Easily the best recognised and widely loved culinary favourite worldwide, here’s how Spring Rolls came to life – and travelled across.
By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy: Embassy Leisure
Few dishes say “goodness” in bold like the spring roll or Cambodian Roll – an Asian staple and a popular treat worldwide. Made to order, it is, and most chefs, nutritionist and diners would concur, one of the delicious ways to eat (raw) and healthy. After all, most of the vegetables used are in season or are sprouted for both texture, taste, and goodness. Even the seafood like prawns (a common favourite) and meat (pork mostly, if you are looking for traditional) that came to be used later are either poached or steamed for it to be used in a treat that began as an ode to the spring season. According to Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure), who has travelled through different countries to understand the spring roll, “the brilliance of the dish doesn’t come from the fact that it au natural but is a fantastic showcase of how traditional ingredients and techniques are used to create something that is so delicious, almost addictive.”
Quite accurately even as by the time of the Tang Dynasty - the time when these rolls earned the moniker of spring roll as it was made traditionally during the season – these appetisers were benchmark of high quality. In fact, according to historical accounts, during the Tang Dynasty rule, spring rolls weren’t just a court favourite, but one that demarcated great cooks from the ordinary. Tea houses serving a good spring roll were seen as great places. Interestingly it was around this time when the earlier iteration of the Cambodian Roll came into being, and the art of making these rolls was entered as an important lesson in the royal books for cooks. Any culinary hand to be employed into the royal kitchens had to master the technique of making these rolls – which back in time used a thin pancake like sheet made of rice flour and water to encase season’s freshest vegetables that were often marinated in mustard and chilli sauce to give it a better taste and served with soy sauce for dipping.
Such was the popularity of the spring rolls in the China province the region of Sichuan and Cantonese region who had their own versions of the roll that it led to makers finding ways to turn the spring roll – which was made to mark the spring season and the nature’s bounty – into an annual affair. This led to the trend of using pickled vegetables in the spring roll that warranted a dip to be made to balance the Umami taste. Result, each district in China had not only their unique way of showcasing the spring roll, but how luxuriant the spring roll was defined where it came from. Old texts show, adds the oriental cuisine expert, “that while the poor often used carrots and celery with a little noodle to make theirs, traders, nobility and the royal court’s spring roll showcased exotic elements from across the world and would have salted meats, thousand years egg and even chives.”
The star moment, Chef Seth continues, “for spring rolls however came during the time of the Song Dynasty. A strong, dynamic leader, Emperor Taizu didn’t just unite the five dynasties and ten kingdoms of this vast country but also catapulted them into the new century where China was on par with the superpowers in the world. With him, food changed too. While China was introduced to the charm of wheat (and thus, the all-purpose flour too), older cuisines were revamped to be showcased to the world. And that’s where Spring Roll played an important part. From being the most lavish appetiser to the most stunning treats, the Jin Dynasty ‘spring cake’ finally took centre-stage in most royal feast tables. Spring rolls that were once were all about spring vegetables now had everything from duck to thin slices of pork, garlic, spring onions, even mushrooms and dried tofu as part of its filling – and would be steamed and served with a cup of tea. They were, continues Chef Seth, “served as one of the dim-sum pastries that had more taste and character to it. What didn’t change was the wrap which was still this thin pancake made of a watery rice batter made on an iron griddle.”
Fascinatingly, it was around the 12 or13th century when spring rolls were made using wraps made with flour batter that they could be eventually fried to have the crispness that elevated the taste of these traditional appetiser, although few preferred the traditional rice wrap too. But that would take another few years’ time to reach the main heart of Asia. Meanwhile, what did reach the rest of the Asia was the steamed version that used a pancake thanks to the Chinese traders and immigrants who began travelling to different parts of the world looking for a better future. This was the time when China internal struggle for power had gained momentum around the second century.”
With the immigrants travelled their culinary heritage, including now-a-heritage dish called the spring-roll. The wondrous part of an immigrant cuisine is, says Chef Seth, “that it always has this one technique, dish or concept that becomes popular with the locals of the adoptive country. In case of Chinese there were a few like noodles, the use of soy, steaming and of course the favourite, spring rolls. The idea of DIY and the taste became a bonus factor as locals began adopting to the new influence. Think about it, here was a dish that could be made to whim – and didn’t need cooking as one of its essential. Thus, was born the famous Vietnamese cold rolls, who opted for the more convenient cabbage and lettuce rolls rather than the rice paper roll that needed a certain amount of skill to get the basics right.”
That was until the idea of dehydrated rice paper wraps came to the fore. Legend has it that it was around the Tang Dynasty that rice straws were used to make rice paper for paintings. However, given that they were extremely delicate and brittle, the artist reverted to old favourites like silk, wood, and other materials for their artwork. However, the knowledge of making rice paper by drying it on bamboo panels did get popular, and chances are that that technique was first used to make sheets to popularise the Chinese spring roll, a staple in most restaurants and tea stalls run by immigrants. But with little luck. These dried sheets were too delicate and would often break with ease. That’s when flour came to rescue. The sheets were stronger and could yield to water, and became an instant sensation.
Over the time, says Chef Seth, “the technique of making the sheets evolved and became these white transparent round sheets with a long shelf life. What didn’t was Vietnamese zeal to experiment that resulted in cold rolls that had every interesting pairing one could think of – from vermicelli to beans, sprouts, beef slices to all kinds of vegetables and mushroom. What separated the Vietnamese number from Chinese was the use of herbs and a vigorously flavoured dipping sauces that went from honey-chilli to lemon-garlic to a wide variety of these delicious spicy fruity dip that added to the appeal of the cold rolls, and the fried rolls that showed itself years later in the busy market streets, especially the ones next to the port.”
Fascinatingly, it was Vietnamese gỏi cuốn, says the culinary director, “that became one of the traveling brand ambassador of the spring roll culture. Replete with its puckering up sauces and this captivating ability to take a wide variety of local ingredients, it became Asia’s finest export to the culinary world, and became an integral part of many an Asian cuisine-based restaurant. The popularity however was more in Asia, where it had taken a cult-like status for those in the street food business. And it was these individuals who created the number of versions the original Chinese Spring Cake has today: from the Lumpiang Turon in Philippines, which is dessert version made of banana or jackfruit that is dusted with sugar/honey; to Popiah in Malaysia that uses a crepe as a wrapper and is served warm with dipping sauce options that range from shrimp, black bean, hoisin to chilli sauce; Thai Popiah sot which has a filling of Chinese sausage, marinated tofu, bean sprouts, scallions, cucumber, and eggs, and topped with tamarind sauce and crab meat. And the Cambodian Roll, which has a fried version too.”
What makes a good spring roll? “The ingredients, says Chef Seth, “the pairing and of course the dipping sauce, each of them plays a significant roll in turning the spring roll experience into a memorable one. This is the reason that even the mise en place of a spring roll, especially the cold rolls. This also includes most of the dipping sauce with an exclusion of sriracha, which needs a good resting phase for the flavours to mature and give it that right twang.”
Interestingly, the rules don’t change when the spring rolls are fried, say the Asian food specialist, who believes that the idea of a ‘spring roll’ even today is its ability to allow you to taste the season’s best. How well one can do so is what makes a good spring roll today.