The house feels empty now that Aida and Laura aren’t here. I enjoy cooking for both of them as they aren’t fussy eaters and are game to try new foods. One morning Aida asked me if I thought my time spent in Asia made me a better cook. Hmm, a good question to which I have to say yes in that it introduced me to other cuisines. I am what you would call a confident cook (the failed attempts fuels me more) and experimented with different styles of cooking but it wasn’t until we lived in Asia did I get a true understanding for what Chinese, Thai or Indian food ‘really’ was. I grew up in the city of Saint John and the only thing I knew about Chinese food was from a restaurant called The House of Chan on Rothesay Avenue owned by most probably the only Chinese family (at that time) in city. Chinese food back then was definitely designed for the Canadian palate…I shudder at the thought now (no disrespect intended). Looking back, it was a delightful tasting experience for me that I shall always remember fondly. Fast forward 30 years and the city has a delicious eclectic mix of Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Once you get a taste of the real McCoy it’s difficult to go back.
The first time I had fresh spring rolls was in Singapore. If Aida were to ask me what country did I learn the most cuisine-wise, it would have to be hands down, Singapore. It’s a melting pot of cuisines all carved out from early Chinese settlers from South East China. Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 and the food is influenced by the native Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Western traditions (the British arrived in the 19th century). You can well imagine the swapping of recipes, if you will, from these ethnic groups back then into what it is today – eating is a national pastime or more to the point a national obsession where food is viewed as crucial to the national identity. Singapore is tiny: 49km East to West and 25km North to South. But what it lacks in space it makes up in food! I became a spice girl – yes that’s what they called us – and gave tours of the spice garden at a culinary institute called At-Sunrice. A 60 minute educational tour covering fresh herbs and spices where I explained to the group the medicinal advantages, history and usage of the herb or spice. Imagine being able to touch the actual plant when you’ve only ever seen it in the grocery store! I enjoyed showing people the banana trees, nutmeg tree, ginger, galangal, tamarind tree, turmeric and so forth. After the tour was finished, participants would then go inside and partake in a cooking class showcasing some of the herbs and spices spotted in the spice walk.
8 large (8-inch) spring roll wrappers
1/2 cup coriander (cilantro) leaves
1/2 cup mint leaves
1/2 cup Thai basil or you can use regular basil
small head of Boston lettuce, roughly chopped
red bell pepper, thinly sliced
8 large cooked shrimp, slice in half lengthways
Nuoc Cham (dipping sauce)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
small chili pepper, finely chopped
Have all the ingredients ready for assmebly. In a large bowl filled with water, dip a wrapper in the water. The rice wrapper will begin to soften and this is your cue to remove it from the water and lay it flat. Place 2 shrimp halves in a row across the center and top with basil, mint, cilantro and lettuce. Leave about 1 to 2 inches uncovered on each side.
The Culinary Chase’s Note: The rice wrapper can be fussy to handle if you let it soak too long. I usually give it a couple of swishes in the water and then remove. It may feel slightly stiff but by the time you are ready to roll up, the wrapper will become very pliable. A typical spring roll contains cooked rice vermicelli, slivers of cooked pork and julienned carrots but you can use whatever suits your fancy. Enjoy!