To me, one of the most iconic Filipino dishes is lumpia, a fried eggroll type item that is served as an appetizer in some restaurants. The area I grew up in had a small Filipino population due to its nearby airbase and the families that came to it over the years. My husband and I have a friend whose mother would send over a container full of lumpia for us whenever we had a small gathering of friends. They’re something I associate with comfort and friends, so when I picked up Amboy, I expected at least one lumpia. So far, I’ve found three.
I was given two lumpia recipes in the early pages of the book, Shanghai Lumpia that are made with pork and shrimp, and cheeseburger lumpia that are exactly what they sound like. The third that I mentioned earlier requires making the wrappers from scratch, but these two do not. I decided to begin my adventure with the cheeseburger lumpia since it is a more personal rendition created by the chef, and I know now looking back on it that I did them wrong. Still, I really enjoy the process.
Lumpia are made with wrappers that generally come frozen and need to be defrosted for at least a day in the refrigerator before they’re ready to be used. The process of peeling them away from each other takes so long that it's almost meditative once you get going. The packages we are able to get from our local Asian Market come with so many wrappers that I had to discard more than half the package both times I made lumpia in the course of a week, so it’s likely I’ll have to prepare to make double batches next time no matter which recipe I try.
While I peeled the wrappers apart, I caramelized so many onions that I genuinely thought I’d have too many for the recipe, but it turned out to be just right given how many lumpia I turned out of the recipe. The recipe requires these onions to be diced rather than cut into julienne strips like some caramelized onion mentions in other cookbooks, and given that they’re supposed to be part of a good fried bite, it made sense to dice them that way.
The cheeseburger lumpia were fairly straight forward in construction. The two pounds of beef are seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and you form a five inch long log within the center of the diamond aligned wrapper. The key to a good lumpia is to make that five inch length log as thin as possible. Salt, pepper, onion, cheese. Wrap. Seal it up with some egg wash. Repeat.
This is where I screwed up the cheeseburger lumpia. I did not add as much cheese as the recipe called for, so I never got the stretch or the solid line of cheese in the lumpia that’s pictured in the cookbook. They were still delicious and tasted like cheeseburgers, especially with the fry sauce we reused from takeout earlier that day. I’m also relatively positive that I did not get my oil to the proper temperature, nor did I fold the first several lumpia correctly. A lot of cheese leaked and burned in the oil. My wrappers weren’t uniformly colored. But we ate them, and we loved them.
A week later I came home from the store armed to the teeth with what I needed to make the more traditional lumpia: Lumpia Shanghai. Pork and shrimp filling accented with carrots, celery, onion and garlic. My sweet chili sauce from the cookbook simmered away on my cooktop when I blitzed everything together in my food processor with mixed results. I had to drop much of the filling onto a clean cutting board to get the veggies to come down to the right sizes. This time there was no cheese amount to screw up. A big tablespoon of the filling into that five inch log in the center of the diamond, and I was golden. I used a large, high sided skillet to fry in this time instead of my dutch oven, and the results were much better.
These lumpia reminded me of good times with good friends, even as I died slowly in my bedroom that night from the results of a sweet chili sauce that I made a little too chili and not quite sweet enough. The crunch of the wrapper was just right. The fry on them this time resulted in the uniform crunch that I remembered. Every attempt teaches you something as a cook, and my first lumpia attempt taught me that I had fucked up the fry. Not this time.