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Magic Rolls

2009/11/24

Being a self confessed supermarket snob; I often find myself quietly judging the contents of people’s shopping baskets and trollies. Some people look at shoes, handbags or watches, but I like to see what you eat. I pride myself being a competent home cook, but I realize I was fortunate because I did lots of my growing up in my early years in a home kitchen and in my teens, a commercial kitchen, both which were run my Mother, a formidable force of home cooking genius, which I aspire to, especially since all my best dishes are stolen from her.

When I was young, I would often be required to assist, although I did it badly and sulkily. More often than not, very little was asked of me. Typical home duties were stirring the pan of peanuts that my mum was dry roasting, grinding a mixture of garlic, chilli and sugar; separating the rice paper sheets. If I sulked at the prospect of home kitchen duties, that was nothing compared to utter misery I visibly presented when I was required to help in the commercial kitchen, quartering mushrooms, cracking eggs and the worst of worst, peeling and gutting king prawns.

When I wasn’t on duty but found myself in the kitchen, somehow I’d end up standing close to my mum and just watching her prepare food. It wasn’t a conscious action, but subconscious, I just found myself drawn to watching her and it’s through that silent observation that I absorbed the majority of my cooking skills.

My mum is magical in the kitchen, she cooks the very best traditional Vietnamese food in the world. Ever. Her dishes represent what is best about good Vietnamese cuisine, good and fresh ingredients, simply prepared and cooked. Vietnamese cuisine is unpretentious and humble, which is of no surprise, since it is deeply rooted in peasant origins.

Of all the Vietnamese dishes I make for my friends, top of the charts is “Magic Rolls.” It also used to be my then DBs favourite meal in the world. Of course that’s not what they are really called, but it’s stuck with me, as on one occasion I  made it for my BFF and her DB, she was so impressed that she delightfully exclaimed that that’s what they should be called. In the poor crop of Vietnamese cafes that we have in London they are referred to as Summer Rolls and in their home land, they are called Banh Trang, and definitely not to be confused with their cousin Goi Cuon.

Magic Rolls are great meal for a group, there’s a real lack of formality (no cutlery required, only hands and fingers allowed) and everyone helps themselves. On the platter there’s a selection of fresh salad ingredients, an assortment of pickles, and variety of seafood, pork and offal. You pick what you want and you place your ingredients in freshly hydrated super thin rice paper and then dip in nuoc mam or a savoury reduced sauce extracted from the preparation of the pork. When done right, it’s super yummy, very healthy and good fun to eat. It’s perfect party food as you can’t hurry eating it, it celebrates a natural slow pace of eating that encourages leisurely chatter, it suits a variety of diet types and the majority of the ingredients only require cleaning and minimal on duty hosting too! The hardest thing to get right is the nuoc mam and the pork.

Magic Rolls are reasonably well founded in London however, it is a tragedy, just like the terrible homogenizing on Chinese and Indian Cuisine in the UK to adapt to the average western palette, I have found it impossible to find a decent Magic Roll. In these cafes, there are so many things they get wrong with the Magic Roll and although on the surface it appears a very simple dish to make, there are many areas where disaster can strike:

1. The rolls are served to you already wrapped! Half of the experience is missing!

2. The rice paper used is too thick, which make the rolls unfavorably chewy. For the genuine article, super thin rice paper is needed, so thin it’s more membrane that paper.

3. Real nuoc mam please! Don’t you dare bring that diluted sweet chilli sauce to my table.

4. Fresh salad ingredients need to be diverse and plentiful including: round lettuce (not iceberg), fresh herbs (variety of mint, basil and if you can get it, Vietnamese coriander) peeled cucumber, pineapple, cold rice vermicelli, salad onions, etc.

5. Meat platter includes more than one of the following: preferably slow braised belly pork thinly sliced, cold cooked large king prawns sliced in half, chicken breast and pig’s liver fried and finished in the braising sauce and thinly sliced. In the cafes you don’t get any of this, maybe just some slices of cold pork. I’d advise the pork and prawns are essential, but the liver is a very welcome addition.

6. Pickles: pickled carrots, mooli and leeks, but as with 5, they are often absent.

When I make Magic Rolls I attempt to make it the way my Mother makes it, unfortunately, I can only grade my rolls with a respectable B, saying that my Mother would be less kind to me, and probably frown and give me a D. There’s always something missing, that’s not quite right with mine although I have got most of the meal perfected, I often struggle with getting my pork and nuoc mam from good to pitch perfect, but if my flapjack adventure was anything to go by, I’ll have this one nailed by the new year.

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