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

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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

When it comes time to roll, Go places a tall stack of perfectly square egg roll wrappers on the cutting board and lops off the corners for easier assembly. She demonstrates a perfect roll by squeezing a handful of filling in her fist, plopping it on the bottom corner of the wrapper and tightly rolling it into a chubby cylinder, the final flap sealed with a swipe of egg wash.

Guests set to work rolling dozens more -- with decidedly mixed results -- as Go heats several cups of vegetable oil in her shiny wok.

Despite her advanced years, the octogenarian insists on doing much of the hard work herself, mixing the mound of filling, carrying the pots and boxes, and standing at the stove to fry every single one of the 100 egg rolls we assembled.

"Someone else might make a mess of my stove and wok," she says when her son, Rich, suggests she sit and take a rest.

When the first stubbly cylinders emerge from the wok, hot crisp and deeply golden, every guest wonders the same thing: When can I try one?

Finally, after about a dozen are stacked in a paper towel-lined pan, Go gives the OK. I slice one open, releasing a puff of cabbagey, porky steam. I dip it in the brightly colored store-bought duck and mustard sauces. I take my first crunchy, sweet, spicy, savory bite. And I am transported right back to the opening crunch of dozens of Eng family restaurant meals from my youth.

As someone who, for decades, wrote about "real" ethnic food in Chicago, I admit to snobbishly shunning the cuisine upon which my ancestors built their fortune. But if someone who spent the first third of her life in China can embrace it, so can I.

Indeed, when my brother and I made a huge batch of Go's egg rolls for our Chinese-Puerto Rican Christmas celebration in December, they were an enormous hit with the Chinese and non-Chinese relatives alike. They even inspired my Chinese-Jewish cousin to share his parents' (former restaurant owners) old Crab Rangoon recipe with me.

These recipes may not be ancient Chinese secrets, but they do reflect popular products of Chinese ingenuity.

According to author Andrew Coe, who wrote "Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States," the egg roll was likely invented in New York sometime in the early 1930s. One of the chefs who claimed the honor, Henry Low, even included an egg roll recipe in his 1938 book "Cook at Home in Chinese." According to Coe, the recipe included "bamboo shoots, roast pork, shrimp, scallions, water chestnuts, salt, MSG, sugar and pepper," a much more luxurious mix than the "cabbage, flecked with bits of pork and carrot for color," that "rose to dominate the restaurant tables and freezer sections."

With the Gos' recipe, many of those luxurious fillings have been restored -- and Fanny Go encourages home cooks to add just about anything they want as long as it's chopped small, fully cooked and drained of most moisture.

During Lunar New Year celebrations -- which began Sunday -- it's customary, in China, to serve visiting family and friends delicate spring rolls to welcome the next season. But if you live someplace where February doesn't feel much like spring, a plump, sturdy American egg roll could be just as welcome. And now that the Cantonese-American egg roll has -- like Go -- thrived through more than eight decades, it's probably safe to say that it has earned a place as a tradition of its own.


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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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