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 Chinese 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.
This humble Chinese entrée has been a staple on tables the world over for more than a thousand years.