A Vietnamese summer roll is the epitome of cool elegance: an exquisitely balanced salad of fragrant herbs, crisp lettuce, springy noodles, and a modest amount of protein neatly bundled into a stretchy, translucent rice paper wrapper. The eating experience, on the other hand, is gloriously unrefined. You grab a roll and dunk one end into a creamy peanut-hoisin sauce or a thinner, tangier mixture of fish sauce and lime juice or vinegar. Then you take a bite, and the flavors and textures burst across your palate. Dunk, bite, dunk, bite . . . Summer rolls are so light and refreshing that I can contentedly carry on this way for quite a while. But a word of caution: A summer roll is best eaten within moments of being made, before the wrapper dries out and becomes unpleasantly chewy or the moist fillings weaken it and cause the roll to rupture.
You can roll almost anything in a rice paper wrapper, but the fillings of a traditional Vietnamese summer roll are quite specific: rice vermicelli, boiled and rinsed to bouncy perfection; crisp lettuce; lots of fresh, leafy herbs; shrimp; and pork. I wanted my summer rolls to be as authentic as possible, so for the protein component, I knew I would need to use both shrimp and pork and cook them just right.
Pork belly is the preferred cut for use in summer rolls, so I started there. Following tradition, I simmered the meat in salted water until tender and then sliced it thin. The simplicity of the cooking method makes sense here: Summer rolls are all about balance, and though I love both grilled and roasted pork belly, their strong flavors would overwhelm those of the more delicate fillings in the roll.
I wanted my summer rolls to be as authentic and traditional as possible, and that meant that for the protein component, I needed to include not only shrimp, but pork.
But it took a good 40 minutes of simmering for the pork belly to become tender, so I was relieved to learn that pork shoulder is also sometimes used. It would require less cooking time, and like pork belly, it is a meaty-tasting cut that retains good flavor after simmering. I opted for boneless country-style ribs, which are cut from the shoulder and sold in the shape of a stick of butter—perfect for slicing and placing into summer rolls. Two 5-ounce ribs took only about 10 minutes of simmering to cook through and turn tender. I pulled them out of the water to cool and then sliced them thin.
Traditionally, the shrimp are poached in the water that’s left over from cooking the pork. I appreciate that kind of efficiency; after all, the water’s already hot, and it’s been seasoned by the pork and with salt. I brought the water to a boil, added a couple of handfuls of medium-large shrimp, covered the pot, and removed it from the heat. Using residual rather than direct heat reduced the risk of overcooking and produced plump and juicy shrimp. After just 3 minutes in the water, the shrimp were opaque, so I rinsed them in cold water to cool them down quickly, sliced them lengthwise, and placed them next to the pork on a plate. On to the noodles.
The frugal side of me was tempted to use the cooking water a third time to boil the noodles. But because the noodles are meant to provide a neutral background for the other ingredients, I decided against it. I boiled some fresh water and added a block of dried rice vermicelli. Three minutes later, I drained the noodles, rinsed them with cool water to halt the cooking and remove the sticky surface starch, and spread them on a plate to dry just a bit.
Summer rolls are sometimes called “salad rolls,” and rightly so. The lettuce and herbs contribute appealing crunch, moisture, and freshness. I quickly learned that lettuces such as stiff-leafed iceberg and wide-ribbed romaine were not very cooperative when it came to rolling, so I opted for green leaf lettuce, which was more pliable.
Here’s the most important thing to know about the herbs: You’re going to use loads of them. In Vietnam, most meals are accompanied by a large plate of leafy herbs and lettuce that diners are encouraged to add liberally to their plates or bowls. Some herbs that are popular in Vietnamese cuisine aren’t widely available in the United States, but mint, cilantro, and Thai basil are. I went with 1 cup of each. Rather than add each herb to the rolls individually, I tore them all into 1-inch pieces and combined them in a bowl. When the time came, I’d simply add a handful of the mix to each roll. I also sliced some scallions thin so I could sprinkle them in. They’re not as charming as the Chinese chives that poke out of the summer rolls you see in Vietnam or in the homes of cooks with access to great Asian markets, but they’d add comparable freshness.
Now I was ready for the wrappers themselves. In their dried state, the thin rice flour disks are opaque and brittle, with one smooth side and one side patterned by the bamboo mat the wrapper is dried on. After a dip in water, however, the wrappers become soft, pliable, and translucent.
But how long was I supposed to dip them, and in what temperature water? The information I found in recipes was all over the place. After much testing, I landed on dunking the wrapper briefly in cold water before transferring it—still stiff—to the counter, where it continued to soften as I piled on the fillings.
Constructing the perfect summer roll is an acquired skill. First, fold a lettuce leaf (remove the rib if it’s large) and place it on the lower third of the moistened wrapper. Spread some noodles over the lettuce (I like to use ⅓ cup per roll), and then top them with sliced scallions. Place two slices of pork over the scallions and ¼ cup of herb mix on top of that.
At this point, the wrapper will be fully hydrated and flexible and should feel tacky (which will help it stick to itself when rolled). Lift the bottom edge of the wrapper up and over the herbs and roll snugly but gently to enclose the filling in a tube. Then fold each side in to enclose the ends. Lastly, place three shrimp halves, pink side down for maximum visual appeal, on the remaining section of the wrapper and roll the wrapper up the rest of the way to form a neat cylinder.
To preserve the rolls’ texture, transfer them to a platter, not touching each other, and cover them with plastic wrap. The rolls can also be constructed family style; place all the fixings and a few bowls of water in the middle of the table and let each diner roll their own. But either way, you’ll need a sauce or two.
Just as you would never eat a salad without dressing, a summer roll without a dipping sauce is unthinkable: A peanut-based hoisin sauce and tangy, savory nuoc cham are both easy to mix up and are perfect accompaniments to cool, mild summer rolls. I like to alternate between the two as I eat, switching after every bite. After all, summer rolls may be elegant, but eating them doesn’t have to be.