EGG ROLLS IN AMERICAFriday, June 26, 2009
Egg rolls are now an unremarkable part of the American landscape. The rows of little crusty pillows fill half the steam tables and every Wal-Mart freezer section from New York to Nome. Their attraction is their consistency; there are no surprises with an egg roll. A thick, deep-fried crust encloses a bundle of shredded vegetables, mainly cabbage, interspersed with a few tiny morsels of roast pork, perhaps shrimp, and some slivers of carrot for color. You bite into one, and the main sensation is crunchiness, of crispy breading and lightly cooked cabbage. The flavor is mainly grease and salt, with a faint cabbage back taste. Dip it into duck sauce, and you have the principal flavor components of Chinese-American food: crispy, salty, sweet, and sour. No Chinese just off the plane from Beijing or Hong Kong would recognize the dish as their own.
Nevertheless, egg rolls grow out of the Chinese culinary tradition. Their ancestors are spring rolls, chun guen, which were prepared for the first planting festivals after the Chinese New Year. Originally soft, wheat flour wrappers enclosing cooked vegetables, they evolved into the spring rolls that are served, particularly at dim sum meals, in Chinatowns across the United States. Each region of China has its own version, but the Cantonese-style spring rolls are dominant here. These are thin skins of dough wrapped around a relatively dry filling, perhaps black mushrooms, barbecue pork, celery, cabbage, and bean sprouts. They're rolled into tubes resembling small cigars and then deep fried. They're crispy and light, something you could devour in two bites. Cantonese from the Pearl River Delta region made up the vast majority of Chinese who immigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We guess that they brought their spring rolls with them, but we don't know. The western observers who reveled in writing about the oddities of Chinese banquets and the delights of chop suey never mention spring rolls, or egg rolls.
So where do the eggs come from? Some recipes for egg rolls do call for making the wrappers out of an egg and flour dough. However, these emerge with as little egg flavor as your basic pasta dough. I think the dish's name may derive from a snack related to spring rolls called dan guen, i.e. "egg roll." (Just to confuse us, in Hong Kong today dan guen refers to an egg-based sweet dim sum.) This was served in New York's Chinatown in the early 1900s and still remains popular in South China. It's essentially a thin omelet which is wrapped around various ingredients, steamed, and then sliced like Japanese maki for serving. The egg roll recipe in the 1917 The Chinese Cook Book (one of the first Chinese cookbooks published in this country) wraps the omelet around a mixture of dry mushrooms, bean sprouts, chicken, and roast pork. Another recipe calls for a filling of pike puree flavored with roast pork and peanuts (fish paste egg rolls are still staples of Singapore's Chinese population). Somehow, the name egg roll, which was already familiar to white diners, was attached to the version of spring rolls that tempted them in 1930s New York.
Two Chinatown chefs compete for honors as the inventor of the American-style egg roll. Lum Fong, the owner of eponymous restaurants at 220 Canal Street (est. 1925) and 150 West 52nd Street, for years ran ads touting himself as the man who introduced egg rolls to the dining public. In his 1938 cookbook, Cook at Home in Chinese, Henry Low, for a decade the chef at the famous Port Arthur Restaurant on Mott Street, claimed the egg roll laurels for himself:
The author of this book, about thirty years ago, discovered that by using Chinese water chestnut flour in making a dough, the taste was vastly improved and it did not tend to burn so easily or quickly as other doughs in which ordinary flour was used. Also, in using this water chestnut flour the dough resulted in a deliciously soft crust covering. Taking an old Chinese dish, which was served with a dough covering, as a basis, the author further concocted a number of ingredients as a mixture to be wrapped in this new dough which he named Tchun Guen, or "Egg Roll."This confusion over names for the dish is evident in a number of cookbooks, which give their recipes under the heading "Spring Roll (Egg Roll)." In Low's recipe, he stuffs it with finely chopped bamboo shoots, roast pork, shrimp, scallions, water chestnuts, salt, MSG, sugar, and pepper. After wrapping, the rolls are deep fried, cooled, and then deep fried again. The filling was more luxurious than what we're used to today, but the softer, deep fried crust certainly identifies this version as the modern species of egg roll.
The rest is culinary history. Egg rolls keep well in the refrigerator, and their thick crusts stay crispy for hours on the steam table. They became staples of institutional food and automatic addenda to the "one from column A and one from column B" family meals offered at Chinese-American restaurants in every city and town across America. As they became standardized, the sense of mystery about what they contained became lost. They were no longer thick with roast pork and fresh shrimp; the bamboo shoots and water chestnuts disappeared. The lowest common denominator egg roll, mainly cabbage flecked with bits of pork and carrot for color, rose to dominate the restaurant tables and freezer cases. Meanwhile, Americans began to play with their food, inventing chicken and banana egg rolls, Southwestern egg rolls, Mexican egg rolls, Philly cheese steak egg rolls, s'mores egg rolls, and on and on. The egg roll has sailed very far from its roots in China, but as long as it's wrapped and deep fried, it's still an egg roll.