Nyonya Popiah


May 07

Last week, I wrote about a Nyonya’s training in knife skills, and how she is taught to perfect the art of fine slicing and dicing of herbs and vegetables for Nasi Ulam.

This week, we look at how this skill is further refined in the fine slicing of turnips and bamboo shoots for making Nyonya Popiah. A young Nyonya lady goes through phases in training not only to be a good cook but also to be refined and ladylike even the heat of the kitchen. Her genteelness is visible not only in her person, cool and unruffled, but also in the preparation of food especially the consistency shown in her slicing and dicing of various ingredients. Although Popiah filling looks like a jumble of ingredients which most people would say, “nobody is going to look into it”, you will be surprised that a fastidious Nyonya will immediately detect that the slicing was not done correctly. Popiah should have the right crunch and yet look thinly sliced. I was taught to do fine slicing at 4 mm thickness which will give the turnips and the bamboo shoots the right “bite” and crunch. The belly pork must be at the right tenderness, and together with the fried bean cake, the stewed turnips and bamboo shoots, should have all the flavours meld together to provide a delicious mouthfeel. 

For the garnishes, there’s more work to be done, and these are critically scrutinised by the elders. When I was younger, popiah was never served all rolled up, but the wrapping was done at the table. On the table would be a good spread of all the garnishes required for the popiah. There would be a bowl of the fillings that would be kept hot by constant refilling, so each refill is just enough for wrapping three to four popiah. So, everything is opened to scrutiny and criticism or praise. For a start, the crispy lard should be neatly sliced into little squares of the same size and fried to an even brownness and crisp. That itself is a lot of work having to slice oily, squeezy stuff. Next comes the egg omelette with its fine, yellow golden threads, all of the same length. The Nyonyas frown on chopped, hard boiled eggs, referring to it as a lazy way of doing things. Then comes the Chinese sausage, good quality Chinese sausage that are steamed and finely sliced. Finally, the humble cucumber, which is the perennial favourite of the Peranakans, finely diced for Nasi Ulam or Nasi Goreng and finely sliced for salads, laksa, in fried mee siam and Popiah. Young Nyonyas who have participated in the slicing of ingredients for Popiah will always wait for the elders to comment on their work and it’s always a stressful time when the elders start by asking “who is the one who sliced this?” There’s a lot of apprehension after this question because at the end of the answer could be a praise or a swear word.

Nyonyas are not only judged on slicing and dicing techniques but cooking techniques as well. The Popiah fillings of bamboo shoots, turnips, pork belly and bean cake must have the right crunch and flavour in all the ingredients. Soggy vegetables will be so heavily criticised that you wish the ground would open and swallow you up. On special occasions, Nyonya Popiah will also have crabmeat. From young, we were taught how to shell crabs so that the meat comes out in chunks. With so many garnishes, no wonder the Nyonya Popiah needs an elastic egg skin to hold everything in place. When I was young, we used duck eggs for the skins because it is believed that duck eggs provide better elasticity. But today, with the unavailability of duck eggs, hen eggs are good enough and still provide the needed elasticity.

The pictures below show the ingredients used in making Nyonya Popiah (spring rolls).

Fillings for the Nyonya Popiah: starting from the centre, turnips, winter bamboo shoots, prawns and sliced pork belly braised in a savoury bean sauce; chilli chuka, sweet sauce, ground garlic, fried shallots with lard chips, sliced cucumbers, roasted ground peanuts, sliced egg omelette, steamed prawns, fried garlic chips and blanched bean sprouts.

Fresh lettuce, spin-dried and placed on top of the egg skin before the savoury vegetables are placed.

Chinese sausages, a must when Popiah is served on a special occasion.  Pork signifies strength and progress in the Chinese culture.

Fresh crabmeat is an added delicacy, usually included when there are important guests to impress.

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