A stroll through the markets and along the canals of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, will usually pass food carts serving “Vietnamese loempia”, supercharged spring rolls.
Variations on the spring roll are among the dishes most commonly found in Chinese-esque restaurants the world over. They are invariably made from a thin wheat or rice wrapper rolled around a filling (usually a mixture of finely chopped vegetables and meat) and then deep-fried. In many countries, the name for these delights is a literal translation of spring roll, such as rouleau de printemps in France and harumaki in Japan. The Dutch word “loempia”, however, most closely resembles “lumpia”, the Indonesian term for the treat.
To trace the intersection of the spring roll and lumpia, we must look back to China’s Jin dynasty (AD265-420). According to the account Feng Tu Ji (roughly, “records of local customs”), which was written by general Zhou Chu, spring was a good season in which to eat garlic, shallots, leek and coriander, because, it was believed, they provided an energy boost. Because such ingredients were strongly flavoured, they were wrapped in a plain pancake to make them more palatable.
These rolls became popular at all times of year, and took on a new name: run bing. In Fujian province, in the local dialect, this was pronounced loon pia, and, as the Fujianese were some of the earliest Chinese to migrate to Southeast Asia, many linguistic derivatives were adopted in the region.
In Indonesia, for example, a much-loved dish is lumpia semarang, rolls filled with bamboo shoots, dried shrimp, chicken and/or prawns and named for a city on the north coast of Java, which came under Dutch rule in 1682. Given the colonial ties, Indonesian-Chinese food has had a long history in the Netherlands, with lumpia having become particularly popular.
“It is a large spring roll we grow up with,” says Dutchman Richard Ekkebus, culinary director of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, in Central, and its fine-dining restaurant, Amber. “You can not only get them in Chinese-Indonesian restaurants, but also in snack bars. It’s comfort food for the Dutch.”
With an influx of Vietnamese in the 1970s and 80s, Vietnamese spring rolls, cha gio – usually raw fillings wrapped in rice paper and served with a thin fish sauce – became conflated with the Indonesian-Chinese-Dutch favourite – characterised by pre-cooked fillings in wheat wrappers and served with a thick chilli sauce.
The hybrid – now typically “cabbage, carrot, ham and a lot of bean sprouts” in a wheat wrapper, according to Ekkebus – grew, as it was sold as a single item to be eaten as a street snack rather than in restaurants, on plates, giving rise to the now ubiquitous “Vietnamese loempia”.