Sometimes, in the midst of cooking, a what if? can lead you towards an entirely new path. That's what happened when I set out to make Vietnamese summer rolls wrapped in sheets of rice paper. "Can you fry rice paper?" my partner wondered as he eyed the translucent round sheets. "Let's experiment," I gamely replied.
I recalled that Vietnamese spring rolls (the fried version of fresh summer rolls) are traditionally made with bánh tráng, or rice paper, but I had never attempted to fry a plain sheet. I heated up some oil, cut a small wedge of rice paper, and slid it into the hot pan. With a magnificent sizzle, the sheet almost instantaneously morphed into a light chip, similar in texture to Vietnamese shrimp crackers but entirely vegetarian. Needless to say, the summer roll plans were cast aside.
We had chips ... now we needed "salsa." Once again inspired by Vietnamese ingredients, I mixed up a tangy relish of carrots, radishes, peanuts, fresh herbs, a little chile pepper, and lime. Then, to make this a more substantial vegan appetizer or small meal (indeed, we ended up having it for dinner), I included some lemongrass and garlic marinated tofu. The result: little cups of vibrant, multi-textured deliciousness.
Although the tofu adds a really nice savory element, you could also serve the chips with a bowl of relish for a casual, less composed appetizer. If you eat meat, you could also try shrimp in place of the tofu (and add a splash of fish sauce to the relish).
This recipe is also essentially gluten-free. However, if you or your guests are on a strict diet, be sure to check the ingredients on the soy sauce and (optional) hoisin sauce, as these sometimes contain wheat.
Vietnamese-Inspired Rice Crisps
For the relish:
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch dice
4 medium radishes (or equivalent piece of daikon), peeled and cut into 1/8-inch dice
2 tablespoons unsalted peanuts, crushed
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 teaspoon finely chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon seeded and minced red jalapeño or other chili
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
For the tofu:
6 to 8 ounces extra firm tofu (half a standard package)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 bulbs lemongrass, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
For the rice crisps:
2 (8-inch) round rice paper wrappers
Vegetable oil for frying
For the relish
Combine all relish ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Before serving, taste and adjust seasonings, if desired.
For the tofu
Cut tofu into 1/2-inch pieces and press between clean kitchen towels or paper towels to rid of excess water. In a shallow dish, combine soy sauce, vegetable oil, sesame oil, lemongrass, and garlic. Place tofu in dish, gently coat slices with marinade, and arrange so they overlap as little as possible. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Cook in a skillet over moderate heat until brown and crisp on each side.
For the rice crisps
Using scissors, cut each rice paper wrapper into 8 wedges. Heat a skillet with 1 inch of oil over moderate heat. The oil is hot enough when bubbles form around a wooden chopstick or the end of a wooden spoon inserted in the oil. Gently drop a rice paper wedge into the oil and fry until crisp, 1-2 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon or strainer and drain on paper towels. Repeat for remaining rice paper wedges.
Divide tofu between rice crisps and top with relish. If desired, garnish with extra peanuts, mint leaves, and/or a spot of hoisin sauce. Serve immediately.
Related: Recipe: Kimchi Tofu Summer Rolls
(Images: Emily Ho)