Vietnamese Spring Rolls

This has been my favorite meal since I was about 6, and something about it makes me excited. I grew up eating this with everything spread out on the newspaper-covered tile floor of my grandfather’s living room, surrounded by all my cousins, while all 16 of my Vietnamese aunts and uncles made sure that I ate enough to last me a week.

(Most of the ingredients that are not in a normal grocery store can be found very affordable at any asian/global market. Attached are links to pictures of my recommended brands)
Serves approx: 4-6.
Ingredients:
– 1 package Rice paper skins (like these here)
– 1 head Red leaf lettuce
– 1-2 lbs Beef
– 1 White onion
– 1 lb Shrimp, skinned and de-veined (optional)
– Fish filets (optional)
– 4 Carrots
– 1 package Fresh basil
– 3 handfuls of Bean sprouts
– 4 Roma tomatoes
– 1 bunch Green onions
– 1 bunch Cilantro
– 1 1/2 cups Roasted peanuts (preferably dry, no salt or other flavorings)
– 1 bottle of beer, for simmering the beef (optional)
Dipping Sauce
– 1/3 cup Fish sauce (photo)
– 1/3 cup Rice vinegar (photo)
– Chili paste (1 tsp/to taste) (photo)
– 1/3 cup Sugar
– Several cloves of fresh chopped garlic
– Very warm water
(If you want to make it like my family does, use 1 cup fish sauce, 1 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup vinegar instead of the quantities above. Yeah, pretty intense.)
Mix everything for the dipping sauce together in a glass pint jar, then fill the rest of the jar with warm water to dilute and dissolve the sugar. Spoon about 1/2 a cup into individual little bowls for dipping. Refrigerate after use.
WARNING: I wouldn’t recommend sniffing the fish sauce directly out of the bottle. It’s a bit…potent. There are stories from the Vietnam war of how US soldiers could smell the Vietnamese army 3/4 of a mile away because of this stuff.
Prep:
Slice the beef into approximately 1-inch X 3-inch slices, as thin as possible.
Wash, dry, and pull apart the leaf lettuce from the core. Leave as leafs, and place on a corner of a big serving tray.
Rinse the basil, bean sprouts, green onions, cilantro, and arrange all on the serving platter. Grate the carrots into a bowl (if you are doing this ahead of time, fill the bowl with water so the carrots won’t get brown. Drain when ready to eat.)
Slice the tomatoes into 1/4-inch wedges.
Crush the peanuts; a mortar and pestle works, as does a couple pulses in a blender.
There are several ways to cook the meat; you can pan fry, bbq, bake, whatever suits you. But traditionally, it is stewed in a pot of simmering water that has sliced up onions, a bit of salt, and sometimes a can of beer to keep it tender. The shrimp is also cooked this way. We used a rice cooker right on the table, it was a self-serve/self-cook kind of thing, and we cooked each kind of meat as needed.
Assembly:
Roll your sleeves up and roll out the paper towels. Submerge one rice paper skin in a big bowl of lukewarm water till both sides are wet. Let the excess water drip off, then put on a large flat plate (or directly on the table top). Begin with a piece of lettuce, say 3×4 in. Next layer two-three pieces of meat, then pile any or all of the rest of the vegetables in a long-ish rectangle way. I usually end with the crushed peanuts scattered on top. Roll up like a burrito, folding in the edges halfway to the end. The skin will soften as the water is absorbed, and it should stick to itself. Be careful not to stretch it too much, or it will tear.
Once you have a nice roll, dip it in the sauce and take a bite. If the sauce ends up running all the way down to your elbow, you know you’re doing it right. It requires skill to dip a roll without letting all the insides end up in your bowl, but I’ll let you discover your own special trick.
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