Once upon a time, I used to cringe at the thought of a fresh roll. I thought they were for the unadventurous and the dieting – the flavorless consolation prize to a crisp spring roll. But that was before I actually had one. Forgive me. I didn’t know what I was saying. I didn’t know that rice paper sheets have this magnificent chew or that greens magically taste better within their walls. I didn’t know you could find just about anything in a fresh roll, like noodles, pineapple, shrimp, and chicken. I didn’t know Vietnamese food was magic! I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen the light and today’s Caramel Fried Chicken Fresh Rolls further solidify that fact.
Have you ever had Vietnamese caramel chicken? It is pretty much the most perfect thing in the whole world. It’s easily on the list of my top 10 favorite foods. Why am I hyperventilating over it? While it may sound like something a particularly hungry five-year-old would dream up, it’s anything but. It’s sticky, complex, sweet, and savory. It represents what I love the most about Vietnamese food; the balance of vastly different textures and flavors that somehow effortlessly compliment one another.
Typically caramel chicken isn’t fried, it’s grilled or done up in a wok. I fried mine because I was having a bad day. Also, I’d just gotten the new Lucky Peach magazine and it put me in a fried chicken state of mind. What’s a girl to do? Easy, fry some chicken.
I took the karaage approach and soaked the raw chicken in the caramel sauce before tossing it into a 1:1 mixture of flour and cornstarch. Instead of deep frying the chicken, I gave it a shallow fry in 1-inch of canola oil. I did this mostly because I’m gutless and I can’t upend an entire bottle of oil into my dutch oven. If you can, go for it, but I can’t – it honestly feels like a criminal offense. The resulting chicken had a thin, crisp exterior. It’s very low maintenance fried chicken, so don’t expect an extra thick southern batter. This one is, well, light, but definitely not in a caloric way – I have yet to discover Fried Chicken Light.
To give the chicken it’s gooey exterior, I cooked down the marinade and added a little cornstarch to give it the right viscosity. It coated the chicken perfectly and brought a little extra sauciness to the finished rolls. I was thrilled to find the chicken was just as good cold as it was hot. Trust me, you don’t want temperature sensitive foods when you’re wrapping a bunch of fresh rolls – it’s just too much pressure.
Since I’d opted to include fried chicken in the roll, I wanted to add something that would cut through it’s heavy, rich flavor. Pickled Asian pear turned out to be just the ticket. Sharp, tart, and crisp, pickled Asian pear is everything the caramel fried chicken isn’t. In other words, their each other’s perfect foil.
I rounded out the already flavor-packed Caramel Fried Chicken Fresh Rolls with the usual suspects: noodles, herbs and veg. The only thing I’m really bummed about is my lack of Thai basil. I did my shopping in the wrong neighborhood and left Thai basil-less. Don’t make my mistake, get the Thai basil! Even if you have to make an extra trip, it’s totally worth it. Don’t be like me, i.e. lazy and full of regrets.
Never thought “fried chicken” and “refreshing” could occupy the same sentence? Well, prepare to be amazed because these Caramel Fried Chicken Fresh Rolls are making it happen. Call it a delicious paradox.
- 8-10 rice paper sheets
- 1 batch pickled Asian pear (recipe below)
- 1 batch fried caramel chicken, cut into strips (recipe below)
- 1 purple heirloom carrot, shaved into ribbons
- 40 g fresh basil leaves
- 40 g fresh cilantro
- 1 cup cooked rice vermicelli
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup hot water
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon sambal oelek
- Juice of 1 lime
- 4 skinless boneless chicken thighs
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 shallots, quartered
- ¼ cup cilantro stems
- 1 1-inch knob ginger, peeled and quartered
- 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Canola oil for frying
- 1 asian pear, cored & thinly sliced
- 1 shallot, peeled, halved & thinly sliced
- ¾ cup cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8-10 black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ¼ teaspoon black sesame seeds
- ¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
- 8-10 black peppercorns
- Heat sugar in a large dry skillet over high heat. Shake the pan occasionally. Cook until the sugar liquifies and turns a dark amber. Turn off the heat and add the hot water. The sugar will bubble furiously then subside. Let the caramel cool to room temperature.
- Pour the caramel into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the soy sauce, fish sauce, sambal oelek and lime juice. Add the chicken, shallots, garlic, cilantro stems and ginger. Let the chicken marinade for at least three hours or overnight.
- When ready to fry, whisk the flour, 1/4 cup of the cornstarch and salt together in a medium-sized bowl. Remove the chicken from the marinade and dredge it in the flour mixture.
- Heat 1-inch of canola oil in a large wok over medium heat. Add the chicken and fry for 6-8 minutes, turning once. Your chicken may require a longer cook time to cook all the way through. Be sure to keep turning the chicken to ensure it doesn't fry darker on one side.
- Place finished chicken on a plate lined with paper towel.
- Pour the marinade through a fine mesh strainer. Discard the solids.
- Pour strained marinade into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes.
- Whisk remaining cornstarch and a small amount of cold water together in a small bowl. Pour slurry into the simmering marinade.
- Bring the marinade back up to a boil, stirring constantly until thickened. The sauce should coat the back of the spoon.
- Brush the chicken with caramel sauce and cut into strips.
- Place pear slices and shallot in a medium-sized bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the cider vinegar, sugar and salt until the sugar dissolves. Pour the vinegar mixture over the pear and shallot.
- Add the peppercorns, red pepper flakes, sesame seeds and coriander seeds to the bowl. Give the mixture a quick stir and set aside.
- Leave the pear to pickle for at least 2 hours or overnight.
- Fill a pie tin with luke warm water. Soak a sheet of rice paper in the pie tin until pliable. Place the sheet on a wooden cutting board.
- Place carrot ribbons, a handful of vermicelli, three basil leaves, 2 sprigs of cilantro, three slices of pickled asian pear and a few pieces of caramel fried chicken in the centre of the sheet.
- Fold the rice paper sides towards the center, then take the end closest to you and roll it away from yourself, as you would a burrito.
- Repeat with remaining rice paper sheets until you run out of filling.
- Serve rolls immediately with the remaining caramel sauce on the side.