Roll into Spring

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Letting the universe guide you on the road and in the kitchen

CLICK! …click, click, click, click.” Off comes my helmet from my first solo scooter ride as I discover my left turn signal has been on for at least two kilometers — the unintentional equivalent of attaching a bright red “STUDENT DRIVER” sign to my back, an idea I had momentarily entertained. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I proudly take off my backpack to find the intact spring roll ingredients inside. When I first booked my ticket to Thailand, I had no idea where I’d be living, what I’d be doing, or how I’d be getting around, but the vision of a travel-inspired spring roll took hold of me and never let go. Despite having zero contacts in Thailand, I pitched this article with the same philosophy that has guided the past four months of solo-travel and the past four days of novice scooter-riding: "Say yes to things that feel a little bit scary, take any necessary precautions, and graciously accept any help the universe might be waving in front of your face.”

Making spring rolls can be the same “choose your own adventure” endeavor as traveling: You start with a plan, but are open to adjusting it when new information comes along. I had always been intimidated by spring rolls — so delicate, so fancy, so something-you-only-order-off-of-a-menu. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Do you know how to “cook” rice paper? Open the package, take out a sheet, place it in water for a minute. DONE! You will break the first few you try to make (or maybe you’ll be much better at making them than I was), but thankfully rice paper is cheap and comes in packs of a million. Whether you’re looking for a creative way to elevate your fruits and veggies for a spring picnic, or you’re simply in the mood to have a culinary arts and crafts day, spring rolls will be your best friends of the season. Speaking of best friends, here are some of my favorites inspired by my favorite people and places near and far.

The CLASS-ic

I first came to Thailand two years ago as a third wheel on my friend’s honeymoon (Don’t worry, the honeymoon extended beyond the two weeks I spent with them—I’m a considerate and professional third wheel!) One of my favorite parts of the trip was taking a cooking class, which made all of the colorful vegetation and rich flavors of Thailand come to life as we learned to make a variety of authentic Thai dishes, including my favorites: Panang Curry, Pad Thai, Mango Sticky Rice, and of course, spring rolls. Perhaps what I took away the most wasn’t only the technique with which one assembles spring rolls (something you can Google from anywhere in the world) but how easy, quick, and delicious they are to make—especially inspired by Alex who now lives in Pittsburgh and “cooks” these as a nearly daily delicacy. (If you ever venture to Chiang Mai, do yourself a favor and take a class with “A” at Thai Orchid Cookery School.)

The Mystery Trip Rainbow Roll
Purple Cabbage/Red Bell Pepper/Carrot/Mango/Cucumber/Cilantro/Tofu

I’m in the middle of a yearlong solo travel adventure, and this past holiday season was my first time being away from home for Christmas. Knowing me better than I know myself, my best friend, Sammi, gave me the best gift ever: A Mystery Trip over the holidays. I had no idea where I’d be going or who I’d be staying with until the day before I left, so I was delighted to find myself in Amsterdam with couch-surfing angel, Soraya, who not only agreed to host me for a week, but also planned her very own makeshift Christmas dinner for a variety of travelers who were without a place to stay that night. (We ended up hosting two Israeli backpackers who had never been to a Christmas dinner before!) As if this dinner wasn’t novel enough, I was also surprised to find spring rolls on the menu—with one of the most unique, delicious flavor combinations: marinated tempeh, cucumbers, carrots, mangoes, and fresh spring mix. They were objectively both delicious and beautiful, and made an impact on me because of how much love went into making them. (While everyone was hard at work in the kitchen I was FaceTiming my family during Christmas morning.)

The “When in Thailand” Fruit Roll-Up
Dragon Fruit/Mango/Kiwi/Cabbage/Mint

The beauty of spring rolls is that you can put anything inside that you think might taste good together. I decided to practice what I preach and do some experimenting myself. Full disclosure: It was a taste success but a textural disaster, which later got resolved with the help of some cabbage to give the roll structure. It takes a little work, but I always encourage people to get creative and playful.


Spring Roll

Rice paper rounds

Uniformly chopped (julienned, if you will) fruits and/or veggies Tofu, shrimp, chicken (optional)

Rice noodles (optional)

Spring mix (optional)

Peanut Dipping Sauce

  • 1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

  • 1 tbsp. hoisin sauce

  • 2 tsp. soy sauce

  • 1 clove garlic, mashed or minced

  • 2 tbsp. warm water

1. Prep them: Chop, prepare, and set aside all of your fillings before you begin assembling. Try to cut all vegetables to a uniform length (about 3 1/2 inches) to make rolling easier. Fill a 9-inch diameter baking dish or plate with warm water to hydrate the rice paper wrappers. Working with one at a time, dip the rice paper into the water for about a minute, or whatever it says on the package, until the rice paper is soft and pliable. Then lay it flat onto a separate plate or non-textured cutting board to prepare your roll.

2. Fill them: Lay the ingredients onto the center portion of the first 1/3 of the roll. You can play around with how you arrange them. If you need more bulk, add rice noodles or spring mix. It can be helpful to surround your ingredients in a large lettuce or cabbage leaf to keep them together and then lay a protein on top. You’ll experiment with desired thickness as you make more rolls.

3. Roll them: Fold both of the sides in and roll the ingredients together snugly, tucking in any loose filling as you go. Imagine you’re rolling a tiny burrito. Expect to break the first few you make. (A perfect excuse to taste-test your creation.)

4. Dip them: Whisk the peanut sauce ingredients together (except for the water) in a large bowl or food processor. Gradually add warm water until you reach the desired thickness.

5. Eat them!

Story and photography by Katie Barbaro