When East meets West
Today's spring rolls are worlds apart from their genesis in China. When I first came to New Zealand years ago I used to buy a couple of "spring" rolls for my lunch. The other day I bought a spring roll and it was as different as chalk and cheese from what I used to buy. It was about 7cm long, quite thin and deep-fried, which made me quite nauseous later on. The ones I used to buy years ago were about 13cm long, about 2cm thicker and chock-full of cabbage. The outer was quite crisp and certainly not sickly to eat. Do you think that I was eating cabbage rolls and that they were just incorrectly named as "spring" rolls? Hoping you can enlighten me.
Spring rolls, chow mein, chicken tikka masala ... Three dishes that conjure up a sense of authenticity - but in reality they are mostly constructs of the Western world, based on some sense of an Eastern one. Immigrants may have introduced the wok to many countries, but often the flavour palate of the locals didn't match those from the motherland and so flavours, techniques and ingredients had to be heavily adapted. What grows in Guangdong or the Punjab doesn't necessarily grow in Invercargill or New York, so adaptation had to take place and new dishes were born.
Spring rolls, originating in northern and eastern China, were meant to be eaten only at spring festivals. Vegetable-based, they were made with whatever was growing at the time, but mostly cabbage.
They were large, rolled in a flour-based wrapper, deep-fried until crispy and served piping hot. I imagine by the time they were being made in Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong and then in the West, ingredients and local tastes altered what people wanted.
In Singapore earlier this year I ate a smaller version called popiah, stuffed with ground pork, peanuts, cabbage and bean sprouts. In Hong Kong I've eaten them stuffed with air-dried pork sausage and water chestnuts. They were still called spring rolls, but they were a world away from their original vegetarian, seasonal great-grandparents.
As I was growing up in Whanganui there was a local Chinese restaurant, where my sister Tracey sometimes worked after school. I think it was called the Peking Cafe. The highlight was when she'd bring back a cardboard box of chow mein - a dish I assumed was what the old emperors must have eaten at their banquets.
The reality, however, is that it really doesn't exist in China as we knew it (all damp wet cabbage, soy and canned water chestnuts with semi-soggy noodles). The translation is "fried noodles" - so grammatically it is correct, but it's likely the dish came into being when immigrants from the Pearl River Delta region of China (home of Cantonese cooking) emigrated to America.
I've spent time in that region of China and I can assure you I never saw anything resembling the chow mein of Whanganui.
Similarly, chicken tikka masala is supposedly Britain's favourite national dish. Actually, it seems to compete against Thai green chicken curry depending which report you read. However, for all the many versions of tikka masala, the only common ingredients seems to be chicken. And although the Brits seem to believe it was an authentic dish from India that was introduced to Britain, it's likely that it was created less that 50 years ago in Glasgow. Other cities claiming they were the birthplace of this "Indian" dish include such well-known foodie destinations as Birmingham and Newcastle. The interesting thing about the dish is that you can now find it back in India and Pakistan at hotels and restaurants catering for British tourists. It's just too hilarious.
So, although the spring rolls you had years ago may have been better than your recent experience, it's likely that neither of them is particularly authentic.
The best bet is to revisit the places that do the food you like, so you can at least expect consistency.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.