By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; E01
Feli Orinion is an executive housekeeper for Willkie Farr & Gallagher in downtown Washington. She has the first pot of coffee on before anyone else gets in, no matter how early. In her 13 years there, the law firm has come to appreciate her attention to detail, her unsinkable attitude and, at party time, her platters of homemade lumpia.
Orinion is from the Philippines, born and raised in the northern city of Dagupan. She didn't really learn to cook until after she and her husband of two years, Pete, moved to Washington in 1977. But Orinion had watched her relatives prepare and devour hundreds of those same fried spring rolls for every family gathering.
Lumpia are the high school musicals of finger food: no easy feat, but a definite crowd pleaser. Skilled hands and much practice bring together great heaps of raw ingredients. The rolls can be put together like fresh spring rolls, but most are filled with a mixture of cooked vegetables and some kind of ground meat, poultry or shrimp, then fried briefly till golden brown. Served with a garlic-vinegar dipping sauce, they tend to disappear in a fraction of the time they took to make -- a bittersweet rush for any cook who produces labor-intensive fare.
"I put them out and, poof! Where did they go?," Orinion says. "I think, 'I should have brought more.' My people eat them as a snack, as a main dish, any time of day."
She reckons that she makes 200 to 300 at a time, either with Pete at her side or with some of her friends in Washington's Filipino community. Consequently, the Orinions have a reputation for showing up at celebrations and school events with several platters in tow, and friends of theirs have one delicious thing in common: A 20-pack of "Feli's lumpia" is in their freezers, ready to be finished in hot oil.
"I've had other kinds of egg rolls and Filipino lumpia. I've never had anything exactly like the ones Feli makes," says Lucy Carlson, an Arlington lawyer who left Willkie Farr & Gallagher last February to work at the Justice Department. "The filling is different, and hers don't go soggy after an hour." Most recently, Carlson's freezer stash was nabbed by her parents, who were visiting for Thanksgiving. They returned to North Carolina with the lumpia in a cooler.
Judging from the recipes for lumpia that show up in just about every online link for Philippine cuisine, there's plenty of room for interpretation. Garlic, green beans, carrots, cabbage and onion are common filling ingredients; mushrooms and mung bean sprouts are fairly popular. Ideally, the rolls' exterior should be shatteringly crisp, as TenPenh's chef de cuisine (and Philippines native) Cliff Wharton remembers from his youth. Or like the ones Burnt Lumpia food blogger Marvin Gapultos recently was moved to try after reading Andrea Nguyen's new cookbook, "Asian Dumplings."
"I called my blog that just to show that I'm Filipino but that I don't always know what I'm doing" in the kitchen, Gapultos says. Following Nguyen's lead, the 32-year-old Riverside, Calif., marketing writer made some fine lumpia this fall, although their loosely packed filling made dipping difficult. "I've got the technique down now," he says.
Orinion, 58, doesn't claim to make the best lumpia in town. Her rolls are, however, obviously the work of hands with muscle memory: tightly constructed, of similar length and thickness. Arthritis in her fingers and a knee in need of replacement have prompted certain concessions. She does not make the wrappers herself. She buys a super-thin kind of spring roll shell instead (see the accompanying recipe and step-by-step photos) because real lumpia wrappers, whether homemade or store-bought, can tear so easily: "I don't have time for that, once we get going," she says.
Her food processor does most of the chopping. Assembly takes place at the dining room table of their Ninth Street NW rowhouse, so she can sit down "with pillows at my back," Orinion says. "That way, I can do about 100 in an hour." Using clean foam trays that once held raw chicken, she creates flat packages of the just-rolled lumpia, wrapping each layer in plastic wrap. It keeps them from drying out and readies them for freezer storage.
Orinion is known for her very good rendition of pancit, a noodle dish that also starts with lots of chopping. She says the dish signifies long life, so it is served at every Filipino birthday celebration. The Orinions' children, Evert, 22, and Lyndon, 21, ask for it whenever they come home from college.
Unfortunately, Orinion has found that for pancit, the vegetables must be cut by hand. "I can't do them in the food processor," she says. "They don't turn out right." So Pete, who works in the mailroom of a foreign information office by day and whom she calls Poppy, becomes her sous-chef. He will pick up a Chinese cleaver and, under his wife's close watch, dispatch the carrots, celery, cabbage, onion, green beans, garlic and boneless, skinless chicken breasts into small pieces: "You want them like this, yes, Mommy?" Most of the time, Feli allows, "we cook as two."
After the vegetables have been prepped and the noodles soaked, the pancit comes together fairly quickly in an enviably well-seasoned wok. Orinion uses two big wooden spoons to keep the mixture moving; it initially appears to be much greater than what the cooking vessel can contain. She does not usually measure how much sesame oil or soy sauce or chicken broth goes in, and yet her pancit turns out light and never sodden. She checks the consistency of the vegetables, which must achieve an equal degree of doneness, "never anything that's crunchier or harder than anything else."
Keeping track of ingredient amounts and stove top temperatures, as Orinion obligingly did for this article, slows down her kitchen duty considerably. "My daughter said it was going to be interesting," she says with a beaming smile that connects her apple-y cheeks. "I never measure anything."
Then again, her children are keen on the results -- not the work. "I tried to show the kids one time" how to make lumpia, Orinion sighs. "But they were sloppy. I said, no thanks!"About Feli Orinion
-- Three ingredients she always has on hand: packages of bean-thread noodles (in the pantry, for pancit), spring roll shells (in the freezer, for lumpia) and banana leaves (in the freezer, for making sticky rice).Recipes