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Celebrating Lumpia

Culture and cuisine are wrapped up in the making and sharing of the Philippines’ crispy egg rolls.
By Published Sept. 28, 2021

Read a recipe for lumpiang Shanghai, and you’ll notice the brevity of the ingredient list: vegetables, ground meat or seafood, a few seasonings and aromatics, and wrappers for rolling. Ask Chicago chef Tim Flores, the co-owner of the Filipino restaurant and bakery Kasama, about the dish, and his description is even pithier: “They’re a no-BS egg roll,” he told me. “Just crispy pork goodness.”

Lumpiang Shanghai (often referred to as “lumpia,” though that term can technically be used to refer to a wide variety of Filipino spring rolls) are relatives of Chinese egg rolls, which were introduced to the Philippines by traders sometime between the ninth and 11th centuries. Today, lumpia are a staple at Filipino holidays and celebrations, where they’re piled onto platters with various dipping sauces. Their straightforward flavor profile makes them a popular and crowd-pleasing snack.  

Savoring Sourness

After just one bite of a salty-tangy adobo or a puckery, ceviche‑like kinilaw, you’ll understand why celebrated Filipino food writer Doreen Fernandez deemed vinegar the Philippines’ “principal condiment.” While the dishes of the country’s many islands vary widely, Filipino cuisine is united by its reliance on all things sharp and sour, such as calamansi; tamarind; and above all, vinegar. Vinegar is beloved in the Philippines for both its bracing flavor and its preservative qualities (a valuable trait in the tropical islands), and there are countless native styles, from those made with coconut, rice, and pineapple to bottles infused with chiles and herbs. In our lumpiang Shanghai dipping sauce, we call for sukang maasim, or white cane vinegar, a common Filipino vinegar that’s made from sugarcane and boasts a balanced, versatile tart-sweetness. 

But don’t be fooled by their simplicity. Lumpia are more than a party food; they symbolize a fundamental Filipino value: hospitality. According to Ellie Tiglao, chef and worker-owner of the Boston‑area Filipinx restaurant Tanám, setting out a tray of lumpia at a gathering sends a wordless message of gratitude or welcoming. “We want to show you that we appreciate you being here,” she told me. Making lumpia is an investment, Tiglao explained, both of ingredients (meat is a rarity in some regions of the Philippines) and of time and labor. Often, the process of forming and frying the rolls is a family affair, with multiple generations gathering around bowls of filling and piles of wrappers to speed the process along, assembly-line-style. Lumpia, therefore, are “something to be treasured,” Tiglao said. 

Over time, cooks across the 7,000-plus islands of the Filipino archipelago have tweaked the filling, cooking, assembly, and frying processes, adapting these rolls to suit their tastes. Yet there are a few traits that most lumpiang Shanghai share. The filling is savory, punctuated by soy sauce, garlic, and black pepper. They’re rolled into slender, easy-to-eat cylinders. And they’re fried until they’re golden brown and shatteringly crisp.

Filling Station

Broadly speaking, there are two styles of filling for lumpia: raw and cooked. Some cooks sauté the vegetables and meat before rolling them into the wrappers, while others merely mix the components together before filling the lumpia, allowing the meat mixture to cook during the frying process. I prefer the latter method since it’s quicker; plus, the raw meat’s sticky proteins bind the filling together, making it easier to shape tidy rolls. Precooked fillings also sometimes dry out during the frying process, resulting in crumblier, less cohesive lumpia.

Wrapping Right

Lumpia wrappers, sometimes labeled “spring roll wrappers,” are thin, wheat-based (unlike the rice paper wrappers used for fresh rolls), and often found in the frozen section. After defrosting the wrappers in the refrigerator until the package is soft, remove the wrappers from the package and gently bend the stack in all directions to help separate the thin sheets. To keep the wrappers from drying out as you work, cover them with a very lightly dampened dish towel.

 

Fillings are often pork-based, but it’s not unusual to see recipes with beef, poultry, shrimp, and any number of vegetables. For simplicity, I settled on ground pork, along with onion, carrot, and celery. I also added four garlic cloves, soy sauce, and salt to punch up the savoriness. Some ginger and pepper contributed a subtly sweet zing.  

Both Tiglao and Flores save prep time by buzzing the vegetables in a food processor, and I followed their lead, appreciating how the blades caused the vegetables to release their juices and render a more malleable filling. The finely minced food processor filling also cooked up more tender than versions using hand-cut vegetables, which can’t cook through in lumpia’s brief 5-to-7-minute deep-frying time.

Easy Assembly

Traditionally, lumpia wrappers are made with a sticky wheat dough that’s swiped onto a hot pan, forming a paper-thin layer on the surface that cooks in seconds. But prepackaged wrappers are affordable and easy to use; the only work required is separating the thin sheets from one another.

Rolling lumpia is a simple if repetitive task: Apply a strip of filling to the wrapper, fold over the corners, roll, and seal with a swipe of lightly beaten egg. While many cooks dollop the filling with a spoon, Flores uses a pastry bag for cleaner, faster, and more uniform assembly. I borrowed this trick but used a zipper-lock bag instead. This way, a whole assembly line of lumpia makers could wield bags of filling. 

This Is How We Roll

1. Load filling into large heavy-duty zipper-lock bag. Snip 1 corner to create 1-inch opening.

 

2. Pipe even 5 by ¾-inch strip of filling just below center of wrapper.

 

3. Apply light layer of egg wash onto top corner of wrapper with pastry brush, making sure to brush all the way to edges.

 

4. Fold bottom corner of wrapper over filling and gently press along length of filling to remove air pockets.

 

5. Fold side corners over to enclose filling and gently roll to form tight cylinder.

 

I did need to thin out the filling some so that it would pipe smoothly, but fortunately the perfect fix was right in front of me: excess egg wash. I added 2 tablespoons to the filling and still had plenty left over to seal the wrappers. Another trick? Take time to work out air pockets between the wrapper and the filling to keep your lumpia from floating in the hot oil. They must be fully submerged for most of the frying time (they’ll eventually float to the surface) to cook and crisp evenly.

Our pork and vegetable lumpia recipe can easily be doubled to feed a crowd.

Get Saucy

For me, one of the most appealing aspects of Filipino cuisine is its encouragement of customization through sawsawan, the dipping sauces and condiments that diners use to tweak a dish’s flavor, aroma, and texture to their tastes. Sweet chili sauce, banana ketchup, and seasoned vinegar are common accompaniments for lumpia. The first two are thick, sweet-and-sour condiments, but I love the vinegar because it’s easy to make and surprisingly complex. I use Filipino white cane vinegar because its sourness is approachable and devoid of the funky notes of cider or wine vinegars. Lightly tempered by soy sauce, garlic, pepper, and sugar, it’s the perfect finishing touch for lumpia: Now all that’s missing is a flock of hungry family and friends to share them with. 

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.