Talk about playing with your food. My mother prefers to roll hers. She wraps just about anything and everything -- fish, chicken, rice, vegetables -- using nothing but lettuce or rice paper. Things taste better to her that way. I guess it's her way of making a sandwich. To me, it simply looks like fun.

Rolling food is a funny thing. Practically every culture has a roll of some sort that stands out from any other dish. Think about it: The Chinese have egg rolls; Latinos the bean burrito; crepes for the French; and it's the gyro for the Greeks -- well, close enough. For the Vietnamese, it's gio cuon, or summer rolls. And only they have them.

Summer rolls, often called garden or vegetable rolls, are as pleasant-tasting as they sound, and easy to make. The basic ingredients include vermicelli noodles, pork, shrimp and lettuce, all wrapped in rice paper. Summer rolls are a bit larger than your average Chinese spring roll, but they're not fried; rather, they're assembled and then simply served at room temperature, or slightly chilled.

"Summer rolls go with Vietnamese people," says Nicole Routhier, a Vietnamese-born professional chef at the Peter Kump Schools of Culinary Arts in New York City and author of "The Foods of Vietnam" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989) and "Cooking Under Wraps" (William Morrow & Co., 1993).

She even has a theory for their origin. They were created in Southern Vietnam, where the climate was warm. To keep cool, she says, "People had to find the freshest foods." The basic fillers have stayed the same, though the dipping sauce has changed.

According to Routhier, it used to be made out of sticky rice and fermented soybeans, the combination of which "tasted like porridge," she says. Nowadays, the most common dipping condiment is nuoc leo, or peanut sauce. The quickest way to make it is to add chicken broth or water and fish sauce to hoisin sauce. Easy enough. But to experience the richness of summer rolls, it pays to spend more time making the condiment.

Try this one is from Taste of Asia, a company out of Houston that specializes in dipping sauces. PEANUT SAUCE FROM TASTE OF ASIA (Makes about 1 cup)

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter

1/2 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon peanut oil

2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic

3 tablespoons coconut milk

3 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts

1/2 tablespoon chili garlic sauce (optional)

Mix the hoisin sauce, peanut butter and sugar with 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the oil and then fry the garlic for about 30 seconds. Add the peanut butter mixture, stir for 1 minute, reduce heat and add coconut milk.

Lastly, remove the sauce from heat and serve warm, with crushed peanuts and chili garlic sauce, if using.

Per tablespoon: 44 calories, 1 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 67 mg sodium NICOLE ROUTHIER'S SMOKED TURKEY ROLLS WITH BASIL SAUCE (Makes 8 rolls) "The best way is to eat summer rolls right away, like {at} a sushi bar," says Routhier. An artist, she used her training in Eastern and Western cooking to create her "signature dish," a contemporary form of the traditional appetizer:


2/3 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves

2 large eggs*

2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1 cup vegetable oil

Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste FOR THE FILLING:

4 ounces fresh angel-hair pasta

1 large carrot (or 2 medium), peeled and cut into fine julienne strips

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into fine julienne strips

1 large tomato, seeded and cut into julienne strips

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves, shredded

4 large Boston lettuce leaves, thinly shredded and thick stems removed

1 cup fresh bean sprouts

16 very thin slices smoked turkey breast (about 8 ounces)

8 8-inch round sheets dried rice paper

To make the dressing, combine the basil, eggs, mustard, garlic, sugar, vinegar and oil in a food processor and puree. Add salt and pepper to taste and refrigerate.

While the dressing chills, boil the pasta for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, strain and cut into 5-to-6-inch strands. In a large bowl, mix the pasta with carrot, cucumber, tomato, basil, lettuce and bean sprouts. Set aside. Then, using two slices for each roll, curl the smoked turkey into the shape of a cigar. Cover and refrigerate the pasta mixture and the turkey separately.

To assemble: Dip a sheet of rice paper in hot water and lay on a clean kitchen towel. Within a few seconds the wrapper should absorb the moisture and become rubbery and ready to be rolled. First, spread the pasta-vegetable mix on the portion of the rice paper closest to you, say about 1 1/2 inches from the edge. Lay the turkey "cigar" on top, fold in both sides of the rice paper and roll forward, away from you. Once you have what should look like an even bigger cigar, cut the roll crosswise into su\shi-size strips. Serve at room temperature, or still slightly cool, arranged sushi-style on a plate. * Uncooked egg yolks may be contaminated with salmonella and should be avoided by young children, the elderly and anyone with immune system deficiencies.

Per roll without dressing: 170 calories, 10 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 24 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 470 mg sodium

Per serving of dressing: 272 calories, 2 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 29 gm fat, 53 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 238 mg sodium

True, the overall taste of summer rolls does depend on the sauce, and such a seemingly simple appetizer can also be a disaster. Other important things to consider are the freshness, quantity and proportion of the ingredients, the rolling technique and the preparation.

Lich Thi Hong, a chef at Saigon Inn restaurant in Georgetown, agrees. The 10-year veteran of the restaurant makes about 100 summer rolls a day.

"The most important thing is the quality of the food," says Hong, meaning the freshest vegetables, lean pork marinated in and boiled with salt, soy sauce and sugar. She recommends placing a half sheet of rice paper over the center of the whole sheet and dipping both sheets simultaneously in the boiling water. This second sheet acts as a safety net for the filling. Hong also advises letting the shrimp cool a bit before peeling. This practice, she says, allows the shrimp to reabsorb some of the moisture, leaving them more moist and tender.

According to Hong, you can tell the quality of a summer roll just by holding it. "If it's tightly rolled, it's been made carefully," she says. "Just ask your mother."

I did.

My mother, Tina Nguyen, agrees but adds, "If you're stingy with the ingredients, they won't come out well." Her technique is one of quality, quantity and balance. Each summer roll, she advocates, should be loaded with just the right amount of the freshest ingredients. "Most {Vietnamese} women know how to make summer rolls, but only a few know how to make them well." Here's how she has made them for some 25 years: MOM'S TRADITIONAL SUMMER ROLLS (Makes as many rolls as you want) Some pork loin, cut into thick slices

As many shrimp as you want rolls

Enough vermicelli for all the rolls

A sheet of rice paper (Red Rose brand is what Mom used) for each roll

Some red-leaf lettuce

A few stalks of Chinese leeks

Some fresh mint leaves

A bit of parsley

Some bean sprouts

Bring water to a boil in three pots. Add the pork to the first pot with a dash of salt; add the shrimp to the second pot; add the vermicelli to the third. Cook each until it is done: several minutes for the pork, just a few minutes for the shrimp, and, for the vermicelli, until al dente. Drain the water from each and set aside separately.

Run about 5 sheets of rice paper under hot water and lay them on a plate.

Cut the cooked pork into thin slices the size of a domino. Cut each shrimp in half lengthwise. Arrange the vegetables, pork, shrimp and vermicelli on separate plates.

Another important aspect is presentation. My mom lays out everything like on a buffet table so that it all is within reach for a quick roll. Really quick. Within a couple of minutes she has made about four rolls. And I've eaten all of them.

The order in which you add most of the ingredients doesn't matter, she says, but make the shrimp first or last. This way the shrimp gives the otherwise pale wrapper some color. She has another beauty tip: Just before finishing a roll, slip a stalk of Chinese leek between the last layers of rice paper so it protrudes from the end of the roll about an inch. Fancy woman, my mom. {Chinese leeks are more like scallions, but the leeks we are familiar with in the U.S. are closely related and can be substituted. Use the youngest and most tender leaves and cut them into narrow vertical strips if they are large.}

I'm listening, and watching, and eating. The next thing I know, I've had a total of eight summer rolls. We're both on a roll. I'm stuffed. Chef Routhier was right. This is the best way to eat them -- right away. Chris Nguyen lives in the District and prefers to make sandwiches. Where to Get Good Summer Rolls

HOA KEE - 2794 Graham Rd., Falls Church; call 703-560-3177 KRAMERBOOKS & AFTERWORDS CAFE - 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW; call 202-387-1462 QUEEN BEE - 3181 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; call 703-527-3444 SAIGON INN - 2928 M St. NW; call 202-337-5588 VIETNAM RESTAURANT - 4929 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; call 301- 656-2279 VIET ROYALE - 6795 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; call 703- 533-8388 VILLE DE SAIGON - 4711 Montgomery Lane, Bethesda; call 301- 657-4665