Have you ever eaten a spring roll? Of course you have. They are quite tasty, stuffed with veggies, meat, and perhaps some fungi. But what holds them together is the key ingredient. I present to you the rice paper wrapper. It is circular, kinda nutritious, and quite tasteless. Without one you wouldn’t be able to make a spring roll. This is the story of how these rice wrappers are made.
The Making of Rice Paper
While in Battambang, Cambodia, we visited a small family run business that specializes in producing the spring roll’s most important ingredient. There are four people in the family, all committed to produce as many of these rice wrappers as possible. They work tirelessly from pre-dawn to dusk, making each rice circle, one at a time. When the next day arrives, they start all over. Rice circle after rice circle. If they can make 1,000 of them in a day, they will bring in about $25. This keeps the family fed with food other than rice. If the day is cloudy, they do not work. More on this later.
Making these rice wrappers is a combination art form and process. It takes these four people working in unison, each with their own responsibility. While there, I never saw the roles overlap. There was the centerpiece, or main cog of the operation. She sits on a wood slab, hands in hot water most of the day. Then she places the rice paste, or goo, onto a rotating, circular slab. Finally, she spreads the goo with a squeegee like device until the rice circle is wafer thin. It reminded me of an artist forming a piece of pottery with very wet clay. She then takes the wet rice wrapper and drapes it carefully over a rotating spindle, very careful not to tear one. Her job is now complete. It is up to the next person, the one who does the laying.
The wet, limp rice wrapper rotates to the next station. The layer, a man, carefully picks up the wet, limp rice wrapper and lays it gently onto a latticed bamboo tray. It is so very easy to tear one of them, making it useless, becoming scrap. The layer waits for the rice wrapper to rotate in front of him. Then he takes action. He deftly picks up the rice wrapper with one hand, spreads it out on his other hand, then lays it carefully on a latticed tray. He is quick but careful, not wanting to tear it. To make sure the wrapper is as flat as possible, he gently rolls it.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the mother makes the goo. She keeps the process moving. Using a mortar and pestle, she grinds the rice. Her job is to make the goo, just ground rice and water. She grinds, grinds, grinds. Usually she works the front making the rice wrappers. But today her hands are too chapped from days in the hot water. So, she is the grinder.
Now, back to the main process. The layer works in rhythm. He doesn’t want the wet, folded, rice wrapper to pass him by, letting it dry in a folded state. One after another he picks, drapes, and lays, rolls, until the tray is full at about 100 rice wrappers. When the tray is filled, he covers it with another latticed bamboo tray, holding all the wrappers in place. This is time for the woman making the wrappers takes a break. It’s not long but it is needed and well deserved.
The layer now picks up the latticed tray of rice wrappers and brings it to the front of the house to dry in the sun. The sun is a very important ingredient. It dries the rice wrappers during the day. We were told that on cloudy days this family does not work because the rice wrappers do not dry correctly without the sun. It is pretty sunny in Cambodia, so no worries there.
We were visitors for an hour or so. During that time, they filled most of their front yard with the bamboo trays, rice paper wrappers drying in the morning sun.
Remember, it’s all about the light.