Egg rolls, those deep-fried, hand-held packets of meat and veggies, are one of the most popular Chinese-American appetizers in the United States. But they can also be a point of confusion.
How well do you know your egg rolls from your spring rolls?
Spring rolls have a long history in China. They are traditionally eaten on Li Chun Day, which marks the beginning of spring on the Chinese calendar, as part of a custom known as “biting the spring” (yao chun). Now, however, they’re commonly enjoyed year-round, both in China and abroad.
Egg rolls, their American cousins, have a much shorter history: they are believed to have been invented in New York City in the 1930s, by a Chinese chef. Since then, they’ve become a Chinese-American takeout staple.
So how can you tell the difference?
While both are similarly filled, rolled, and deep-fried, the visuals are the easiest tip-off: spring rolls have smooth surfaces, while egg rolls are blistered and bumpy.
Spring roll wrappers are made with flour and water, and are super thin and crisp once deep-fried, prone to shattering into delicate flakes at first bite. Egg roll wrappers, meanwhile, include egg in their dough, and are noticeably thicker, sturdier, and satisfyingly crunchy.
Don’t confuse either of these with Vietnamese summer rolls (gỏi cuốn), also sometimes called fresh spring rolls, which are unfried rolls made with chewy, translucent rice paper wrappers and filled with raw veggies, often along with cooked meats such as pork sausage or shrimp.
And beyond these, there’s a huge family tree of similar stuffed rolls, fried and unfried, savory and sweet, extending across Asia, from Thai popia thot to Filipino lumpia.
Below is a recipe for making Chinese-American egg rolls at home, stuffed with a savory filling of chicken, cabbage, carrot, shiitake mushrooms, and chopped glass noodles, and deep-fried until golden brown and characteristically bubbly-skinned.
Those rough surfaces are also ideal for catching your dipping sauce of choice—but they’re so good on their own that you won’t even need it.
Chicken Egg Roll Recipe
Serves: 12 egg rolls
Rest time: 2 hours and 20 minutes
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
For the sauce:
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Pinch of white pepper
Pinch of five-spice powder
Pinch of sea salt
For the filling:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 pound ground chicken
Pinch of salt
1/2 carrot, julienned
2 cups thinly sliced cabbage
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in water for 2 hours, drained, and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons finely minced cilantro stems (save the leaves for another use)
1 (4-ounce) bundle dried glass noodles, soaked in water for 10 minutes, drained, and cut into 1-inch pieces
For the egg rolls:
24 egg roll wrappers
1 egg, beaten, for sealing wrappers
4 cups vegetable oil, for frying
Prepare the sauce:
In a small bowl, make a cornstarch slurry by combining 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water. Mix well and set aside.
In a separate small bowl, combine the soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, white pepper, five-spice powder, and sea salt. Mix well and set aside.
Cook the filling:
In a pan over high heat, add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, the ground chicken, and a pinch of salt. Stir fry the meat, breaking it up into small pieces, until most of the pink is gone, about 2 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
In the same pan, add another tablespoon of vegetable oil, then add the carrot, cabbage, and shiitake mushrooms. Stir fry over high heat until softened, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and cilantro stems and cook over high heat until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken, glass noodles, and sauce. Mix well and cook for another 30 seconds. Pour in the cornstarch slurry and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds to thicken the sauce.
Transfer the filling to a plate and let cool for about 20 minutes before assembling egg rolls.
Assemble the egg rolls:
Lay an egg roll wrapper flat on a working surface with a corner pointing toward you, so that it looks like a diamond. Place 1 1/2 tablespoons of filling about 1 inch above the bottom corner of the wrapper.
Fold the bottom corner up and over the filling, then tightly roll it up halfway. Fold the left corner toward the center, followed by the right corner; at this point, it should look like an open envelope. Continue rolling up until only the top triangle of the wrapper is left. Brush beaten egg over the top of the wrapper, then roll it up all the way, pressing tightly to seal. Immediately transfer to a plate and cover with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.
Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling.
Fry the egg rolls:
In a large pot over high heat, heat 4 cups of vegetable oil to 350 degrees F. (Tip: To test if the oil is ready, throw a tiny piece of egg roll wrapper into the pot. If it immediately rises and the oil bubbles all around it, then the oil is ready.)
Add a few egg rolls at a time, being careful not to crowd the pot. Deep fry over high heat, turning frequently so that they brown evenly, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the rest of the egg rolls.
After frying, if the oil is not cloudy and dark, it can be reused in the future. Let the oil cool to room temperature, then pour it into a glass jar through a coffee filter or piece of cheesecloth. Store in a cool and dry place.
If the oil is not reusable, throw it away properly. Let it cool to room temperature, then pour it into a non-breakable container with a lid. Tightly seal the container and toss it into the trash. Never pour the used oil down the drain, as it can clog your sink.