When I went back to work after my son was born, I was the luckiest mother alive to find a pediatrician’s family for his day care. I know, amazing, right? A charitable organization placed several Cambodian women with them to help care for the babies and the toddlers. I never had a moment’s hesitation or sense of guilt when I dropped off my boy in the morning. He was surrounded by loving women, some of whose gifts may have been enhanced by the lack of a language barrier with infants. One woman, Thouk, especially loved my son. She stayed with him in our home as well. When she had her own baby, it was wonderful to pass along baby clothes and a stroller to her.
Each spring we had a great pot-luck picnic in a local park for all staff, children, and families. To this day among my brightest memories is the Cambodian ladies’ spring rolls. These quiet, gentle women, who had probably been making them most of their lives, giggled among themselves as they watched us fall on their rolls. It mattered not what anyone else brought to share. The spring rolls were the hit of the party, and the first food to vanish. They were my first experience of rice paper wrappers, and where I learned to be unafraid of searingly hot flavors because they were balanced by opposite flavors and textures: the sweet, the tart, the spicy, the bright, the crunchy, the tender.
The dipping sauce is my own. One can never have too many mangos. But the rolls are as close to those I remember as I’ve been able to get over the years. Those ladies were instrumental in my culinary education before I realized how deeply I longed for one.
CAMBODIAN-STYLE SPRING ROLLS
TO STEAM THE SHRIMP
16 ounces water
Washed peels from 2 mangos
I lime, 1/4″ slices
1/2 yellow onion, 1/2″ slice
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
Several grinds of black pepper
6 japonés chiles, broken among your fingers
8 ounces uncooked shrimp (I used 31-40s peeled & deveined)
Bowl of ice water
THE SPRING ROLLS AND DIPPING SAUCE
1/4 package bean thread noodles (mai fun)
16 ounces boiling water
Fruit from 1 peeled mango, fruit removed, 1/4″ dice
Greens of 6 scallions, 1/4” dice
1/2 cucumber, peeled, halved, seeds scraped out, 1” long very narrow slices
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon Sambal Olek (hot chili paste)
All of the cooled shrimp, tails pinched off, meat roughly chopped
8 Rice paper wrappers
9” cake pan containing 1/4” hot tap water
16 Cilantro stems and leaves, 3″ lengths
Fruit from 1 mango removed from pit
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon Sambal Olek
- Bring to a boil in a stainless steel pot all ingredients except the shrimp and the ice water. When water is boiling, add the shrimp and reduce heat to medium. Cook shrimp only until pink on the outside and still a bit gray at the middle. They’ll finish cooking in the time it takes you to carry the pot to the bowl of ice water set in the sink. Pour contents through a colander, then place in ice water. Allow shrimp to cool completely.
- Place mai fun in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let steep according to package directions, usually 3-5 minutes.
- Prepare the vegetables and add them all to a mixing bowl. Drain the mai fun well, pressing them against the sieve to remove as much water as possible. Transfer them to a cutting board and roughly chop them. Add them to the mixing bowl. Also add the lime juice and Sambal Olek.
- Remove shrimp from ice water and drain on paper towels. Pinch off the tails, then transfer them to your cutting board and roughly chop them also. Add them to the mixing bowl and toss everything well to blend.
- Prepare the dipping sauce. Add all ingredients to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Purée until smooth. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed. Divide among dipping bowls.
- To prepare rolls, work with one rice paper wrapper at a time. Place wrapper in hot water, pressing lightly so it is submerged. Let soak for 15 seconds or so, then gently lift and allow to drip for a few seconds. Transfer to a work surface – a wooden cutting board works well. Arrange 2 cilantro stems across the middle. Place about 3 tablespoons of filling along the middle, leaving a border at each end. Fold the edge nearest to you over the filling, then fold in each end, and finally roll entire package over the opposite edge to seal. Set on a serving platter with the seam side down and the cilantro stems visible through the surface of the wrapper. Repeat until all filling has been used.
- Just before serving, cut each roll in half through the middle with a diagonal slice that exposes the beautiful colors of the filling. Serve with the dipping sauce.