Durian fruit being cut at a Vietnamese market in southern L.A. The green behemoths in front and back are jackfruit. (All photos by Donna.)

Flew out to southern California last week to be with one of Donna’s oldest and dearest, almost entirely beaching it, but found time for one great restaurant meal and one day exploring little Saigon south of LA with the extraordinary White On Rice Couple, Todd Porter and Diane Cu.

Diane, born in Vietnam two years before the family fled in 1975, and Todd, a native of Oregon, are photographers, videographers, writers, cooks and gardeners.  I met them in Ixtapa last January and was immediately impressed with their energy and work, but I didn’t quite appreciate how fine these two souls were until they invited me and Donna and the kids into their home, gave us a tour of their truly remarkable garden, then took us on a culinary tour of Little Saigon, including a bahn mi tasting, a visit to the jerky king, an amazing fruit market and a massive Asian grocery store.

This all took the better part of the day, we departed and what did they do next?  Prepare dinner for 10, and bring it to our house on Newport Beach.  James really wanted to make fried spring rolls, so that we did.  Todd put together app-sized bahn mi filled with caramel braised pork belly.

The feature dish of the evening was the fresh spring roll, which I’d never really understood before.  Todd and Diane  brought two nifty little gas table top grills and we cooked thinly sliced beef, marinated with garlic and minced lemongrass on them, and mushrooms and eggplant, then wrapped them up with tons of fresh herbs in rice paper.  A fabulous festive way to cook and eat.

One of the most intriguing things I learned from Diane, in a day filled with learning, was her fish dipping sauce.  So herewith, an outline for fresh spring rolls, and a recipe from Diane for her Nuoc Cham, followed by more pix from the trip.

Diane’s Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)

2/3 cup of fish sauce*

1/3 cup of water

3 cloves of garlic, finely minced or crushed

1-2 red chilies, minced

1 tablespoons of sugar

2 heaping tablespoons of fresh lime juice or more to taste (about 1 lime, depending on how juicy it is)

Combine all ingredients well. Allow sugar to completely dissolve before serving.

Chill in fridge for up to 1 month.

*Diane notes that the most commonly available brand of fish sauce is Three Crabs. Three crabs is a little sweeter, thus more adaptable straight out of the bottle.  Diane’s personal preference is the Flying Lion, which is less sweet, more pungent.

She goes on: “The recipe for the fish dipping sauce is definitely to taste. Any Viet Southerner would argue the ratio (ha!) of the Northern proportions. And vice versa.

“Southern palates tend to be much sweeter, thus tendency to make a sweeter fish sauce dip Southern flavors also tend to be more bold, spicy and sweet.

“Northern palates are more mellow, balanced and normally don’t like sweet food, thus their fish sauce dips are less sweet.

“The addition of vinegar to fish sauce dip is also an option, but not really common.

“Prepare Nuoc Cham to taste based on your spicy, salty, sweet preference. Viet readers are passionate and will always argue their family proportions as being correct!”

White-On-Rice-Inspired Fresh Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Thinly sliced beef (flank, top round, short rib—figure 4 to 6 ounces/120-180 grams per person), marinated with smashed garlic, shallot, soy and finely minced lemongrass if you can find it

Shiitake mushrooms

Baby eggplant

Red leaf, butter or other soft sweet lettuce

Plenty of herbs such as thai basil, chives, perilla mint, thai coriander, mint

Cucumber cut into 3-inch wedges

Rice paper

Diane’s Nuoc Cham

Grill the beef, mushrooms and eggplant.  (Todd said you can buy the little grills for under $20 at camping stores; avoid buying at gourmet stores where they’re over priced.)  At the table, dip the rice paper in water, just till it’s flexible (it will continue to hydrate; Diane noted that a common problem people have with these is that they soak them for too long).  Wrap some beef, eggplant, mushroom, lettuce, cuke and plenty tons of herbs in the rice paper and dip in Diane’s Nuoc Cham.

Starting at the top, that’s Todd, Diane, fellow blogger Matt Armendariz, Adam Pearson (both of whom we met in Ixtapa), Kathy Parsons, my daughter Addison, moi, Russ Parsons, and son James.  What a festive, interactive meal it was. Thank you Diane and Todd!

Think making and rolling spring rolls to fry is a chore?  Not when Diane’s around.  She and James made these happen in twenty minutes, filled with pork, glass noodles and a couple kinds of fungus. Diane says these put Chinese egg rolls to shame (what with all their cabbage filling—hers were primarily meat).  Plenty to go around and plenty to freeze for later.

Todd and Diane have created a kind of garden/arbor of fruit, vegetables and herbs behind their Costa Mesa home.

Dragon fruit on the vine.

Dragon fruit open to its brilliant, sweet, juicy flesh.

Dragon fruit, a halved cured lime, and a blood orange.  I don’t know where I got the idea that I didn’t like blood oranges, because this one was delicious. Todd would later that evening be mixing splendid blood orange margaritas.

Diane carries a roll of paper towel with her when she gives tours of her and Todd’s garden—because the tour is filled with tastings of fruit so ripe and delicious, her guests find themselves continuously and happily dripping with nectar and juice.

I’d never seen a pomegranite on its tree before.

This is the perilla that I found so beguiling in the fresh spring rolls.  Green on top, purple underneath, it’s in the mint family—you can tell this, Todd explained, by its square stem, which all mints share.

Todd and Diane cure limes in an intensely salty brine.

Todd cut a couple cured limes open, juiced them, strained the juice over ice and added soda water for delicious, refreshing drink.

I didn’t want to leave!

But leave we must.  Books to write!  Pix to take!  Surf to catch!


44 Wonderful responses to “California Travel
Fresh Spring Rolls with Viet Dipping Sauce Recipe”

  • Liam O'Malley

    Wow, fantastic. I’ve been following Todd and Diane’s blog for a bit of time now, ever since they launched FBF (the food blog forum) with Jaden and Scott – but I’d never seen pictures or a little tour of their garden like that before.

    I had been jealous to start with, but that’s just ridiculous. I think I will be hearing a particularly melancholy sad trombone when I go out to water my plants this afternoon.

  • Rory

    ahh nuts, you where literally in my neighborhood!! I wish I could have met you!!! Too bad you where here during our July Gray Skies

  • Jennifer

    Spectacular. That garden is amazing. I’ve made many Viet spring rolls and can’t wait to try this recipe.

  • Christine @ Fresh Local and Best

    I agree that Diane and Todd are an impressive couple. I’m imagining what an incredible experience it must have been to sample the bounty of their tropical garden, you truly get a flavor of how great these fruits can be when you get them tree-ripened.

  • Wilma de Soto

    As an ESL Teacher of SE Asian Refugees and Immigrants, SE Asians believe Three Crabs Nuoc Mám is one of the best.

  • matt

    What a special evening that was! I’m so thankful you were able to spend time with T&D at their home enjoying their garden. They are truly special people!

  • Marla

    This looks like the perfect summer evening. Diane and Todd are such a wonderful couple and obviously amazing hosts as well! I recently enjoyed spending time with them at the Food and Light photo workshop in Boulder. Hope you surfed some great waves. I have yet to brave them this season.

  • Dean E.

    Green Perilla is the “shiso” or “ooba” of Japanese cuisine. Both it and the red variety are super-easy to grow in abundance. It’s an herb that I fell in love with at first taste. Thanks for sharing your visit and for the recipes!

  • Amy Viny

    Another wonderful post Michael. Was just in LA two weeks back myself. Loved the incredibly vibrant food scene. Crazy about the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market + Huckelbery, + Chego + Funnel Mill Coffee. Fun creative and first rate. Did you get a chance to eat around a little? What did you like?

    • Elke

      The citrus tree looks like the Meyer lemon tree we have — we have ripe lemons from the winter still on the tree and small green ones beginning to grow. Sweeter than the Eureka lemon and great to cook with, make limoncello, etc.

    • Diane and Todd

      Hi Drew,
      The tree is actually a Eureka lemon tree growing in a pot and the lemons are huge! We call the the “D” cup lemons. 😉
      the green one you see hanging next to it on the branch is just a young lemon, still green.

  • allen

    Luck people that can grow citrus at home! I would love to know more about the preserved limes, I have the lemons in salt from your book. Was the beverage salty? Acidic?

    And we were suppose to get a demo from chef Pardus on spring rolls – I make them, but they come out with holes in the wrappers. The people that make them all the time make it look so easy, and what an impressive mound of them in 20 minutes – wow!

    • Diane and Todd

      allen- the salted lime beverage (chanh muoi) is an acquired taste and has a combination of flavors: slightly salty, fermented and sweet.

  • SWoody

    Ah, yes, pomegranites! Growing up in Burbank, CA, we had five (!) pomegranite bushes in our back yard. They’d be loaded with fruit every year. Some time in late September, Mom would set up a table on the grass, and dress me in clothes I’d never be wearing again (good thing new school clothes had already replaced them). My job would be to juice those fruits (tart but messy), which would take most of the day. She would then strain the juice, and make pomegranite jelly, ruby red and delicious, a treat I don’t think I’ll ever taste again. The jars made for great Christmas gifts.

    Nice “Perry the Platypus” shirt on James, by the way.

  • Cookin' Canuck

    What a day, what a feast, what a garden, and what a couple. Diane and Todd are truly inspiring in so many ways. I am heading straight out to buy one of those little tabletop stoves.

  • Natalie Sztern

    How lucky they are to have such an open environment around them and such a beautiful garden. It rivals any I have seen in a home.

  • Natalie Sztern

    I was so mesmerized I forgot to read the recipe and I have made spring rolls with rice paper that I don’t fry. My one problems is that the rice paper is always so chewy even after it has been dipped and softened that it makes chewing the roll a task. What is it I am doing wrong or is it the quality of the rice paper I am buying?

  • Maris

    Edited or unedited, these are beautiful! Looks like such a serene day that I can only dream about from my cubicle!

  • Vivian

    I have long wanted to visit Diane and Todd and their beautiful Garden. Glad you got to take your family. Fresh Spring Rolls are a summer staple in our house. We usually use left over smoked meats to fill along with herbs, julienned veggies and rice vermicelli for a great no-heat required meal. Will have to give the sauce a try.

  • Dave_C

    Durian! Ewwww! I’d rather drink a bottle of fish sauce.
    Everything else looks great!
    I got to try the nouc cham dipping sauce. Most of the Viet places I go to only offer up hoisin-peanut butter dipping sauce which is too heavy.

  • Brooke@foodwoolf

    I’m so glad you got to spend time with T&D. They are two of the most extraordinary, generous, and talented people I’ve ever met. Like you! Perfect people to spend time with in Southern California. They make every day feel like a culinary vacation. So glad they gave you the Little Vietnam tour. What a tasty day you and the family had!


  • russ parsons

    real nice. tricky photo editing makes it look like i’m elbowing james aside to get more of the meat. well, maybe i was, but just a little.

  • Susan

    Sounds like a great time. We are so lucky in CA to be able to grow so many different things to have available all year long. (except sour cherries, which really rankles me) Our neighbor has a pomegranite tree that sits just outside my home office window. Its beginning to fruit and is still in bloom with vivid, deep orange-red flowers peeking out here and there. I sneak the fruit that hangs on our side of the fence once it’s ready to pick. Gotta get them off the tree quick before they split open..they can be messy!

    I love spring rolls. I make them with tapioca flour skins that I find in the Asian markets. Like Diane said, you have to watch the amount of moisture in softening or they will tear easily. I was taught to lay them on a damp, lint free towel to fill them.

    • Cali

      Why are you worried about picking the pomegranates before they split? I only like them after they split– that’s how to know they are ripe! After they split they get picked then put in the drawer in the fridge where they keep almost indefinitely.

  • Rory

    haha I cant resist but Newport and Costa Mesa ARE NOT PART OF LA!!
    We are in Orange County!! woo hoo! my apologizes but as a life long resident its like the abomination of having the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

    • SWoody

      Having lived in Burbank, Hollywood, Pasadena, Fullerton (in Orange County) and Long Beach, I’m fully qualified to say that they are ALL Los Angeles. LA is a megalopolis, a super-city. It is a continuum of pavement and businesses and industries and residences that sprawl out across the landscape with it’s freeways desperately clawing out, trying to hold it all together. It is not just the city of Los Angeles proper, it is also the County of Los Angeles, and something that even exceeds those political boarders, south into Orange County and north into Ventura. It is a state of mind. So, yes, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa ARE part of LA.

      Or, to put it another way, if your broadcast television, the stuff that’s received over the antiquarian airwaves (and not via cable or satelite), is coming from Mount Wilson and has the call letters KABC, KNBC, KCBS (formerly KNXT), and KTLA (along with a few others), then you are living in LA.

      • Rory

        Balderdash!! and there is 3 million people that would agree with me!! but hey atleast we agree on Ruhlman being one AWESOME! Also if Orange County where part of LA why are there big lines on every map separating the two? yeh thats right I win!!! woo hoo!!! OC 1 LA 0

        • SWoody

          Those lines are imaginary, political divisions, not real ones. If you are flying over Southern California, you will not see those lines. The ground of Orange County is the exact same color as that of Los Angeles, and the people are the exact same amazing blend of colors in both counties.

          Orange County is highly dependent upon Los Angeles for it’s livelyhood. The major media comes from Los Angeles – most of the radio stations, and all but two very minor television stations, are based in LA. Transportation hubs outwards from Los Angeles, and therefor consumer goods are imported through LA – Orange County has no major seaport, Los Angeles has both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. Rail transportation is centered in Los Angeles, not Orange County. And there is just one major airport in Orange County (John Wayne) – compared with LAX, Long Beach, and Burbank airports, all of which have national carriers using their facilities.

          I’m living in Delaware now, moved to the other coast about seven years ago (and don’t regret it one bit). When I tell people where I lived before I moved, I don’t tell them Long Beach or Burbank or any of the other places, I simply say “Los Angeles,” and they understand completely. It’s all about perception.

          By the way, while you may deplore the name “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim,” since adding the words Los Angeles to the title of the team, attendence has gone up. Amazing what those two little words can do.

  • sarah

    love the post, the pictures, but keep going back to the perfectly squared off cubes of ice in the drinks!

    • Cali

      I was fascinated by those perfectly cubed ice cubes, too! I don’t know if they are the product of some fancy-schmancy ice maker or if they come from silicon molds. Either way, simply amazing!

  • Paula

    wow that was fantastic.
    you never saw a pomegranite on it’s tree before? well my first reaction was pomegranite’s grow on trees? I have no idea where I supposed they came from, but of course from a tree. that was beautiful. Also I’ve heard of dragon fruit but have never seen one, what a gorgeous shade of pink on the inside I have never seen that in a fruit either. Ruhlman what does it taste like? just a fantastic garden.

  • Will

    Did anyone notice the beer she was drinking? Mirror Pond Pale Ale by Deschutes, one of my favs. Did you get to try it? I recommend it highly.

  • Diane and Todd

    We were so happy to have you and your family over, thank you for visiting us. The dogs were especially happy to have new friends to play with.
    James has some serious spring-rolls skills. Can’t wait for you all to come back and show you more spring roll recipes!

    • ruhlman

      me too!

      next i want your hoisin dipping sauce, that too was really fine.

  • Kerry Lopez

    DANG those are some weird looking plants. But hey, if they taste good (or brew into something good) then I’m not gonna complain. Cool stuff!

    Oh, how hard are they to grow yourself?

  • Jac

    Could we get a recipe for the preserved limes? That sounds like something I’d love…