Legends: Spring rolls

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 9:32am

One of the most ubiquitous and well-known Chinese dishes, the spring roll has become so common that it's easy to forget that the name refers to a season. Spring rolls are mentioned in relation to the season in Chinese literature, in the poem Lichun, about the beginning of spring, by Tang dynasty (618-907) poet Du Fu.

In The Shoufu, a collection of stories compiled in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), they are described as an ancient food invented in the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420). It appears that the initial concept was to combine the abundant harvest of spring vegetables into a single dish.

A couple of legends tie spring rolls to Ching Ming Festival, which usually falls in the first week of April. One story is that during the spring and autumn period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (722BC-AD481), there was a scholar who dared to reject the invitation of a king to be his subject. Accepting the king's offer would have meant the scholar leaving his ailing mother alone at home in the mountains.

In a fit of anger, the king ordered that the mountainside be burned, hoping that the fire would force the scholar and his mother to move out. But the scholar and his mother perished. The king regretted his actions, and in honour of the scholar, declared that no one would be allowed to light any flames that day - so no one could cook.

The day later became known as Ching Ming Festival. People had to think of ways to cook and store food in advance, and came up with the idea of cooking their vegetables and rolling them in pancakes.

The second Ching Ming-related story says that around 1850, during the Qing dynasty's Taiping Rebellion, the country was in such a state of disarray that it became too difficult to prepare elaborate offerings for one's ancestors' graves, so the portability of spring rolls made them the offering of choice.