I was approached the other day by an elderly Chinese woman who had been staring at me and my kids from across the playground. After our mutual smiles of greeting, she began speaking to me softly in Chinese (I couldn’t tell you which dialect) and I had to shake my head and shrug my shoulders regretfully, indicating that I didn’t speak the language. Her eyes filled with disappointment (whether for me or her, again, I couldn’t tell) and she nodded her good-bye and left.
This little encounter served as a painful reminder of how ignorant I am about my own culture: a mix of Chinese and Filipino.
I don’t speak Chinese or Tagalog. I don’t know much about the history or customs of either country. And I couldn’t tell you who their current political leaders are without Wiki-ing it first. In some Asian circles, I’d be snickered at and called a “Twinkie”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Not an epithet I want to be associated with, but it’s embarrassingly accurate.
Despite all that, there is one thing I AM super keen on with respect to my cultures: the FOOD. Laugh if you will, but I truly believe that food can be the gateway to an enduring relationship with any culture.
And with the Chinese New Year just around the corner (January 23; it’s the Year of the Dragon), I feel an irrepressible urge to forge a deeper connection to my roots. What better way to start than with the culinary delights of my peoples?
So, I asked my Taiwanese mom to teach me how to make egg rolls. Why egg rolls? Well, 1) because they are enjoyed by both the Chinese and Filipinos (the Filipinos call them “lumpia”), and 2) because of their resemblance to gold bars, they are a symbol of wealth and good fortune, and should be eaten on the Chinese New Year.
Homemade Egg Roll Recipe (Vegetarian)
(makes about 15 to 20 egg rolls, and unless you use egg whites to seal the wrappers, this recipe is actually vegan)
2 to 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3 cups mixed julienned or shredded vegetables*
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp. corn starch
1/4 cup cold water
15 to 20 round or square lumpia or pastry wrappers (available in Asian markets in the frozen foods section; NOT the refrigerated section)
Cornstarch water slurry to moisten wrappers as needed (plain water or egg whites can also be used)
Vegetable oil for frying
*Any combination of your favorite veggies will work here. We used a package of broccoli coleslaw mix, julienned carrots, and chopped roasted butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Other ideas include shiitake mushrooms, crumbled firm tofu, cabbage, green onions, crumbled tempeh, bean sprouts, and bell peppers.
Sauté the vegetables over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes, then cover and let steam for approximately 5 minutes, or until vegetables are just beginning to soften. Mix corn starch with water and stir into vegetables for 1 to 2 minutes. The corn starch will gently bind the vegetables to make the wrapper part a little easier.
Remove vegetable filling from heat and let cool completely. If, for some reason, your filling has turned out watery (it will depend on which vegetables you use), strain out the liquid well before wrapping.
Lay one wrapper sheet on a flat surface. Moisten the edges to make more pliable. Place 1 heaping Tbsp. of filling about an inch or two from the bottom edge of wrapper (closest to you), molding it with your fingers into a tube shape. Fold up bottom edge over filling. Fold over sides of wrapper, moistening them with water using your fingers or a pastry brush. Proceed to roll up to opposite edge of wrapper, moistening the top edge before closing.
Fill a frying pan about 1/2” deep with vegetable oil. Heat over medium-high heat for approximately 5 minutes or until a deep-frying thermometer reads 350 to 375 degrees F. (My mom uses the ancient Chinese water splatter test: She verrrry carefully drops ONE DROP of water into the oil and if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.)
Using a pair of tongs, lay the egg rolls seam side down in oil. Allow ample room between egg rolls. After about a minute, check the undersides for doneness. They should be a beautiful golden brown. (If they look too brown or burnt, lower your heat to a medium flame.) Flip them over and brown the other side. Place in strainer or over paper towels to drain excess oil.
Serve with sweet and sour dipping sauce and watch them disappear!
The nice thing about egg rolls/lumpia is that you can roll up a bunch now, freeze them, and fry them up later.
It’s a new year (Western and Chinese), and I’m filled with resolutions. One of them is to get more in touch with my roots, and for me, learning to cook traditional foods is a fun and delicious way to start.
Do you or any of your friends celebrate the Chinese New Year? What customs or foods are part of the festivities?
Sophia savors all the joys (and challenges!) of family life with her husband and two kids in San Diego. Read more of her (mis)adventures in mothering at MamaSayMamaSo.