Vesak or Vesākha is a Buddhist holiday commonly referred to as “Buddha’s Birthday,” although it actually celebrates not only the birth of Gautama Buddha but also his enlightenment and his death. Even if you know nothing about Buddhism, you’re probably familiar with the word “nirvana,” which is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. When it’s not evoking Kurt Cobain, nirvana tends to be used as a synonym for paradise in Western thought, but it’s actually far more complex, and one can achieve it in life as well as after death. At its most essential, nirvana is a state of transcendence, of lifting free from negative thoughts and worldly cares.
Vesak is celebrated in over a dozen countries, largely in Southeast Asia. As a lunar holiday, it’s a moveable feast celebrated anytime between April 8 (when Japan always celebrates it) and early June. This year, most countries are observing Vesak on May 21. It’s a joyful time during which Buddhists gather at temples to honor the Buddha, his Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (disciples) by bringing flowers, painting the temples, and distributing plentiful food. Buddhists are also encouraged to eat a vegetarian diet during Vesak—which may surprise you, since many believe that Buddhism and vegetarianism already overlap, but like nirvana, the reality is far more complicated.
Today, the United Nations, perhaps hoping for some enlightenment of their own, will host an International Day of Vesak celebration. In a message about this year’s celebration, the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon writes, “On this Day of Vesak, let us pledge to reach out to bridge differences, foster a sense of belonging, and show compassion on a global scale for the sake of our common future.” Now those are some words we can live by.
Vietnamese Summer Rolls
While we can’t promise that these Vietnamese summer rolls will help you achieve nirvana, they will definitely help you bring happiness to others, another key tenet of Vesak. You can find rice wrappers online; they are both gluten free and incredibly versatile. They also last forever, so don’t worry if you don’t need them all–you’ll definitely want to use them again once you discover how easy they are. The most important practical note is to dip them in water just long enough to become pliable: they will continue to soften while you fill and fold. We made two types of rolls, vegetarian and shrimp, but feel free to experiment. The key is to have different textures, with slippery rice noodles and crunchy vegetables, and harmonious flavors like aromatic herbs, vinegar and sweet hoisin.
1 box (8 oz) thin rice noodles (often labeled Maifun; they are round rather than flat)
½ cup rice vinegar
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
4 carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 lb large shrimp , peeled and cooked*
1 package (usually 6 oz) baked tofu, any flavor you like
½ head of red cabbage, finely shredded
1 packet (8-inch) rice-paper rounds
fresh cilantro leaves from 1 bunch
fresh mint leaves from 1 bunch
1 seedless English cucumber, peeled and cut into matchsticks
6 scallions, cut into 3-inch-long julienne strips
1 pound firm-ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and cut into matchsticks
1 avocado, sliced into strips
1 bunch red-leaf lettuce, washed, leaves cut in half or thirds lengthwise
optional: 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and cut into matchsticks
*for a vegetarian version use tofu
¾ cup creamy peanut butter
¾ cup hoisin sauce
2-3 tbsp water
2-3 tbsp soy sauce
½ tsp sesame oil
Place all your cut vegetables into bowls and set out a large flat pie plate or plate filled with warm water. In a small saucepan, bring rice vinegar to a boil with the sugar and salt. Remove from heat and put in carrot matchsticks. Set a large pot of water over high heat, and when it’s boiling, cook the noodles according to directions (usually 2 minutes), then drain, run under cold water and drain well.
Pull the tails off the shrimp and cut in half lengthwise, butterfly-style. Toss with a squeeze of lime juice. With a slotted spoon, remove carrots from vinegar mixture into a bowl, then pour half the vinegar mixture over the noodles and toss to combine. Toss the rest of the vinegar mixture with the red cabbage.
Soak one rice paper round in the warm water for a few seconds, turning once if you like, until it is pliable but not too soft, and shake off excess water. Place on a cutting board or plate, and place three shrimp, cut side up, along center of circle. Place mint or cilantro or both on top, followed by a few matchsticks of mango, carrot, cucumber, avocado and jalapeño (or any combination thereof). Put a lettuce leaf on top, then a small handful of noodles (letting any liquid drip back into bowl as you lift them). Fold top and bottom of rice round first, then fold the sides in, burrito style (the wrapper is naturally quite sticky). Place on platter. To make vegetarian rolls, substitute tofu strips for shrimp and red cabbage for the mango. If placing multiple rolls close together, you can place lettuce leaves between them to prevent sticking. Continue making rolls, adding and subtracting ingredients according to your taste. The first few will be ugly but they get prettier as you get the the hang of it! If not serving immediately, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Stir together sauce ingredients until smooth, adding water until you have a pourable sauce.