Gong Xi Fa Cai or Kong Hei Fatt Choy… this weekend signifies the start of the Chinese New Year. In Vietnamese, this is known as Tet with the traditional greeting of Chuc Mung Nam Moi. Wherever you are celebrating this auspicious occasion, there are large gatherings of family and friends, with copious amounts of food. The children and single adults wait patiently for their ‘Ang Pau’ or ‘Lai See’, universally translated as ‘Red Envelope’. These are given by elders and married couples and signify good luck and as well as being a symbol to ward off evil spirits. They also contain money, the amount of which varies, but must end in an even number which again is meant to be lucky. I always had my eyes and hands open for these red packets when I was a child!
When I was growing up, Chinese New Year was the time to leave Singapore as everything shut down. Invariably we would head over to Malaysia to visit family in Penang, Kuantan or Malacca. We loved these trips – piling into my fathers car, queuing up to cross the single bridge into Malaysia at Johor Bahru and picnic stops along the way for some roti canai, Kopi O and/or sugar cane juice. In those days the roads were lined with rubber plantations and kampung houses. Today, those roads are just a little wider and most of the rubber plantations have been taken over by palm trees, for the production of palm oil which is not as environmentally friendly, nor as attractive.
With my head firmly in South East Asia, my inspiration for today’s recipe comes from Vietnam and the short time I spent living in Hanoi in 1997. Hanoi was still relatively unwesternised and moving there from Hong Kong was certainly an interesting experience! It almost had that ‘last frontier’ feel about it, but it was also charming and elegant as well as being totally chaotic and crazy. During Tet the city was a little quieter and we were able to just enjoy a few days at a slightly different pace. Although this recipe for Nem, or Summer Rolls, is not traditionally served only at Tet, it is one of my favourites that I will always associate with my time in Hanoi.
Nem – or Summer Rolls (Makes 12)
24 large cooked prawns – split in half lengthways
1 block of rice vermicelli
4 sprigs of mint, leaves picked
4 sprigs of coriander
4 sprigs of thai basil leaves (optional)
4 garlic chives, cut into 10cm lengths (optional)
1 carrot, peeled and cut thinly into matchsticks
1/3 cucumber, cut into thin matchsticks
1 soft lettuce, ½ shredded
6 tbsp salted roasted peanuts, roughly chopped*
12 rice paper wrappers
For the dipping sauce:
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 bird’s eye chilli, finely sliced
*I buy the raw peanuts from Asian stores so that i can roast them myself, using minimal salt and just a touch of oil.
Put the noodles in a large bowl and pour over boiling water. Add ½ tsp salt, leave for about four minutes, rinse well in cold water and drain thoroughly.
Lay a clean dry tea towel over a chopping board. Set out all the ingredients within easy reach. Half fill a bowl big enough to fit the wrappers in with cold water, and then dip one in and keep patting until it’s pliable, but not completely soft. Lay flat on the chopping board (the tea towel absorbs any extra water)
Arrange two crossed chives, if using, horizontally towards the bottom edge of the wrapper. Top with four prawn halves in a horizontal line, and top these with a line of herb leaves. Add a pinch of carrot and a few cucumber sticks, then a small clump of rice vermicelli. Finish with some shredded lettuce and a line of crushed peanuts.
Bring the bottom edge of the wrapper tightly up over the filling, and then fold the sides in over it. Continue to roll up tightly and place on a plate, join-side down. Cover rolls with a slightly damp cloth until ready to serve.
Make the sauce. Whisk the sugar into the lime juice to dissolve, then add the remaining ingredients. Adjust to taste if necessary adding more sugar/fish sauce/lime/chilli as needed.
Serve the rolls on a platter with extra herbs and the whole lettuce leaves on the side.
These are fresh, light and packed with flavour… you can add cold roast pork or shredded chicken to them, and I have also used crabmeat and pieces of raw salmon or tuna. Enjoy!