When I first started eating Vietnamese food I was impressed with how often fresh uncooked herbs were used when compared to other Asian cuisines. And the quantity! Fresh herbs are used almost like salad instead of seasoning. Once when Lee and I were eating soup in a Vietnamese restaurant the owner came by to tell us about each of the fresh herbs that should be added to our bowls. He explained that one was for your stomach, another for your blood circulation, etc. We had thought of herbs as flavoring, but for our host, it was quite another story.
Fresh herbs are commonly found in the Vietnamese sandwiches, in Vietnamese noodle soup "pho" and also in summer rolls "goi cuon". If Vietnamese cuisine only consisted of those three items I'd be happy, but of course there is much, much more to try.
While I prefer going out for Vietnamese soup and sandwiches, making Vietnamese summer rolls is fun to do at home. They are full of fresh crispy raw vegetables and herbs and make a great appetizer or light meal. Unlike Chinese egg rolls, they are not fried but wrapped up in a rice wrapper that is made pliable by soaking in water. These disks look and feel like plastic but are very tender after a quick bath. Like other kinds of wrapping, filo dough and tortillas to name a few, using the wrappers takes some practice. But once you get the hang of it you can endlessly vary the fillings. On the web site for a large Asian grocery store I found a great step-by-step explanation of how to make these rolls with pictures to illustrate the method of wrapping them up.
Here is the version I like to make, and it is good with or without shrimp:
Fresh Summer Rolls (Vietnamese style)
3/4 lb shrimp
1 Tablespoon Chinese chili garlic sauce
1/2 cup julienne carrots
1 cup mung bean sprouts
1 cup julienne seeded cucumber
1 cup slivered green onions
2 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs, optional
1/4 cup fresh mint
Rice paper wrappers (bahn trang)
Sauce for dipping
2 Tablespoon brown sugar
3 Tablespoon smooth peanut butter
3 Tablespoon hoisin sauce
3 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup water
Mix until smooth
Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup water
1 T fish sauce
2 T lime juice
1 T brown sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
Mix until well combined
Marinate the shrimp in the chili garlic sauce for one half hour, then broil until just cooked through. Slice in half lengthwise when cool. Mix all the vegetables in large bowl. Add the rice wine vinegar. Dip one rice paper wrapper into cold water. Shake off excess water. Place three or four shrimp halves on the rice paper, then on top put a couple tablespoons of vegetable filling and finally the fresh herbs and wrap like a burrito. Repeat with remaining filling and rice paper wrappers. You can serve these with a peanut sauce or a Vietnamese dipping sauce.