By Tara Alan
Do you remember the best meal of your life?
I do. I was on a bicycle tour through Vietnam, and I happened to be meandering through the side streets of Hoi An. The smell of grilled meat wafted my way, and I rounded a corner to find a woman preparing a feast. She sat with the smoke of a cook fire wafting around her as she grilled skewers of pork and arranged vegetables on platters.
I didn’t know exactly what the woman was preparing, but I didn’t think twice about wheeling my bike over and taking a seat in one of the tiny plastic chairs arranged for hungry travelers. The woman smiled and loaded up a tray for me, miming what I was supposed to do with the mountain of food. Apparently, I was supposed to roll up meat, vegetables, herbs, and sauce into a paper-thin wrapper, and then devour it.
I did as I was instructed. As I took my first bite, I could hardly believe what I was tasting. The meat was sweet and smoky, the vegetables crisp and fresh, the herbs bright and pungent, and the best part, a peanut sauce, was sticky and sweet and to die for.
As it turns out, the best meal of my life was Goi Cuon Thit Heo Nuong, or spring rolls with grilled pork, fresh herbs and vegetables, and an addictive peanut-hoisin sauce. Since that day, I’ve taken to recreating the recipe at home whenever I can, relishing each savory bite and remembering my time bike touring in Southeast Asia.
Today, I’ve taken my go-to version and streamlined it for the avid backpacking or bikepacking foodie: Chicken Spring Roll Bowl with Peanut Sauce encompasses the very best of my favorite meal, but with none of the fuss it usually requires. A generous portion of rice noodles, chili-lime grilled chicken, vegetables of your choice, and sweet and spicy peanut sauce make for a camping meal that’s as fresh as it is satisfying.
So, how are we going to streamline this recipe? Instead of messing around with spring roll wrappers, we’ll eschew them entirely and dump our ingredients into a bowl. The grilled pork is replaced with a packet of grilled chicken, which makes it easy to carry. You’ll also prepare a few things before you leave home, to make cooking at camp easier.
As for the vegetables, I call for carrot and cucumber, but you can vary this depending on the type of camping you’re doing, as well as the season. If you need to work with sturdy vegetables, try adding some thinly sliced kale or red cabbage leaves to the dish instead of the cucumber. If you really don’t want to deal with vegetables, leave them out for a meat-and-carb-only meal.
The dish is fabulous as-is, but it is over-the-top AMAZING when you add extras like sliced green onions and torn cilantro, basil, and mint leaves. If you want to try traveling with fresh herbs, you can wrap them in a damp paper towel and seal them in a zip-top bag. They’ll keep reasonably well for a day or two, provided the weather isn’t very hot.
Chicken Spring Roll Bowl with Peanut Sauce
1 teaspoon garlic granules, divided
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, divided
2 tablespoon sugar, divided
8 tablespoons powdered peanut butter
2 soy sauce packets
1 liter of water for boiling
1 small cucumber
1 small carrot
1 large lime
1 7-ounce package grilled chicken
3.5 ounces / 100 grams thin rice noodles (1/4 of a commonly-sized box)
3 tablespoons water (you can use some of the water for boiling, mentioned above)
- 1 sliced green onion
- A few fresh leaves of cilantro, basil, and mint.
Before you leave home:
- Measure ½ teaspoon garlic granules, ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, and 1 tablespoon sugar into a quart-sized zip-top bag. Close, and shake to combine. Label the bag with a permanent marker: “Chicken.” Pack it away with your foodstuffs, making sure it won’t bust open.
- Measure in ½ teaspoon garlic granules, ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, and 1 tablespoon of sugar into a quart-sized zip-top bag. Add 8 tablespoons of peanut butter powder. Add two sealed packets of soy sauce. Label this bag “Peanut Sauce.” Pack the bag away with your foodstuffs, making sure it won’t bust open in your pack or pannier.
First, add a liter of water to a 1.5 liter pot. Prime and light your cook stove, then set the pot on it to warm up. You’ll want the water to come to a boil, so while you’re waiting, you can prepare the rest of the dish.
Cut the cucumber into 2” lengths, then slice each chunk lengthwise into four slabs. Lay the slabs flat on your cutting board, and slice them into matchsticks. Repeat with the carrot and set aside. (Alternatively, cut the vegetables into any shape of bite-sized pieces you wish.)
Next, prepare the chicken:
Roll the lime on a hard surface to help release the juices, then cut in in half. Juice half of the lime into the bag you made, labeled “Chicken.” I find that stabbing a spork into the lime as you’re squeezing it helps get all the juices out. Set the other half of the lime aside. (You’ll use it later to make the peanut sauce.) Then, open the packet of chicken and dump the meat into the bag. Stir to combine, or seal the bag and shake. Set aside.
Next, make the peanut sauce: open your “Peanut Sauce” bag, remove the soy sauce packets, and empty their contents into the bag. Then, squeeze in the juice from the second lime half. Make sure you get out all the juice you can. Mix everything together to form a thick paste. Finally, mix in water a tablespoon at a time until it forms a sauce. (about three tablespoons). Seal the bag and set it aside.
When the water comes to a boil, turn the stove off. Break the rice noodles in half and add them to the water. Give them a stir, cover them with a lid, and let them soften over the next 8-10 minutes. (Different rice noodles soften at different rates, however, so allow yours to soften until they’re how you like them, either al dente or soft.) When the noodles are soft, strain out the water.
Now, you’re ready to assemble! Dish up the rice noodles into a bowl. Then, top with chicken and vegetables.
Slice off one bottom corner of the peanut sauce bag, and drizzle it on. If you can, finish the dish with sliced green onions and cilantro, basil, and mint leaves.
Tara Alan is the author of bicycle touring cookbook, Bike. Camp. Cook, based on a two-year bicycle journey documented at goingslowly.com. She blogs about the sweet spot where food meets adventure at thewoodlandkitchen.com.