Popiah (薄餅) is a traditional snack believed to be of Chinese Hokkien origin. Popiah, which means “thin snack” or “pancake” in Teochew, refers to a spring roll made from thin flour skin wrapped around finely chopped vegetables and meat. The snack shares similarities with kueh pie tee, where the same filling is stuffed into pie-crust shells. It is common to see both dishes sold at the same stall in hawker centres and coffee shops around Singapore.
Believed to have originated from Fujian Province in south eastern China, popiah was said to be eaten during spring when there was an abundance of vegetables. Since then, it has been popular wherever Hokkiens and Teochews have settled.
Popiahis consumed and enjoyed mainly by the Chinese community in Singapore, as well as the wider community.
In Singapore popiah businesses are often owned and run by Hokkien Chinese. An example is Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah, which is one of the oldest establishment within the trade. The business sells popiah skin, kueh pie tee shells, and fillings for both products. Established in 1938, it is one of a handful of shops in Singapore that still makes popiah skin and kueh pie tee cups by hand. There is also homegrown company Tee Yih Jia, headed by Mr Sam Goi Seng Hui. It is one of the largest popiah skin-makers in the world, exporting popiah skins to almost 50 countries.
Associated Social and Cultural Practices
There are many versions of popiah, although the typical ones are the Hokkien and Peranakan versions. Both versions consist of shredded bamboo shoots, dried beancurd, jicama (a type of turnip), lettuce, beansprouts, eggs, cucumbers, carrots, long beans, and roasted ground peanuts, with additional toppings such as pork and lup cheong (dried sausage). The Peranakan version includes seafood such as prawn and crabmeat.
To make a popiahroll, a thin layer of sweet sauce, chilli, and garlic paste is spread on the skin. A leaf of lettuce is first laid on the skin before piling on wet fillings, and then dried ingredients and sauces. The ends of the skin are sealed upon wrapping. A popiah is sweet, spicy, savoury, and hearty all at once. Getting the right amount of ingredients is crucial to provide this balance of flavours.
The secret to a good popiahis its skin. A good popiah skin is chewy, resilient, and paper-thin. Typically made of wheat flour, the batter is mixed with water, oil, and salt. The dough is churned by hand before being cooked on a hot griddle.
In addition to being a popular snack, popiah is also associated with rituals. Besides being used as offerings for ancestral worship, popiah is also eaten as a snack during the Qing Ming Festival.
Experience of a Practitioner
One person who knows the importance of good popiah skin is Ms Vicky Quek, director of Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah. She says, “Making and flipping the dough is strenuous and requires a lot of strength so we leave it to the males in the family. The women will concentrate on cooking and making the kueh pie tee shells.” Ms Quek stresses that her products do not just cater to the Chinese. Her business is halal-certified, and Ms Quek says her popiahis popular with Malays and Indians as well. Ms Quek has also showcased her popiah in cities such as New York, Copenhagen, and Dubai. According to her, the response to herpopiah was overwhelmingly positive and the locals in those cities were “fascinated with the way we made the skin”.
Restaurants have added contemporary twists to popiah, such as Ice Cream Popiah at the Warehouse Hotel’s Po restaurant. The Hokkien and Peranakan communities have made efforts to educate the public about the process of making popiah by holding events relating to food and heritage, such as the Singapore Hokkien Festival held by the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.
The sustainability of the practice, particularly the skill of making popiah skins by hand, depends on younger generations to carry on the trade. The laborious hours involved in popiah-making and low profit margins may deter some. Yet, Ms Quek, a third-generation owner, is committed to passing down the skills and secrets of the trade to the next generation, led by Mr Michael Ker. Ms Quek hopes that Mr Ker will take the business to new heights and continue their family legacy.
Reference No.: ICH-086
Date of Inclusion: October 2019
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