If there's any more universally recognised Chinese dish than spring rolls, you'd be hard-pressed to find it. These slender, golden cylinders of deep-fried goodness are ubiquitous from Shanghai to Sydney, from Chinese restaurants to supermarket freezers, and seemingly everywhere in between.
As the name denotes, they mark the beginning of spring, heralded by Lunar New Year. A fortnight of celebration traditionally takes place around this time, at which the spring roll takes centre stage.
Spring rolls are a symbolic food, closely resembling a gold bar in both shape and colour, and they're considered a harbinger of good fortune. In their earliest incarnation, spring rolls date back to the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD 316-AD 420), when people would enjoy "spring plate" - a dish consisting of very thin cakes made with flour and water, surrounded by green vegetables, which was thought to ward off disaster and evil. During the Tang dynasty, "spring cakes" were eaten to celebrate the sowing of the new corn crop in early February. Over the ensuing centuries, the dish evolved into the spring rolls we know today, stuffed with all manner of fillings.
Furthermore, the third and fourth written characters of the Chinese name for spring rolls - chun juan - literally mean "spring roll". This, according to Alan Davidson's comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food, is because "the original filling was of lightly cooked spring vegetables, wrapped in a skin that was then quickly deep-fried so that the crisp textures of wrapper and filling contrasted with and complemented each other."
The "skin" Davidson refers to is a very thin round of pastry or pancake, which can be made from scratch but is also readily available from Asian grocers. The fillings are many and varied, not only from region to region, but also from chef to chef. Of course, each region and each chef claims theirs as the best. It's worth noting that several other Asian cuisines have their own version of spring rolls, from Indonesia's lumpia to the fresh rice paper-wrapped Vietnamese variety. And Davidson is absolutely correct when he remarks on the importance of texture: the freshness of the vegetables and the crispness of the pastry are key. So get rolling and cooking, and eat them as hot as you dare for maximum crunch and flavour.
- 200 gm uncooked prawns, thinly sliced
- 150 gm pork shoulder, sliced into thin strips
- 1 tbsp soy sauce, plus extra to serve
- 40 ml vegetable oil, plus extra for deep-frying
- 40 gm bean sprouts, trimmed
- ½ small carrot, cut into julienne
- 50 gm white cabbage, shredded
- 3 spring onions, white part cut into julienne, green part thinly sliced and reserved separately, to serve
- ½ bunch garlic chives, cut into 2cm batons
- To taste: freshly ground white pepper
- 16 spring roll wrappers
- For sealing: eggwash
- 1Place prawn and pork in separate bowls, add half the soy sauce to each bowl, season to taste, stir to combine and set aside to marinate (30 minutes).
- 2Heat half the oil in a large frying pan or wok over high heat, add bean sprouts and stir-fry until just wilted (30 seconds). Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper. Heat remaining oil over high heat, add carrot and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add cabbage, white part of spring onions and chives, stir to combine, transfer to a large sieve and drain well. Cool to room temperature, add prawn mixture and pork mixture, season to taste with white pepper and mix well to combine.
- 3Place a spring roll wrapper on a work surface with a corner at the top (cover remaining wrappers with a damp tea towel). Spoon 1½ tbsp of prawn mixture across centre. Brush edges with eggwash, fold bottom of wrapper over filling, fold in sides, then roll to enclose. Repeat with remaining spring roll wrappers and filling, cover with a damp tea towel and refrigerate until required.
- 4Heat oil in a large saucepan to 180C. Deep-fry spring rolls in batches, turning occasionally, until golden and cooked through (3-4 minutes; be careful, hot oil will spit) and drain on absorbent paper. Serve hot scattered with spring onion greens, with extra soy sauce.
Note This recipe is adapted from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's classic recipe. The filling is a drier mixture than you might expect, because a wetter version would explode and leak from the rolls.