With popiah skin, the trick is to control the dough, says Michael Ker, a third-generation popiah maker in Singapore. He has a grapefruit-sized ball of the soft, sticky dough in his left hand, and he’s “flipping” it, bouncing it in his palm so that it wobbles and stretches but always stays stuck to his fingers.
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In front of him is a round, flat, electric skillet — the kind you see crepe vendors using at street fairs — and when the skillet is nice and hot, Ker uses the flipping motion to smear a thin, perfectly round circle of dough onto the surface, then he bounces the dough, still in his hand, like a yo-yo, so that it hits the skillet in just a few places, filling in any holes and thin spots. After just a couple of seconds the circle has cooked through.
Across the table, a handful of Ker’s family members — cousins, aunts, and uncles — top the wrappers with lettuce, slices of hard-boiled egg, a sweet and savory mix of cooked carrot and jicama and boiled shrimp, then roll it all up together. “It’s like a Singaporean burrito,” he jokes.
Adapting across Asia
Popiah was born in Fujian Province in China and spread across Asia as Fujianese merchants emigrated to places like Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and, of course, Singapore. In each place, the wrap became a kind of fusion dish that incorporated flavors and ingredients popular in its new home. Some are served fresh, as traditional Singaporean popiah are, while other are made thin and deep-fried, like spring rolls — in Singapore, these are known as popiah goreng.
Ker’s family business, Kway Guan Huat Original Joo Chiat Popiah, was started in the 1930s when Ker’s grandfather, Quek Tren Wen, immigrated to Singapore. At first, Quek just made the wrappers to sell to home cooks, but when he married Tan Ah Poh, a local woman from the Peranakan community (a group made up of the descendants of immigrants who have married locals), she began to make a traditional local filling to put in the wrappers. The couple taught their children to help them, and their popiah business is now the oldest and most respected in the country.
The founder’s children still run their business out of the original location, a large storefront in the Joo Chiat neighborhood on Singapore’s east coast. Every morning, teams of relatives gather in the large kitchen in the back of the building to make the fermented, wheat-based dough for the skins and shred the vegetables for the fillings. They also make the small, deep-fried pastry shells that are the base for the traditional Singaporean dish kueh pie tee — a treat filled with the same cooked vegetable mixture as popiah.
Ready for the next generation
In the front of the store, Ker Cheng Lye, Ker’s father, weighs out stacks of popiah skins and wraps them up for shoppers who stop by to pick up all of the components of the popiah so that they can assemble them at home. Many families buy enough ingredients to make fresh popiah one day and also make popiah goreng with the leftovers the following day.
The shop is particularly busy around Tomb Sweeping Holiday, when people like to make popiah as an offering for their ancestors, and during Chinese New Year, when wrapping popiah symbolizes wrapping up wealth. “When you wrap a popiah and you put the fillings in, you must not be greedy,” explains Ker. “If you are greedy, and the skin tears, it’s not a good sign.”
Ker, 40, has been making popiah since his parents taught him to work with the dough when he was 10, and in the next few years he will begin to take over the business from his parents, aunts, and uncles.
“We are planning to pass the business to Michael,” says Vicky Quek, one of his aunts. “You see, we’re all getting old, and he knows the situation of the family: If no one from the third generation takes over, we have to close the door. So he expressed the desire to carry on. He is trying to organize a team — a young, third-generation team — to run the show.” She and his father are mentoring Ker, teaching him all the skills that he will need to carry on the family’s recipes and traditions. Quek anticipates handing the reins over in two to three years. But that won’t mean that the older generation will retire completely. “We will continue to support them and lend a hand,” she says, reassuringly.
Main photo: Popiah was born in China but has spread across Asia, each country adding its own flavors and ingredients. Credit: Courtesy of StrEat.