Food & Drink

Tracing the history of the egg roll

Born and bred in southern China, Fanny Go did not grow up eating egg rolls. Family meals in her part of Guangdong province were dominated by rice, greens, preserved vegetables and morsels of meat.

But ever since she and her now-late husband Tom decided to whip up a batch for a Chicago block party 45 years ago, these golden cylinders have become a family — and neighborhood — tradition.

“My parents would make as many as 500 for people at the block party to eat and take home,” says the Gos’ eldest daughter, Jean. “They knew that food always brought people together. So, over the years, they created a lot of good relationships around here.”

Like Fanny Go, who came to the United States in the early ’60s, the egg roll represents a 20th-century meeting of two cultures. Though dim sum chefs in Hong Kong produce a similar snack called a spring roll, the egg roll, as we know it, is a creation of Chinese-American restaurateurs who used local ingredients to create Chinese-ish foods that would appeal to American diners.

One of the restaurateurs who helped popularize the egg roll was my grandfather, Harry Eng, whose nephew, Tom Go, worked as a manager in the family’s Chicago chop suey palaces for decades. Tom Go based his egg roll recipe on the appetizers that proved such a hit with the restaurants’ clientele.

Today Fanny Go, 87, carries on the Chinese-American tradition by making the savory treats for parties and family gatherings.

Most of the ingredients can be found in the average American grocery store, if not in your kitchen.

Unrolling a bit of history

According to author Andrew Coe, who wrote “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States,” the egg roll was likely invented in New York sometime in the early 1930s. One of the chefs who claimed the honor, Henry Low, even included an egg roll recipe in his 1938 book “Cook at Home in Chinese.” According to Coe, the recipe included “bamboo shoots, roast pork, shrimp, scallions, water chestnuts, salt, MSG, sugar and pepper,” a much more luxurious mix than the “cabbage, flecked with bits of pork and carrot for color,” that “rose to dominate the restaurant tables and freezer sections.” With the Go family recipe, many of those luxurious fillings have been restored — and Fanny Go encourages home cooks to add just about anything they want as long as it’s chopped small, fully cooked and drained of most moisture.

Egg rolls

Makes 12 to 16 egg rolls or more, depending on how much filling is used per piece.


½ cup smooth peanut butter

1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil

2 cups julienned Chinese barbecued pork

10 cups shredded green cabbage (about 1 large cabbage), blanched, squeezed dry in a dish towel

½ cup chopped green onions

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Optional ingredients from the list below:

12 to 16 large (7-by-7-inch) egg roll wrappers

1 egg, beaten in a small bowl

Vegetable oil for frying

Optional ingredients:

1 tablespoon sesame oil

½ cup boiled shrimp, cut into dime-size pieces

½ cup soaked, squeezed and thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms

½ cup julienned and well-drained bamboo shoots

¼ cup thinly sliced water chestnuts

½ cup bean sprouts


For the filling, heat the peanut butter in a small saucepan over low heat until pourable, adding 1 tablespoon peanut oil if needed to get the proper consistency. Allow to cool slightly. Combine the pork, cabbage, onions, sugar, salt, pepper, cinnamon and any of the optional extra ingredients in a very large bowl until thoroughly blended. Hands work best to do this. Pour cooled, but still liquid, peanut butter into the mixture; mix thoroughly.

Cut off 1 inch from each of the corners of the wrappers for easier rolling. Place stack in front of you with one corner pointing toward you. Place a handful (about ¼ cup) of filling near the bottom corner; roll corner over the filling, tightly rolling up to just over half way. Fold in side corners snugly; continue rolling until there are 2 inches of wrapper left. Brush some egg wash over the final corner; continue rolling over it to seal the egg roll.

When all egg rolls are rolled, heat oil or lard in a heavy pan or wok until it reaches 350 degrees. Fry egg rolls, in batches, until golden brown; drain in a paper towel-lined pan.

Eat while hot, dipped in duck sauce, sweet and sour sauce and/or hot mustard.

This recipe is adapted from the one Fanny Go has made for decades. The amounts have been reduced from her recipe, which serves a crowd. Look for barbecued pork in Chinese barbecue stores, or you can make it by marinating approximately 2-inch-wide sections of pork shoulder/butt in store-bought char sui sauce overnight and then roasting in a 350 degree oven on a rack over a pan lined with foil until done.

Per per egg roll, based on 16: 277 calories; 12 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams fat (2 saturated); 25 milligrams cholesterol; 841 milligrams sodium; 2 grams fiber.