That is what they were called when I ordered them in a Vietnamese restaurant in Ottawa. I fell in love with them. They were, what we Indians would call, satvic. I, of course, had the option of adding chilli sauce (which is not anything like a ketchup but an oil suspension of spicy chilli) to which I often sinfully subscribed, but this dish is splendid even without anything spicy.
I returned to India planning a whole exercise of preparing these rice papers at home. I was sure my mom would throw me out of the house for making such demands of her. I then started looking for adapting Indian rice papads to serve as a coarse cousin of this dish’s main ingredient, but, alas! nothing would really work. You could prepare rice paper at home. There is no one, other than your mom or, worse, your wife who could stop you. You would need rice flour, tapioca flour, salt and water. You should be able to find the recipe for this anywhere online.
The reason I love this dish (other than the satvic quality) is its adaptability. Like pasta, bruschetta and salads, this dish has a basic foundation (and hence, not entirely a free-for-all) but lets you mold it to suit your taste.
In Madras (and even in Chennai) you will find rice paper in Amma Nana, on Cathedral Road (opposite Park Sheraton, I think). In Bangalore, this is now available in Spencer’s store on M.G.Road. This is the one adjoining Au Bon Pain bakery. I buy the brand below and I haven’t been disappointed. Once, opened, please store it in a cool (not cold) dry place.
There are about 40-50 sheets in a pack. You’d rarely want to eat more than 4-5 of them in one sitting (these are starters not enders or this-is-all-you’ll-getters). There are tonnes of variations to this dish and I am simply going to tell you the tale of tonight’s dinner.
We had some tomato chutney remaining. I had to exhaust it. So, it formed the base on the rice paper. Oh! I forgot to tell you. The rice papers you buy will be firm discs. You need to immerse them in hot water for about 15-20 seconds. Take them out carefully as they will now be delicate and easily given into tearing. If you have long nails, cut them.
After applying the chutney, we introduce the tofu. Now tofu can be smoked, sauteed or deep fried after being dipped in besan batter. I chose the simple sauteed and one side charred option. But before I did that, I julienned (love this word) red capsicum (bell pepper), sauteed it in olive oil (extra virgin, which is not the same as a conservative Indian girl) and sprinkled a little (really, a little) salt and about 2-3 tbsp of balsamic vinegar. This softens the capsicum and lends it a tang.
In the skillet where I had sauteed the capsicum, I sauteed the tofu as well. You can use lengths of paneer to get a similar effect, but tofu is mild and satvic. So now my tofu helped me clean my skillet of the olive oil – balsamic vinegar blend. Then I turned up the heat to char (no, not your single byte variable) them on one side (you won’t see that side below). The red worms on top are the capsicum slices. Please buy fresh.
Once you have that placed on the rice paper, you should add a few leaves of fresh basil. Fresh basil in Bangalore is available in the Food Gourmet store on M. G Road and I think in Maison Des Gourmets (Lavelle Road). You might find it at other places. In Madras you will find it in MDG (Senatoph Road) and in the American Vegetable Store in T Nagar. No, you cannot use dried basil for this. Please don’t. Have a heart!!
Then, or rather at the outset, you should have powdered some groundnuts and dried red chilli. Then, you add them on top of the basil leaves. It lends a nutty texture and taste to the dish. If you are allergic to groundnuts (which are also known as peanuts) then don’t use them. Duh! You could sprinkle some red paprika if it suits your taste.
Now, you need to carefully roll the paper (it is still delicate) making a nice translucent pouch containing all the ingredients mentioned above.
And when many of them are carefully parceled, this is how it looks.
What are the variations possible? Several! I would need a few hundred posts to outline all of them. Experiment with different vegetables (I would never recommend non-veg in this lifetime), different sauces, tofu, paneer, feta cheese, groundnut powder, gunpowder (something that you will get in Maharashtra) and so on. I have played around with several combinations including sun-dried tomatoes, harissa, soya sauce, etc. Be creative! That is really what cooking is all about, and of course the joy of feeding someone.