|Folding a little chopped meat or vegetables into a piece of dough does wonders for the palate. Dumplings and loosely-folded wraps are ubiquitous items in menus in Asian countries as well as America. Palm-sized treasures, wrapped delicacies can be stuffed with just about anything. The possible combinations of meat, vegetables, seafood, and other morsels make for endless experimentation. While Chinese cuisine is credited with pioneering the concept of wraps and dumplings, other cultures have put their own fingerprints on hand-held bundles of tastiness.
Like their cousin, the wrap or dumpling, the spring roll packs a mighty tasty punch in just about every Asian culture. Fine strips of meat and julienned vegetables are shrouded and sealed in a hand-size flour or rice paper skin. Depending on the wrapper, you can enjoy spring rolls fried to crisp or like a bite of chilled salad. While spring rolls in a few cultures share many commonalities, we will show some of the subtle differences. For example, although the names are used interchangeably sometimes, spring roll and egg roll are more like cousins. Thicker and more stuffed, egg rolls date back far beyond being one of the cheaper items on a Chinese take-out menus.
Egg rolls actually came to light 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty. Egg roll wrappers are paper-thin pancakes that can either be square or circular. Preparing these deep-fried delicacies requires a sense of balance. It is important to know how much ingredients can be used so that one can taste everything in a bite.
There are two types of egg roll wrappers—egg-wheat flour and wheat flour. The egg-wheat type is generally used to prepare the Cantonese egg rolls, or chun guen. Sometimes called spring rolls, these are what Chinese-American eateries typically offer. They are filled with a mixture of stir-fried cabbage, carrots, celery and sometimes leftover Cantonese roast pork. Similar to ravioli, the wrappers are made by kneading together wheat flour, egg, and salt. The result should be smooth, elastic dough. The dough is then rolled out and then split into five- to six-inch squares. For deep-frying, the rolls should be sealed with egg wash.
Wheat wrappers are more closely associated with Shanghai spring rolls, or chun juan in Mandarin. This term was initially linked to spring harvest festivals. These deep-fried rolls are filled with stir-fried bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, carrots and other ingredients you desire.
If it's Japanese roll-ups you prefer, then maki sushi is your food of choice. Sometimes called “roll sushi,” maki sushi is sometimes long enough to chop into smaller, palm-sized rolls. Although people mistakenly equate sushi with raw fish, sushi generally refers to the sticky, vinegared rice that makes up one layer of the filling.
The way maki sushi is made allows for plenty of creativity in the kitchen. You spread out rice on a sheet of dried seaweed, nori, and then sprinkle on toppings. Then you roll the seaweed into a cylindrical shape. This step is easier with the aid of a bamboo mat. Called a makisu, the sushi mat—along with other sushi-making implements—is available in our cookware section.
Depending on your own tastes, just about any meat, seafood, and vegetable is acceptable for filling. Some of the popular ingredients that go well with rice and seaweed include tuna, salmon, crab, cucumber, avocado, asparagus, beef, ham, and eggs. Traditional condiments for maki sushi are soy sauce, wasabi (green paste with a horseradish flavor), and pickled ginger.
Vietnamese spring rolls, cha gio, are made with very delicate rice paper sheets. These wrappers are made with salt and water-based dough that has been air-cured on bamboo mats. The source of the rice paper is the pith of a shrub related to the ginseng family. Although thin and dry, they are flexible enough to wrap around ingredients. To soften a wrapper, dip it in water.
The inside of a Vietnamese spring roll usually contains meat (ground or shredded pork, crab or chopped shrimp), vegetables, vermicelli, eggs, and black fungus like cloud ear mushrooms. The combination is what ever suits one's taste. Typically, about two tablespoons of filling is rolled in one sheet. To ensure the ends adhere, seal them with beaten egg. The rolls are then deep-fried in a wok or deep-fat fryer at a temperature of 350°F for 5-7 minutes until a golden brown.
At a Vietnamese meal, spring rolls are not ready until there is a spicy fish sauce to accompany them. Fish sauce is available at any Asian grocery store or at the ethnic food aisle of American markets. To spice it up, simply ground up two cloves of garlic and two small red or green chiles (seeded and chopped). Add 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lime juice, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Spring rolls are sometimes complemented with lettuce and fragrant herbs such as mint or Vietnamese coriander.
Unlike wonton and egg roll wrappers, rice paper wrappers are edible as long as they've been softened. So, if you are avoiding fried food or simply are in the mood for something that tastes raw and fresh, you can still enjoy these Vietnamese rolls.
Thai culture pretty much follows the spring-roll model of Vietnamese. Although most Thai recipes for filling may not call for cellophane noodles, spring rolls use ingredients like chopped pork, cooked prawns, onion, garlic, chopped coriander root, grated carrots, and shallots. For wrappers, you can find spring roll wrappers in any Asian market. The wrappers, of course, must be fried. The customary condiment for Thai spring rolls is sweet chilli dipping sauce or sweet and sour cucumber relish. To make the relish you will need:
½ cup of vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons water
1 small onion, finely diced
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 medium-sized cucumber, finely chopped
Fresh coriander leaves, chopped.
Boil vinegar, sugar, salt and water in a saucepan for 1 minute. Mix onion, carrot and cucumber in a serving bowl and pour the vinegar syrup until the vegetables are just covered. Go ahead and taste to see if additional vinegar, sugar, or salt is needed. Feel free to add sliced chilli if you like it spicy.
Heavily influenced by the Chinese population, Malaysian and Singaporean cultures consume a fresh spring roll they call popiah. Characterized as a “Hokkien” dish, in the vein of China's Fujian province, popiah is made from a thin, rice flour pancake. First, the pancake-like sink is spread with a sweet chilli pepper sauce. The filling is usually made with finely grated jicama. Other ingredients the jicama is usually cooked with include bean sprouts, French beans, lettuce leaves, grated carrots, dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and shredded omelet. To serve fresher, popiah is not fried.
In both countries, “popiah parties” are typical activities in households. The host lays out all the necessary ingredients and guests can make their own.
Lumpia, the traditional Filipino roll, is very similar to the Chinese egg roll in terms of the wrapper and popular stuffing ingredients. Most Asian markets have lumpia wrappers in their frozen food section. These wrappers, like Chinese ones, are thin-skin. Common meats in lumpia are ground pork and ground beef. For vegetables, most lumpia recipes call for chopped carrot and onion. Sometimes, vegetables can include green bell pepper or cabbage—finely chopped. Be careful how much filling you put in one wrapper; the amount should be no more than 2 tablespoons. The meat must be able to cook before the wrapper starts burning in the frying oil. Once you roll up one skin, use your finger to wet the edges with water to seal the roll.
Another variation of this Filipino side dish is lumpia siriwa, which is prepared like a French crepe. A mixture of stir-fried ingredients is placed on a loose layer of batter that is first cooked over low heat. Then the cooked batter is rolled and the roll is served piping hot.
In the Philippines, you can also get the lumpia ubod. These fresh, soft crepes—unique to the region—are packed with julienned coconut palm heart. A coconut palm heart is the semi-sweet and tender core of a coconut palm tree that's between three and five years old. The crepe can be difficult to cook. It is easy to let the batter brown when it should stay a cream white. You can also use canned hearts of palm, young coconut meat, and carrots for the filling. With a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, the lumpia should taste both tender and crunchy.
Now that you've read how simple and fun it is to prepare spring rolls, try stuffing and frying them on your own. Our cookbook section includes Asian Wraps & Rolls, which has plenty of recipes and tips. Although rolls can be fried in any pan that's deep enough, you may want to get the full wok-cooking experience. You will find two different carbon-steel woks in our cookware section. Each one comes with a bamboo spatula, bamboo fork, a pair of cooking chopsticks, a bamboo steamer rack, and a recipe book. Also, our cookware section offers colorful, Asian-themed aprons. Made of linen, these aprons will keep frying oil off clothes. If you're not looking forward to the repetitive nature of making roll after roll, invite friends and/or family over to make a party of it. Either way, our recipes and cookware will have you rocking and rolling in the kitchen.
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