The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Kids Make Vietnamese Garden Rolls

April 7th, 2013 · 2 Comments · Posted in Ethnic, kids, Recipes

Roll it like you mean it

Even if we order nothing else off the menu, we always ask for garden rolls when we visit our local Vietnamese restaurant. There’s something especially comforting about being able to pick up one of these rice paper bundles, dip it in a bowl of sweet/salty sauce and bite into a mouthful of crisp vegetables, sweet shrimp and squishy rice noodles.

Frankly, I think garden rolls are just an excuse to eat the sauce, because the rolls themselves typically have little more flavor than an undressed salad. I’m always hoping to be surprised by a sprig of pungent cilantro.

But as our food appreciation classes wend their way through Southeast Asia, I thought it would be fun to learn how to make garden rolls. There’s very little cooking involved. Garden rolls are more about hand crafts–the art of assembling then turning the perfect roll.

Most cultures have some kind of wrapped food item in their repertoire. Think Mexican burrito, or Turkish stuffed grape leaves. But the manufacture of translucent rice paper elevates the garden roll to a higher visual plane: you can see the shrimp, the lettuce, the cucumber before you ever bite into it.

Theoretically, you could stuff a garden roll with almost anything. But standard items include salad greens, cucumber, carrots, rice noodles and shrimp. Some recipes also call for boiled pork belly. The rice paper and vermicelli noodles typically can only be purchased in an Asian grocery. If you have a Thai or Vietnamese grocery in your area, you are in luck. Choose the larger sized rice paper–about seven inches across. The vermicelli noodles come in packages of various sizes.

To start, boil 3 ounces rice vermicelli in a pot of boiling, salted water until the noodles are just tender. Use tongs or a pasta tool to remove the noodles to a large bowl. Cover noodles with cold water, then drain in a colander and set aside. Save the cooking water.

It’s probably best to make your sauce at this point as well. Place 2 heaping tablespoons commercial hoisin sauce in a small saucepan, along with 1 tablespoon rice vinegar and 1 teaspoon creamy peanut butter. (We don’t use peanuts in our classes because of allergy issues, so we substituted almond butter). Bring the mix to a boil, then lower heat and stir until all of the ingredients are incorporated. The consistency of the sauce should be like chocolate syrup. If it seems too thick, stir in some of the water you used to cook your noodles. Finally, add 1/2 teaspoon table sugar and continue stirring until it is completely dissolved. Set aside.

Prepare the remaining items for your filling as follows: cut a seedless cucumber into 3-inch lengths. Stand one of the lengths on end, slice it in half lengthwise, then cut each half lengthwise into thin slices. Separately, peel one medium carrots and grate it on the small holes of a traditional box cutter (or slice the carrot into fine julienne). Remove the tails from a handful of small, cooked shrimp and, laying the shrimp flat on a cutting surface, slice them in half lengthwise. Wash 1 small head red leaf lettuce and tear the leaves into manageable pieces. Wash 1 bunch cilantro.

With all of your various ingredients waiting close at hand, you can begin your first roll. Submerge 1 piece round rice paper in the noodle cooking water while it is still hot (or re-heat the water). The hotter the better–but be warned. Your fingers will be in the water while you dip the rice paper. The rice paper will wilt fairly quickly. While still holding it with your fingers, remove it from the hot water, shake off any excess water and lay the paper flat in front of you on a clean work surface.

Rice paper and filling ready to roll

Near the edge closest to you lay a small fistful of lettuce leaves. Top with a generous amount of cooked noodles followed by 2 or 3 sprigs cilantro. Next, in front of the lettuce, overlap 3 slices cucumber. Along the cucumber slices lay a row of grated or julienned carrot. Finally, place 4 shrimp slices in a row pink-side-down.

To turn these ingredients into a burrito-like roll, lift the edge of the rice paper closest to you and begin rolling into a cigar shape. After 1 or 2 turns, fold the outside edges toward the middle to seal the ends. Continue rolling tightly until you’ve reached the end of the rice paper.

You can serve the garden roll like this. Or, if you think your roll is a bit flimsy, you can firm it up by adding another layer of rice paper. Simply dunk a second piece of rice paper in the hot water, lay it on your work surface, place the original roll on top and roll it up in the second sheet as before.

Kids hardly know they're eating fresh vegetables


Continue assembling rolls until you’ve used all of your ingredients. You can serve the garden rolls as is. But they are rather large. Better, I think, is to cut them in half on an angle and display the pieces on a decorative platter along with the prepared dipping sauce. Traditionally, the sauce is garnished with chopped peanuts. We skipped the peanuts–but not the fun!

Can you think of a better way to get kids to eat fresh vegetables?

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  • Cady

    This looks like a lot of fun for kids to make. We don’t have a good Asian grocery store, but I’m wondering if the health/natural foods store might carry these wrappers or something similar. My three-year-old would be all over making these!

  • Ed Bruske

    Cady, I doubt you will find rice paper or rice vermicelli at the natural foods store. It’s worth a try. Otherwise, you can get everything you need online:

    The only problem is the cost of shipping is more than the ingredients.