Story and Photography by Lori Ross
Every Asian cuisine has some kind of rolls or wraps. Some of the most popular are Japanese sushi; Chinese Peking Duck, Mu Shu Pork, and egg rolls; Vietnamese table salad and hand rolls (spring and summer rolls); and Thai lettuce wraps.
Wraps and rolls look beautiful, taste deliciously exotic, and are deceptively easy to make aboard a boat. There are endless variations of rolls and wraps in Asian cooking, and they lend themselves well to entertaining. Ingredients are generally easy to find, and there is rarely much cooking involved. While one can serve a big pretty platter of colorful Asian wraps, it is actually more fun to get guests involved in the process by letting them “roll their own” and express their creativity and preferences.
Japanese sushi rolls feature rice wrapped in seaweed, with layers of vegetables, seafood, or herbs that create a lovely pattern when tightly rolled. The first time I made sushi was for a Japanese-themed dinner party before I was married. I found all the ingredients in a gourmet grocery store and the recipes in the classic Time-Life Cookbook Series from the 1970s (no longer in print!). I started with avocado and crab maki (maki means roll in Japanese), placing a thin layer of seasoned white rice on a rectangle of dried black seaweed. The rice was topped with long thin slices of ripe avocado, then a layer of shredded crab. I rolled it up, and sliced it to reveal a beautiful roll with rings of black, white, pink, and green.
The second roll I served featured wide, thin slices of beef rolled around a long whole scallion, which I then basted and grilled. When sliced, the rolls revealed pretty little rounds of bronze, green, and white that tasted piquant and delicious. The third roll was a whole thin cucumber seeded with a melon baller, then tightly stuffed with a spicy crab and red pepper salad. Its slices were pretty rounds of dark and light green with a pink and red center. They were a huge hit with my guests!
Making Sushi Rolls
Making sushi involves four steps: cooking and seasoning the rice, preparing and laying out the ingredients, using dried seaweed to roll the ingredients, and laying out the condiments. Sushi is rolled in a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) with the rice either inside the roll or on the outside of the roll. Sushi wrapped by nori is also called norimaki. There are many kinds of sushi rolls, with each roll’s name depending on its filling. Some common makizushi (Japanese for sushi rolls) are tekkamaki (raw tuna filling) and kappamaki (cucumber filling).
Japanese rice is medium-grained and gets sticky when it is cooked. It is critical that you get sticky rice, as the long-grained American rice is drier and doesn’t stick together.
3 cup Japanese-style rice
3-1/4 cup water
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 package of nori
Fillings (choose one filling or combine one or more fillings)
- Raw sushi-grade tuna, salmon, or other fish cut into long thin strips (or use cooked fish, such as shredded or chopped shrimp)
- 1 avocado julienned* lengthwise
- 1 cucumber peeled, seeded, and julienned lengthwise
- 3 long carrots, peeled and julienned lengthwise
- Scallions (green onions), trimmed and sliced in half lengthwise
- Almost any cooked or raw vegetable can be used if sliced long and thin (for example, summer squash and pickled vegetables)
*Julienne means to slice into thin strips the size of matchsticks.
Boil water, add rice, lower heat to medium-low, and cook for 30 minutes covered. Check at 30 minutes to see if the rice is cooked or still hard to bite (if so cook 5–10 minutes longer). Meanwhile, mix vinegar, sugar, and salt in a pan and place on low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Cool the vinegar mixture. Spread the cooked hot rice into a large plate or shallow bowl. Sprinkle the vinegar mixture over the rice and gently, but quickly, mix into the hot rice. Be careful not to smash the rice. This makes 6 cups of sushi rice, enough usually to make 8–10 rolls that are then sliced into 4–5 pieces.
Place a rectangular sheet of nori on top of a linen towel or bamboo mat. (A mat usually comes with a sushi kit.) Spread the sushi rice on top of the nori sheet. Place the ingredients lengthwise (along the longest side) on the rice. Roll up the bamboo mat or towel, pressing forward to shape the sushi into a cylinder. Press the bamboo mat or towel firmly and remove it from the sushi. Cut the rolled sushi into bite-sized slices (about 3/4 of an inch). The sushi will slice better if you wipe the knife with a wet cloth before you cut each slice.
- Have your guests roll sushi rice and ingredients into a nori cylinder or form nori into a cone and fill with sushi rice and ingredients.
- Don’t want to bother with rolling nori? Slice ingredients on top of a bowl of sushi rice and crumble nori on top.
- Can’t find the nori? Simply slice ingredients on top of sushi rice and eat!
1 large or 2 medium cucumber, seeded (or use seedless variety)
1/2 cup (generous) crabmeat, shredded (about 2 ounces)
1/4 cup scallion, chopped (white and green parts)
2 tbsp red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 tsp jalapeno[EQ2] chili with seeds, minced
3 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tbsp pink pickled ginger slices, finely chopped *
Fresh cilantro sprigs
*Pink pickled ginger slices are available at Asian markets and also at some specialty foods stores.
Wash cucumber and trim off the ends. Use a melon baller or iced tea spoon to scoop out the seeds in the cucumber. (If the cucumber is too long for your melon baller or spoon to reach all the way through, cut cuke in half crosswise.) Mix crabmeat, scallion, red pepper and chili, and chopped cilantro. Tightly pack the crab salad into the cucumber. Slice cucumber crosswise into half-inch rounds and arrange attractively on a plate. Sprinkle with sprigs of cilantro and garnish with pickled ginger. Serve chilled. Makes 12-14 rounds depending on size of cucumbers.
1 (1-lb.) piece flank steak (roughly 6 to 7 inches square)
12 small scallions, trimmed to 6-inch lengths
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup sake (Japanese rice wine)
1/4 cup mirin* (Japanese sweet rice wine)
3 tspn soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
Special equipment needed: a meat pounder, plastic wrap or parchment paper, and kitchen string.
*Available at Asian markets, and some supermarkets.
Holding a large knife at a 30-degree angle to cutting board, cut flank steak with the grain into 12 slices (1/8-inch thick and 1-1/2 to 2 inches wide). Arrange slices 1 inch apart on plastic wrap or a very lightly oiled sheet of parchment paper. Cover with another piece of plastic wrap or very lightly oiled sheet of parchment (oiled side down), and pound slices with flat side of meat pounder until about 1/16-inch thick.
Arrange three beef slices side by side on a fresh sheet of plastic wrap, overlapping slices slightly to form a 6-inch square with short ends of slices nearest you. Sprinkle lightly with a pinch of salt, then lay three scallions (with some white parts at both ends) across slices at end closest to you and tightly roll up meat around scallions to form a log, using plastic wrap as an aid. Tie the log with kitchen string at ends and at intervals along the log where the slices overlap. Make three more negimaki rolls in same manner.
Stir together sake, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar in a small bowl until sugar is dissolved. Heat a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot, 1 to 2 minutes. While the skillet is heating, brush rolls with marinade, letting excess drip off, and pat dry. (Save marinade.) Add oil to skillet, swirling to coat bottom, then cook rolls. Turning with tongs, until well browned on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes total for medium-rare. (If you prefer, instead of cooking the rolls in the skillet, grill them 4 to 5 minutes, turning them halfway through.) Transfer rolls to cutting board. Add marinade to skillet and boil until slightly syrupy, 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Cut off and discard strings; cut each roll crosswise into six slices. Pour sauce into a shallow serving dish and arrange negimaki in sauce. Makes 24 rolls.
Vietnamese Hand Rolls
In Vietnamese cuisine, first courses often involve rice paper wrapped around meat, fish, vegetables, and noodles, such as cool uncooked summer rolls or fried spring rolls. Salads are often replaced by hand rolls where cold noodles, vegetables, and nuts are rolled loosely into lettuce leaves or rice paper, then dipped in a sweet and spicy sauce and popped into the mouth!
Even something as simple as fried spring rolls, in Vietnamese cuisine, have a complex texture. The deep-fried finger-shaped rolls are served with lettuce cups, a sweet sauce, and either mint or cilantro. I was instructed by a Vietnamese chef to top each spring roll with some sweet sauce, place a sprig of mint or cilantro on top, and wrap the roll in the cold lettuce. Each bite has a cool, crunchy beginning as you bite through the fresh, cold lettuce. Then the fragrant mint or cilantro flavor emerges and the hot crunchy crust of the spring roll hits your palate and enhances the flavors blending the cool flavors and warm silky interior of the spring roll (usually made up of cabbage, mushrooms, and shrimp or crab).
Another way to serve spring rolls is to place them in a bowl of delicate, silky noodles and top it all with mint or cilantro and hot or sweet sauce. You can use lettuce leaves or not, but the crunchy spring roll stuffed with tender shrimp or chicken with silky noodles wrapped in lettuce leaves is a revelation!
Lettuce Wraps And Table Salad
Lettuce wraps are a staple of Pacific Rim and California-style Asian restaurants. Light, easy, and tasty, they are a variation on rice paper wraps, table salad, or hand rolls common in Vietnam. In Thailand, cool lettuces and greens are used as wraps to create a contrast in flavors, such as in lettuce wraps where warm cooked chopped meats are mixed with crispy vegetables and crunchy nuts or fried shallots then rolled and dipped in a bright sauce.
Table salad—lettuce and other ingredients arranged in bowls on the table—or lettuce wraps are used in two main ways: as an accompaniment to meals in which little pieces of meat and seafood are wrapped in the lettuce and eaten out of hand, and as an all-purpose salad before a meal. When eaten as a salad, diners tear off a piece of lettuce with some herbs and add it to their bowls of rice or noodles, or, alternatively, they fold the leaves and herbs into little packets to dip into a sauce.
Thai Lettuce Wraps
Chicken for Lettuce Wraps
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb. chicken (ground or minced)
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp ginger, finely grated
4 scallions (green onions), chopped
1/3 cup coriander leaves
1/4 cup basil leaves
1 long red chili, chopped
16 iceberg lettuce leaves (4 per person)
1-1/2 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp dry white wine
1/3 cup canned water chestnuts or celery, rinsed, drained, and chopped fine
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped fine
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg white, beaten lightly
2 tbsp nuts, toasted (pine nuts, peanuts, cashews)
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
1/4 cup of each of parsley, chives, cilantro, mint
1 whole cucumber, seeded and chopped
Marinate chicken: In a small cup, stir together cornstarch and wine. In a bowl, stir together chicken, cornstarch mixture, water chestnuts, bell pepper, salt, and egg white. Marinate chicken mixture 5 minutes.
Cook: Heat a wok over high heat and add oil. Remove chicken mixture from marinade and cook, breaking up any lumps with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes or until just golden. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Add the lime juice mixture, ginger, and half the green onions to the wok and cook for 2 minutes or until the liquid is evaporated. Stir through the coriander, basil, and chili.
Serve: Place chicken mixture on a large platter surrounded by remaining green onions, garnishes, and lettuce leaves. Diners place a small amount of hoisin sauce in lettuce leaf; then, add a tsp or so of chicken mixture, followed by cucumber, their choice of herbs (mint, cilantro, parsley), and top it all with nuts. Roll loosely and dip in one of the dipping sauces below. Serves four.
Shrimp For Lettuce Wraps
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined*
Peanut oil for drizzling
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup orange marmalade
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
16 iceberg lettuce leaves (4 per person)
*You may be able to buy frozen shrimp that has been peeled and deveined with tails removed, which is very convenient for cooking aboard a boat.
Preheat a sauté pan over high heat. Toss shrimp with a drizzle of oil and season with crushed red pepper, salt, and black pepper. (If grilling shrimp, thread on skewers.) Mix marmalade and hoisin sauce and baste shrimp. Cook shrimp 2 minutes on the first side. Turn and baste liberally with sauce mixture, and cook 2 minutes longer. Baste again and transfer to a serving dish. To eat, wrap shrimp in lettuce with fresh herbs and vegetables. Serves four.
Flank Steak For Lettuce Wraps
1 lb. flank steak*
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
1 cup Cucumber, peeled and diced
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup shallot, thinly sliced
1 tbsp each fresh mint, basil, and cilantro, chopped
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
16 iceberg lettuce leaves (4 per person)
*Your grocery may carry cuts of meat that have already been sliced very thinly and would be a convenient substitute for flank steak.
Preheat grill or broiler or skillet to medium-high. Sprinkle steak with salt and pepper. Grill, broil, or sauté the steak for 4–6 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut across the grain into thin slices. Combine the sliced steak, cucumber, tomatoes, shallot, mint, basil, and cilantro in a large bowl. Mix sugar, soy sauce, lime juice, and crushed red pepper in a small bowl. Drizzle over the steak mixture; toss well to coat.
To serve, spoon a portion of the steak mixture into a lettuce leaf with veggies, fresh herbs, and nuts and roll into a wrap. Serves four.
Variation: Serve grilled meal separately and mix cucumber, tomatoes, shallot, mint, basil, and cilantro, sugar, soy sauce, lime juice, and crushed red pepper in a small bowl and use as a sauce on the side.
Peanut Dipping Sauce
3 tbsp minced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp oil
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp creamy peanut butter
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp tomato paste
3/4 tsp sugar
Cook onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper in oil in a small saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until pale golden, about 4 minutes. Whisk in remaining sauce ingredients. Simmer, whisking for 1 minute, and then cool.
Ginger Dipping Sauce
1 piece fresh ginger (about 2 inches), peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic or 2 t. garlic paste
Chile pepper, minced, or hot sauce to taste
Juice and pulp of 1 lime, finely chopped
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
Combine all ingredients. Let stand to blend the flavors.
Cilantro Dipping Sauce
1 shallot, chopped
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
1 cup bouillon
1 cup cilantro, chopped
Bring the shallot, ginger, and bouillon to a boil in a small pot. Cook, stirring, until the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes. Top with cilantro. Yield: about 3/4 cup.
Vietnamese Table Salad
1 head Boston or iceberg lettuce to use as lettuce cups
1/2 cucumber, thinly sliced
2 cup bean sprouts
5 or 6 sprigs of combination of mint, basil, parsley
Bowl of rice or noodles, if this is a vegetarian meal.
To Serve: Place each ingredient in a separate bowl in the center of the table. Or if you don’t want to wash a lot of dishes, use a single large platter. If using a single platter, arrange the lettuce in an attractive manner on one end of a long platter. Place the fillings separately in stripes along the rest of the platter starting with rice or noodles (or cooked meat, poultry, or seafood if not a vegetarian meal) and then raw ingredients such as cucumbers, bean sprouts, and herbs. Place the platter in the center of the table and serve with one or two dipping sauces.
Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
This is the essential Vietnamese table condiment/dipping sauce, and makes a great salad dressing.
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup lime juice
1 tbsp white vinegar or rice vinegar
1/4 cup carrot, shredded (optional)
1 small hot chili, seeded and minced, or 1 t. pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced, or 2 t. garlic paste
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup warm water
Combine all ingredients and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Store in refrigerator. Yield: about 2 cups.
NOTE: You can replace lettuce cups with presoaked rice papers (available at Asian or gourmet markets) on the side. To prepare the rice papers, take a small stack of the dry papers and hold them under gently running cold water; be sure to let the water run between the layers. Shake gently and let stand on a plate for a few minutes. Repeat until all of the rice papers are soft. Pile them in a single stack on the serving platter layering some lettuce leaves in between the rice sheets so they don’t stick...they must stay damp. Diners take a piece of rice paper and lay it on their plate; add the garnishes of their choice and a spoonful or two of the main dish or salad, roll up the entire bundle, and dip the roll into a dipping sauce.