For many newcomers to Skellefteå, one of the hardest challenges is coming to terms with new cuisine and finding the ingredients for our own country’’s dishes. In this regular new column, Jennifer Claywood aims to help all Norrland newbies find a taste of home. This issue, Vietnamese food with Van Nguyen. Photographs by Donna Richmond.
Van Nguyen, a kind and vibrant woman from Vietnam who has been living in Sweden since November of 2020, has not found it difficult to acclimatise to life here. Despite the differences in climate, culture, and food choices, she has found meaningful similarities between her two homes.
One parallel is the importance of family. She and her husband Staffan live with her two daughters Trang (13) and Ha (10), and their son Sam (14 months). Their blended family is a busy hub of smiles, shared responsibilities, and love.
Bursting with learning
The girls talk fondly of their stepfather’s mother and her cooking, and revel in the importance placed on school-life balance here. Back home, most of their days would be filled to bursting with learning and not much play.
Born in a village near Thanh Hoa in the northern part of the country, Van grew up with vast naturescapes and has fond memories of her childhood home on the banks of a long river.
In the summers she would spend whole days swimming with friends and sneaking into neighbour’s gardens to ‘steal’ tropical fruits (families shared what they had and the idea that the children were stealing was a fun and cute tradition). Cultivation and farming were prevalent, and even though the growing seasons and bounty diverge, there are commonalities in the foraging and gardening found here.
In addition to the similarities she has been able to find in her daily life, she has also found familiarity among the celebrations of the holiday season.
In Sweden, the celebration of Jul is often accompanied by darkness, snow, fairy lights, windows aglow, reindeer, and sightings of Santa.
No mittens in Vietnam
Surprisingly, even though less than ten percent of the Vietnamese population is Christian, the celebration of Christmas as a time for revelry, friends, and family, is a popular pastime. In the big cities, the streets are crowded with throngs of people enjoying the over-the-top decorations found at hotels and businesses, carols being played (and sung), children dressed as Santa and in other festive clothes, and eating out with friends and family.
Despite finding Ông già Noel (Santa Claus) dressed in his warm red and white clothes and flowing beard in this southeastern Asian country, the weather during this time of year is hot with a high humidity. You’re likely to see many familiar things at this time of year in Vietnam, but scarves, snowsuits, bulky overpants and mittens won’t be among them.
Recently, Van was kind enough to invite me into her home and showed me how to make a popular dish she prepares often. While we made these crunchy spring rolls, her daughters were close by to observe and lend a helping hand. In their family, it is not just food traditions getting passed down but kindness, cooperation, and support. You will love these rolls from the very first crispy bite! The ingredients listed here are mostly just suggestions; you can make these with other meats and produce, just stay away from vegetables that contain a lot of water. You don’t need a special holiday to enjoy these fried rolls, but why not add them to your own evolving traditions? Don a few Santa hats, have a seat with the family, and enjoy rolling these up together.
Make the filling. You will want to start off by soaking the rice noodles in water until soft. Follow the package directions and then put them into a large bowl. If you are using dried mushrooms, you will want to soak those as well and then drain before using. Combine the drained mushrooms and rice noodles with the uncooked ground pork, shredded cabbage, grated carrots, onion, green onion, eggs, and seasonings.
Roll. Pour warm water into a large, shallow bowl and dip a single spring roll wrapper into it. Pull the wrapper out of the bowl and give it a few seconds to soften up. You want it to be completely soft, but not so waterlogged that it sticks to everything. Lay out the circle on your plate and place 2-3 tablespoons of filling on the part of the wrapper close to you. Fold up the middle and tuck the filling under the fold. Then tuck in each side and roll. You don’t want to make the rolls too tight as this might result in the filling coming out when they are frying. You also don’t want them rolled too loose.
Fry. Fill a large skillet with cooking oil and heat on medium high until glistening but not smoking. Carefully drop each spring roll into the hot oil and brown for 4-5 minutes per side. If the spring rolls are browning too quickly, turn the heat down.
Dip into sauce – enjoy.
Make the sauce. Mix the fish oil, sugar, lime juice and water until combined. Chop the chili peppers and garlic and then add to the sauce, stirring well. Feel free to adjust the sauce to your liking.
Serve. Cut each spring roll into several bite-size pieces. Roll each piece into a lettuce leaf, dip into the sauce, and enjoy!