All Photos © Christine Elise McCarthy 2013
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I’ve loved Vietnamese food since high school when my parents & I would go to the Saigon Inn in the Combat Zone (red light district) in Boston in the late seventies-early eighties. It was a tiny place on the edge of Chinatown in an old, white, free-standing building that had once been a White Castle or something. There were 4 or 5 tables and maybe six stools at a counter & everything on the menu was under $4. It is here that I learned about hoisin sauce & sambal oelek & vermicelli bowls and about eating their little egg rolls (cha gio) wrapped in lettuce leaves & dipped in nuoc cham (sweet chili dipping sauce). We would go there late nights after seeing bands like Bauhaus or X or Gray Numan somewhere in town – like The Channel or The Rat. And I walked around looking like this:
My parents long bragged that they loved the Saigon Inn so much that even the discovery of a cockroach in my step-dad’s half-consumed iced coffee did not dull their passion for the place. In fact, that roach should have come as no surprise as this restaurant was situated in one of the filthiest & most run down areas of downtown (Chinatowns everywhere are seldom famous for their hygiene & fresh scents – and red light districts have their own grotesquerie to offer). Also, the roaches at Saigon Inn were bold & you were hard pressed to eat there & not spot a few walking nonchalantly up walls or across menus.
As a quick aside, let me share this gorgeous photo I found as I hunted for a shot of the Saigon Inn.
Boston, Combat Zone 1970 – by Jerry Berndt. Found HERE. Isn’t that sensational?
This one, too, by the same guy.
And this (though I do not know if it is from the same guy or exhibition in Boston).
So – with that, I present my Spicy Lemongrass Grilled Shrimp & Vietnamese Egg Roll (Cha Gio) Vermicelli Salad Bowl!
A key to this dish is the dipping sauce – the nuoc cham (or spicy chili dipping sauce). If you cannot find it in an Asian store like this
then there are lots of recipes for variations of it, if you Google the term. Here is the basic recipe (from www.VietWorldKitchen.com):
Basic Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham)
Makes ¾ cup
3 tablespoons lime juice (1 fat, thin skin lime)
2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup water
2 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
1 or 2 Thai chilis, thinly sliced or 1 teaspoon homemade chili garlic sauce or store bought (tuong ot toi)
1. Make limeade. Combine the lime juice, sugar and water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Taste and as yourself this question: Does this limeade taste good? Adjust the flavors to balance out the sweet and sour.
2. Finish with fish sauce. Add the fish sauce and any of the optional ingredients. Taste again and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing out the sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Aim for a bold, forward finish — perhaps a little stronger than what you’d normally like. This sauce is likely to be used to add final flavor to foods wrapped in lettuce or herbs, which are not salted and therefore need a little lift to heighten the overall eating experience. My mother looks for color to gauge her dipping sauce. When it’s a light honey or amber, she knows she’s close.
Advance Preparation – This sauce may be prepared early in the day and left to sit at room temperature.
Variation – Use half lime juice and half Japanese rice vinegar for a less assertive sauce. Some delicately flavored dishes require this.
The Vietnamese egg rolls can be purchased like this
but these might be hard for you to find. They are nice because they are tiny – about the size of one of my fingers cut in half. These are also nice because they are vegan. But, if you cannot find these you could Google a recipe to make them (traditionally, they are filled with ground pork) or you could just use any old frozen egg rolls of your choice. If they are big egg rolls, just slice them up after frying.
I added shrimp to this dish because I wanted it to be more substantial & I didn’t want to eat a dozen fried egg rolls. You could go all shrimp or all egg rolls or even add grilled veggies. These vermicelli bowls were topped with all sorts of things (sliced meats, meatballs etc etc) at the Saigon Inn, maybe even some things we are glad we are unaware of, so feel free to customize this to your taste.
I had this for dinner two nights in a row. The first time was less successful because I used fresh vermicelli like this
which got gooey & clumped together. These guys are far better for soups, like my Vegetarian Pho.
As another side note – if you love that pho but do not want the calories those noodles represent, why not try my ZERO CALORIE ZERO CARB Vegetarian Shirataki Pho?
Last night I made the salad bowl with these dry vermicelli noodles.
They worked far better so I recommend this type for the salad bowls.
Spicy Lemongrass Grilled Shrimp & Vietnamese Egg Roll (Cha Gio) Vermicelli Salad Bowl
Vermicelli noodles – cooked as directed, rinsed in cool water & left at room temperature.
Egg rolls – fried as directed (or baked, if you prefer)
Shrimp – peeled & cleaned
Cucumber – cut into matchsticks
Carrot – grated
Red or green leaf lettuce – roughly chopped (leaving some pieces large enough to wrap around bite-sized egg roll slices)
Basil and/or mint (even cilantro works) – to be hand torn & mixed into the bowl after serving
Peanuts – chopped
nuoc cham (recipe above or bottled)
Sambal oelek or sriracha – as additional condiments, if you want to add a kick
For the shrimp marinade
1 lemongrass stalk
3 jalapenos – seeded
2 hands full basil (I used both Thai basil & Thai hot basil but any basil will do)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup sambal oelek (or chili paste or sriracha)
1 TBS sugar
2 TBS olive oil
4 garlic cloves
Juice of 2 limes
Peel & clean the shrimp & put them in a Ziplock bag or a lidded (preferably glass) container. Hit the lemongrass with a tenderizer or (as I did) with a heavy pepper mill or something & bruise it up. Slice it into large chunks & add to the shrimp.
Puree the shallot, lime juice, jalapeno, basil, fish sauce, sambal oelek, sugar, garlic & oil. Add to the shrimp & toss well. Refrigerate for an hour or as long as overnight.
Then simply cook the vermicelli. This is a room temp dish with warm toppings so – make the noodles & assemble them in a bowl(s). Surround them with the lettuce, cucumber, carrots, sprouts, basil, lime wedges & top with peanuts.
Grill the shrimp & cook the egg rolls. Add them to your bowl.
Serve with the dipping sauce (you can even pour it on top of the whole lot & mix it all up).