Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Vietnamese’s ingenious use of ground rice led to the creation of rice paper, a unique product of Vietnam that today is used as the wrappers of two national dishes: Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (summer or salad rolls) and fried spring rolls (imperial rolls). The imperial rolls go by different names depending on the region: chả giò in the south and nem rán in the north. Adding to the confusion, Vietnamese Americans began calling them egg rolls even though they are not made with Chinese wheat-based egg-roll wrappers. Created as a food for celebration, chả giò often serve as an appetizer at family gatherings. They are also one of the most popular street foods in Vietnam.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

The Rice Paper

Rice paper is notoriously laborious to make from scratch. The thin liquid mixture is spread over a piece of muslin in a steamer, then transferred to a bamboo mat to dry in the sun, which gives it an almost transparent look and beautiful imprinted basket-weave pattern. Vietnamese rice papers are much thinner than other styles of rice paper you will find at Asian supermarkets in the US. They only need to be rehydrated with a quick dip in water or moistened with fruits and herbs instead of requiring a soak before use. Soaking them too long can cause them to be too sticky or mushy to shape properly.  

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When it comes to rice paper wrappers for chả giò, three styles exist: rice flour mixed with a small amount of tapioca that prevents it from tearing when wet; all tapioca flour (so, really not “rice” paper at all); and netted rice paper wrappers made from vermicelli noodles called chả giò rế.

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My favorite style of wrapper is chả giò rế because it fries up beautifully with a golden hue and perfect crunch. However, chả giò rế is not widely available. Whenever I find some, I always stock up and keep them in my freezer for months. Since you may not be able to find chả giò rế, I tested both the rice-based and tapioca-based wrappers and found that the tapioca-based rice paper wrappers were more pliable when wet, but there wasn’t much difference between the two when it came to frying.  Both work well in this recipe, but tapioca-based wrappers will be easier to roll.

The Dipping Liquid

Unlike Chinese wheat-based wrappers, rice and tapioca wrappers take longer to brown; thus, the dipping liquid benefits from added carbohydrates, in the form of starch or sugar, to speed up the browning process. My mom uses a one-to-one ratio of water to beer or soda (she prefers 7-Up or ginger ale). When I don’t have any carbonated beverages on hand, I substitute by dissolving two tablespoons of sugar into one cup of warm water.  

The Filling

The classic chả giò filling includes carrot, jicama, wood ear mushroom, cellophane noodles, ground pork, shrimp, and aromatics like shallot, scallion, and garlic. Northern Vietnamese tend to use kohlrabi and bean sprouts. Other add-ins include taro, mung bean, shiitake mushroom, ground chicken, crabmeat, tofu, and even snail meat. Each family has their own recipe. 

To keep chả giò crispy, it’s important to minimize the amount of moisture in the filling. Since jicama holds a lot of moisture, I  squeeze out any excess liquid before mixing it into the filling. The same goes for the rehydrated wood ear mushrooms and cellophane noodles. Once the filling is combined, I cook off a small amount of the filling to taste-test either by sauteing or microwaving until cooked through, and adjust the seasoning before filling the rolls. 

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Rolling chả giò is an art in itself. Chả giò in Saigon tend to be shorter and rounder, while nem rán in Hanoi look elongated, like cigars. I’ve written this recipe for the shorter and rounder style. But you can make thinner rolls in the style of nem rán by using half the amount of filling per roll. 

Wrapping the filling too loosely results in bursting when they hit the hot oil, but rolling them too tightly will burn the outside before the filling is cooked. When rolling, it’s best to keep them snug to avoid any large air bubbles. To make them uniform and easier for frying, I add 1/4 cup of filling in each roll, then shape it into a compact log before folding and rolling. Another trick you can use is to spread the filling in an even layer on a rimmed quarter baking sheet, pack it down to compress and refrigerate until chilled and firm. Once firm, you can cut through the filling to make equal 4 1/2 -inch by 1 1/2-inch logs that can be scooped up and transferred to the wrappers for shaping and rolling.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Frying Fun

My aunt, Co Ngoan of Tamarind Tree Restaurant in Seattle, utilizes a double-fry method for large batches of chả giò to keep them crispy. For a large party, she does the first fry, then refrigerates chả giò until she needs them for the second fry. The first fry requires a low temperature of 325°F (160°C), and the second time at higher temperature between 350 to 375°F (175 to 190°C) to crisp them up. I found in my recipe testing at home for a smaller batch of about 14 total rolls, that a single fry at 350°F ( 175°C) for 8 to 10 minutes produced imperial rolls with a golden  crispy interior and a well cooked and juicy filling.

When chả giò hits the hot oil, the rice paper immediately blisters and puffs like a frog croaking. These bubbles appeal to the kid in me and I’m always tempted to poke at them with my chopsticks. But resist the urge! These bubbles are a useful guide when frying. After adding one roll, wait a few seconds for the bubbles on the wrapper to settle down before adding a second roll to the hot oil. This helps prevent the sticky rice paper wrappers from adhering to each other when added to the hot oil.

I usually then let the rolls fry untouched for the first few minutes, while the wrappers are still soft and delicate. Once the wrappers begin to firm up in the oil, I’ll use tongs or chopsticks to separate them, when the risk of tearing is less. Also, these bubbles from frying lend a certain charm to the look of chả giò.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

How to Eat Chả Giò

One way to serve cha gio is to cut each roll into bite-sized chunks and add them to a Vietnamese noodle salad with nước chấm as a dressing. As an appetizer, chả giò is eaten with a plate of fresh herbs, including lettuce, Thai basil (húng quế), Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), Vietnamese perilla (tiá tô), peppermint (húng lủi), and fish mint (dấp cá), along with pickled vegetables like daikon, carrots, and leeks, and a dipping sauce (nước chấm). The dipping sauce, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs perfectly complement the crispy imperial rolls to create a balanced and satisfying bite.

For the Dipping Sauce: In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 cup (120ml) warm water with the sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice and mix until sugar has fully dissolved. Stir in garlic and chile, if using, and set aside.

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 For the Filling: Using your hands, squeeze jicama to remove excess liquid. Spread jicama and carrot in an even layer on a paper towel-lined  rimmed baking sheet and let air-dry for 1 hour.

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In a small bowl, soak cellophane noodles in 2 cups (475ml) warm water for 15 minutes. Drain softened noodles, squeeze noodles dry to remove excess liquid, then cut into roughly 1-inch strands. Return to now-empty bowl and set aside.

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In a separate small bowl, soak wood ear mushrooms in 1 cup (235ml) warm water for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse thoroughly. Chop fine, discarding any tough stems.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

In a large bowl, combine prawns, pork, carrot, jicama, cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, shallot, scallion, garlic, sugar, salt, and pepper. Using your hands, mix until fully combined. To check for seasoning, cook 1 tablespoon of the filling in a small pan over medium heat or microwave on a plate for 45 seconds before tasting for seasoning. Adjust uncooked filling to taste with extra sugar or salt if needed.

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To Form and Fry: In a large shallow wide bowl, stir together 1 1/2 cups (355ml) warm water with the soda.  Working with one rice paper wrapper at a time, dip into the liquid until the wrapper is just pliable. Remove and shake off excess water.  Lay moistened wrapper on a clean counter or cutting board. Place 1/4 cup filling just below center of rice paper sheet. Using hands, shape filling into a 4  1/2-  to 5-inch log parallel to counter edge.

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Fold the left and right sides of the wrapper towards the center to enclose filling snugly. Fold bottom corner of wrapper over filling and press gently along length of filling to remove air pockets. Starting at bottom counter edge, gently wrap up and over the filling to form a tight cylinder and finish rolling to seal. Transfer roll seam side down to a rimmed baking sheet. (Do not stack). Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling; you should have about 14 rolls. Cover filled rolls with a damp towel and refrigerate rolls until ready to fry. 

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Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet. Line rack with a double layer of paper towels. In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat to 350°F (175°C). Working with 1 at a time, use tongs or spider skimmer to gently transfer 6 rolls to oil and fry rolls until golden brown all over and crispy, 8 to 10 minutes, turning rolls and gently separating rolls with tongs halfway through frying. Adjust burner as needed, to maintain oil temperature of 325℉ to 350℉ ( 160  to 175℃) degrees. Transfer fried rolls to prepared rack. Repeat with remaining rolls, frying 6 to 4 at a time. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For Serving: Serve imperial rolls with lettuce, fresh herbs, dipping sauce, pickled daikon and carrots, and pickled leeks, if using, alongside dipping sauce. To eat, wrap each roll in a lettuce leaf, top with herbs and pickles, and dip into sauce.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Special Equipment

Dutch oven, instant-read thermometer

Notes

Vietnamese rice paper wrappers are sold dried. They come in three styles; rice flour mixed with tapioca starch, all tapioca starch, or wrappers made from vermicelli noodles called chả giò rế. All three styles will work with this recipe, so choose the style you prefer. Rice paper wrappers can be found at most Asian grocery stores and online. 

Chả giò rế is a frozen, ready-to-use product, and the wrappers are separated by thin sheets of paper so that they do not stick together. The package instructions state that they are ready to roll, but should be kept under a moist towel during prep.

A mandoline works great for thinly slicing the carrots and jicama before cutting into thin matchsticks.

To make smaller and slimmer rolls, you may alternatively use just 2 tablespoons filling for each roll to have a total of about 28 imperial rolls per recipe.

Pickled leeks, often labeled “pickled leeks in brine”  are available at most Asian supermarkets in the canned section. Their delicate aroma and sweet and sour finish make them a great pairing with these imperial rolls.

This recipe can be doubled, or even tripled and fried in several additional batches, 6 to 4 rolls at a time.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The filling can be prepared through Step 5 ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 day.

The dipping sauce can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.  If sauce thickens, thin with additional water 1 teaspoon at a time to reach desired consistency.  

Uncooked imperial rolls can be frozen in a single layer, and then stacked with sheets of parchment paper between layers, in an airtight container and frozen for up to 1 month. Do not thaw before frying. Increase frying time from frozen by 2 to 3 minutes.

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