brings back a cooking memory – mostly good and some disasters. So I’m taking time out to write about one of the most important ingredients in the Vietnamese kitchen.
Since my mom and I eat lots of goi cuon (unfried rice paper rolls that are often translated as salad or summer rolls) cha gio (fried rice paper rolls often referred to as Vietnamese spring rolls), and meals during which we make hand rolls with rice paper, we are always sharing tips on what brand of rice paper is good. Some of you may need guidance as well or have advice to share.
What is rice paper?
Basically, rice paper is a thin steamed rice crepe (or sheet, as some people call them) that has been dried. Traditionally, rice paper gets dried on bamboo mats or stretchers of sorts, which explains why they have a woven, rattanlike pattern. Rice paper is a great way to store rice for a long time and it is convenient too. Right before using, it is rehydrated and softened in warm or hot water. Vietnamese rice paper is a cooked ingredient and once rehydrated, it can be eaten as is or fried. It is not for baking so don't think it can be used like phyllo pastry!
Can you make rice paper at home?
No. Vietnamese people buy rice paper just as French people buy baguettes. It’s a specialty ingredient made by artisanal producers by hand or manufactured in modern factories by machines. Most people now use factory-made rice paper.
How do you say rice paper in Vietnamese?
Download the Vietnamese pronunciation for bánh tráng
Where do you buy Vietnamese rice paper?
The best selection will be at a Vietnamese market or Chinese market. Many health food store and specialty markets now carry rice paper so do check there in the Asian food aisle. If you have no access to Vietnamese rice paper, consider buying them online.
What to look for when buying Vietnamese rice paper?
Select a type of rice paper -- all rice, tapioca and rice, or all tapioca rice paper? Rice paper nowadays is much easier to work with than the ones of the past, which were thick, made of just rice, water, and salt, and required super hot water to soften. That’s changed in the recent past as producers have blended in some tapioca starch to make the papers more pliable and thinner. I like these modern renditions as they soften easier. When shopping for rice paper, look for ones made with rice or a combination of rice and tapioca starch. The more rice that’s in the papers, the more opaque and thicker they are. Papers made with rice and tapioca starch are on the translucent side and seem loftier in their packaging; these thinner ones conveniently soften in warm or lukewarm water, whereas the thicker ones need hotter water.
Avoid the super thin, see-through, all-tapioca starch papers. They lack the tang of rice, go limp in a flash, and tear easily; they’re often labeled bánh tráng dẻo (soft and pliable rice paper) or bánh tráng mỏng (thin rice paper). In English, they're oten labeled tapioca sheets. These rice paper are for skilled cooks who know how to manipulate them well. Some people like all-tapiocal starch papers because rolls made from them stay soft for hours. I don't like their flavor and they're notoriously difficult to tame.
Trust the Red Rose brand of rice paper. The reliable Red Rose brand is borrowed by many producers as a symbol of quality. The impostors are often quite good so don’t shy away from them.
Three Ladies brand is my preferred brand. I’ve been using the Three Ladies Brand for years, and it’s been good to me. When I teach cooking classes, that is the brand I use because it's easy for beginners to use and experienced cooks like it too. Plus, there are no impostors -- at this time, anyway. The small size (think corn tortilla) rice papers from Three Ladies are hard to find but really great for small rolls. See the photo at the top for the logo and regular and small sizes.
Buy what the store carries when shopping at a regular market. I like to assume that rice paper sold at mainstream and specialty markets, such as Whole Foods Market, have been screened for shoppers. You’re likely to get a quality product at such places.
Pay more when in doubt. Select the higher priced rice paper and buy several kinds to try them out. They’re not expensive. Asian ingredient manufacturers are very competitive and a 25 cents difference matters in quality.
How to store rice paper?
Keep it in the cupboard and once the package is opened, store it in a zip-top plastic bag in the cupboard where they will last for several years.
Foods that can be wrapped 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!)
- Check the Recipe Index listing of all recipes on this site for more ideas
Next up: Step-by-step how to wrap rice paper rolls, some unusual types of rice paper, and artisanal rice paper making.
Feel free to add tips (do you have a brand you like? why?, insights and/or questions below!