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The Familial Vietnamese Ritual of Making Spring Rolls

Nem rán (fried spring rolls), or just nem for short, has been a part of life in Hanoi since forever. Whenever I think of this dish, I think of my mother. That is because only nem made at home by my mother is the really best nem. That is something ingrained in me since I was still a child.

Although the dish is commonly found in festive feasts and popular street food stalls, like those that serve bún chả and nem cua bể (crab meat spring rolls), I am still disinclined to accept the deliciousness that is felt on the tongue but not in the heart — something is missing there, something that cannot be replaced. Maybe my feeling is inspired by nostalgia, like the feeling in Trinh Cong Son’s songs.”

These are the words, as translated from Vietnamese, of Le Phuong Lien, a children’s book author who was born in Hanoi before the war started and enjoyed a short but peaceful childhood in the capital, full of the joys of Tet and the busy weeks of preparation that precede it. The spring roll, as its name suggests, is an indispensable part of the array of food that people in Hanoi make to celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year and the coming of spring.

Elements in a Roll

For Lien, nem is tasty from the moment someone in the family makes an earnest announcement that we are going to make them. It is an invitation for excitement because there are so many things to do: wash bean sprouts, slice carrots, soak and cut noodles and mushrooms, chop and grind pork, beat an egg and then mix it all together. This leads to a lot of people working together in the kitchen and quality family time.

Fresh, unfried spring rolls, also known as 'summer rolls.' Photo by Brandon Coleman.

Each family has their own preference for what goes into the mixture specifically; there is no universal recipe. It can be modified to fit every season, region or palate. The minced pork can be replaced with minced chicken, crab, shrimp, or shiitake mushrooms for a vegetarian option. The vegetables can be anything from bean sprouts and carrots to kohlrabi or jicama. Glass noodles and wood-ear mushrooms are an essential pair in many northern dishes, but not so popular in other regions of Vietnam.

The colorful mixture, Lien says, can be said to symbolize the five elements of the world according to ancient Chinese philosophy, and can even promise a fulfilling life for the year ahead. And because of the dish’s flexibility, every daughter can carry her mother’s recipe with her to a new family, sometimes to a new land, where people adjust the meal to new preferences and ingredients. No nem, therefore, are the same. The only thing to unite all differences is the outer layer of the roll, which wraps the mixture inside.

The Rice Paper

I used to wonder at this significant achievement of the Vietnamese people and the distinctive method of processing rice. It is no longer plain grains but re-formed into a white liquid, which is spread out skilfully by hand into a paper-thin layer on the lid of a pot of boiling water and steamed on the spot.

When dried in the sun, it becomes rice paper, as sturdy as film wrappers, yet when drenched in water again, it returns to a soft, chewy state, making it perfect for rolling. When deep fried, this same rice paper, having gone through so many changes, finally becomes the crunchy treat that makes nem so irresistible.

There is a reason why nem is also a namesake for rice paper in northern Vietnam: while bánh tráng may refer to many different types of rice paper used in various dishes in southern cuisine, bánh đa nem, in Hanoi, applies specifically to spring rolls, honoring the role it occupies in people’s memories.

Lien recalls that, during the historic Lunar New Year of 1968, she and her mother were living in a village near Hanoi as the city’s residents were being evacuated from the bombings. Despite the tough conditions of war, her mother managed to bring some torn pieces of rice paper from Hanoi and mended them using handmade rice flour to ensure her family still had proper, whole nem to enjoy for dinner and celebrate the new year.

The Finishing Touch

Knowing how to roll nem would be one of the top skills in a test named “What makes you a Vietnamese person?” Yet the truth is, there is no correct way to do that either. The shape and size of the roll vary from one person to another.

Crispy fried spring rolls. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

Some prefer a long roll that’s cut into bite-sized pieces when served, the way you would cut maki sushi. Some prefer no cutting at all and make smaller rolls that fit the size of a rice bowl. Some squeeze the ingredients tightly so the rice paper becomes thinner, the nem almost bursting. Some take a more relaxed approach and allow more air inside the roll, so the paper takes more space and becomes crunchier. The key, as always, is to aim for balance.

The final stage of making nem is to fry the whole batch, which could be hundreds of rolls, especially in the run-up to Tet. This is hard work requires full concentration to ensure the rice paper browns without burning, while also ensuring the inside is properly cooked. It takes skills and patience – standing beside a pan of simmering oil for hours is simply not fun. The only reward is in the eating, when everyone gathers to cherish the result of their combined hard work.

To enjoy the finest nem, you can’t skip nước chấm — the special dipping sauce that combines all tastes: sweetness from sugar, sour lime or vinegar, salty fish sauce, and spicy garlic and chili. Overall, its flavor is subtle and light, hitting all spots without one ingredient overpowering another. This is a specific feature of northern cuisine, the lightness and subtlety of flavor, which is sometimes considered “bland” compared to stronger and thicker flavors of central os Southern cuisines. The light nước chấm, however, complements the heavily stuffed spring rolls perfectly, mitigating their sumptuous greasiness.

The pairing of nem and Tet is not as well-known, for the rolls are only one of many different dishes on the dinner table. They may not look as significant as infamous bánh chưng or a tray of colorful, sweet mứt, yet it will always be there, on every family’s table, a shared memory of Tet that is unique in every home. 

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