Thursday, May 19, 2011

Birthday Popiah

Having a favourite food coincide with an occasion is one of life's best gratifications. For my own little day, I choose fresh Nyonya-style spring rolls, or popiah, for two reasons.

Everyone gets stuck into the preparation. When I was younger, preparation started with gusto the day before, by all the ladies in the house, led by my grandmother. This year it's me and my mum getting stuck into cutting, dicing, slicing, narrated by girlie chatter. The main filling comes from shredding turnip, bamboo shoots and pork, stewed overnight to reach full flavour, to become a moist but not "wet" hash. Shredding turnips and bamboo shoots can't be done with a grater, only painstaking chopping will do, so excessive moisture does not seep out. Accompanying the filling, are little embellishments which sound like a heart-attack line-up: fried garlic, fried shallots, crunchy peanuts, fried tofu, fresh bean sprouts and cucumber, and finally everyone's favourite, fried pork lard cubes or chee yau zha.

Preparing the popiah wrapper is an affair in itself. Bought fresh from morning wet markets, these translucent tissue-paper thin skins come all stuck together. Each sheet needs to be pulled apart one-by-one, carefully from the pile, making sure they don't tear. This is one of my favourite jobs, watching each come away from the stack, feeling satisfied that we've prepared the base to a delicious meal.

Everyone enjoys in the celebration: Seeing all the ingredients laid out makes me clasp my hands together with schoolgirl glee, they decorate the dining table with different colours, textures and smells. Everyone always jumps right in, competitive spirits rising to see who can fit as many fillings in without wrapper-burstage.

What I like to do is place a lettuce leaf two-thirds of the way down the wrapper, then smudge on some traditional sweet black sauce and chilli garlic sauce. All fillings, including the main one, should be piled on top the leaf, in a long row, all the crunchies evenly spread out. This then makes the wrapping a cinch. A triumphantly made popiah starts with a fresh crunch from the lettuce, sweet and salty from the turnip and bamboo shoot mash, lots of little crackly fried bursts, and ends with a chilli note.

Food is the thread that binds the crowd with the occasion. My family and friends mingling, trumpeting their successes, laughing at accidents, wondering if one more popiah is one too much, but always savouring every bite. I hope all my birthdays can be like this.


Su-Lin said...

This brings back memories! My mother also used to put crab meat and shredded omelette into her popiah - loved it!

Hungry Female said...

Hi Su-Lin, oh we've never tried crab meat! Interesting, is your family from a Straits Chinese background? Shu xx

ATigerInTheKitchen said...

How beautiful...I, too, have never had crab meat in popiah but my grandmother adds shredded omelette to hers as well as chopped, roasted peanuts. Now you're making me want to make popiah...

Cinnamon and Truffle said...

This post is, I think, single-handedly responsible for triggering all my Singaporean/Malaysian food cravings this week - it started with popiah, then curry puffs (that must be because of A Tiger in the Kitchen!), then Char Kway Teow, and ending with dim sum today.


Hungry Female said...

Talking food with you ladies is deadly:-)