Two weeks ago, I planned a Vietnamese spring roll meetup because they are easy to prepare and healthy to eat. You need someone to show you how to roll them properly, making them ideal for a cooking meetup where in-person instruction is possible.
A week before the meetup, two people signed up. Based on the attrition numbers from previous meetups, I know that 1-2 people never show up.
A few days before the meetup, I received a private message from one of the potential attendees. He’s animated (“WT…’Heck!!’”) using ALL CAPS (“u guys WAIT!!!”) and adding slightly unconventional smiley punctuation (;-[[[[[). He writes that he’s looking forward to my Kiwi accent.
How do you respond to that?
My friend Sean says that a workshop with 1 person is the worst. If there were two people, at least they could befriend each other, and you look a little less pathetic. If you have 0 attendees, then yay! pack up early and go home. But when there’s only 1.
I heard nothing from the other attendee. In the meantime, I continue receiving messages that got weirder.
It’s the big day. I prepped the vegetables, herbs, tofu, and shrimp. All the food is packed in neat containers. I wonder: would I rather nobody show up and swallow the embarrassment? Or 1 person show up and it’s that guy? Cooking is a fun way to procrastinate and channel this nervous energy.
Showtime. Alex and I arrive a few minutes late.
Someone’s at the table.
A head turns and — it’s Marilynn.
Marilynn was a nurse, she told me. She’s retired now and travels frequently all over the world. She used to do research with one of the doctors who invented a special heart procedure at UCSF (University of California, San Francisco) called catheter ablation. It destroys a faulty short circuit in the heart that’s causing irregular heartbeats.
This was a precious meeting because we have a relative who will have this procedure soon. It was reassuring to learn how it works and to meet someone who contributed to the pioneering research. Marilynn shared her knowledge and reassured us that the success rate is very high, and the risks are very low.
These days we rarely talk to each other anymore. We commute solo. We regard neighbors with suspicion. We’re silent at the gas station and grocery checkout. Where else could I have met Marilynn if I didn’t organize this meetup?
Ping! I get a message 30 minutes before the meetup ends. It’s a rambling message from “Mr. FRIENDLY ;-]]]]]]]]]” about his muscle car breaking down. That must have been quite a sight.
And you know what I learned? A meetup for 1 person is totally worth the effort.
This post is the fourth in a new series of “How To Build Community” posts where I plan on chronicling my adventures trying to build a real-life, in-person community around home cooking and the pleasures of making food. My hope is you can glean information to start a group in your neighborhood and learn from my mistakes (Oh yes, because I’ve already made quite a few). Because food is too fun and delightful to keep to yourself!
Check out my tips to start your own meetup. And if you live in the Bay Area, please join us at Rediscovering the Lost Art and Delights of Cooking for some fun cooking projects
Ingredients and Equipment
What We Bought At the Store
- Rice paper (purchased from my local Asian grocery store)
- Shrimp, pre-cooked with a bit of salt
- Tofu, blanched and sliced
- Thai basil, washed and patted dried
- Persian cucumbers, sliced lengthwise
- Carrots, sliced lengthwise
- Rice noodles, boiled and drained
What We Brought From Our Kitchen
- Electric egg beater
- Dipping sauce
- Boiling water, stored in a thermos
- Sauce bowls,
- Tongs for serving
- Baking sheet for dipping the rice paper in warm water
Nhi’s Spring Rolls + Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce Recipe
Sometimes being alone on New Years Day can be challenging. In 2010, I was 6,500 miles (or 10,500 kilometers) from home in Los Angeles, preparing to cook Chinese New Year dinner for one.
New Years celebrations are bigger than Christmas in my family. There are firecrackers, new shoes, and red underwear.
The feasts are so abundant that the dishes can’t all fit on the table.
With zero family in the U.S., I had planned a relaxing day of wallowing in lonely self-pity.
Miraculously, my friend, Nhi, invited me to spend the new year with her family. “First, we’ll go to the Tết Festival and then you can come to my place for dinner,” she told me.
I didn’t realize that Vietnamese people celebrate the same day. I assumed that Chinese people had a monopoly over the moon and its calendar.
The Tết Festival was like a parallel universe. Nhi donned a traditional Vietnamese garb, an aquamarine silk dress with chiffon sleeves and a tall, stiff collar. Her dress was decorated with fluffy golden clouds pillowed high from the neckline down past the waist to her knees.
The festival exhibited miniature pagoda replicas painted in red and yellow as if they stole the image from my childhood. Little red pockets hanging on the branches of mandarin trees swayed in the breeze.
I breathed in every drop of symbolism at the festival from the lanterns to the golden statues to the dragons and the color red splashed everywhere.
Behind the excitement was a nagging case of déjà vu like something was just a little off. I didn’t understand the language. The food was a bit different, deep-fried egg rolls, sugar cane juice, and fertilized eggs which I wasn’t used to. It was disorientating and confusing. Then things took a turn for the worse.
Don’t you hate it when a jerk comes along and ruins everything?
I especially hate it when that jerk is me.
At lunch, I remember a father eating with his daughter next to us trying to strike up a conversation. I don’t even remember what I said except that I had a stinky attitude and sounded condescending.
“Omgsh, Anna. He’s just trying to be friendly,” Nhi pointed out.
Mortified and humbled, my stomach felt like I had eaten a thousand fertilized eggs.
That evening, I went to Nhi’s house where I met her brother, dad, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandma, and her mother. The family gathered to celebrate her brother’s 18th birthday. On the menu was Vietnamese spring rolls with salmon.
Nhi taught me how to roll a spring roll by first dipping the rice paper in water and assembling the fillings inside. I watched her roll together a tight package that she dunked into the peanut dipping sauce.
It looked easy. In my first attempt, not only did I tear the paper-thin skin but the salad and herbs burst out.
I looked over at Nhi’s dad as he rolled a fat cigar-shaped spring roll with adeptness like he had put in his 10,000 hours long ago. Malcolm Gladwell would be proud.
That Lunar New Years Day, Nhi saved me from loneliness and overlooked my unkind comment. Her family adopted me during a time when I desperately needed love and care. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Nhi's Spring Rolls + Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce
- 6 oz. Rice Paper About half a stack of rice paper. You can purchase from the Asian grocery store. I prefer the 22cm round rice paper. The Three Ladies Brand is consistently good.
- 1 lb. Shrimp Deveined and shelled. Lightly poached in boiling water until cooked.
- 1 head Lettuce Washed and dried.
- 2 blocks Tofu Extra firm and 5-spice marinated.
- 6 sprigs Thai Basil To taste
- 6 sprigs Cilantro To taste
- 3 sprigs Mint To taste
- 1 cup Rice Noodles Optional
- 1 cup Peanut Butter Smooth is fine but I prefer extra chunky.
- 3 tablespoon Hoisin Sauce
- 1 cloves Garlic Minced finely.
- 1 tablespoon Sriracha Optional. Skip if you don't want the sauce to be spicy.
- Water Warm water to thin out the sauce
Making Spring Rolls
- Prepare the ingredients by washing and drying thoroughly. Lightly poach the shrimp if it's raw. Blanch the tofu (if you have a habit of blanching tofu).
- Place hot tap water in a wide baking pan. Dip a rice paper sheet very quickly on both sides and put on a large plate.
- Assemble a spring roll by layering shrimp, tofu, lettuce, and herbs. Remember not to overfill or you'll tear the rice paper when you roll it.
- Roll the rice paper by bringing the two shorter opposite edges together. They won't touch but try to make them even. Pull one of the long sides over the two previous shorter edges. Then roll from the long edge until there is no more rice paper left to roll. This should close the spring roll.
- Mix the peanut butter and hoisin sauce. Use a garlic press to mince the garlic. Add the garlic directly to the peanut butter and hoisin mix.
- Add sriracha if you want the dipping sauce to be spicy. Stir the sauce to mix evenly. Add warm water to thin out the sauce and make it easier to mix. Add salt to taste.
- Enjoy your spring rolls with peanut butter dipping sauce!