Every now and then I get adventurous and decide to try to replicate something I’ve eaten at a restaurant. I usually don’t get that close to the original, but it’s a fun exercise to go through. Plus, if I’m lucky it still tastes good.

This particular culinary adventure was inspired by a visit to Andy Nguyen’s Restaurant (voted best vegetarian restaurant in Sacramento in 2010). Somehow I got into a conversation about spring rolls with my advisor (we tend to talk about random things like this) and he claimed this was the place to go if you like spring rolls. To sell it even further, he described it as an exotic version of Ding How, a Chinese restaurant in Davis that makes fantastic vegetarian “meat” dishes. While I love Ding How, the ‘exotic’ claim scared me a little. You see, for whatever reason, ‘exotic’ just makes me think of weird, slimy food with random animal parts. I know, how open-minded am I? Knowing this was a little ridiculous and given that this was a vegetarian restaurant, I decided to try the place anyway.

As it turns out, Andy Nguyen’s Restaurant lived up to its hype. There was a wide variety of spring rolls to choose from (among many other interesting dishes), all with funny Buddhism-influenced names, like Enlighten Mind Rolls and Nirvana Lemon Salad. We settled on the Karma Roll as an appetizer, which came with mango, grilled tofu, rice noodles, caramelized onions, mint, cilantro, carrots, and slaw. It was probably the tastiest spring roll I’ve ever had, and within a week I set out to try my own version at home.

I made several alterations in my version, including omitting rice noodles. I guess I was going for a low-carb spring roll? I’m not sure, but including rice noodles would probably make it taste more authentic. The other suggestion I have would be to saute the cabbage to soften it a bit before putting it in the spring rolls. The raw cabbage has a nicer color, but it ended up being a little on the hard-to-digest side, and that comes from a girl who goes out of her way to eat large quantities of fiber. So trust me on that one.

The recipe I included below is a place to start, but you could tweak it in an infinite number of ways, depending on what you like and what’s in season. The dipping sauce we made came from a Thai grilled chicken recipe in the Best Recipes Grilling and Barbecue cookbook. It is simultaneously sweet, tangy and spicy and worked great with these spring rolls, but you could also make a peanut sauce or something soy sauce based if that sounds better to you. With the exception of the dipping sauce, this whole project was an experimental adventure. I’m learning that cooking without a recipe, while sometimes daunting, can be really fun and satisfying! (That said, I still included my recipe below!)

Mango Tofu Spring Rolls
inspired by the Karma Roll at Andy Nguyen’s Restaurant; dipping sauce from Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue

Dipping sacue
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 small garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Tofu marinade
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup dry sherry
1/6 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 pound tofu
2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil

2 ripe mangos, peeled and diced
4 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
2 cups shredded red cabbage (*we used raw, but I would suggest sauteeing it in a bit of oil until it softens; then let it cool to room temperature*)
1/2 cup mint, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup basil, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 package rice paper wraps
large bowl warm water
sushi rolling mat

1. Make the dipping sauce.
Whisk the ingrdients in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves. Let stand 1 hour at room temperature to allow the flavors to meld.

2. Bake the tofu.
In a small saucepan, bring the tofu marinade ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 1 minute and remove from the heat. Press tofu between layers of paper towels to remove moisture. Then cut the blocks of tofu into 3 slabs. Place the slabs in a single layer in a nonreactive heatproof pan. Pour the marinade over the tofu, sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of oil, and set aside for about 5 minutes. Preheat the broiler. Broil the tofu for 7 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned; then turn it over with a spatula and brown the other side (another 4-5 minutes). Remove from pan and set aside. When cool, slice the tofu into long “matchsticks,” about 1/4 inch wide.

3. Prepare rice wraps.
Before assembling the spring rolls, you should have all your ingredients handy, including a bowl or warm water and a sushi rolling mat if you have one. Take a rice wrapper and submerge it in the water for about 10-15 seconds to let it soften. Then remove it from the water and center it on the rolling mat, rough side down.

4. Assemble spring rolls.
Layer ingredients in a line along the right-center side of the wrap, leaving 1 1/2 inches of wrap on the top and bottom open. See the pictures above for a guide of how much filling to put in. If anything, put less than you think you need. Next fold in the two ends and start rolling from the right side until the wrap is closed. This is sort of like rolling a really, really delicate burrito. The first few will probably break, but you’ll eventually get the hang of it.