June 5, 2010
Eating Spring Rolls in Fuzhou
A traditional legend claims that Spring Rolls have their origins in the annual Chinese New Year celebration, called the Spring Festival. The first spring rolls featured fresh vegetables from the spring harvest; meat was added later.
It is also said that the pastry appeared way back in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, when people would make thin cakes with flour and eat them with vegetables on the day of Beginning of Spring. The cakes were called “spring dish” at that time.
In the Tang and Song Dynasties, the cakes were all the rage. And the custom was even featured in the poems by the great poets Du Fu and Lu You.
In the Tang Dynasty, Spring Dish was also known as “the Five-Spice Dish”, because five hot and spicy ingredients like spring onion and garlic were added in the fillings.
Later, Spring Dishes and Five-Spice Dishes evolved into spring cakes. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there was a custom of “biting spring”, which means welcoming spring by eating spring cakes. The practice was believed to ward off disaster and evil. Along with ever improving cooking skills, spring cakes evolved into spring rolls, which were smaller in size. Spring rolls were included in imperial court snacks.
Today, spring rolls are a popular treat during Chinese New Year celebrations. Their gold color symbolizes wealth and prosperity for the coming year. In my opinion this would be non-Foochow as the Foochows would always eat their spring roll fresh and not fried.
In Sibu on the other hand spring rolls are eaten during the Chinese New Year and the other small festivals. This brings to mind that we had one specialist who used to make the thin pan cakes or spring roll "skin" near the now demolished central market in High Street for many decades - specifically at the corner of the shop called Tai Sing. We would queue up to buy the pan cakes/spring roll skin and take home to roll up our Spring Rolls with home made fillings. What he made was really excellent - stretchable like lycra without holes and would not tear at all and very tender to the bite. They also did not dry up like the Vietnamese rice paper. He has passed on and an institution also disappears with him.
By the way I would not mind waiting in the long queue because I could watch his magic hands placing a ball of dough on his hot flat pan (not oiled) and leave behind a thin pastry. When just right he would lift the "skin" up gently. He could pile up a mountain of the skins in minutes. He would sit there and make hundreds on the festival day. What did he do after that day? I have never found out. I was too young then to realise that I should ask him to be my sifu.....
Stir fried bean sprouts for the spring rolls - this was our introduction to Spring Rolls in Fuzhou City. The dishes came out and we enjoyed rolling up the spring rolls ourselves. This was indeed very interactive and broke the ice amongst the diners. We should practise this in Sibu in particular and in other parts of Sarawak.
Chives fried with a bit of minced meat for the spring roll
Meat floss - one of the three fillings for the spring roll. This was something new to me. Meat Floss is a popular tourist souvenir to buy and a good present for meeting new friends in Fuzhou City. It comes in beautiful and high tech packings.
I do think that whenever one eats spring rolls with a nice group of friends one would always feel cheerful and satisfied because so many ingredients go into one roll! You can also improve your skill in making dainty spring rolls too.
In Fuzhou city each restaurant or even side walk stalls would have their own special fillings and pancakes...So you can eat to your heart's content when you try different kinds of spring rolls.
Spring rolls (fried or fresh) I am afraid is no longer offered in any of the Sibu restaurant menu as a single dish.
You can buy the fried ones (with carrots and some minced meat or pounded dried prawns maybe) in the Night Market in Sibu. But those are definitely not what I remember as Foochow Spring Rolls my grandmother used to make!!
So it is time to revive the art of making the original spring roll!!