Nobody truly knows the origin of the spring roll. While we here in the U. S. see them as Asian food, they are, In fact, a worldwide treat, and not all those threads lead to the Far East. One thing’s for certain, though – Spring rolls are delicious, simple to make, and a fantastic way to clean out the fridge and garden, especially during the heady growing months of summer.
Spring rolls are usually dim sum, an appetizer, although as anyone knows who’s tucked into a freshly made batch, they can and should be a meal whenever the mood strikes. If we had to posit on a point of origin, China would probably get the nod. Chūn Juǎn, 春卷, means spring or egg roll, and they go back a spell in Chinese history – The popular version of things traces them back to the Jin Dynasty, which ruled from the mid third century to the early fifth. It is said that to celebrate the first harvests of spring, thin cakes would be filled with fresh vegetables and served with various sauces. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, (early 600s through early 900s), spring rolls got a bit hotter, as the advent of imported foods like chiles and garlic made their way into the Chinese culinary lexicon. By the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the thin cakes had gotten notably thinner, much more like wonton, egg roll, and spring roll wrappers are today.
Spring rolls may be fried, deep fried, steamed, or cold, depending on the fillings, region, and history they reflect. In general, the fried and steamed versions are smaller – bite or a coupla bite sized things. The fresh versions, served cold and wrapped in rice paper – those translucent, ethereal wrappers that let the beauty of fresh ingredients shine – And that’s what we’ll be featuring here today – It’s hot, in fact, record hot here in the Great Northwet, with a lot of smoke in the air from fires up in British Columbia – A perfect time for a cool, savory treat. In China, there is still a Cold Food Festival Day, so we’ll honor that.
There is great diversity on spring rolls around China – they reflect the regions they’re known for – Szechuan and Hunan versions are fiery, with sauces to match. Shandong, in the northeast, favors seafood. Fujian is river fish, crawfish, and fowl. Jiangsu might feature duck or pork, with richer sauces leaning toward Sweet and sour. And Cantonese boasts sauces and spice blends of dizzying complexity, and more beef than anywhere else in that big country.
Continue through Asia, and it’s a sure bet that every country has a spring roll, and will claim theirs as first and best, (and who knows, they well could be right). In Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, spring rolls are generically called popiah. They’re usually fresh, and almost always wrapped in rice paper. Peanut sauce becomes the most popular dip, and is absolutely delicious in several iterations – We’ll also be making that today. It’s in Vietnam that you find gỏi cuốn, the summer roll – These usually feature pork, along with fresh veggies, some of which may, (and aughta be), lightly pickled for a lovely interplay of tastes.
As Chinese and other Asian expats spread out, they brought their cuisine with them, of course – Once reestablished, they had to make some adjustments for local ingredients, as well as for the things they used at home and couldn’t find in their new environs. Thus, innovation is born – From Korea to the Philippines, all across Europe, into South America and the Caribbean, there are variations on the spring roll theme, many found as inspired street food.
Design and construction couldn’t be easier. Spring rolls lend themselves to last minute inspiration really well, and appropriate dipping sauces can be whipped up in short order, assuming you’ve got a decent pantry, (and you should – Hoisin sauce, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and various wrappers are now fairly ubiquitous at even small town grocery stores, and if not, readily on line.)
When you’re picking ingredients, consider color and texture as much as taste – When you’re working with the ethereal rice paper wrapper as your canvas, everything is visible, and so those Asian cooking concepts of season, color, and flavor balances make perfect sense. Crunch might come from lettuce, cabbage, onion, carrot, water chestnut, daikon or salad radishes, fennel root, celeriac, celery, or cucumber, just to name a few. Pork, chicken, shellfish, or tofu adds a nice protein base, as well as a sweet/savory balance. Fresh mint, cilantro, watercress, or arugula can add an herbal note.
For cold, rice wrapped spring rolls like we’ll build, a quick pickle is a must do, for my my mind – pick two or three things that take nicely to pickling and give them 30 minutes or so in a nice bath – Onion, carrot, and radishes are great, and reward with a crisp tang that helps cut though heavier proteins and dipping sauces.
For lettuces, cabbages, and sprouts, light seasoning helps wake up fresh flavors. Since you’ve already got a couple vinegar notes, just a very light drizzle of avocado or sesame oil, salt, and pepper will do the trick. While all this might seem a bit busy, it really does make the difference between making something that tastes like you paid for it and a so-so meal – And I’ll guarantee the results will be well worth it.
When prepping for spring rolls, keep in mind that marrying flavors is the goal. Spend a little time making nice, uniform cuts of all your ingredients, and keep things small – fine dice, julienne, or matchstick cuts are best for most firm veggies, and a chiffonade for the leafy stuff.
Small bowls are perfect for arranging your mis en place. Have everything ready to go when you feel like it’s time to stuff some wrappers. Make your dipping sauces and pickles first, to allow flavors to marry, and your quick pickle to work its magic.
Wrappers do offer some variety, but again, if you’re going to do a cold presentation, rice paper is what you want. They’re cheap, don’t need to be refrigerated, and pretty easy to work with once you know the rules.
1. Set up a bowl of warm water big enough to immerse your rice wrappers in.
2. Set up a non-stick cutting board or two for rolling/stuffing
3. Dip a wrapper into the water for 5 seconds.
4. Pull the wrapper out of the water and let excess water drip off.
5. Lay the wrapper flat and let it sit for about 45 seconds, while it absorbs water and gets fully pliable.
6. Stuff away.
Rolls can certainly be made ahead, but when you’re blending fresh flavors and ingredients, eating them ASAP after construction pays off big time.
Now, about those dipping sauces. You can use dang near anything, and if in a pinch, good soy sauce, straight hoisin, or that awesome Yakitori sauce we made last week would all do just fine. But really, if you’re building, you should build some fresh sauce – For the most part, they’re easy and quick to make, and will reward with a much more expressive presence than anything store bought. Here are two different peanut sauce variants, one with fresh whole peanuts and one with peanut butter, as well as a simple ginger-soy version. The whole peanut version is amazing, but not as smooth as the peanut butter version, fyi.
Urban’s Fresh Peanut Sauce
1 Cup fresh roasted Peanuts
1/3 Cup Chicken Stock
1/3 Cup Coconut Milk
2 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Honey
2 teaspoons Tamari
2 teaspoons Fish Sauce
1 teaspoon Tamarind Paste (1 Tablespoon Lime Juice is an OK sub)
1-2 teaspoons Sriracha
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
If your peanuts are raw, roast in a heavy skillet, 350° F oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes.
Throw everything into a food processor or blender and process until you’ve got a smooth sauce – if things are a bit too thick, add a drizzle more chicken stock until you hit desired consistency.
Taste and adjust as needed, (fish sauce, sriracha, honey).
Allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes so flavors can marry.
Will last for a good week refrigerated in an airtight container.
Peanut Sauce II
1 Can Coconut Milk (12 to 14 ounces, unsweetened)
1/2 Cup Chicken Stock
3/4 Cup creamy Peanut Butter (Use something natural, with a lot of oil – No cheap stuff here.)
1/4 Cup Thai Red Curry Paste
1/4 Cup Honey
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Add all ingredients to a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, and whisk to incorporate.
When the sauce begins to simmer, reduce heat to just maintain that and cook for 3-5 minutes, whisking constantly.
Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl.
Allow sauce to cool and flavors to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving
Will last a week or more refrigerated in an airtight container.
Urban’s Ginger Soy Dipping Sauce
1/2 Cup Tamari
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
1″ piece of fresh Ginger Root
1 Green Onion
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
1 teaspoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil
Peel, trim, and mince garlic and ginger.
Peel, trim, and cut into roughly 1/4″ rings.
Combine all ingredients ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and whisk to incorporate.
Allow flavors to marry for 15-20 minutes prior to serving.
Will last a couple of weeks refrigerated in an airtight container.