Rice paper, with its cross-hatched bamboo markings, has become one of the most utilized Vietnamese ingredients in Western kitchens. Cooks and chefs are finding all sorts of creative ways to fill them with nontraditional ingredients.
In Southeast Asia, rice paper is still often made using age-old traditional methods. (Some imported brands still buy these, but factory imitations are quickly filling the shelves.) As they’re made in Vietnam, a thin batter is prepared with pulverized whole rice (as described for rice noodles), water and salt. The soaked rice is added to the small hole on top as the entire round stone is rotated. As it moves downward, the rice paste through the stationary stone on the bottom and the top rotating stone and comes out very fine wet paste.
A thin piece of cloth is stretched over the top cauldron of boiling water (the fire is usually fueled by rice husks and peanut shells). As the steam seeps through the cloth, a ladle fashioned from a coconut shell is used to pour some batter on top of the cloth and quickly spread it out into a paper-thin disc. A cover is used to deftly trap in steam, which cooks the thin batter disc into a rice noodle sheet. Makers use a flat bamboo stick to skillfully lift up the sheet and transfer it to a drying mat. The mat is a lattice of bamboo strips that leaves the characteristic pattern on the rice paper sheets as they sun-dry for a day.
These uneven-edged sheets can be used as they are, but for export they are sent to a processing plant, quality checked, and cut to even the edges. They’re then repacked into plastic packages that help prevent the brittle sheets from being destroyed in shipping. For details on using these rice paper sheets.
© 2008 Robert Danhi. All rights reserved.