The delicious and artistic spring roll, also known as the egg roll, originated in ancient China, where it was known as chun juan — or “spring roll,” as it is known in English. This was because part of the filling of this delicacy was lightly steamed spring vegetables, wrapped in a thin coating. This ancient dish, served during the Tang dynasty as a symbol of the beginning of the Chinese New Year celebrations, quickly made its way into the kitchens of the neighboring countries, where it became one of the most popular and beloved dishes in Asiatic cuisine.
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The Chinese version of the spring roll is relatively thick and made with wrappers of wheat dough. It is filled with vegetables and meat, deep-fried and served in a thick black bean or chili sauce.
The Vietnamese version is smaller and thinner, and rolled with a paper-thin rice wrapping stuffed with chopped pork or shrimp, spearmint leaves and vegetables. It is served raw or steamed, often alongside spicy coriander sauce or sweet peanut butter sauce.
The spring roll plays a starring role in my kitchen, particularly during very hot days, when appetites are smaller and I am not so keen to labor over a hot stove. At such times, the spring roll is a brilliant choice. Maybe because it is so easy to prepare, or because of its delicate flavors, or because spring rolls are so lovely to look at — but the main reason is that eating them lifts our spirits.
A meal of spring rolls always ends in good cheer. There is very little preliminary work or tiring cooking, and all the stages of preparation are done at once and can even be done when guests are present. This is the kind of hosting experience that leaves everyone wanting more.
All you need are a few sheets of round, transparent rice-flour wrap for rolling, with a diameter of 22 centimeters. At the center of the table, place vegetables such as romaine lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, avocado, thin cabbage slices, shiitake mushrooms, sprouts, seaweed and spices. Put out bowls of other fillings, too, such as roasted tofu, raw or cooked fish, seafood and cooked chopped chicken or meat.
Prepare a dip using much-loved ingredients such as soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sweet chili sauce, hoisin, fish sauce, lime, or coriander leaves or ground spearmint leaves – and wait for your guests to arrive.
Alongside all these, put a clean towel that's been soaked in cold water and wrung out on the table. Have each guest take a rice wrapper and dip it for a second in a baking pan filled with cold water. Lay the wet rice wrapper (which will not be completely softened yet) on the towel and add your choice of fillings. Fold over the edges, from the sides; roll up and compress. The wrapping will be edible by the time the rolling is done. Dip in the sauce and enjoy right away.
You can prepare spring rolls with sweet fillings for the end of a meal, too. These can include banana slices, squares of pineapple, mango or papaya, apple squares sauteed in butter and cinnamon, berries, Amarena cherries, ricotta, chocolate sauce, toffee topping and maple syrup. Roll, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar, dip in a sweet, hot sauce and enjoy.
Shrimp and avocado spring rolls in coriander sauce
(makes 6 spring rolls)
For serving: peanuts, salted, peeled and chopped
1. Heat the oil in a skillet or wok, and sauté the shrimp for one minute. Add the scallion and chili; saute for another minute. Add the fish sauce and lemon juice; heat for half a minute and turn off the flame. Add the coriander and mix well.
2. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients for the dip and set aside.
3. Fill a baking pan with cold water. Place a damp towel (wet and squeezed out, free of laundry detergent) on a cutting board. Dip each round rice wrapper in the water for one second; remove and place on the damp towel. Place romaine lettuce leaves at the center of the wrapper, place two tablespoons of the stir-fried shrimp on the lettuce, and top with the avocado slices. Fold the sides of the wrapping over the filling and roll up.
4. Serve with the coriander dip and chopped peanuts.
Salmon and sweet potato spring rolls in sweet sauce
(makes 6 spring rolls)
1. Heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Lay the sweet potato strips in a baking pan lined with baking paper; rub them with oil and salt, and roast for 15 minutes or until soft. Set aside.
2. Heat a skillet over a high flame and sear the salmon for three to four minutes on each side. Add the sweet soy sauce, ginger, black pepper and chili; cook for half a minute. Transfer the salmon to a plate, chill and crumble. Mix all the ingredients for the dip in a bowl, and reserve.
3. Fill a baking pan with cold water. Place a damp towel (wet and squeezed out, free of laundry detergent) on a cutting board. Dip each round rice wrapper in the water for one second, remove and place on the damp towel. At the center of the wrapper, place two tablespoons of the cooked salmon and top with sweet-potato strips. Fold the sides of the wrapper over the filling and roll up. Serve with sweet dip.