Citizens! My past, whilst shrouded deep in mystery and legend, has been correctly revealed to include a single incontrovertible fact: I was born in the unmatched borough of Brooklyn in NYC! While still a wee bairn, I was exposed to a dish that remains one of my favorite treats – the egg roll!
Yes, yes – I know it’s not a ‘real’ Chinese dish, yes it’s a cliché, and YES it remains a beloved taste of my childhood. Authenticity be damned in this case, you say? Ah, but it IS authentic, just to its roots in Chinese-American food culture and history.
Ever since I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I have dearly missed the egg rolls of my youth, which seem to be a mostly East Coast thing (West Coast Chinese restaurants typically serve the more authentic Spring Rolls instead). One restaurant that makes a killer East Coast-style egg roll in the area is Chef Chu’s in Los Altos, one of the most acclaimed Chinese restaurants in the country. I recommend trying it if you’re ever in the area!
Egg rolls are a variety of deep-fried appetizers served in American Chinese restaurants. An egg roll is a cylindrical, savory roll with shredded cabbage, chopped pork, and other fillings inside a thickly-wrapped wheat flour skin, which is fried in hot oil.
The dish is served warm, and is usually eaten with the fingers, dipped in duck sauce, soy sauce, plum sauce, or hot mustard, often from a cellophane packet. Egg rolls are a ubiquitous feature of American Chinese cuisine and are often served as free additions to American Chinese combination platters throughout the United States, along with fried rice and fortune cookies.
Egg roll filling is mostly shredded cabbage with a small amount of finely chopped meat and other ingredients. The origins of the dish are unclear and remain disputed.
Egg rolls are closely related to, but distinct from, the spring rolls served in mainland China, and were first seen in the early 20th century in the United States. An early reference to egg rolls appeared in a 1917 Chinese recipe pamphlet published in the United States, but the dish does not resemble the modern egg roll. The 1917 recipe described a meat and vegetable filling wrapped in an egg omelet, panfried, and served in slices, similar to Gyeran-mari.
Andrew Coe, author of “Chop Suey: A Cultural history of Chinese food in the United States”, has stated that the modern American egg roll was probably invented at a Chinese restaurant in New York City in the early 1930s, by one of two chefs who both later claimed credit for the creation: Lung Fong of Lung Fong’s, or Henry Low of Port Arthur.
According to Coe, Low’s recipe, printed in a 1938 cookbook, Cook at Home in Chinese included “bamboo shoots, roast pork, shrimp, scallions, water chestnuts, salt, MSG, sugar, palm oil, and pepper,” but notably did not include cabbage, which is the main filling ingredient in modern egg rolls.
Egg rolls do not typically contain egg in the filling, and the wheat flour wrapper may or may not contain egg. In addition to the disputed origin of the dish, it is unclear how the word ‘egg’ appeared in the name, since the predominant flavor in American egg rolls is cabbage, not eggs.
A 1979 Washington Post article speculated that the Chinese word for ‘egg’ sounds very similar to the Chinese word for ‘spring’, but this theory has not been widely adopted.
While there are many types of spring rolls native to East Asia and available in authentic Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, American egg rolls are distinctive.
A typical ‘New York-style’ egg roll measures approximately two inches in diameter by six inches in length, with a thick, chewy, crispy, bumpy exterior skin, unlike Spring Rolls that have a paper-thin, smooth skin. Egg rolls, like other Americanized Chinese food specialties, may contain vegetable cultivars and flavor profiles that are not common in China.
Now, as to my take on the classic recipe! My dear friend Jason Perlow, founder of the mighty eGullet.org, just made his version of this recipe a few days ago and mentioned his included minced Sichuan preserved vegetable – a genius addition, IMHO! I heartily endorse his decision – you can buy them here.
I’ve made my own additions to the classic recipe, including adding in some slivered Shiitake mushrooms, adding in some ginger and garlic and the crispy skin of a Chinese roast duck! I also drastically increased the amount of pork and shrimp, as I love both of these and prefer a very meaty egg roll! The directions to make these are gratefully cribbed from the fantastic blog thewoksoflife.com.
Citizens, this is a classic recipe that I guarantee is far better made at home – I hope you bring this deep-fried joy of the Chinese-American kitchen into your home forthwith! Classically served with Chinese mustard and ‘duck sauce’, it is heretically also enjoyed by TFD with some Southern Jezebel sauce as an alternative.
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
- 7 cups shredded savoy cabbage
- 7 cups shredded green cabbage
- 1 cup dried and rehydrated Shiitake mushrooms, slivered
- 1–3 Tbsp. very finely-minced Sichuan preserved vegetable (TFD ADDITION – omit for classic version and replace with shredded carrot, I like more of this ingredient than less)
- 2 cups de-stringed and shredded celery
- ½ cup shredded carrot
- 4 scallions, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press
- ½ Tbsp. ginger paste
- 2 ½ tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. sugar
- 1 Tbsp. sesame oil (TFD endorses only Kadoya brand)
- 2 Tbsp. oil
- ¼ tsp. five spice powder
- ¼ tsp. white pepper
- 4 cups finely-diced fatty roast pork (char siu)
- 1 cup crispy skin from a Chinese roast duck, finely-chopped (TFD ADDITION – for classic version, remove and add ½ cup roast pork and ½ cup shrimp)
- 3 cups cooked and chopped shrimp
- 1 package egg roll wrappers (about 24 pieces)
- 3 egg yolks, beaten
- Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying
- HOW TO MAKE EGG ROLL FILLING
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Put the cabbage, carrots, and celery into the boiling water and cook for about 2 minutes. Transfer the veggies to an ice bath and drain. Thoroughly squeeze out all the excess water from the vegetables (you can put the drained veggies in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out the water). This is a very important step because if the filling is too wet, you will have a wet filling and soggy egg rolls!
- The Chinese bamboo strainer/spider really comes in handy for scooping veggies out of the boiling water and even for frying the egg rolls if you are making a large batch of them.
- Once dry, transfer the veggies to a large mixing bowl. Add all other ingredients except egg. Toss everything together. The filling is ready to be wrapped!
- One of our readers reported back his egg rolls were bland so it would be good to try the filling for seasoning and add more salt or seasonings to your taste. As a general rule, the filling will taste a little bit more salty at this point until it has a chance to absorb the seasoning but remember, you can add seasoning when you eat it but if it is too salty, then there is little that can be done to save the batch so season with this point in mind. You may also want to wrap a test egg roll (we always did at the restaurant before we made a batch of 600) and fry it to check the taste before you wrap the entire lot!
- Back in the day, the egg roll wrappers at the restaurant used to come in 5-pound bundles. Each person would start with one and work their way down the stack, which made about 120 egg rolls. We were pretty expert at making sure we had enough filling so that there’d be no leftover wrappers. It’s not an exact science, so play it by ear.
- HOW TO WRAP EGG ROLLS:
- The way to wrap these egg rolls is to first take a small fistful of filling, squeeze it a little in your hand until it is compressed together, and place it on the wrapper. Basically, it’s similar to the method you’d use to wrap a burrito. Just add a thin layer of beaten egg yolk to make sure it stays sealed. Line them up on a lightly floured surface, and continue assembling until you run out of ingredients.
- In a small pot, heat oil to 325 degrees. You don’t need too much–just enough to submerge the egg rolls. Carefully place a couple egg rolls into the oil, and fry them for about 5 minutes until golden brown. Keep them moving in the oil to make sure they fry evenly.
- My father used to tell me that frying egg rolls was a fool-proof task. You just slide them gently into the oil, and keep them moving while they are frying. When they’re done, they’ll “call” you with a slightly louder sizzling noise. That splattering noise is signaling that the filling is getting hot inside. The steam is escaping, causing the oil to bubble up.
- You can serve them after they’ve cooled a bit. Freeze any leftovers.
- Calories: 872.16 kcal
- Sugar: 11.03 g
- Sodium: 1592.87 mg
- Fat: 46.38 g
- Saturated Fat: 12.88 g
- Trans Fat: 0.03 g
- Carbohydrates: 51.46 g
- Fiber: 10.0 g
- Protein: 62.01 g
- Cholesterol: 467.47 mg
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