Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Bánh Mì Hôi An's Spring Rolls, Peanut Sauce, and Nuoc Cham

Are you still lolling on your couch in a Thanksgiving food coma? Brace yourself! Chanukah and potato latkes hit this weekend and then comes Christmas, followed by New Years.

You need a culinary break. A meal that will feel refreshing with bright flavors. A meal that will give your overworked tummy a bit of a reprieve from richness but still leave you satisfied--even happy.

That's where spring rolls come in. They're fresh and light. They're pretty easy for home cooks to make. And they really pack a lot of flavor in a convenient package.

Spring rolls can be found across Asia. But I'm going to share with you the Vietnamese version made by Duy Nguyen, the owner of the relatively new and delightful Bánh Mì Hôi An on Rosecrans in Point Loma. I was introduced to it by my friend, chef Jack Monaco, and immediately set about organizing a cook date with Nguyen, which Jack also participated in.

Nguyen, who opened the restaurant in July, is a long-time enthusiastic home cook. It started back in the '90s when he was a student at UCSD. His dish was pasta and his roommates were grateful. Then he started gathering Vietnamese recipes from his mother, who was from the French resort town of Dalat in a mountain region near Saigon.

Nguyen himself left Vietnam with his parents when he was 11. He had grown up under the communist regime and, not surprisingly, was taught Russian in school as a child. His father, an officer in the South Vietnamese army, was sent to a re-education camp for six years. The family spent the  five years trying to escape Vietnam and when they were caught, the child Duy was jailed for what was perhaps a few weeks. He can't really remember. The family finally was able to get to Thailand in 1986, escaping through Cambodia via a fishing boat, and they stayed in a Thai refugee camp for about a year before moving on to the Philippines.

"We were placed in a refugee camp near the U.S. base," Nguyen explained. "The orientation was on American life so we would be acclimated when we finally arrived."

By then he was 15 years old. The family settled in San Diego where extended family had already moved, and Nguyen eventually enrolled in UCSD as an engineering student before switching to economics. He pursued a career in management consulting, working in the oil and gas business. After earning his MBA at Cal State San Marcos, Nguyen worked for a debt management company, all the while cooking at home, for church fundraisers, and family parties. It took a leap of faith, but he chucked his management job and opened his fast casual restaurant last summer.

Bánh Mì Hôi An, of course, features banh mi sandwiches on the menu. But there are also a variety of vermicelli salads, grilled meats served with jasmine rice, spring and summer rolls, pork skewers, marinated tofu, crispy fried chicken wings, and a fabulous cold cut sampler plate--with the cold cuts all house made.

But let's stick with the spring rolls.
It can be overwhelming for the unfamiliar to figure out which brands and products to buy. These are what Nguyen recommends. You can find them at Vietnamese markets or 99 Ranch Market.
Among the ingredients you'll need are rice paper, 41-50 size shrimp, pork loin, vermicelli (rice noodles), green leaf lettuce, mint leaves, and, if you like, bean sprouts, whole chives, cucumber, carrots, peanuts, and daikon. Want to add some crunch? Pick up some egg roll wrappers, roll them individually and fry them.

Oh, and to make it easy to get the size uniform, pick up an 8 X 10-inch cutting board with a ridge around the edge. Nguyen uses one, placing the ingredients between the ridges to keep them the same size.

You have to work fairly quickly on spring rolls, so you'll want to have everything prepped and ready to go. The vermicelli needs to be cooked like pasta in salted boiling water for about 20 minutes. You'll want to bring another pot of water to the boil to cook first the shrimp and then, with the addition of salt and fish sauce, the pork loin, which will boil for about 15 minutes. You could also substitute the pork with chicken and instead add a couple of slices of ginger.

And, don't toss the liquid after you've cooked the meat. It's the makings of a great soup, Nguyen said.

Once everything is prepped and laid out--you'll have sliced the shrimp in half lengthwise. sliced the cooled pork, keep the rice noodles in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, fill a large bowl with hot water for dipping the rice paper, and have your herbs and vegetables prepped--you can get to the filling and rolling.

Step one is a quick dip of the rice paper into that bowl of very hot water. Dip it and do one turn. Your goal is to keep it stretchy, not soggy.

Then place the rice paper on the cutting board. Layer three shrimp slices, the outside on the bottom, then three pork slices below. Top with a leaf of green leaf lettuce, then four mint leaves and whatever other herbs or vegetables you like and/or the fried egg wrapper--just don't overfill. You'll end with about 1.5 ounces of the cooked vermicelli spread across the other ingredients.

And here's Nguyen demonstrating the actual rolling process:

And, here's how it should look:

I still need practice. I made the long one in the middle. 
Pretty cool, huh?

Here's Jack Monaco turning his hand at the process:

Now you need a couple of dipping sauces. Nguyen shared both his peanut sauce and nuoc cham, which are very simple to make.

One last word about the spring rolls. If you're not going to serve them immediately, roll each in plastic wrap so they won't dry out or stick to one another. Here's a tip: fold the edge of the plastic wrap back and over so you'll have an easier time finding it and unrolling it.

Spring Rolls
from Duy Nguyen of Bánh Mì Hôi An
Yield: 6 rolls
(printable recipe)

18 shrimp, cooked or raw, 41-50 (or small--but not bay--shrimp)
1 pound pork loin, with fat left on
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 package 903 vermicelli
6 sheets rice paper
6 leaves green leaf lettuce
24 mint leaves
6 egg roll wrappers, rolled and fried (optional)
Carrots, daikon, cucumber, sliced into thin sticks (optional)
Bean sprouts (optional)
Crushed peanuts (optional)


Bring a large pot of water to the boil. If the shrimp is raw, add them briefly until they turn pink. Remove and let cool. Add the fish sauce and salt to the water and add the pork loin. Boil for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool.

Bring another pot of water to the boil. While the water is heating, rinse the rice noodles in cold water until the water runs clear to remove starch. Boil the vermicelli per the package directions. Remove the noodles from the water, drain, and place in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.

Slice the shrimp in half lengthwise and thinly slice the pork loin. Set aside. Set out the rest of the ingredients you're going to add to the roll.

In a bowl of very hot water, dip then turn one sheet of rice paper. Place on a cutting board. Start layering, first with three pieces of shrimp across the center of the wrapper, outer side on the bottom.  Then place three slices of pork across the rice paper just below the shrimp. Top with the leaf of lettuce, mint leaves, bean sprouts, egg roll wrappers, or whatever else you want, and finally the vermicelli.

Gently pull the bottom of the rice paper up and over the ingredients and firmly tuck in. Then start rolling. Pull in each side to the middle and finish rolling, tucking in as you continue. Think of it like rolling a burrito.

Set aside until you've made all six. Then serve with sauces or wrap in plastic and refrigerate.

Peanut Sauce
from Duy Nguyen of Bánh Mì Hôi An
Yield: 1 1/4 cup
(printable recipe)

1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup coconut water or Sprite
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup peanut butter--creamy or crunchy


Whisk ingredients together or blend in a blender or small food processor. When ready to serve top with Sriracha sauce and crushed peanuts.

Peanut Sauce will be good refrigerated for a week.

Nuoc Cham
from Duy Nguyen of Bánh Mì Hôi An
Yield: 4 cups
(printable recipe)

This is a very versatile sauce. Not only is it a great dipping sauce but if you add some oil and more vinegar you have a salad dressing. Or, as is, use it to pickle vegetables.

1/2 cup fish sauce
1 cup sugar
2 cups warm water
1/2 cup distilled vinegar or fresh lime juice (to taste)
Juice of 1 or 2 kumquats if available
1 clove garlic, crushed (optional)

Mix together ingredients. Add chili paste to taste when serving at the table. Can last for months refrigerated.

Bánh Mì Hôi An is located at 3145 Rosecrans St., Suite A in Point Loma (next to the Bookstar  bookstore).

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