Friday, September 03, 2004

Chicken Rice Wrap Rolls

In my early twenties I lived in an illegal structure on the top of a building in the middle of downtown Lan Kwai Fong, Central Hong Kong.

I will never forget the night I arrived in Hong Kong - I was wearing a navy blue suit and the minute I stepped out of Kai Tak airport into the humid summer night I began to swelter. I peeled my jacket off, got into a red taxi cab and proceeded to head from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island. The radio blarred "Thieves In The Temple" by Prince as we sped past the walled city, which has since been knocked down. My eyes were assalted everywhere I looked by neon lights, and to my great surprise, the majority of the signs illuminated the virtues of smoking! Cigarette advertising had long since been banned in Australia, and it was bizarre to be accosted by it again, even if I was in a foreign place.

My apartment was in the middle of the night club district in Central Hong Kong. In the bottom of my building were two very popular restaurants - one which ran by day, the other by night. The day restaurant was managed by Vietnamese immigrants who sold all manner of meals for HKD$14 - the equivalent of $2.30, Australian. Their menu was in Cantonese, but thankfully they had pictures of everything they served so I was able to make my choice based on the visuals. My favourites were satay beef and rice (a dry yet spicey version of the Indian delicacy), shredded chicken and rice and of course the cheapest meal on the menu - rice noodle rolls.

At sundown the Vietnamese packed up shop, leaving their cranky dog, Sai Fai, to hang out with the man who arrived at around 7.00pm to cook congee on a rickety tressel table. The irony of Sai Fai was that her name translated as 'Little Fat'. She was far from little, nor was she fat. She was a mongrel, rusty in colour, quite dingo like in my opinion. Perhaps the reason she was so cranky was because she was half starved to death. She was surrounded by food day in, day out, yet she was as skinny as a rake. She would wait by the congee cook's feet hopeful that morsels would fall off the table and into her mouth. It rarely happened. It seems the Chinese are far less indulgent with dogs than we Westerners are. As a result, Sai Fai never failed to snarl at me whenever I made my way home from work in wee hours of the morning. Sadly, I always at my boot at the ready in case she picked that occassion to lunge at me.

I was in Hong Kong for two years and when I came home I brought a deep love of Chinese food with me - not the stuff you get at the lunch time takeaway counter. It was more the idea of its simplicity that appealed to me. Thank God Australia is crowded with Asian immigrants - they've made it so easy to get hold of the ingredients that are staple to the cuisine. At dirt cheap prices!

Ingredients
250g chicken breast mince
1 tblsp olive oil
1 tblsp oyster sauce
1 tblsp tamari soy sauce
handful chopped shallots
pinch dried chili flakes
1 packet glass noodles
2 lettuce leaves (butter lettuce is great!)
bunch of mint
12 round rice noodle wrappers
1 large carrot, grated
2 tblsp crushed peanuts
sweet chili sauce to season

1. Heat frypan on stove top. Add olive oil and chicken mince, stirring with slotted spoon to separate chicken bits while it browns. Make sure the chicken does not ball together in clumps. Add oyster sauce and soy sauce and continue to stir. Add shallots and chili flakes and stir again until all ingredients are combined. Remove chicken from stove when cooked and allow to cool completely.

2. Put glass noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to soak for approximately two minutes, or until noodles are softened. Drain and set aside.

3. Slice hard vein out of middle of lettuce leaves. Cut each leaf into pieces approximately four inches by three inches square. Don't sweat if they don't look neat! You should get four to six pieces from each leaf. Set aside.

4. Flood a dinner plate or round platter with water. Carefully slide a rice wrap round into the water, ensuring it is fully emersed. Allow to soak for about one minute or until it becomes soft. Gently lift out of the water by the edges, allowing excess water to drain off. Lay rice wrap out flat on clean benchtop.

5. Place one mint leave leaf face down sideways on the rice wrap. Position it in the bottom third of the round closet to you. Lay a piece of lettuce over the top and arrange a small tangle of glass noodles on it. Sprinkle approximately one dessert spoon of chicken mince over the noodles. Add two pinches of the grated carrot and a pinch of crushed peantus, then finish by drizzling a little sweet chili sauce over all.

6. Fold the left and right sides of the rice wrap up over the filling - they probably won't connect in the middle. Don't worry about that! Fold the side closest to you up over the top then gently begin to roll the wrap, squishing the ingredients as you go to compact the filling. Hopefully you'll end with the edge on the opposite side to the mint leaf which should be visible through the rice wrap top.

7. Don't panic if your roll comes out a bit wonky on the first go! Practice makes perfect with rice wrap rolls. Try positioning things off centre, try squishing tighter as you roll, in fact just experiment until you get the effect you want. To serve, see if you can get hold of a banana leaf. Cut it into a nice rectangular shape to cover your dinner plate, arranging the rice paper rolls on top. Rice wraps will last for two days in the fridge.

Important! ...Handling Rice Paper Sheets
Your sense of touch will be the most important tool you have when it comes to handling the rice paper sheets. The water you soften them in need not be hot - but luke warm is nice because your finger tips will be wet during this entire assembly process. They don't have to be cold too!

Slide the rice paper sheet into the water, guiding the edge down to the bottom of the plate. This will fully submerge the sheet. If it floats, don't push it down - you could break it. Just wait for it to moisten and sink.

I place all my finger tips on the rice paper sheet and sway it a little under the water, feeling it as it hydrates. There is a point between totally dry and too soft that is perfect to work with. You will still be able to feel the imprint of the pattern on the sheet. The sheet itself might feel a little glutenous.

To pick the sheet up I carefully slide it out of the water on the side of the plate furthest away from me. I spread my fingers wide as I lift and press the sheet lightly against the heel of my palm. I let most of the water cascade off the sheet then position it on my chopping board so that it's as flat as possible. Be gentle at this stage! Tears develop easily in the sheet.

When folding the rice wrap over the filling, I find if the two side pieces touch in the middle they help seal the roll and hold the filling in place. Things can look quite fragile when you lift the side closest to you over the two connecting sides - don't worry! Just gently squish (compress) the filling as you roll and everything will be fine. If it's not, eat the failure and start again!

I've found the secret to rice wrap rolls is the leaf you use as the base. The shape and texture of the leaf will determine how well your roll will hold together so please, don't underestimate the imporance of your leaf preparation. A soft leaf with little or no hard spine is best - butter lettuce is my favourite choice.

If you have any difficulties with this recipe, please don't hesitate to post a comment - I'm happy to share what I know about making these babies turn out great!

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