One April evening in the Sichuanese capital Chengdu, chef Yu Bo and his wife invited me for supper. They insisted that we ate spring rolls, which were then in season. So we sat around a pile of the thin white pancakes which they had bought in a local market, and a selection of gorgeous home-made dishes. There was a salad of slivered vegetables in a chilli and mustard sauce, hot stir-fried pork with yellow Chinese chives, cold chicken tossed with soy sauce and chilli oil, blanched goji berry shoots in a sour-and-hot dressing and spring bamboo shoots mixed with huo xiang, a mint-like herb. We lifted pancakes from the pile, topped them with a helping of any dish we fancied, and rolled them up before eating.
Spring rolls are one of the archetypal Chinese appetisers in the west but Chinatown restaurants only ever serve the deep-fried version. In China itself, however, deep-fried spring rolls are far less popular and, in some parts of the country, freshly made, unfried spring rolls are much better known. In Sichuan and Hunan in the spring, street vendors, usually women, make the fresh pancakes to order. They grab a handful of a wet, almost-liquid dough, keeping their wrist in constant motion to prevent its sliding away, and dab it on to the griddle. A thin, round film of dough adheres to the hot surface. When it is cooked but still alabaster-white, the vendor plucks it off the griddle and adds it to the pile.
The fresh wrappers are sold with a colourful display of vegetables, including slivered carrot, radish and kelp, stems of coriander and beansprouts, which can be mixed to order with a piquant dressing. Traditionally, the trade peters out as the weather becomes sultry, when the fresh pancakes begin to stick together in the heat.
These fresh spring rolls are the modern incarnation of an ancient food custom. As long ago as the third century, Chinese people celebrated the first day of the lunar year with chun pan – spring platters of pungent vegetables such as garlic and chives, which were eaten to purge the qi energy of the vital organs. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th century), these sprightly vegetables were served with thin pancake wrappers called chun bing, or spring pancakes. Over time, the celebratory spring platters became more extravagant for those who could afford them, and were sometimes sent with whole chickens and expensive bird’s nest to influential officials as a New Year’s greeting.
By Chinese standards, the deep-fried spring roll is a fairly recent invention, having appeared in written records only in the 13th or 14th century, with a recipe for rolled fried pancakes (juan jian bing), which are stuffed with a luxurious mixture of chopped lamb seasoned with ginger and spring onion, dried fruits, lotus stem and candied nuts, before being sizzled in oil. Over the centuries, many different spring roll fillings have been devised, including the “eight treasure” glutinous rice studded with morsels of cured meat and other delicacies that you might find on the streets of Chongqing, or the simple-sounding but extremely delicious Cantonese mix of cabbage and mushrooms. During China’s last dynasty, the Qing, the actual term “spring roll” (chun juan) finally appeared.
The old link between spring rolls and the first day of the year has long been broken, but the pancakes remain a seasonal delicacy of the spring, and the Sichuanese way of eating them with slivered vegetables pepped up by chilli oil or mustard is a throwback to the “spring platters” of the distant past.
Fresh spring rolls (Chun juan)
The spring pancake wrappers
200g strong white flour, sifted
½ tsp salt
A little cooking oil
● Place 175ml cold water in a bowl with the salt and stir to dissolve. Tip in the flour and mix to make a thick, smooth, wet dough. Gently smooth the surface of the dough, cover with a thin layer of cold water (perhaps 100ml), and leave to rest at room temperature for two hours.
● Heat a dry, heavy-based frying pan over a gentle flame. Use a wad of kitchen paper to rub it with a little cooking oil and heat over a high flame to seal the surface of the metal. Turn the heat down, rub in a bit more oil, and use the paper to remove all but the merest smear.
● Now comes the tricky part. Take a handful of dough out of the bowl in your hand: the dough will be very wet, so you will need to keep your hand moving so it doesn’t flow away. Then sweep the handful of dough around the hot surface of the pan, so a thin, circular layer sticks. If there are any little blobs of wet dough on the surface, dab them with your handful of dough to pick them up. You should end up with a very thin, even circle. Keep moving your hand so the dough doesn’t escape, and when the edges of the pancake lift up slightly from the pan, use your other hand gently to peel it away. Turn it over for a couple of seconds, and then remove it to a plate or a clean cloth. The pancake should be just cooked but still completely pale.
● Repeat with the rest of the dough. Keep the hot surface clean: if any dough sticks, scrape it off and then apply again a smear of oil. If the dough becomes too stiff, mix in a few drops of cold water.
● Don’t be alarmed if your first wrappers are not perfect: it takes a little while to get a feel for making them. And no one will mind if they are not perfectly round!
Filling 1: Mixed vegetable slivers in a sour-and-hot sauce
100g Asian (white) radish
100g red pepper
3 tbs finely sliced spring onion greens
1 tbs light soy sauce
2½ tsp Chinkiang vinegar
1½ tsp caster sugar
½ tsp finely chopped or crushed garlic
2 tbs chilli oil, with sediment
½ tsp sesame oil
● Peel and trim the carrot and radish, and cut evenly into thin slices, and then into fine slivers. Destring the celery and cut into fine slivers. Trim the red pepper and cut into fine slivers. Place the slivered vegetables in a bowl, add ¾ tsp salt, mix well, then leave for 10-15 minutes. Squeeze out the water that emerges.
● Bring a little water to the boil, and blanch the beansprouts. Refresh them under the cold tap, and then squeeze dry.
● Mix all the vegetables together in a bowl. Add all the other ingredients, and mix well. Pile them up on a serving dish.
Filling 2: Stir-fried Chinese yellow chives with pork slivers
(Jiu cai rou si)
150g lean pork
100g Chinese yellow or hothouse chives
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
A similar-sized piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
3 tbs cooking oil
For the marinade
1 tsp Shaoxing wine
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp potato flour
2 tsp cold water
For the sauce
A pinch of salt
¼ tsp potato flour
½ tsp Shaoxing wine
¾ tsp Chinkiang vinegar
¼ tsp light soy sauce
1 tbs cold water or stock
● Cut the pork into fine slivers along the grain of the meat, and place in a bowl. Add the marinade ingredients and mix.
● Cut the chives into 6cm-7cm sections. Combine the sauce ingredients in a bowl.
● Add 2 tbs oil to a seasoned wok over a high flame and swirl it around. Add the pork slivers and stir-fry to separate. When they are changing colour but still a little pink, remove from the wok and set aside.
● Return the wok to a high flame with 1 tbs oil. Add the chives with the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for half a minute until they are hot and fragrant. Return the pork to the wok and stir a few times. When everything is hot and the pork just cooked, give the sauce a stir and pour it into the centre of the wok. Stir in the sauce, and then serve.
Making the pancakes at home can be a little tricky at first, because there’s a knack to keeping the dough moving and dabbing it on the hot surface, but it’s enormously satisfying. The recipe makes enough dough to allow for a few mistakes as you practise. The fresh rolls themselves make a delightful change from the deep-fried version. They can be served with any salad or stir-fry as a stuffing: you’ll find a couple of suggestions in the recipes above.
To make an actual spring roll from wrapper and filling, gently peel away one of the pancakes from the pile and lay it on a plate. Use chopsticks to pile up some filling on the wrapper. Fold in the right-hand side of the wrapper. Then fold in the side nearest to you, and roll away from you to enclose the filling (it will still peep out of one end). Hold the wrapper with the closed side downwards so the juices don’t leak out, and eat immediately.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s most recent book is “Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking” (Bloomsbury). To comment on this article please post below, or email email@example.com