Country Captain Chicken might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of classic Southern cuisine, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting. The aromatic dish — which features ingredients like curry powder, coconut and almonds — was a staple in Junior League cookbooks of the 1950s and 60s, and it’s popular dinner party fare in Charleston, Savannah and the surrounding Low Country. To make a long origin story short, the chicken dish likely made its way from India to the port cities of Charleston and Savannah during the burgeoning spice trade of the 1800s. “Country captain” was a term used by the East India Company to describe a person in charge of a “country” ship, which was used for trade in the region.
Southern food has always been a melting pot of global traditions and flavors, which is why the Country Captain Spring Rolls caught my eye while dining at Fleeting — the seasonally-driven restaurant inside Thompson Savannah — earlier this year. “I started playing with [country captain] a long time ago in Brooklyn as a way to explore my Southern heritage more deeply through food and my restaurant there,” says Fleeting executive chef Rob Newton, who grew up in Arkansas. So, when I moved to the area of origin for the dish, I knew it had to be on the menu. The [spring rolls] were actually the first dish I developed (in my head) for Fleeting while I was physically moving to Savannah.”
Fleeting is a warm, lively dining room that was packed on this particular Friday night in March. Looking around at the other diners, their tables were full of cocktails and shareable plates, and the Country Captain Spring Rolls could be seen on many a table. Probably because they are particularly easy to share, which is one of the reasons Newton turned the classic dish into a handheld version.
While Fleeting is driven by the markets and in-season produce, Newton loves to play with the preparation and presentation of different ingredients. “I am currently experimenting with local farro and interpreting it as a fried rice,” he says. “We are cooking and then smoking the farro. After that we dry it and fry it. I am building a duck dish around this idea.”
If you can’t make it to Fleeting anytime soon, Newton’s country captain spring rolls are fairly simple to make at home and are bound to be the star of your next dinner party.
Country Captain Spring Rolls
Total Time: 1 hour
Servings: 8-10, as an appetizer
- 1 1/2 lbs. ground chicken, preferably thighs
- 1 tsp. soy sauce, plus extra for serving
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 2 tsp. curry powder
- 3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro leaves, some stems okay
- ½ cup grated carrots
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
- 1 Tbsp. oyster sauce
- 1 package of lumpia or egg roll wrappers
- Water for binding wrappers
- Oil for frying
- Mixture of crushed almonds and unsweetened coconut flakes, for serving
- Sriracha mayonnaise for dipping, or other such sauce
Mix everything together, up to and including the oyster sauce. Mix well and set aside. This can be made ahead and refrigerated until you’re ready to roll.
Depending on the size of your wrappers, add 2-4 Tbsp. of filling per wrapper, spread evenly end to end. The lumpia wrappers will be larger and can hold potentially more, depending on the brand. Brush with a dab of water on the opposite end and roll up like a cigar. Gently rub your finger along the edge to seal. Do not roll too large and thick, as they will not cook evenly and the wrapper could burn before becoming fully cooked.
Fry rolls at 350 degrees until golden and an internal thermometer reads 160 degrees for the filling. Set aside on a paper towel to soak up excess oil.
Plate the rolls, and garnish with the crushed almond/coconut mixture. Serve with your favorite mayonnaise dipping sauce, such as a sriracha mayo, as well as the extra soy sauce.
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