I have learned thus far in life that things are not always just one way. There are so many variations to just about everything in life. If you are like me, there is an enjoyment in learning every aspect and why. I use this approach almost always in food. I love to find out all the details, reasons, and varied possibilities that apply to any component or ingredient. This philosophy keeps your mind open and what it will sometimes do to your taste buds is priceless.
Growing up in New Jersey it was common to order Chinese take out. There was, and possible still is, a Chinese take-out just about every couple of miles. The kind of shop that has a kitchen, a counter, possibly a couple of tables, but that is about it. You phone in or walk in, place your order, and off you go with hot freshly prepared Chinese food packed neatly in foil or little cardboard containers. My sister and I often ate it for lunch with our mom or on a busy night when my dad was traveling. It was a fun little thing that “us girls” did. Each time our meals always came with pork fried rice and an egg roll. We loved to eat that pork fried rice with whatever main dish we combined it with - Cashew Chicken, General Tso, Sweet & Sour Pork, Egg Foo Young…the list can go on, don't tempt me.
But the special part of the meal was the egg roll. I can always remember my sister and I loving to munch away and nibble on this wonderfully crispy fried and chewy deliciousness. These egg rolls I am speaking of were, and still are, large in size; possibly just shy from the size of a can of soda. They were always filled with shredded cabbage, other veggies, some mushroom, and ground pork. We would always get the little plastic packets of duck sauce (which I have learned is just thin apricot preserve) to dip our egg roll into as we chewed away and grinned. My father knew we enjoyed egg rolls so much and he mentioned it to a co-worker he had who was from China. She made some of her own egg rolls for us as a treat. We were shocked to see that the egg rolls she made were tiny, enough for for just a few bites, and had a much different flavor. (It was years latter that I came to know that flavor at Chinese Five Spice.) My mom and dad then explained to us that things can always be different depending of where they come from; different areas are known for different spices, vegetables, and so on.
As I grew up, traveled, and moved away, I always found it comforting to get some Chinese food and dine. I always compared it to the food my sister, mother and I dined on. I sometimes would ask the staff at the restaurant where they were from and take notice to the difference in the flavors from other places. It was my friend and lawyer Michael who taught me that his family (from Vietnam and Thailand but originated from China) always ate smaller egg rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves. I followed his lead and came to quite a liking of this. Your hand does not touch the fried exterior and the lettuce created a nice refreshing contrast in flavor. I had a co-worker named Ping here in Seattle who was from China. She often made us Chinese food for our family meals and taught me that just using garlic and keeping the veggies somewhat crunchy and fresh leads to more flavor then any sauce could ever do justice too. She also taught me how to “wrap” an egg roll. Mind you Ping was not even 5 foot tall, and her tiny hands and fingers whizzed away wrapping up those little egg rolls that always looked perfect. It was always amazing to watch her, and she was so fast at doing it.
Over the years I have tried to get a handle on making them myself. I have experimented trying best to match the flavors I enjoyed in my childhood and combined it with what I have learned from my travels and friends. The end result is quite tasty, and Brian and I enjoy them every now and again. The egg rolls we enjoy now are vegetarian, are less than half the size to what I and Brian grew up with, mildly spiced, and we eat them with lettuce along with soy sauce and sweet chili sauce to accompany them. Although I am still not as quick or fast like Ping when I make them, they are fun and delicious. Give it a try and I think you will be amazed by how simple they are and how you just made egg rolls yourself. Trying all those different egg rolls over the years has definitely paid off.
Vegetarian Egg Rolls (Makes about 30)
Note: You can use egg roll wrappers for this, but they are usually quite large. I like to use the Wong Ton wrappers due to their smaller size. Doubling up on the wrappers helps prevent tearing and the filling oozing when cooking. You can purchase either wrappers at an asian market or at a larger supper market. There is a difference in texture between rice wrappers or spring roll wrappers, you do not want them for this recipe.
4 cups of shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded carrot
1 cup shredded celery
1 1/2 cup of small chopped shiitake mushrooms
1 bunch green onions, trimmed and chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
1/4 cup soy sauce, plus more
2-3 cups peanut oil
1 - 2 packages of Wong Tong Wrappers *(see note)
1 head green leaf lettuce- washed,and cut into even hand held pieces
2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
Sweet Chili sauce for dipping
First, place a large sauté pan (about 10 - 12 inches) over medium heat a heat through. Add the peanut oil and once it is heated though add your cabbage, celery, carrot and mushrooms. keep stirring it until it wilts and most of the moisture that releases from the veggie is cooked out. (You might need to add a bit more of oil if you feel the pan is getting too dry and the veggies are sticking.)
Next; add the ginger, green onion, and garlic over your veggies and stir well. Let is all sizzle together and sprinkle it all with a bit of sea salt and black pepper. Add in the 1/4 cup of soy sauce and stir well and heat through. At this point taste it and see if you feel the seasoning is where you like it and adjust as needed. Place the mixture aside to cool before making your egg rolls.
Then, get all your components together to make your egg rolls. I like to do this all on a cutting board, but a counter or a table works just as well. Place a frying pan filled with about 2 cups of peanut oil over medium heat. Have your wrappers lined up with your veggie filling nearby, along with a small bowl of water. Line up two wrappers at a time, staggering them, scoop a small amount of veggies along the center of the wrappers. Wipe the edges of the wrapper with you finger dipped in the water to moisten the edges. Fold the bottom corner up and over the filling, fold the edges over to cover the bottom, and roll the rest of the egg roll up to seal the top half over it. The moistened edges will help see it together.
Meanwhile, after you seal a few egg rolls your oil should be heated through. Gently lay the egg rolls into the oil, a few at a time, and let them fry until nicely golden rotating to be sure it is evenly cooked on all sides. Once the egg rolls are evenly cooked remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel. Repeat the process, be sure not to wrap all your egg rolls too early or they might dry out or stick together. I prefer to get into a rhythm and do a few at a time.
Finally, once your egg rolls are done you can platter them up with the lettuce along side. Sprinkle the egg rolls with the toasted sesame seeds. Serve with both soy sauce and sweet chili sauce for dipping.