LOOK AT THAT CARROT. HOLY CARROTS BATMAN.

It was a dinner party in the loosest sense of the term – but definitely a party where we served food, so I’m not going to be too picky about semantics! Possibly the most fun I’ve had at my own house since we moved in.

One of the greatest surprises about my new roommates (all but one has left the house, and the last one is leaving on Sunday night) is that there is a cooking enthusiast among them – HOORAY!! Finally, all the dreams I had for utilizing my kitchen will hopefully be coming true!

Ouass is French and has travelled extensively (in fact, right now he’s in Hong Kong for four days, living it up). I think he was just as surprised as I was that there were two dudes in the same house that like to cook, experiment, and just plain have fun preparing food for others (and ourselves, obviously), not to mention that the other one was an American!

This is pretty much the biggest working
space we have. Constant cleaning up
is a requirement!

To this end, we decided to throw a little impromptu dinner party for some international friends we’d met the night before at a BBQ hosted by the association that manages our houses. About 5pm Ouass and I headed out to the Co-op (the local grocery/everything supermarket) and gather supplies for what we were making. In the best tradition of ‘feelin’-it’ cooking, we solidified our menu both on the walk there and in the store. I really, really wanted strawberries to do strawberry/goat cheese crostini, but no such luck. Good thing we’re both really flexible.

We ended up making homemade spring rolls (which we would presumably deep fry), mashed potatoes, and little tuna sandwiches. We left beer options up to our guests – I didn’t really have high hopes, but we ended up with a METRIC BUNCH-TON of beer – most of which we stayed up until 3am drinking on our rooftop. I’ve included the rough recipes at the end.

There were ten of us – four roommates, one future roommate, and a smattering of flippin’ awesome people that I hope to see much more of during their sojourn here in HCMC. Everyone was amazing. We weren’t quite finished with the rolls by the time people showed up about 8:15, but as we finished rolling and began attempting to fry, people started in on the beer, potatoes, and tuna sandwiches.

Peeling all these shitty, shitty little pieces
of produce mean lots and lots of mess over,
under, and around the garbage bin.

All the recipes were Ouass’ ideas. His mashed potatoes were divine. Usually I prefer skin-on style, but these had a new element that I’ve never encountered in potatoes before: egg yolks. Milk, shallots, and yolk mixed into the lumpy-ish yellow potatoes (all the produce – EXCEPT CARROTS for some reason, which are ENORMOUS – are very small and hard to handle. Seriously, trying to peel garlic was a mini-lesson in the zen state of cooking) yielded a very rich and creamy mashed potato. It wasn’t my favorite ever, but it was pretty damn close.

Our spring rolls contained a base of chicken/yellow onion/garlic/salt/pepper mixture, cooked with curry powder until the chicken was done through and then chopped very finely (we were running late at this point so while I chopped scoops of the mixture on a board, Ouass went to town on the rest in the skillet with a kitchen scissors – which actually worked pretty well! I think we were both surprised).

While the chicken mixture was coming together we assembled the rest of the ingredients (in between assembling the tuna sandwiches and potatoes): chopped chives, shaved carrots, vermicelli (rice noodles), and what I thought was basil. In actuality I’d accidentally grabbed mint, which is quite acceptable in raw rolls but is apparently frowned upon when included in their fried counterparts. Fortunately we’re culinary rebels and decided not to care – still delicious! We were already off the traditional reservation with our inclusion of curried chicken, so we decided to roll with it – pun totally intended.

They’re blurry because we’re assembling at top speed.
It’s just how we roll. BOOM.

To assemble the rolls we got a pan of lukewarm water going and Yona, Ouass and I frantically rolled our little hearts out as fast as we could produce quality product – it took a few tries. First the rice paper – quite rigid – must be dipped in the water, placed on a towel and blotted dry. Then you add the ingredients and roll it up like a burrito. I’m so glad I’m such a pro at wrapping burritos – I totally got this down pat. We rolled and rolled, producing about 3 dozen or more. Thank god, because the next step completely undid a lot of our hard work.

We heated up the wok with oil in order to deep fry, but had many, many casualties. It turns out that if there’s any kind of small hole in the rice wrapper, or if the sharp carrots poke through, the whole thing explodes, leaving just a crispy fried rice wrapper roll with all of it’s delicious innards frying individually and basically causing havoc in the pan, sticking everything together. I think I had about a 60% success rate, but it was a constant battle and we lost many soldiers that could have been drunkenly enjoyed later.

Victims ready for their hot oil bath.

In the end we ended up keeping about 2/3 of one plate raw, just so we could get out of the hot, hot kitchen and take our spoils and beer up to the rooftop to enjoy some conversation and, hopefully, a breeze. They were great either way – fried and crispy (although very rarely browned – we just didn’t have the time – we settled for crispy-see-through instead) and people said they were pretty good. I usually will eat anything I make whether it’s good or mediocre, just because I put the time into it, but we were lucky in that these turned out pretty good, even the raw ones. Actually, ESPECIALLY the raw ones, because the mint really came through and let us know we were eating a salad wrapped in rice paper.

The party was a smashing success. Instead of breaking up into groups of 2 or 3 having separate conversations for most of the night, there were prolonged periods where the entire group was engaged in playful social exploration. I discovered that two other people had studied piano for more than 10 years, and we all found youtube recordings of our favorite pieces. I introduced people to ragtime music – my personal favorite… sounds simple, actually is super complex (my favorite combo) – and we traded stories of relationships, our lives, how we got to Vietnam, what we did, what our hobbies were, and more. It was a completely successful evening of good fun, new friends, laughter, and international connections.

One of the best nights I’ve had here since, and possibly, because of that, near the top of my all-time list. We’ve pledged to make it happen more often, rotating food duties – I don’t know if that will happen, but I sincerely hope it does. It was truly a night to remember.

CHICKEN SPRING ROLLS:

Chop chicken. Add veggies, herbs, and seasonings to taste. Cook through. Chop into small bits. Drain and set aside.
Chop, shave, and julianne veggies of choice.
Cook one batch vermicelli (rice noodles). After boiling put in a bowl with cold water to halt the cooking process.

Assemble by dipping one rice paper in a bowl of lukewarm water until moistened. Lay on a towel. Blot dry with a second towel. Pile ingredients a centimeter from one end, placing pointy things (like carrots) in the middle of the meat and vermicelli. Roll up once. Fold in sides. Continue rolling like a burrito. Pile on plates to await their fates.

To deep fry: heat oil to frying temperature. Place 3-4 rolls, depending on size, in the oil. Do not allow to touch. If they touch, DO NOT SEPARATE for at least 5 minutes, until they’ve started to become crispy. Cut through with knife after the gumminess of the wrappers has disappeared. If you have casualties, fish out the carcass and innards if possible, they’ll make discerning actual whole rolls very difficult. Leave frying in one position longer than you think it should be – just like scrambled eggs, they need a little bit of time without being poked and prodded.

Drain on a towel or paper towel. Transfer to serving dish. Serve hot wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves and dipped in fish sauce, chili sauce, or sweet chili sauce.

NOTE: Can also be enjoyed raw, with or without lettuce.

DOUBLE NOTE: Extra vermicelli is also very good rolled in a lettuce leaf and dipped in sauce. And you will have extra.

MASHED POTATOES:

Wash, peel, and boil potatoes. Mash. Add milk, 5-6 yolks, and shallots.

TUNA SANDWICHES:

Drain tuna. Mix together with lemon juice, salt, pepper, and 3-4 slices of laughing cow or comparable soft cheese. Spread edge to edge on white sandwich bread. Cut corner to corner. Let guests devour.