CHAU VeggiExpress, Vancouver - Rickety Rickshaw Ride

In English, we have many words that effectively describe the same thing. What we call a “sedan” in North America, people in the UK would call a “saloon.” While there may be some slightly different connotations, a “backpack” and a “knapsack” are basically the same thing too. When we turn to the world of food, particularly dishes from different parts of the world, we can run into a similar situation, except there could be some added confusion.

The example that I’d like to use to illustrate this point comes from Vietnamese cuisine. As you may know from our Dot Com Pho adventures, we really like our Vietnamese food in Vancouver and I’ve come to refer to certain dishes in a certain way.

That’s a Spring Roll, Right?

Look at the vermicelli bowl above from Chau VeggiExpress. You see those deep-fried rolls in the middle? I would call those spring rolls. The outer skin is mostly smooth and the roll itself is, as mentioned, deep fried. However, if you go different cities across North America or around the world, a “spring roll” could be something else entirely.

Indeed, in a conversation that I had with Ray Ebersole some time back, he told me that a “spring roll” would be the type of roll that is not deep-fried. Instead, it would be of the variety wrapped in rice paper, usually stuffed with shrimp or pork, along with bean sprouts, vermicelli and other goodies. The thing is, here in Vancouver, that kind of roll is called a “salad roll.” It looks like this:

Salad Roll at Phobulous

But That’s Not the Only Salad Roll

To further add to the confusion, the “salad roll” that you see depicted here isn’t the only kind of salad roll. If you go to a dim sum restaurant (which is also called “yum cha”), you might also order a shrimp salad roll, but you won’t get the rice paper roll above. Instead, you’ll get a deep fried egg roll that has been filled with a warm shrimp and mayonnaise mixture.

And even if we were to go back to the “Vietnamese” salad roll, there are going to many places that would instead have these listed as “summer” rolls on their menus. Again, I don’t normally encounter this in places around Vancouver. If you go to Broken Rice in Burnaby, you’ll find spring rolls and salad rolls, as well as what they call Phnom Penh rolls. Those are similar to pork and shrimp salad rolls, except they have Chinese sausage, jicama and fried egg.

Combo #3

What About a Roll Dip?

When the Dot Com Pho crew heads to our usual stomping grounds at Cambie Vietnamese Restaurant, which we affectionately call Happy Pho, many of us will order a “roll dip.” What is that exactly? Well, it’s essentially the same as what we would normally call a spring roll in many other restaurants, except the outer skin is more textured in appearance and the overall flavor profile tends to be a little more savory.

This is part of the challenge of ordering a “spring roll” at a restaurant. When there isn’t a picture, it can be difficult to determine whether you’re getting what could be a Chinese-style deep fried egg roll, a Vietnamese style roll dip, or what we would normally call a salad roll, because all three of these can be accurately and appropriately described as a “spring roll.”

The Ambiguity of Food

There’s nothing wrong with having multiple terms to describe the same kind of thing. Indeed, this allows for greater creativity and possibly more accurate descriptions. However, we do run into a lot of trouble when the same term takes on multiple meanings, leaving us with quite a bit of ambiguity. If I order a “salad roll” in a restaurant, I want to be certain about what I’m about to eat.