The first time I heard the term “lumpia,” I thought it was a quirky insult. As in, “yo mama’s so lumpia…” and fill in the blank. The real insult is that lumpia aren’t well known throughout the US to begin with. Culinary trendsetters keep proclaiming that Filipino food will be the next big craze, year after year, but I just haven’t seen it take hold as promised. While you can’t walk a full city block without passing at least one pizza parlor or sushi bar, you’d be lucky to stumble across a single Filipino restaurant in an entire metropolitan area.
What gives? Why aren’t kids begging their parents for sizzling platters as a Friday night treat? Where are all the long-simmered stews and punchy, vinegar-spiked sauces? So many of the classic staples share Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish, and even American influences, so why don’t they translate the same way overseas?
Lumpia should be considered the gateway dish, an easy introduction to this true melting pot of flavors. Like common spring rolls or egg rolls, the concept itself is highly flexible. Fillings can be either sweet or savory, bundled together in thin wheat wrappers, and served either fresh or deep-fried. Let’s be real though: The best, and most popular sort are fried to crispy, golden-brown perfection, and dunked into a sour, salty, and savory dip of vinegar and soy sauce.
This particular recipe comes from Chef Reina Montenegro of Nick’s Kitchen, one of the very few vegan Filipino eateries I know of, boasting two locations in San Francisco proper. Traditionally, the most popular sort of lumpia combines vegetables like bean sprouts, string beans, and carrots with cheap cuts of meat, but you’d never miss the animal addition here. Mushroom powder makes up for the umami essence in spades, and honestly, any filling would be delicious once anointed with bubbling hot oil.
Take a bite while the rolls are still steaming hot, caramelized exteriors instantly shattering upon impact, and you’ll immediately understand the appeal. You can eat with your hands, call it a snack or a meal, and easily convince picky children to eat a rainbow of vegetables.
If this is your first introduction to Filipino cuisine, welcome to the party. Next up should be Chef Reina’s famous, unbelievably eggless tofu sissig silog for breakfast,… If I could ever needle that secret formula out of her. You work on those lumpia, and I’ll work on that subsequent recipe.