These were the words I spoke to my beloved daughter after I’d been rolling spring rolls for about fifteen minutes and realized that I could never work in a Vietnamese or Thai restaurant. Basically, any restaurant that features spring rolls on the menu is a place where the chefs have earned every ounce of my respect. Because few things in the kitchen are more infuriating than working with rice paper wrappers. It’s right up there with exotic buttercream frostings, something I will never muck with again since the last time I tried and wound up crying. Some kitchen enterprises are just not worth it.
This all started months and months ago. We had been out to lunch at a Thai restaurant with my mother. We decimated a tray of spring rolls in about three minutes and my daughter said, “We could make these, couldn’t we Mama?” I said, “Well, probably.” I meant this to mean, “I COULD, but I am not going to.” She took this as “Sure, we can ABSOLUTELY DO THAT!” and never let the subject drop. So all the rest of the school year, I’d say, “Some day over the summer, we’ll make spring rolls. It’ll be an Activity.” And she got more and more psyched about it. Which is great, to be honest. But it means the bar for success is pretty high.
Yesterday was the day we finally got around to it. We went to the Hong Kong Grocery downtown — they have pretty much everything you need to make pretty much anything except matzo ball soup — and we carried home a tote bag filled with the necessary stuff. We had a packet of rice paper wrappers — mysterious things I’d never used before — and a nice bunch of cilantro and a head of lettuce. We had surimi (imitation crab sticks), purchased because the more traditional spring roll animal flesh, shrimp, is unacceptable to my daughter. We had a fat carrot to grate, bean sprouts, a package of bean thread noodles. At home I already had a cucumber and all the condiments I’d need to pull this off.
It was early in the afternoon when we began the prep work: I explained to my daughter that making the spring rolls would be a lot of work and that it’d be easier if we got the veggie prep done well in advance. “We have to wash all this stuff before we can use it,” I said. “Let’s just get it done and then we can hang around and be lazy for a couple of hours before we really get to the hard part.”
“Why is it the hard part?” my daughter asked.
“Because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” I said.
We stood at the sink and spent some quality time with the salad spinner. We washed cilantro and bean sprouts and lettuce; my daughter plucked the leaves from the stems of the cilantro and filled the 1/2 cup measuring cup I’d put out for this purpose. She did a great job. I made sure that the surimi was thawed, and then we played a game of Scrabble.
At five o’clock, I filled a big enamelware bowl — I usually use it as a salad bowl — with hot water, and we lined up our mise en place, and we got to work.
Within roughly fifteen seconds I realized I was going to lose my mind. I knew that working with rice paper wrappers wouldn’t be fun, but I hadn’t fully grasped how evil those little shits would be. You have to soak the wrappers and dry them before you put them on your work surface, lay filling on them, and then roll them up. It makes hamantaschen-folding look like pouring a bowl of cereal.
I produced four spring rolls, all of them technically correct — untorn, complete — but they were messy, ugly, and I said to my daughter, “This is going to kill me.” I had no idea how many spring rolls I’d have to make in order to have spring rolls be an entire meal. In the meantime, I was tired and cranky and losing my ability to be patient with this very, very fiddly work. We had to empty out the water bowl and refill it several times: no cookbook or website I looked at mentioned this, but if the water’s not hot enough, the wrappers don’t soften correctly. And if you don’t time it JUST RIGHT, the wrapper’s not worth a damn, either. Every recipe I read said to soak the wrapper for 10 to 20 seconds, turning it once in the process. Well, no: it was more like 5 seconds on one side, three seconds on the second side. We counted aloud, that’s how I know.
You soak the wrapper and lay it on a towel, and then you fold the towel over so that you dry the top of the wrapper quickly as well. Then you have to somehow migrate the very delicate wrapper to a place where you can roll the thing up. (I suppose it could all be done on the towel, but it’s hard to see the wrapper when it’s on the towel.) A little bit of bean noodle; a little bit of carrot, of cilantro, of surimi — then you fold it like a little bitty burrito. Or, as I observed to my husband, when he got home, like a boerek. (How do I know about making boereks, those little Turkish cheese pastries? It was an annual fundraising project at my daughter’s nursery school. Don’t ask.)
Making spring rolls is one of those things where, It’s not that it’s hard; but it’s HARD. I assume it takes hours of practice to get really skilled. I had a running monologue going on the subject as I took the wrappers from my daughter and laid them on the towel and dried them and then filled them and rolled them. “The kitchens at the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are probably all staffed by people who’ve been making these things since they were six years old,” I spat. “By the time they’re teenagers, they can do this in their sleep.” “Uh-huh,” my daughter said sympathetically. She knows when I’m on a tear. “You realize we’re never doing this again, right?” I said. “Uh-huh,” she said. At one point she refilled the bowl with hot water and carried it back to the counter saying, “I’m not gonna spill, I’m not gonna spill,” (and she didn’t) and she said, “I would give you a hug except I’d get in your way.”
I muttered my way through rolling a platter’s worth of spring rolls. A couple of them were so wretched I just fed them directly to my daughter, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. She declared them delicious. I got through my supplies of slices of surimi, cucumber, cilantro leaves, and grated carrot, and thought, “I’ve had enough of this crap.” I still had a huge bowl of bean thread noodles in front of me. And my husband and child were looking hungry.
So I cooked up a sauce out of peanut butter, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and peanut oil, and mixed it into the noodles with my hands (this is the only way I can effectively mix sauces in with noodles like this; I don’t know how other people manage it otherwise). I sprinkled the last of the bean sprouts on top and set the bowl on the dining table. Then I whisked up a sauce for the spring rolls (peanut butter, soy sauce, Sriracha, garlic) and brought that to the table. Lastly, I brought out the spring rolls.
I had to admit, it all looked fairly impressive. My family certainly inhaled vast quantities of food. I think I’d rolled well more than a dozen spring rolls, when all was said and done — I could figure it out by counting how many wrappers were leftover, but that’s too depressing to contemplate, because it means I’d have to face how many I have leftover to deal with in the future. And a dozen spring rolls doesn’t sound like a lot of spring rolls, but when you’re an incompetent klutz and a novice at working with rice paper wrappers…
Well. I think, actually, that I can handle it. I think that given a little more practice, I can get good at it. And that if I do get good at it, it will be worthwhile. Just like with the hamantaschen. But in the meantime, I’m going to order spring rolls in restaurants as often as I can to try to figure out how to get mine better. Yesterday’s spring rolls were a new room in the Museum of Tsuris, but I have to believe that given practice I can demolish that room.
In the meantime, the leftover cilantro’s been turned into chimichurri sauce, which we’ll be having with a broiled steak for dinner tonight. Potato salad on the side. Very straightforward compared to last night, to which I say, Thank god.