Learning How to Make Rice Paper Rolls

If you’re here to learn about making rice paper rolls, you’ve come to the right place.

Here:

 

If you’d also like to read a story about how I came to learn making rice paper rolls, and the significance they hold in my life then, please, keep reading. (:

At the time that I spent a year living in Australia, there was a brief four month period that I worked at a little Vietnamese restaurant called Banoi.

It was after the six months I spent working at Garden State, and upon just completing a busy holiday season working back to back doubles in our private dining room, moving from a massive four story pub in the CBD (Central Business District) to a comparatively tiny spot in the outskirts was a welcome reprieve.

My simple list of responsibilities included collecting order forms, keying in takeout orders (which actually got pretty hectic with a line out the door during the lunch hour), and running food or drinks. At the time, with my level of experience, I was able to adapt to the flow of the restaurant very quickly. After only a week of working there, I felt like I was able to do all of these things pretty much on auto pilot.

Perfect, right? I mean, it was exactly what I wanted. To chill out. Turns out, chilling out isn’t as fun as it sounds. When the challenge is gone, the variety is gone, and when the variety is gone, every day feels like the next one and on and on and on and on. It’s terrible.

So when I jokingly told my manager that I wanted to learn how to make food, and he responded with a real offer of me learning how to make the rice paper rolls, I jumped at the chance.

Thus began my mornings waking up at 6:30am to make it to the tram stop by 7am. Then after a 30 minute tram ride, I would walk another 15 minutes to the restaurant, bundled up in my puffy North Face jacket against the oncoming Australian winter. I’d push open one of the double glass doors, and upon entering, lean back on it to close it against the blast of cold air coming from outside. As the lock clicked home, the bells attached to the door would jingle, and those already inside would briefly look up to see who had entered before going back to what they were working on: prepping for a new day.

I’d walk all the way to the back of the restaurant and drop off my backpack in the tiny storage closet that also served as a communal employee locker. In the five minutes I usually had to spare before work, I’d tie my almost waist-long hair up in a bun, don the baseball cap I brought as part of my kitchen uniform, and tie my small, khaki apron around my waist as I walked toward the rice paper roll station to start at promptly at 8am.

Sleepy “good mornings” were exchanged, and then began the task of rolling rice paper rolls for 2-3 hours until opening time.

Although the work was also the same day after day, for some reason, these hours always seemed to fly by. I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, so the repetitive tasks were actually a relaxing way for me to start my day.

The very first day still stands out clearly in my mind. I remember being as nervous as a kindergartener on the first day of school. I approached the four women already at work, moving purposefully around the tiny space that was reserved for making rice paper rolls, occasionally speaking to each other in Vietnamese. Stopping at the outer edge, I fidgeted, not knowing if I should interrupt, and hoped that eventually someone would notice me and tell me what to do. Finally, Go (In Vietnamese, cô means ‘aunt’ and it’s what we called all of the older Vietnamese women. It sounds more like ‘go’ than ‘co’ so that’s how I’m going to spell it.) realized I was there, and asked who I was.

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This is Go. Like I said, we called all of the older Vietnamese women Go, but this one I considered Head Go and she’s this one that I will be referring to for most of my story.

“I’m here to learn how to make rice paper rolls…?” I responded hesitantly. At that, the three other women looked up, and I noticed that Yuu, another girl that usually worked at the front of house with me was one of them.

Immediately, Go began yelling in Vietnamese at Andy, the back of house manager who was prepping food in the main kitchen area. Apparently I would make it one person too many, which is a reasonable concern considering the space reserved for making rice paper rolls was no bigger than three and a half feet by six feet. It was tiny. Four people was already a tight squeeze, and I would be the fifth.

After grumbling a bit more in Vietnamese, probably about how she also had to deal with two newbies (Yuu was training too, but she at least had a couple days under her belt), Go more or less pointed at the others and went back to work, which basically meant do as they do.

Simple enough.

Except… it wasn’t. This was my first time in the kitchen, making food that strangers would be buying and consuming, and I didn’t understand the intricacies of not only being efficient with the ingredients, but also making sure the food looked pretty and consistent every single time.

I had always considered myself someone that was good about the little details. But this was unchartered territory. Go would grab a small handful of lettuce and place it down on the rice paper wrapper, and I would grab what I thought was the same amount of lettuce and place it down, but then Go would shake her head and take some off, or add a little more, or move it up a little, or do whatever other modification that needed to be done. No matter how hard I tried to duplicate what she was doing, I would always take at least twice as long, and it would almost always end up with Go tweaking one thing or another. This was only setting up the rice paper rolls. I hadn’t even come close to being ready to roll them yet.

The first couple days went like this: I would help set up the rice paper rolls, in fact most of us set up the rice paper rolls, one person in charge of each component like an assembly line. Once we had about 10-12 set up, Go would barrel through, lightning fast, rolling them faster than it took for us to organize them into trays and start setting up for another round.

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The rice paper rolls on the left are still in the first steps of being set up, and the ones on the right are ready to be rolled, which is what Go is in the middle of doing in this photo.

There’s no doubt, the rolling part of the procedure was the most satisfying. It was a privilege. And after a few days of exclusively setting up the rice paper rolls and getting comfortable with the ingredients, I felt like I was ready to try.

Just barely though.

It’s kind of funny to think about it now, how much the prospect of rolling terrified me in the beginning. Worst case scenario, I roll an ugly roll. So what? I was working in a tiny Vietnamese restaurant making rice paper rolls, and the sheer insignificance of this one act in the grand scheme of the universe was… comical. Still, I was terrified.

Go ran this operation with an iron fist. She even told the other Go’s, who were all at pretty much the same age, when their rice paper rolls were too big or too small or didn’t have enough noodles. She decided which toppings we were working on and how many. Everyone answered to her. Nothing missed her gaze.

So there I was, anxiously standing in front of a not-yet-rolled rice paper roll, deciding whether today was the day that I go for it. I think that I eventually I went for it. It was probably a disaster because I don’t remember it much so it’s most likely because I suppressed it far into the recesses of my mind.

All I remember is that afterwards, Go showed me an example of how to roll a rice paper roll, each move firm and exaggerated as if she could will the ability to do it into my own hands. She did this several times. Each time, I nodded, knowing that even though I comprehended what I needed to do, my hands would have a hard time following.

Over the next week, I would make attempts here and there, Go would walk over, inspect my rice paper roll, turning it around in her hands, and tell me what I needed to fix every time. A lot of the time it was “too fat” or “not tight enough” and instead of standing straight like a compact rice paper roll should, it would limp to the side a bit. Each time she walked over I would stiffen, nod at whatever comment she needed to make, and then resign myself to helping set up for most of the time.

It was even worse when I had to do prep. Prep consisted of cutting the lettuce and mint into thin slices, not only making them aesthetically pleasing, but doing so in a quick and efficient manner. I was slow. Not only that, the lettuce that I would cut would somehow come out jagged and imperfect. Apparently, the way I was holding the knife was wrong, the motion in which I was cutting was incorrect, and even my posture was off according to one of the chefs, who spent the next couple minutes teaching me how to stand properly. And just like with the rice paper rolls, Go would come over from time to time, inspecting the pile of cut lettuce and tell me the strands were too fat or more often she would just say “not beautiful enough.” Then she’d take the knife from me, grab a handful of lettuce and effortlessly cut it into elegant looking strips. After, she would look at me as if to say, “It’s this easy. Why can’t you do it like this?”

I came to dread the criticism. Worse, I started expecting it. I thought it was unfair of her to expect so much of me so fast. She was too controlling. Mean, even. It got to a point where I accepted that I was never going to be able to do things the way that she wanted, and that the best I could do was not let it get to me.

Then one week, Go was gone. Apparently all the aunties switched out every two weeks and took turns going back and forth between working in the main warehouse and the restaurants.

So one day, I showed up to the rice paper roll station and in her place was another Go. She was slightly taller, thin and quiet with a kind smile. Where the other Go was a commander in her battle station, this one led with a gentle calm manner. I remember attempting to roll a rice paper roll when we were standing next to each other, and when I finished, she stopped what she was doing to pick mine up and inspect it. Immediately I thought of all the things I could have done better, but after a second she looked up at me, smiled and said, “beautiful” before placing my roll back down and quietly getting back to work.

I was floored. My roll? Beautiful? Huh.

That week I tried rolling the rice paper rolls more and more, and as a natural result of consistent practice, I started to gain confidence in what I was doing. It was an exciting time. Then I started to realize the other effects that came with this Go’s different style of leadership.

With the first Go, every single tray was uniform. The size of the rice paper rolls were the same. The same amount of rice paper rolls fit on each tray. We always made our quota for the amount of rice paper rolls needed on time (sometimes earlier). It was a smooth operation through and through.

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One finished tray of rice paper rolls. We’d make 6 of these for another Banoi location and 7 or 8 more for our own location.

With the second Go, the environment was definitely a lot more relaxed, but as a result, the rice paper rolls would vary in size, or we’d be behind in how many rolls we needed to complete, or we’d run out of ingredients and have to scramble to keep making rice paper rolls after opening time just to make the quota.

In two weeks time, the first Go came back, and things immediately went back to a controlled efficiency. Since I was able to comfortably practice in her absence, I felt more confident rolling the rice paper rolls. There were still times when she would pick up one of the rolls that I had done and tell me it was too thin or too long, and I felt like at that point she was just nitpicking just to nitpick. Then finally, there was one day when Go picked up one of rolls, inspected it, and put it down without saying a word. I  just kept working, but I couldn’t help when a small smile crept onto my face under the cover of my baseball cap.

The biggest compliment was a couple weeks later, as I was really getting the hang of things, Go picked up one of my rice paper rolls and said, “See that? That look very nice. I been doing this 10 year, rolling rice paper roll 10 year, and this look like mine. Not too fat. Not too thin. Very nice.” And the biggest smiles broke out on both of our faces.

Pretty soon I was nearing the end of my time in Australia, and on the last day that I would ever see Go, she spoke to me more than she’d ever had. She spoke English pretty well, especially considering all the other aunties only knew a few English words here and there. But Go could string along sentences just fine, and on that last day, she told me about how both her parents died when she was just fifteen years old. Not only that, she had four younger siblings to take care of at the time, the youngest being two years old. She had to find work, figure out how to feed them, and make sure they listened to her. Their lives depended on it.

She told me all of this matter of factly.

I couldn’t even fathom needing to care and provide for four younger siblings. After losing both parents. At high school age. In Vietnam. I just couldn’t… it doesn’t compute. But it’s what she had to do.

And then suddenly, so many other things made sense. At first, when she would tell me that I was doing something wrong over and over again, I was convinced that she was just nitpicking. That it was unfair. That she was just being bossy. But can you imagine trying to round up four young children and get them to work together and take care of each other for everyone’s well-being? Can you imagine the role of not just one parent but both parents being thrust upon you at an age where you’re still barely figuring yourself out?

I can’t.

Suddenly I felt bad for all the times that I thought negatively of her. I also felt lame about all the things I considered hardships, when I had no idea. Here I was working alongside someone who endured a childhood a hundred times more difficult than mine, and in no way, shape, or form did it show. In many ways, she is a product of her circumstances, but now I understood why being the way she is worked for her. Order was her forté.

And that time that I was finally able to meet her standard? She was ecstatic for me. She was ecstatic with me. In the end, she just wanted me to strive for the best, and when I finally got it, we succeeded together.