One night in Nha Trang, Vinh took us home to his flat for some dinner. He’d made chicken and rice soup, but on the way home he stopped off to pick up an appetizer, as non-eventfully as we might stop off to pick up some bread.
Once home, he sat us down in his living room/dining room with beer in hand and began to unwrap the appetizer from his little plastic bag of wonders. Rice paper, both fresh and fried. A beautiful assortments of leaves and herbs. Picked vegetables. Barbequed chicken. He placed all of these things in bowls in the middle of the table. And then, in front of each of us, a bowl of orange sauce that really looked like thick carrot soup.
“Please, go ahead and start.” He said heading back towards the kitchen.
“How?” I implored.
Vinh looked amused, but sat down and began constructing with agile hand. One slice of raw rice paper as the base, then a random handful of herbs held down with a thumb onto the rice paper. Then a piece of fried rice paper (that looked like one of those cigarette paper things you get in ice cream). Then a piece or two of barbequed chicken (not like American BBQ with extra spices or sauce but more of a description of the cooking method- on the grill). Then a few pieces of pickled vegetables.
Finally, with both hands, he rolled the thing up so tight in a matter of seconds and presented it to us. It looked sort of like a spring roll. He handed it to me and said, “Now dip it in the sauce.”
The sauce was nothing like carrot soup, it was a fish sauce made with dried shrimp (which is why it had that orangey color).
I took a bite. The texture of the raw rice paper was thick and I thought it was going to be difficult to cut with my teeth, but it wasn’t, and ended up sort of melting in with the other ingredients. Then came the crunch of the fried rice paper, attenuated by the soft fattiness of the chicken and the freshness of the herbs. The sauce was sweet and delicately spicy, mingling seductively with the smoky aromas from the grilling of the chicken. Every couple of bites, the pickled vegetables would bring a burst of sweet crunch.
The aromatic and textural complexity of this simple dish impressed me. I was also impressed by the playfulness of the whole constructing aspect. They were just delicious and I ate so many that I was almost too full to have anything else afterwards.
“So what are these things called?” I asked Vinh as we were leaving.
That’s the generic word for spring roll in French, so it made sense, but these were nothing like the any ‘nem’ I’d ever had in France or elsewhere.