In the same way my family would have celebrated any birthday back home in Singapore, I took Juan out for his 29th birthday to dinner at an Asian restaurant. At Cocina Sunae – a puerta cerrada restaurant that requires reservations and is practically hidden from the outside – a closed garage door hid the delicious smells and ingredients of the dishes that were being produced in its amazing kitchen.
There are few things that can make me happier than a feast of authentic Asian food, particularly when I’m 30 hours by plane away from home, and even fewer things make me gladder than seeing Juan enjoy the meal with almost as much gusto as I do.
We had deep-fried shrimp and pork wantons to kick off our dinner, followed by a Thai mushroom and cabbage salad that was dressed in a refreshingly sour vinaigrette. But what really blew my mind was the steaming hot bowl of beef pho that our friend Christina Sunae brought to our table, and between the rich beef stock that took a full five hours to brew, the smooth rice noodles and the exquisitely Asian taste of cilantro, lemongrass and coriander, I found myself floating to culinary heaven.
It had been such a long time away from real, authentic Asian food that I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be cradled in and blanketed with the tastes and the smells I had grew up so intimately with. It was one of those times that I came to (or rather, confirmed) the conclusion that you can take someone out of their home country or continent, but the culture and cuisines with which he or she grew up with will forever be a part of them.
I’d realized that upon breathing in the fresh scent of lemongrass, mixed with the spicy smell of homemade siracha. I’d confirmed it again when I tasted the combination of raw beansprouts with peppery beef stock laced with fresh cilantro. These were flavors my palate recognized and immediately identified with; flavors that sung of Asia and home.
I woke up the next day, still dreaming of the feast we had the night before, and before I knew it, found myself assembling fresh vegetable rice rolls and making a spicy peanut sauce, responding to a craving for Asian cuisine that had been suddenly awoken at Cocina Sunae. These Vietnamese-inspired vegetable rice rolls are probably one of the easiest and quickest ways to satisfy a yearning for Asian food, I promise.
I started by slicing cabbage and bell peppers into the size of thin matchsticks, then soaking pieces rice paper (which I got from Chinatown “Barrio Chino”) in room temperature water for 20 seconds one at a time. Once the rice paper started to soften, I placed it on a dry wooden board, grabbed a handful of cut vegetables and threw on some fresh cilatro leaves, and began wrapping the rolls. It took me a couple of rolls of practice to get the hang of it, but once you get used to it, it’s actually very easy.
The vegetable rice rolls were great for the hot Saturday afternoon, but I wanted a rich and flavorful sauce to accompany them – and in just 10 minutes with the help of a food processor, we had a thick and chunky spicy peanut sauce on the table. Nothing makes me happier than tasting these familiar ingredients – peanuts, sesame oil, soy sauce, lime juice, honey and siracha – all blended into one amazing suace bursting with flavor. This sauce, eaten together with crunchy vegetables wrapped in a thin, translucent rice paper wrapper…and I was transported back home to Asia.
Words fail me to describe the sense of comfort and familiarity I get when eating these rolls, and I think the only way you’ll understand is if you try them yourself. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do!
- 1 cup of roasted, salted peanuts
- 4 tablespoons of vegetable cooking oil
- 3 tablespoons of Asian sesame oil
- 1 large clove of garlic, roughly chopped
- 4 tablespoons of soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons of fresh lime juice (approx 2 limes)
- 1 tablespoon of room temperature water
- 1½ tablespoon of honey
- 1½ tablespoons of Siracha or other spicy chili garlic sauce
- 1½ cup of finely shredded white cabbage
- 1½ cup of finely shredded red cabbage
- 1 large red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
- 1 large yellow bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
- 1 cup of fresh cilantro, leaves only
- 8 sheets of rice paper
- Pre-heat oven to 350 deg Fahrenheit (175 deg Cel)
- Pour the peanuts onto a dry baking sheet in a single layer and toast them in the oven until they are fragrant and slightly darker in color, around 7-10 minutes. Watch them carefully so they don't burn.
- Remove peanuts from the oven, let them cool, and place roasted peanuts in the bowl of a food processor or a blender.
- Pulse peanuts a few times to chop them finely, then add cooking oil, sesame oil, chopped garlic, soy sauce, lime juice, water, honey and siracha, and process until the mixture has become a fine but not completely smooth paste. If too thick for your liking, add a bit more of water until smooth enough.
- Scrape the spicy peanut sauce into a bowl and set aside.
- Shred cabbages and slice bell peppers into matchsticks, then set aside.
- Soak the rice paper once piece at a time in room temperature water for around 20 seconds until soft, place the rice paper on a dry wooden board, and place a small handful of white cabbage, red cabbage, red bell peppers, yellow bell peppers and cilantro in the middle of the rice paper. Fold the paper from the both up, then fold in the sides, and finish rolling tightly.
- Repeat with the rest of the rice paper and vegetables until finished.
- Slice each vegetable roll diagonally into two piece, and serve with spicy peanut sauce.