Too Big To Fail

In China, spring rolls are cigar-sized snacks. In Holland, there exists a type of spring roll that is freakishly big. Slathered with peanut sauce or ketjap manis and sambal, this massive deep-fried entree lolls on the plate, and insists on being eaten with a knife and fork. We know this because Chef Sue Zhou, who grew up in Arnhem on a steady diet of Dutch-Chinese-Indonesian (Chinees-Indisch) food, was kind enough to cook some up for us.

Giant loempia are the charismatic megafauna of the Chinese fast-food world. But why do they exist? “Is it because they have a lower surface-area-to-volume ratio than other subspecies of spring roll, thus radiating less body heat per unit of mass?” asked our resident evolutionary biologist. “I refer, of course, to Bergmann’s Rule – the thermoregulatory advantage of large body mass in cool climates. And you have to admit, Holland’s climate is colder than that of Southeast Asia.”

Maybe so. Certainly some evolutionary mischief occurred when the crispy appetizers landed in Holland. Here’s how it might have happened: One restaurateur impresses his customers with a supersized loempia. His neighbors compete to outdo him. The conflict escalates, setting into motion a chain of unanticipated consequences. Sauce meant for dipping is now used to drizzle – and eventually just poured on. Dripping and piping-hot, the now-unwieldy spring roll comes to rest on the plate; knife and fork conspire to keep it there. Now that they are sliced open and carved like a roast, the loempia continue to increase in girth. After all, once you lose the need to go airborne, you can become as fat as you like. Unlike other megafauna, though, giant loempia do have many natural predators. Will you be one of them?


The Skin


100g all-purpose flour (makes 2 wrappers)

1. Add water slowly to the flour, stirring until it forms a smooth batter. Lightly season with salt.

2. Grease a large frying pan with oil, and heat it. Pour in enough batter to thinly coat the base of the pan.

3. When the batter sets and can be peeled from the base of the pan, flip it and fry the other side for a few seconds. Transfer to a plate and leave it to cool.

The Innards


1 carrot, julienned
300g bean sprouts
1/2 leek, julienned
sesame oil
1 egg
2 slices of ham

1. Blanch and then strain the carrots and bean sprouts in a colander; add the leek, and season to taste with salt, pepper, sugar and sesame  oil. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and leave it to cool.

2. Beat the egg, adding salt and pepper. Pour the egg into the frying pan and make an omelet.

3. Transfer the omelet to a plate, cut it in half and leave to cool.

4. Glance lovingly at the 2 slices of ham, then set aside.

The Sauce


2 cloves of garlic
6 shallots
2 slices of galangal
1 fresh chilli pepper
vegetable oil

peanut butter
ketjap manis

1. Blend the garlic, shallots, galangal and chilli pepper into a smooth paste.

2. Heat 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok and stir-fry the paste until fragrant. Add 400ml of water and bring it to a simmer.

3. Add 5 heaped tablespoons of peanut butter. Continue stir-frying until the mixture is smooth.

4. Add ketjap manis to taste.

The Assembly

1. Place a slice of omelet, one slice of ham and a handful of the vegetable mixture on top of a wrapper. Roll it up carefully and seal it at both ends with a mixture of water and flour. Repeat with the other wrapper.

2. Heat vegetable oil in the wok, and then pan-fry or deep-fry the spring rolls, one at a time, until golden brown.

The Moment Of Truth

1. Transfer the spring roll onto a plate. Blot the excess oil with paper towels.

2. Cut open the spring roll lengthwise, and prise it open slightly. Add a large spoonful of peanut sauce. Add ketjap manis and sambal sauce for extra flavor.

3. Eat with fork and knife. Wash it down with a gulp of cold Dutch beer.

photos by Iain Shaw

Recommended reading

Today in the Netherlands you'll find a Chinees-Indisch restaurant on every street corner, though the now-ubiquitous cuisine didn't take root until the Indonesian independence struggle sent European residents of the Dutch East Indies packing. The erstwhile colonials brought home a taste for balmy stir-fries and spectacular rijsttafel “rice table” banquets. No less an authority than Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion for Food likens the phenomenon of Chinees-Indisch restaurants in the Netherlands to curry houses in Britain. For a glimpse of Chinees-Indisch takeout culture today, try Anna Chow's cheeky write-up for the Dutch Review.

Prior to the evolution of this twice-removed branch—from China to Indonesia, from Indonesia to the North Atlantic—of global Chinese food, a separate and short-lived offshoot descended straight from the source to one of the great ports cities of Europe. This false start from the interwar period supplies a sobering sociological what-if.

Rotterdam used to claim one of the most populous Chinatowns in Europe. The international shipping hub had long played host to a small Chinese community, but the 1929 global depression left hundreds of unemployed Chinese steamship sailors and coal stokers stranded abroad, along with undocumented migrants fleeing political turmoil back home. They opened lodging houses, restaurants and bakeries. Flavor & Fortune records the tantalizing exploits of one canny entrepreneur, surnamed Cheung, who jerry-rigged a licorice candy extruder to manufacture noodles, and adapted a shake-and-bake bacon oven to replicate the stir-fry action of a hot wok.

Barring geopolitical intrusions, this community might have developed into one of the great Chinatowns. Sadly, the Nazis had other ideas, and the Second World War put a period on the story of Rotterdam's Chinese quarter.