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Culinary Evolution, On a Roll

Mamak Malaysians have adapted the Chinese spring roll into a spicy afternoon snack, slathered with sweet potato sauce. Photo courtesy of photos courtesy of Robert Danhi. Look to the popiah for a roadmap on how to adapt recipes through culinary evolution

By Robert Danhi

Authenticity is a word that ignites debate within culinary circles. Who is the arbiter of such status? What is the original recipe? Who guards the parameters of traditional food? Is it authentic? Is it fusion? Come on — it’s all fusion! Food and beverages evolve, and this natural evolution fuses the flavors of different cultures into new forms to make traditional foods of the past, present and future.

The iconic spring roll is a perfect example of how an understanding of culinary evolution can open up new and exciting flavors for your customers. Our spring roll spotlight shines on a Malaysian version called popiah, which evolved from a Chinese spring roll into its various current forms (Chinese, Nyonya, Mamak). This fresh spring roll is primed and ready for a starring role in today’s food culture. Popiah’s format and flavor answers a majority of what consumers are looking for — it is non-fried, customizable, portable and offers familiarity with a twist.

Before diving into the Malaysian incarnation, let’s deconstruct a spring roll into its flavorful constituents that come together layer by layer to satisfy millions of consumers everyday. Three major components make up the spring roll: the wrapper, filling and sauce. Popiah is no different, yet it deserves special attention due in part to the variety of ethnicities that have adapted it to call it their own.

Popiah has evolved from a traditional spring roll of China to an iconic Malaysian recipe. It appears to have originated in the Fujian province. Many of the immigrants hailing from here are known as the Hakka, and the Chinese dialect spoken is Hokkien (hence their cuisine is often referred to as Hokkien). It is commonly understood that Hakkas brought spring rolls to northwestern Malaysia and refer to them as popiah. The Chinese assimilation included relationships with locals, and the Peranakan culture began primarily in Penang, Melaka and Singapore. Since the men were referred to as babas and the women as nyonya, their food, usually cooked by the women, is most commonly known as “nyonya food.”

Spring rolls get their name from Chinese symbolism. During the Chinese New Year, spring rolls are served, representing gold bars of prosperity. This important celebration, which occurs during January and February, marks the beginning of spring — hence, spring rolls.

Malaysia is not the only country that has its own version of the spring roll, as there has been natural evolution throughout the region. Really, who has not eaten some sort of spring roll before? It’s almost a culinary common denominator. Most people have tried the deep-fried Filipino lumpia. But a still relatively undiscovered version is their fresh sariwa stuffed with hearts of palm. Thai cooks prefer to incorporate cellophane noodles and ground pork into their deep-fried golden brown crackling skins. Vietnamese celebrate the fresh herbal bounty in a non-fried version, where jade green whole mint leaves, garlic chives, rice noodles, crisp cucumber strips, wafers of pork and bright pink shrimp make themselves evident through the translucent bamboo-patterned rice paper.

Culinary evolution takes time, yet commercialization sometimes speeds the process. It’s helpful to look within the originating cultures and see how they have commercialized traditional recipes. For Malaysian popiah, take a look at the Kuala Lumpur-based nine-unit chain, Sisters Crispy Popiah, where they’ve added crispy bits of fried egg and fried crispy batter drizzle inside their version. A small twist is sometimes all that’s needed to create a point of differentiation while still maintaining the culinary integrity of a recipe.

Chinese fried spring rolls have been a restaurant menu staple for decades in the United States, followed by the American-created egg roll. A long-time menu favorite is the Vietnamese fresh rice-paper version that not only independent Vietnamese restaurants serve, but that chains have adopted, too. California Pizza Kitchen, for instance, has had its own version for more than 20 years with the Vietnamese Shrimp Summer Rolls. Might the Malaysian popiah replace the egg roll’s culinary stardom?

The makings of an authentic spring roll: With its basic format of wrapper, filling and sauce, the popiah is portable and easy to customize.
Availability of ingredients is often the first reason that a food or beverage evolves. A classic example is how Asia had no chiles until the Portuguese brought them there about 600 years ago. Now, chiles are essential to the authentic foods of the region. Yet, this is not a one-sided phenomenon. All citrus is indigenous to various parts of Asia, yet the United States now grows a majority of the world’s crop. Who could imagine a continental American breakfast without orange juice? Recipes also evolve. The Chinese red-cooked dishes (spice-infused and soy-braised) traveled from China to Malaysia and were localized with the addition of lemongrass and galangal.

The spring roll also went through a metamorphosis. One major change was the wrapper. The Chinese created a loose dough that was pressed against a hot griddle and pulled back to leave a thin film. It cooked in a few seconds and then was peeled off to create the thin wrapper. This skill took years to learn — most people still buy them from a specialist. Nyonyas were home cooks, and so the thinking is that they changed the wrapper into a batter-based crêpe because it’s easier to master. This is really no different than using a non-stick pan for an omelet when the classical French technique calls for a well-seasoned black steel pan. It’s about deciding which traits can change and which ones cannot, and then implementing them within your operational environment.

Local flavor preferences guide the evolution as well. Generally, Chinese don’t eat many raw vegetables and herbs, and so in the original and even Malaysian Chinese versions, most items are cooked. Yet when the local Peranakan culture adopted it, they added cucumbers, fresh coriander and green spring onions.

And of course, brand identity and customer preference play a significant role when operators adopt global recipes.

Will popiah be the next global hit on American menus? It could be, for instance, if a fast-casual operator like Chipotle’s new sister concept, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, added it to the menu. It’s a menu concept that makes sense for operators and for American consumers: It’s not that far from a burrito — wrapper, cooked filling and raw filling bundled up to go. An operator may need to create a signature popiah wrapper that is sturdier than the original for the portability so important to American consumers. Retailers could also be part of this opportunity with kits complete with wrappers, fillings and sauce in separate components, allowing for some elements to be heated and some to remain fresh.

Using popiah as a case study for tracking natural evolution is a good roadmap for culinary professionals to adapt and commercialize any authentic recipe.

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