February 13, 2013

Celebrating the Lunar New Year: Roll and go

A pile of egg rolls, created by early Chinese-American restaurateurs, is sure to be a smash hit with revelers.

By MONICA ENG/McClatchy Newspapers

CHICAGO — Born and bred in southern China, Fanny Go did not grow up eating egg rolls.

history of the egg roll
click image to enlarge

Above, Fanny Go egg rolls, ready to eat; below, family and friends roll egg rolls in Go’s Chicago kitchen.

Photos by Armando L. Sanchez/McClatchy Newspapers

history of the egg roll
click image to enlarge

Additional Photos Below

Family meals in her part of Guangdong province were dominated by rice, greens, preserved vegetables and morsels of meat.

But ever since she and her late husband Tom decided to whip up a batch for a Rogers Park Chicago block party 45 years ago, these chubby, stubbly, golden cylinders have become a family tradition.

"My parents would make as many as 500 for people at the block party to eat and take home," says the Gos' eldest daughter, Jean. "They knew that food always brought people together. So, over the years, they created a lot of good relationships around here."

Like Fanny Go, who came to the U.S. in the early '60s, the egg roll represents a 20th-century meeting of two cultures. Though dim sum chefs in Hong Kong produce a similar snack called a spring roll, the egg roll, as we know it, is a creation of early Chinese-American restaurateurs who used local ingredients to create Chinese-ish foods that would appeal to American diners.

One of the restaurateurs who helped popularize the egg roll was my grandfather, Harry Eng, whose nephew, Tom Go, worked as a manager in the family's downtown Chicago chop suey palaces (among them Hoe Sai Gai and South Pacific) for decades. Tom Go based his egg roll recipe on the appetizers that proved such a hit with the restaurants' clientele.

Today Fanny Go, 87, carries on the Chinese-American tradition by making the savory treats for parties and family gatherings. She recently shared her recipe -- which can take up to three days -- with a convivial group who gathered at Go's home to learn, cook and eat. One of the biggest surprises was that most of the ingredients can be found in the average American grocery store, if not in your kitchen.

I joined in to learn more about this side of my family and to bring home some tangible (not to mention delicious) link to the Eng family's restaurant past. My great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncle, aunts and uncles opened nearly a dozen of these establishments starting in the 1930s, with the last -- The House of Eng in Hyde Park -- closing in the '80s.

Go started the project a few days earlier by marinating 10 pounds of pork shoulder in a store-bought char siu sauce (hoisin and five spice-based barbecue sauce) and then roasting the meat on wire racks in the oven. Early guests were put to work julienning the pork into thin strips. Others sliced green cabbage into ribbons, blanched them and then squeezed them dry in sheets of cheesecloth.

My father, who worked summers in the family restaurants, remembers cooks using whole tablecloths to squeeze the mountains of blanched cabbage needed for the daily egg rolls.

"Many restaurants," Go explains through a translator, "used only cabbage for the filling because they wanted to keep costs down." But Fanny and Tom Go added plenty of rich barbecued pork, shredded chicken, chunks of boiled shrimp, chopped green onions and other touches to their version.

"You can add mushrooms, bamboo shoots or whatever you want," she says.

After Go assembles the main elements (cabbage, pork, shrimp and chicken) into a huge basin, she sprinkles in a variety of unexotic spices: salt, pepper, sugar, chicken bouillon powder and cinnamon.

Next comes her secret ingredient: a jar of creamy peanut butter, heated in a pan with some vegetable oil until it was liquid enough to be poured into the mixture. Finally, Go showers the filling with chopped green onion and kneaded the whole thing thoroughly with her sturdy hands.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

history of the egg roll
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Egg rolls bubble in a wok of vegetable oil.


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