Spring rolls. Is your mouth watering at the thought of piping hot, julienned vegetable crammed into a crunchy shell or is the zingy freshness of rice-paper wrapped prawns, glass noodles and fresh herbs more your cup of tea? Variants on the theme pop up all over Asia, but my favourite has to be Nyonya popiah. Peranakan (literally meaning descendent – refers to the offspring of Chinese settlers in the Strait of Malacca in the 15-16th century) or Nyonyan cuisine is an exquisite intermingling of Chinese and Malay cookery, with Thai and Indonesian influences thrown in. You’ll find a strong Nyonya influence in Penang, which plays host to the best street hawker fare that Malaysia – or even the world – has to offer. Perhaps a smidgeon of bias crept into that last statement, which you can blame on my nostalgic childhood memories of visiting grandparents.
Popiah are the Malaysian version of a burrito. The wrappers are more like crepes than spring roll skins and are skilfully made using an extremely elastic batter of flour, water and salt. I’ve watched experts dexterously shaping perfect paper-thin skin after skin and there is definitely a knack to it. I haven’t attempted to make the wrappers yet and poorly substitute spring roll wrappers (uncooked), as I haven’t been able to find fresh or frozen popiah skins here. Still, you can hardly notice when your popiah is full to bursting with tasty titbits. Slow-cooked shredded jicama (a kind of turnip) piled into a lettuce leaf is the foundation of the roll, but my favourite trimmings are fried beancurd, shredded omelette, beansprouts, julienned cucumber, fried shallots, prawns and peanut powder, not forgetting the spicy sambal belacan and sweet sauce.
There are no hard and fast rules on the elements of the stuffing, so just lay out all the ingredients, sauces and wrappers and get a-rolling. It’s even better if you invite some friends over and have a popiah party – especially if they are willing to come along a bit earlier to help out with all the slicing and dicing. The challenge is to see how much you can squeeze into one popiah without any ruptures. I always fail disastrously on my first attempt. Even though I know I’m already overloading, I just can’t adding that last beansprout. Hey, it’s messy, but that’s just part of the fun.
− 20 popiah skins
− Sweet sauce (Hoisin or kecap manis, a sweet soy sauce)
− Sambal belacan
− Ground roasted peanuts with a pinch of sugar added
− Fresh mint leaves
− Cos lettuce leaves
− A small cucumber, de-seeded and julienned
− A couple of handfuls of beansprouts
(de-tailed and blanched if you’re a perfectionist)
− A three egg omelette sliced into fine shreds
− Ten to fifteen prawns, stir-fried with garlic and chilli
− Ten finely sliced shallots, fried until crisp
− Two cakes of finely diced (firm) beancurd, fried until crisp
For the turnip filling
− A large turnip (750g), grated
− Two carrots, grated
− Two cloves of finely chopped garlic
− One tablespoon of soybean paste
− A couple of dashes of dark soy sauce
− A pinch of salt
− A teaspoon of white pepper
− A sprinkling of sugar
For the turnip filling
Fry the garlic and soybean paste in a tablespoon of oil until aromatic. Add the grated turnip, carrots, soy sauce, seasoning and enough water to barely cover the vegetables and simmer slowly on a low heat for thirty minutes or until the turnip is tender. Add a bit more water if it looks like they are going to dry out. You want to mix to be moist but not soggy. Check the seasoning and adjust to your taste, if necessary. Leave to cool.
To assemble the popiah
Lay the popiah skin flat out and smear sambal belacan and sweet sauce over it. Place a lettuce leaf on top and spoon over the turnip filling. Top with the fried bean curd, fried shallots, prawns, omelette, bean sprouts, cucumber, mint and peanuts. Fold over the top and bottom of the wrap and roll it up tightly. Eat immediately and enjoy…