In Detroit, These Egg Rolls Are Stuffed With Corned Beef

What goes into an egg roll? Cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken, tofu, and maybe some corned beef. If that last item seems a bit surprising, you may not have spent much time in the Motor City, because one of Detroit's edible specialties is just that: a corned beef egg roll.

At establishments across the city, from traditional Jewish delis to soul food spots, egg roll wrappers — similar to wonton wrappers, but bigger — are filled with ethereally-thin slices of brined and braised beef brisket and often mozzarella or Swiss cheese and cabbage or sauerkraut. The result is a decadent dance of flavors and textures with rich, salty meat playing off the mild, luscious cheese and the flaky, crunchy wrapper surrounding a juicy interior. Those places that eschew cheese and cabbage go wall-to-wall with corned beef, which still offers a meaty, savory experience.

But how did corned beef — normally found at delis, Jewish and otherwise — find itself as a filling for egg rolls, a Chinese-American staple? You can thank Kim White, a Vietnamese immigrant who worked in a deli upon arriving in Michigan. White told Jezebel she was in the kitchen testing new dishes in the 1970s and decided to play around with corned beef scraps and Swiss cheese in an egg roll. It proved so good that she eventually opened a restaurant, Asian Corned Beef, to serve her specialty, among other things. Today, it is a local chain with locations across Detroit.

How to make corned beef egg rolls

The critical ingredient is, of course, corned beef, that deli staple consisting of beef brisket that is cured in a wet brine before being slowly braised until tender. Corned beef is typically sliced to varying degrees of thickness — and fattiness — and piled high on Jewish rye bread, maybe with a smear of brown mustard. But, as anyone who has used a deli slicer knows, scraps accumulate, and those were originally what corned beef egg rolls were meant to use up. Today, most places slice corned beef specifically to stuff egg rolls. 

Corned beef is also the featured player in a Reuben, alongside sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. And that may be what informs the other ingredients one frequently sees accompanying the meat in a corned beef egg roll. Sauerkraut isn't to everyone's liking, so mild cabbage subs in, and though some places use mozzarella, Swiss is the cheese of choice.

Corned beef egg rolls are generally assembled to order, which ensures they're served piping hot and don't get soggy. The egg roll wrapper is laid flat and ultra-thin corned beef is layered on top, along with finely shredded cabbage and cheese, if using. This is then rolled tight and plunged into hot oil until the exterior is shatteringly crisp, but with a touch of chew, and the interior is piping hot. 

Where to find them

Asian Corned Beef is indeed the originator of the corned beef egg roll in Detroit, but tasty eats have a tendency to spread around cities as other operations begin to offer their version. Think of the proliferation of cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. Today, one can find corned beef egg rolls across Detroit, not just in delis either but also in barbecue joints and pubs. The Old Shillelagh fills them with classic Reuben ingredients — Russian dressing on the side — plus potatoes for an extra starchy hit. Reuben filling is also what's inside the egg rolls at Middle Eastern spot The Butcher's Grille, where one can get beef or chicken shawarma egg rolls. And, experimentation is not just for the upstarts; even Asian Corned Beef offers versions of its original hit that include ingredients like steak, peppers, pastrami, lobster, and turkey.

If you just have to try corned beef egg rolls but can't get to Detroit, making an egg roll is easier than you think. Start with our vegetarian egg roll recipe and swap out the mushrooms and carrots with corned beef and cheese. Or, let your culinary imagination run wild and stuff with an ingredient combo that sounds good to you. We've got a Philly cheesesteak egg roll recipe to show you the way.