Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Origin of the Chinese Egg Roll

In most Chinese-American restaurants, you’ll find Egg Rolls, and often they are a part of Pu-Pu Platters, or a choice of accompaniment with lunch specials. These cylindrical treats are commonly filled with shredded cabbage, pork and other vegetables, although there are plenty of variations. They are wrapped in a thick skin, usually made from wheat flour, and deep fried, creating a very crunchy exterior with a blistered appearance. They're generally eaten by hand, and commonly dipped in duck sauce or mustard.

Are egg rolls a traditional Chinese dish, or were they invented in the U.S.? And if they were invented here, who created them? These questions don’t have easy answers, but we’ll explore the evidence and try to reach the best conclusions.

First, there are conflicting viewpoints as to whether egg rolls are an authentic Chinese dish or not. Second, most sources contend that there are two Chinese chefs who claim to have invented the egg roll. I believe there’s far greater evidence for one of those chefs being the actual inventor of the egg roll.

There was a reference to an “egg roll,” referred to as Dan Gun, in a Chinese-American cookbook in 1917, but it didn't refer to the deep fried treat we now know. Instead, the fillings were basically wrapped in an egg omelet. The first documented reference to a deep fried egg roll may be in 1934, although it allegedly existed prior to that, maybe as early as 1925.


Let’s begin our analysis with the claim that Henry Low invented the egg roll. The famous Port Arthur Restaurant, in New York’s Chinatown, was opened in 1897 by Chu Gam Fai. It was a very popular spot, remaining in operation for over 80 years, and was the first Chinatown restaurant to receive a liquor license. Around 1928, Henry Low became the restaurant’s chef, and worked there for at least ten years. The newspapers rarely mentioned Henry Low, so much of his personal information was not given, and his main prominence came from his cookbook, which was published in 1938. 

Newspapers such as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), October 22, 1938, and The Times Dispatch (VA), December 4, 1938, mentioned Low’s cookbook, Cook At Home In Chinese, noting that Low “…considers his principal contribution to Chinese cookery a new sort of egg roll called tchun guen.”  

I own a copy of Cook At Home In Chinese (1938) and under the chapter, Hot Savories, there’s a recipe for Egg Roll (Tchun Guen). I'll note that "Tchun Guen" actually means "Spring Roll," which seems to indicate its lineage, that it's a variation on the Spring roll. The Spring roll is a traditional Chinese dish, with a much thinner wrapper, that is commonly filled with meat and vegetables. The main innovation of the egg roll is the thicker, crunchier wrapping. 

In Low's recipe, the ingredients for the wrapper included 2 cups of flour, ½ lb of water chestnut flour (ma tai phun), and 2 eggs. The interior was filled with shredded canned bamboo shoots, shredded roast pork, fresh shrimp, scallions, chopped & peeled water chestnuts, salt, gourmet powder (mai jing), sugar, and pepper. The completed egg roll was to be fried in deep fat until slightly brown.

There was a note at the end of the recipe which stated, “The author of this book, about thirty years ago, discovered that by using Chinese water chestnut floor in making a dough, the taste was vastly improved and it did not tend to burn so easily or quickly as other doughs in which ordinary flour was used. Also, in using this water chestnut flour the dough resulted in a deliciously flavored soft crust covering. Taking an old Chinese dish, which was served with a dough covering, as a basis, the author further concocted a number of ingredients as a mixture to be wrapped in this new dough which he named ‘Tchun Guen,’ or ‘Egg Roll.”

This is the primary evidence for Low’s claim that he invented the egg roll. It also indicates that the egg roll was based on an “old Chinese dish,” likely the Spring roll. Based on Low’s claim, the egg roll might have been invented as early as 1908, but not definitive date is given in the recipe. In addition, there’s no supporting evidence for his claim. It is simply Low's word that he was the creator. 

Why is that so? Why didn’t his egg rolls get mentioned prior to 1938? Later newspapers also didn’t provide any supporting information, simply repeating the claims from Low’s cookbook.

According to most sources, Low’s book provided the first printed recipe for an Egg Roll but that isn’t actually true. There was a prior recipe for egg rolls from 1934, and it has a connection to the other contender who might have invented the egg roll.

The only bit of potential evidence to support his claim is that there’s a “vintage menu” from the Port Arthur Restaurant, allegedly from the 1920s, which states: “Try our famous Canton Egg Rolls 25 cents.” However, we need to be skeptical of the date of this menu, especially as most menus are not dated. Plus, Henry Low didn’t start working at the Port Arthur until about 1928. It might make more sense that this menu is from the 1930s rather than the 1920s.

It’s also interesting to note that they are called “Canton Egg Rolls” and that Henry’s cookbook did not use that same name. Why not? Plus, if Henry had invented the egg roll, why wouldn’t the Port Arthur menu mention that fact? It would have been an excellent selling point and would have been easy to add that item to the menu.   

Henry Low’s claim isn’t supported well enough, and relying on his word alone isn’t sufficient to accept his claim to have invented the egg roll. 


Let’s examine the other contender, Chef Lum Fong, who may have invented egg rolls in 1925.

In 1925, Chef Lum Fong opened a Chinese restaurant, named after himself. According to the San Francisco Examiner (CA), March 4, 1938, Lum's restaurant was located about three blocks from the main store of Moe Levy, a clothier. Moe loved Chinese food and soon approached Lum, urging him to move his restaurant closer on Canal Street, and form a partnership with Moe, who would underwrite the cost of relocation. Their partnership was formed in 1926, and would last for many years, and the article noted that “..if you are on Canal street, you will notice the two huge electric signs waving affectionally to each other—Lum Fong’s and Moe Levy.” 

Interesting, the Daily Record (NJ), November 27, 1937, noted that due to Lum's partnership with Moe, who was Jewish, Lum's menu included “gefuelite fish.” Someone spelled it wrong, whether the restaurant or the newspaper. 

The first newspaper reference to Lum Fong (pictured above) was in The Journal (CT), October 24, 1927, and I'll note that this article was reprinted in numerous other newspapers across the country. The article began, mentioning that Lum was a Tai-soo-foo, “one of the few remaining craftsmen of an ancient culinary art.” When Lum was 11 years old, he was apprenticed to a Tai-soo-foo in Canton. The article also stated that Tai-soo-foos have an old saying which roughly translates as “Man listens to no one but his belly.” 

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find out more information about the Tai-soo-foo and they weren't mentioned in any subsequent newspapers. It's possible they are better known by a different name.

The article continued, mentioning that everyone in New York City's Chinatown loved Lum and that the police called Lum’s “ramshackle red brick building" the "barometer of Chinatown." Lum Fong's Restaurant was located at the corner of Canal and Baxter Streets. The outside of his restaurant resembled an ordinary chop suey joint but inside, you'd find “private dining rooms hung with heavy tapestries of forgotten dynasties, violet and gamboge paper lanterns, King-the-chen glaze cups, prized heirlooms from mud-chinked huts in far off provinces. There teems a motley life utterly Oriental and ages old.” Many celebrities had also eaten there. Not bad for a restaurant that had only been around for two years.

There was also information about some of the unique delicacies served at the restaurant, primarily for incredible feasts held for "high Chinese society." There was Polar Bear Claw (dong-hong-chong), the most expensive item listed, at $100 an order (over $1500 in today's dollars)! What did they do with the rest of the polar bear? You could also find South Sea shark fins (hong-soo-bow-chee) at $25 a portion, Kwangi terrapin (son-soi-quen), broiled sea lion (hoi-kow-yei) with stuffed chicken, chopped water lily seeds & rice at $15 a portion, and Singapore bird’s nests (yen-chan-kai) with mushroom heads and Litchi nuts for $10.

How popular was Lum Fong's restaurant? Well, in the Daily News (NY), March 26, 1938, Lum claimed that he had served his 2 Millionth customer the week before. This claim wasn't verified, so it's unsure whether the number was exaggerated or not. However, from all the press coverage it received, and all the celebrities who dined there, it's clear the restaurant was extremely popular.

According to the St. Louis Dispatch (MO), April 3, 1938, Lum Fong hosted a 6 course duck dinner, which included Peking Duck. Thus, Lum Fong's was also one of the first restaurants in the U.S. to serve Peking Duck.

An interesting tidbit was printed in The Tribune (PA), June 1, 1938. The writer asked Lum Fong why the staff at Chinese restaurants ate their meals in the dining room while at other restaurants, the staff ate elsewhere. Lum replied, “One, it is proof to the Occident that Chinese do like chop suey and chow mein. Two, Orientals do not regard waiters as hired help, but as trusted assistants, lower in financial station, but not in caste.”


The first newspaper reference I found for a fried egg roll was in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), May 14, 1934. It mentioned that one of the dishes available at Lum Fong’s Restaurant was Lum Har Chun Guen, a lobster egg roll. Unfortunately, no more details of this dish were provided. However, based on Lum's previous expensive delicacies, it makes sense that he might turn a basic egg roll into something even more special by adding lobster. This mention also lends some support to the idea that Lum Fong might have invented the egg roll.

The first detailed reference to egg rolls, including the first printed recipe, was found in the Muncie Evening Press (IN), October 6, 1934. This article and recipe were reprinted in many other newspapers across the country, as well as across the border, including at least in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, NC, NY, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and even Canada. Thus, this article would have been known to many Americans, and Canadians, and it predates Low's cookbook by four years. 

The only difference between all of these articles is that some included an egg roll (pictured above). The Bradford Evening Star (PA), October 11, 1934, provided this picture, stating it was made by Lum Fong and the caption read, “Inside these delightful egg-dough capsules is a savory mixture of pork, shrimp and vegetables.”

The main article began noting that, “And indeed, many of the foods we know as Chinese are at best only adaptations of native dishes. Egg roll, however, used as an appetizer, is the real thing in Orientalism.” This seems to indicate that egg rolls, or at least some version, originated in China and probably referred to Spring rolls.   

The recipe is simpler than the one that Low would later provide in his cookbook, and there are differences in some of the ingredients. This recipes indicates the ingredients for the wrapper include 4 cups flour, ¼ pound water chestnut flour, and 3 eggs. Low's recipe called for 2 cups of flour, ½ lb of water chestnut flour and 2 eggs. 

For the newspaper's recipe, the fillings included 1/2 pound fresh or canned shrimp, 1 can bamboo shoots, and an equal quantity of roast pork. Low's filling recipe called for much more, including shredded canned bamboo shoots, shredded roast pork, fresh shrimp, scallions, chopped & peeled water chestnuts, salt, gourmet powder, sugar, and pepper. The newspaper recipe concluded, stating the egg roll could be served with a “dash of English mustard.

Starting in 1935, newspapers in states other than New York started running advertisements of restaurants serving egg rolls. For example, The Miami Herald (FL), December 22, 1935, had an ad for Nan Young Restaurant with “Special Chinese Egg Roll.” The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, (PA) March 20, 1937, also had an ad for a Chinese restaurant, with food prepared by Jimmie Moy, including “Egg Roll.” 

The Star Tribune (Minnesota), August 9, 1936, also noted that at a cocktail party in New York, the hostess served “Chinese egg rolls—those tasty tidbits stuffed with shrimp. A bit bulky and slightly on the greasy side, bit lovely food at any time of day.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), January 24, 1938, mentioned the “egg-roll so popular in Chinese restaurants” And the Chattanooga Daily Times (TN), February 13, 1938, stated, “The outstanding dish I found in the Chinese places was neither chop suey nor chow mein….but a type of delicious egg roll.”

Locally, the Boston Globe, April 9, 1938, printed, “Dinner in Chinatown. Try egg roll (not an egg dish) and Foo Yong (an egg dish and very hearty) and Chinese roast pork.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX), May 3, 1938, mentioned, “His watermelon soup is superb, and his shrimp egg roll incomparable,..” Out to the west, the Arizona Daily Star (AZ), August 3, 1938 briefly noted a Chinese dinner that included an egg roll.  

Interesting, The Vancouver Sun (B.C., Canada), February 22, 1939, published an article about a visit to Chinatown in San Francisco. They went to a Chinese restaurant where the New Yorker in the group ordered an egg roll, which apparently wasn't on the menu. The restaurant didn't serve them and the waiter claimed that people in San Francisco didn’t like them. Other California cities didn't have such an issue as the Fresno Bee (CA), May 13, 1939, had an ad for the New China Café, which offered “Special Egg Roll Dinner. A Rare Treat” for 45 cents. 

In the later part of the 1930s, the egg roll had become very popular and had spread far beyond New York. It was also at the end of the 1930s, that Lum Fong began receiving recognition as the creator of the egg roll. 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), November 24, 1939, noted, “The Egg Roll, one of the most popular of Chinese dishes, was originated on Canal Street by Lum Fong, the restaurateur, who serves hundreds of them daily.” And in the Brooklyn Citizen (NY), April 6, 1940, it was reported that Lum Fong opened a new restaurant at 150 West 52nd St., which served  “his famed egg rolls" for 45 cents a portion.

The most extensive article on the invention of the egg roll was in The Kilgore News Herald (TX), December 12, 1940. It began, “This month marks the 155th anniversary of an event that passed with scarcely a ripple in 1925 and yet has had some effect on the American palate. It is the time the Chinese egg roll was introduced into the United States by a rotund pleasant faced Oriental who since has assumed responsibility for much of the exotic food diners get when they go to a Chinese restaurant.” I'll note that there was an obvious typo, and it should have been the 15th, not 155th, anniversary. 

The article continued, “His name is Lum Fong. He spent this anniversary puttering around in the kitchen whence emanated the first American made egg rolls, the delicacy that gave the chop suey-chow mein industry the shot in the arm that has produced so many hundreds of places now dedicated to Chinese food.” It went on, “Mr Lum,…, picked the egg roll out of the timeless cooking lore of the ancient Chinese recipes…” Once again, we see people alleging that the egg roll had its roots in traditional Chinese cooking. 

Besides the egg roll. Lum is also said to have invented other dishes, including Hop-To-Har Gun (walnut shrimp roll), a “delicate form of stuffed fish...” and “…his magnum opus—a soup with strange and wonderful properties,..” What was this soup? “The Chinese name of the soup is difficult for translation but Jimmy Kee, one of Lum’s assistants, said it might be called ‘aqua pressure soup.’” Initially, due to the cost of the ingredients, the soup used to cost $5-$35 for a single cup. The soup allegedly made people look younger, restored pep to older people, and one variety of it was said to be good for adding weight.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), January 31, 1941, continued to champion Lum Fong, printing, “Lum Fong’s walnut shrimp rolls are even more popular with his patrons than the egg roll, which he first introduced.”  Almost ten years later, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), December 6, 1950, noted “Lum Fong’s Canal St. place will be 25 years old Sunday. It was here he introduced the egg roll and wonton soup to America.” And the Detroit Times (MI), March 4, 1951, mentioned, “It was Lum Fong who first introduced Egg Roll to America.

In his obituary, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), June 28, 1952, printed that Lum Fong came to the U.S. in 1915, working as a restaurant manager for ten years before opening his first restaurant. He passed away at age 66, so he was born around 1886, came to the U.S. when he was about 29 years old, and started his first restaurant when he was 39 years old. The obituary noted that Lum was credited with introducing Americans to such “genuinely Chinese dishes as wonton soup, egg roll and shrimp roll.” He was survived by his wife, Mae Lum, two 2 sons (Danward and Dorey), and 2 daughters (Wei Ming and Audrey Lum).  

Henry Low never received all of this press and recognition supporting his alleged claim. The evidence is weighted much more heavily in favor of Lum Fong as being the inventor of the egg roll, which is basically a Spring roll with a thicker, crunchier wrapping. Egg rolls were known around the country at least by 1934, and in the later 1930s, they started appearing on menus from coast to coast. Egg rolls are still a beloved favorite at Chinese restaurants.

What Chinese restaurants serve your favorite Egg Rolls?

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