The Chinese make both Fried Spring Rolls and Egg Rolls. Egg Rolls are much bigger, have different fillings for the most part, and have a thicker, denser pastry crust that isn’t flaky. Vietnamese and Thai Fried Spring Rolls are smaller and crisper than Chinese Spring Rolls. The Vietnamese ones are the smallest of all, only about 2 to 3 inches long (5 to 7 1/2 cm.)
Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino versions usually all use pork in the filling, though in the West vegetarian versions are also made in restaurants. Cabbage is often used in Fried Spring Rolls in pseudo Chinese restaurants in the West, but wouldn’t appear in Fried Spring Rolls made in China. Vietnamese version often have rice noodles in them
The filling is wrapped either in round, wheat-based wrappers or in rice paper wrappers. Whenever someone refers to just “Spring Roll Wrappers”, they mean the wheat-based ones. These always need cooking and are never used for Fresh Spring Rolls. Rice paper wrappers are more likely than wheat-based wrappers to be used for Vietnamese Fried Spring Rolls, resulting in an extra-flaky and delicate pastry.
The rolls need to be wrapped very tightly before frying because air trapped inside can cause them to burst. The Spring Rolls are then fried in oil (in Vietnam they are fried in lard), and served immediately.
The Spring Rolls cook up very crisp and brittle, and shatter a bit as you bite into them.
When using dried wheat-based wrappers, soak them in lukewarm water for about 1/2 minute until they are soft, then press excess water out of them between a tea towel or paper towel. Just dip Rice Paper Wrappers in water for 2 to 3 seconds, then set aside to get soft.
One of the issues home cooks experience in making Fried Spring Rolls is getting them to turn an appealing, golden colour when cooked. You can now buy brown Rice Paper Wrappers which will help in this, or, you can add a bit of sugar to the soaking water, which can help the pastry brown up better when cooked.
To keep Fried Spring Rolls crisp, keep them in a very low oven (150 F) for up to 3 hours.
Literature & Lore
Fried Spring Rolls are served at Chinese New Year for good luck because the fried ones are thought to resemble small bars of gold.
Called “Cha Gio” in South Vietnam; “Nem ran” in the North. In Japan, they are called “Harumaki”. The Filipino version is called “lumpia”.