Cooks design spring rolls influenced by more than Chinese roots


9/1/2008

Deep-fry something, give people a sauce to dip it in, and they will eat it, says Shola Olunloyo, the chef at Bleu in Philadelphia. That's the beauty of spring rolls. The little fried packages are like toys. You get to pick them up with your fingers and stick them in sauces before eating them, and they're fun to share. They're also easy to make.


"Spring rolls are very accessible," Olunloyo says. "People love them."


Over the past decade or so, crunchy, delicate spring rolls -- usually dipped in a slightly sweet sauce -- have eclipsed the clunkier egg rolls and their spicy mustard, and lately they have been appearing on menus that have nothing to do with Chinese food.


Both types of deep-fried rolls have Chinese origins, according to historian and chef Barbara Tropp, who currently is a culinary consultant to Phoenix-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro. Their histories are different, however.


Spring rolls are from northern China. They traditionally are vegetarian, often are flavored with garlic, ginger and scallion and are rolled in paper-thin wheat wrappers. On the other hand, egg rolls, which are from southern China, are thicker, quite often stuffed with cabbage and other mild vegetables, and are rolled in a sort of egg crepe.


Then there are Vietnamese spring rolls, which are made from rice paper moistened in water and wrapped around vermicelli noodles, mushrooms and minced pork before being fried. The raw finger food that's being called "fresh rolls" or, more creatively, "summer rolls" also originated in Vietnam and generally involve aromatic herbs, especially mint, raw vegetables and often glass noodles wrapped in moistened rice paper. Summer rolls are more difficult to make and harder to keep than spring rolls. They have the drawback, from the consumer side, of being neither fried nor crunchy, and they're not as easy to work with as the fried variety, according to Neil Cotton of California Cafe in Bloomington, Minn.


"They're great; there's a lot you can do with them," he says of the fresh rolls, "but they dry out right away, and they're harder to deal with."


Chinese spring rolls traditionally have been eaten during the spring when the sprouts that make up their filling are available. Tropp says the rolls are traditionally eaten during the Chinese new year, whose Chinese name means "spring festival," although that practice appears to be more common in Taiwan these days than in mainland China.


At any rate, almost anything in the United States that you roll up and fry can be called a spring roll. In fact, the Vietnamese fresh rolls are sometimes called spring rolls, too, which really can confuse matters.


These days a lot of spring rolls are being made with duck, a protein that's popular at Chinese banquets but rarely found in Chinese spring rolls.


Olunloyo's dish is made with shredded, roasted Long Island duck mixed with shredded shiitake mushrooms, scallions, rosemary, thyme and garlic.


"It's a great dish," he says, "and it makes a lot of money Something has to pay for the $24 rack of lamb" that's also on Bleu's menu.


Cotton's spring rolls at California Cafe also are made with duck, but with a somewhat more Latin flair. The duck is smoked, shredded and mixed with roasted corn, bell peppers, cilantro, chipotle peppers, pepper jack cheese and onion. "Spring rolls are hard to roll if you have a real loose mixture," Cotton warns. "The cheese holds it all together." It also adds some extra flavor and spice.


He serves his spring rolls on a bed of cold pasta salad seasoned with ginger and other spices. The rolls are sliced on a bias and placed on top of the pasta, and the plate is drizzled with a garlic-chili sauce.


At L'Orange Bleue in New York, chef Gwenael Le Pape's cigares tunisiens are influenced by the local food he ate when being raised on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. It has a combination of Indian, Chinese, French and African influences. A second influence was the shrimp spring rolls he made as hors d'oeuvre when he was working at New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant Jean Georges. Le Pape uses duck that he cures in coarse salt, garlic, thyme and rosemary for half a day before making a confit of it in a combination of duck-fat and extra virgin olive oil. When the meat falls off the bone, he hand-shreds the flesh to make it somewhat stringy -- "otherwise, it doesn't roll," he says -- and adds Spanish onion thoroughly caramelized in olive oil and flavored with thyme and salt. He adds raw shredded carrots, chopped cilantro, chopped nuts, which generally are pistachios, peanuts, almonds and cashews but sometimes walnuts or hazelnuts as well, and a spice blend made mostly of cumin, cardamom, tur meric and cayenne pepper.


Olive oil is added to give the mixture some moisture, and then it's rolled up and left to sit for an hour or so before deep-frying. He serves it with a sauce of brown duck stock reduced with red wine, mixed with pomegranate syrup, balanced with some sugar and finished with salt and pepper.


For his millennium dinner last year, chef Jim Gerhardt of the Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, Ky., served spring rolls to represent the 1960s in his 10-course "meal of the century," in which each decade was represented by a dish.


Cross-cultural influences began to spread across the country during the '60s, observes Gerhardt, and "whether we liked it or not, we were introduced to Southeast Asia at that time" because of the Vietnam War. GIs were introduced to Asian food not only in Vietnam but also in military bases in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. One of Gerhardt's "spring rolls" is actually one of those fresh rolls from Vietnam. He rolls sprouts, hearts of palm, glass noodles and a julienne of carrots, leeks and mustard greens in broad, moistened rice paper and serves it with a vinaigrette made from a hemp beer reduction, rice wine vinegar, sugar, lemon juice, salt, pepper and fines herbes.


Canyon Cafe has been offering its decidedly Southwestern Sedona Spring Rolls for about seven years, according to Tudie Frank-Johnson, who developed them. "They were such a hit we're afraid to take them off [the menu]," she says. Besides, they're easy to make, tasty, profitable and good for sharing, she adds.


For the rolls, a julienne of fresh vegetables, including red cabbage, red onions and carrots, along with strips of poblano chilies and "lots of good, fresh garlic," is saut[acute{e}]ed lightly in a mixture of sesame oil and vegetable oil. Then balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, salt and pepper are added, followed by spinach, which is cooked just enough to wilt it. Grilled chicken is added, and the mixture is rolled in flour tortillas, deep fried, sliced on a bias and served with chipotle barbecue sauce. "We sell thousands of them," Frank-Johnson says.


And for dessert during a recent guest appearance at L'Absinthe in New York, Francis Delage, chef-owner of La Route des Boucaniers on the French Caribbean island of Saint Barth[acute{e}]l[acute{e}]my, made a chocolate spring roll by mixing ganache with finely chopped brownies and nuts. He shapes that mixture into bricks, rolls it in spring roll wrappers, panfries the rolls, and serves them with coffee cr[grave{e}]me anglaise.


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