Of all the various Asian fried rolls I’ve ever eaten, cha gio is the best in terms of taste and texture, hands down. There is just something serendipitous about the interplay between the flavors of the filling ingredients: the taro, the freshly ground pepper, the fish sauce, and of course, the pork and shrimp. Texture-wise, the wood-ear mushrooms, bean thread, and rice paper wrappers enhance the roll greatly, making each bite stimulating and fun.
The chewy-crisp exterior of these rolls pairs well with the fresh green, raw lettuce leaf and herbs commonly used to wrap these rolls. Typically, folks will dip the raw veggie/herb enveloped roll into a small bowl of nuoc cham, a Vietnamese fish sauce-based dipping sauce, just before taking a bite. The contrasts between hot fried and cool/crisp raw, between hearty and refreshingly light, cannot help but delight the senses and inspire second (eh, why stop at second?) helpings.
Luckily, Vietnamese fried rolls (known as cha gio in the south, nem ran in the north) don’t have to be chockful of gluten and other allergens my son must avoid (though it should be noted most cha gio served in U.S. restaurants do contain gluten). Having said that, though, it is extremely important to pay attention to one’s ingredient sources. For example, some of the more popular fish sauces on the market have gluten in them. One false move (e.g. choosing the wrong fish sauce), and your cha gio ends up gluten-contaminated and in the trash. As I do with all my recipes, I’ve included a list of brands I use in this post under “Ingredient Sources.”
I should note this recipe calls for rice paper rolls, which are naturally gluten-free and were the original wrapper for such rolls. Many of the cha gio served in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States apparently are made with wheat wrappers, an ingredient borrowed from the Chinese and a practice popularized at a time when Vietnamese ingredients were hard to find in the U.S. The wheat wrappers are light, phyllo-crisp, and tasty, but rice paper wrappers serve up their own textural delights as well.
Cha gio made with rice paper rolls will look a bit different (whiter and less smooth on the exterior) compared to rolls made with wheat wrappers. They will have a slightly different taste and feel if you’re used to the wheat wrapper versions. But they are just as tasty — though different — than the wheat wrapper variety.
Cha gio are always a hit with the toddler set, not to mention older kids and grown-ups. They are extremely popular at potlucks as well. Plan for each person to eat at least several rolls (though if you invite me, plan for a LOT more).
4 oz bean thread noodles (corn-allergic folks, substitute spaghetti squash strands)
12 dried wood ear mushrooms
4/3 lb pork shoulder, minced like mad, even if previously ground up – just go at it w/a cleaver or two
2/3 lb shrimp, shelled, deveined, minced
2 c taro root (preferably the smaller kind), peeled and finely grated*
4/3 c yellow onion, minced and gently squeezed to remove excess liquid
6 green onions, minced
4 T gluten-free fish sauce
1 T to 2 T garlic, minced
4 t sugar, plus extra sugar (extra sugar is optional)
1 t freshly ground black pepper
scant 1/2 t sea salt
water or warm water
8″ dried rice paper wrappers
non-allergenic oil suitable for high temperatures/frying (e.g. canola)
herb/veggie platter (washed and dried whole green lettuce leaves, Asian basil leaves, etc.)
Ingredient Sources – What I Use
bean thread noodles – Pagoda
gluten-free fish sauce – Tra Chang, Squid
black pepper – Spicely, McCormick
rice paper wrappers – Three Ladies, Flying Horse
canola oil – Mazola, Spectrum
In a medium bowl, soak bean thread noodles and wood ear mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes. Drain bean thread noodles, cut into 2″ lengths, and set aside. Drain wood-ear mushrooms, finely chop, and set aside.
In a large bowl, add pork, shrimp, taro root, onion, bean threads, wood-ear mushrooms, green onion, fish sauce, garlic, salt, 4 t sugar, and black pepper. Mix gently but thoroughly, using your hand as if you were folding batter (scoop up, put down, turn bowl slightly, and repeat many times over).
Fill wide, shallow low bowl/high-sided dish with water. (If living in an arid climate, use warm water; otherwise, room temperature water should be fine.) Add extra sugar into water and mix till dissolved. (opt) Insert an entire rice paper wrapper into the water for maybe 10 seconds, or just enough to soften the paper without making it mushy. (Even if it’s slightly hard, don’t worry, as the wrapper will continue to soften as you work with it.)
Place on smooth, flat work surface such as a large plate. Place about 1 T of filling off-center toward the edge of the wrapper nearest you. Fold over that edge toward the center, tuck sides in, and continue to roll up till you have a small, compact cylindrical shape. Place on tray or flat plate. Repeat till all filling is used. Do not stack rolls as they may stick together.
Heat oil to about 350 F in wok, deep skillet, or dutch oven. Using a slotted spoon or something similar, carefully place roll into oil. Add more rolls but don’t overcrowd, or else the oil temperature will dip too low and you’ll end up w/soggy, oily rolls. Cook in batches. Fry about 5 to 6 minutes. Using slotted spoon or some kind of fryer basket/ladle with a handle, remove and transfer to a cooling rack (the ones that attach to the side of a wok are especially nice).
Pictured at the top of this post are some rolls cooling off on paper towels. I recommend skipping the paper towels altogether in favor of just the cooking rack, as doing so will better maintain the crisp texture of the wrapper.
Serve rolls hot with nuoc cham (basic Vietnamese table sauce) and table herbs/veggies. Can also be served cut up into pieces over rice, rice noodles, etc.
Rolls can be eaten without any accompaniment, but you won’t get the wonderful taste layering and textural interplay — fundamental aspects of Vietnamese cuisine — between the roll, herbs/veggies, and dipping sauce.
Fried rice paper wrappers stay white and do not turn to the golden brown commonly seen with cha gio made with wheat wrappers, but for those who insist their rolls be golden brown, add a bit of sugar to the water used to soften the rice paper wrappers. Pictured in this post are both the whiter cha gio made without sugar in the soaking water as well as golden-hued cha gio made with sugary soaking water.
* Some people have an itchy reaction to touching the smaller taro when it is raw. Everyone’s tolerance will differ. Some react if they use their bare hands to pick up a taro in the produce section; others react only after prolonged exposure.) You may want to consider using disposable plastic (polyurethane, not latex) gloves when handling the taro, though be careful, as raw taro can be especially slippery to handle. (Coating your hand in oil might work as well, though again, be careful as oil and raw taro are slippery *and* you’re using a very sharp grater.) In my case, I’d never reacted before despite having made cha gio many times. But that changed one new year’s eve, when I was peeling and grating a lot of taro for multiple batches. At first, I noticed only the slightest irritation of one of my fingers. As I continued to peel and grate, that irritation grew ever so slightly, but it wasn’t enough to alarm me. I just kept grating away. Then before I knew it, my hand felt like it had a gazillion tiny needles of pain all over it, YIKES! And the pain just kept getting worse and worse. Nothing stopped the pain. I simply had to stop working for the night till it calmed it down. Ugh. OK. Lesson learned and will NOT be forgotten.
Don’t overfill rolls; don’t be greedy! A little goes a long way. Besides, too much filling makes the cha gio difficult to roll tightly, and you really want to roll up your cha gio tightly. Why? Because if you don’t, the wet filling may spill out during the frying process, come into contact with the hot oil, and well, you know, things don’t go so well when excessive water comes into contact with hot oil. (Dangerous! Scary! Bad!) Small rolls are more aesthetically pleasing, anyway, and some would say, more delightful to eat.
If possible, procure high quality rice paper wrappers (such as Three Ladies rice wrappers). Lower quality stuff tends to be riddled with holes and/or tear easily. Holes let the filling come into contact with hot oil (Dangerous! Scary! Bad!), and tears frustrate even the most dedicated cha gio roller.
Rolls may stick together while frying in the hot oil. This is OK. When done, carefully lift up together any rolls that might be stuck to each other and gently separate after rolls have had a few minutes to cool off. They will peel off easily without any wrappers tearing.
The last time I checked, the bean thread noodles I use include corn starch as an ingredient. Folks with corn allergies either will want to (a) make sure their brand of bean thread noodles do not include corn as an ingredient or (b)omit bean thread noodles altogether. If you miss the texture of the bean threads, consider using the inside strands of spaghetti squash.
Can be made ahead of time, refrigerated, and pulled out of refrigerator to come to room temperature. Afterward, preheat oven 350 F, place cha gio rolls on a pan or cookie sheet, and let rolls heat up for about 5 minutes. Then serve and enjoy. I’ve tried this method before and it totally works!
Adapted from Mai Pham’s totally awesome Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. I cannot say enough good things about this Sacramento, CA-based chef and her book. I highly recommend buying this book!