One of my favorite memories from my childhood is eating PoPiah during large family gatherings and special occasions. Making PoPiah is a huge deal in my family because it takes so much time and effort to make. Because of this, whenever we made it, we would make a lot of it and we would eat until we were bursting.
PoPiah is a fresh spring roll that originated in Fujian Province in China, but over time, the popularity of PoPiah has spread to other countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Taiwan (Chin). According to my mother, one can find the original version in the city of Xiamen which is located on the southeast coast of Fujian province. The name itself is an Amoy word that is a direct translation of the Chinese word 春捲 (chunjuan), which means spring roll in English. As the name indicates, PoPiah is traditionally eaten in the Spring and around the time of the spring harvest. It is also eaten during Chinese New Year to represent tidings of a bountiful harvest.
My mother has often told me about her memories of eating PoPiah as a child many. For her, eating PoPiah has always reminded her of her childhood because making and eating PoPiah in her home was always a large, family occasion. Her family was not wealthy when she was young, so it was an even bigger deal if her parents had enough money to buy all of the ingredients for PoPiah. Usually, this would only happen once a year during Chinese New Year. They would savor PoPiah together to celebrate the New Year and also to welcome any relatives that were visiting for the holiday. My mother’s job was to help with chopping all of the vegetables. My mom, her sisters, and my grandmother would sit in the kitchen for hours, meticulously cutting up pounds of vegetables so that they were tiny enough and delicate enough to be used for PoPiah. If the pieces were not small enough, my grandmother would send her back to the cutting board to re-do everything until it was perfect. In addition, my mom always got to crush up the fried milkfish to create the fish bits. She would sit outside with a stone and the fish inside a bag and pound away until all of the pieces were tiny enough to be sprinkled into the PoPiah. When everything was ready, her whole family would sit together with all of the PoPiah ingredients laid out and everyone would make their own PoPiah. While they were eating, my grandparents would tell my mom and her siblings about their own memories of eating PoPiah from street vendors in Xiamen.
In general, PoPiah is a bit like a Chinese burrito in that it consists of a main filling that is rolled into a soft wheat-based skin, along with a wide variety of condiments and extras. The ingredients of the filling and the types of condiments and extras vary depending on what type of PoPiah you are trying to make. My family has always made PoPiah in the style that is popular in Xiamen because my maternal grandparents lived in Xiamen before they immigrated to the Philippines in the 1950's.
Traditionally, PoPiah skin is made by rubbing a ball of wet dough made of wheat flour, salt, and water against the surface of a hot pan. The excess dough is then removed by dabbing the surface of the dough with the wet dough ball. This creates a thin film of dough that is thin enough to be delicate yet elastic enough to hold the contents of the PoPiah when fully cooked (Chin). However, my family just purchases store bought spring roll wrappers because it is much easier and more convenient.
The filling that my mom makes consists of very thinly sliced snow peas, cabbage, carrots, fried tofu, jicama, and leeks. In addition, my mom adds tiny shrimps and ground meat. After everything is all chopped up, they are stir fried together. The making of the filling is the hardest part because it takes a several hours to slice everything up.
Along with the filling, there are several condiments and extras that go into a PoPiah. In my house, we add lettuce leaves, fried seaweed flakes, steamed bean sprouts, shredded omelette, parsley, dried and fried milkfish bits, and crushed peanuts with sugar. In addition to the dry condiments, there is also an array of sauces that can be added for flavor. In my family’s recipe, we always use Hoisin sauce, Sriracha sauce, and ketchup.
If you are familiar with traditional PoPiah, you might have noticed that some of the ingredients my family uses are a bit unconventional. The fried seaweed flakes are a condiment that is used by people from Xiamen specifically. The addition of the seaweed is so unique to the area that my mother has never been able to buy this form of seaweed in any Chinese store outside of Xiamen. So, whenever a relative goes back to Xiamen, they bring some seaweed back for the family that can be used during PoPiah parties. The dried and fired milkfish bits are also unique to my family recipe. Traditionally, dried and fried fish bits are added to PoPiah, but since my mother grew up in the Philippines, milkfish was the most available type of fish. Milkfish is not as commonly eaten in the United States, but in the Philippines, where it is the national fish, it is commonly consumed in various types of dishes. As a result, my mother grew up eating milkfish in her PoPiah, so it is now the type of fish we use in our PoPiah recipe. The last ingredient that is slightly unconventional is the use of Ketchup as a sauce. My family started using Ketchup as an optional sauce when my sisters and I were young. Sriracha sauce was too spicy for us, but we still wanted to use a sauce. So, my parents started giving us ketchup to put inside our PoPiah and it worked well. Even now, everyone in my family likes adding some Ketchup to their PoPiah.
· 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
· 1 box soft tofu
· 1/4 cup bamboo shoots, julienne
· 2/3 carrots, julienne
· 1 cup jicama, peeled and julienne
· 1/4 cup leek, julienne
· 1 1/2 cup snow peas, julienne
· 2 1/2 cup cabbage, julienne
· 1 lb ground meat
· 1 lb small salad shrimp
· 1 tablespoon minced garlic
· 6 tablespoons salt
The extras and condiments
· 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
· 1 lb fresh Romaine lettuce leaves
· 2 eggs, beaten
· 1 lb mung bean sprouts
· 1/4 cup parsley, minced
· 6 tablespoons peanuts, chopped
· 4 tablespoons sugar
· 1 cup Xiamen style dried seaweed
· 1 dried Milkfish
· 1 package fresh spring roll wrappers
· Sriracha sauce
· Hoisin sauce
For the filling: In a large saute pan, heat the oil. Add the garlic and tofu. Cook for 3 minutes until one side has a crisp fry to it. Flip the tofu and cook for another 3 minutes so that the other side gets fried. Remove the tofu from the pan. Pat all of the vegetables dry to eliminate as much moisture as possible. Add more oil to the existing pan and add the garlic, cabbage, jicama, snow peas, carrots, bamboo shoots, and leek. Add the and salt. Continue to cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and thoroughly cooked, about 20 minutes. Remove the vegetables from the pan. Add more oil to the existing pan and add the ground meat and the shrimp. Stir fry the meat until it is cooked, about 10 minutes. Add the vegetables and tofu back into the pan and mix everything together. Add salt to taste if necessary.
For the extras: Wash the Romaine lettuce and dry it with a towel. Set aside for later
Heat a large nonstick pan over medium high and spray with cooking oil. Pour a very thin layer of the scrambled egg into pan and move it around the pan while it is still runny to create as thin of a layer as possible. Remove the egg from the pan when it is fully cooked. Roll the thin layers of egg up and cut them into thin shreds. Set aside for later.
Steam the mung bean sprouts in 1 cup of water until it is cooked but still crisp. Remove from pot and set aside.
Mix the sugar and the peanuts together until they are well mixed. Set aside for later.
Pour 2 tablespoons of oil into a heated nonstick pan. Pour the seaweed flakes into the hot oil and stir-fry until they are crisp and fragrant. Remove from pan and place on top of a paper towel to drain. Set aside for later.
Pour 2 tablespoons of oil into a heated nonstick pan. Place the dried fish into the oil and fry on each side for 3 minutes each. Remove from pan and place on top of a paper towel to drain. When the fish is clean of excess oil, place it into a plastic bag and pound until it is completely crushed and can be sprinkled onto the PoPiah. Set aside for later.
To wrap the PoPiah: place 1 wrapper on a large plate. Put 1 leaf of lettuce in the middle of the wrapper, situated diagonally. Squeeze the PoPiah filling with 2 spoons to rid the filling of any excess liquid and place as much as you would like on top of the lettuce leaf. Garnish your PoPiah as you would like with all of the different extras and condiments. Spread a thin line of sriracha and hoisin along the sides of the wrapper. This will act as a "glue" that will hold your PoPiah together. To wrap the PoPiah, fold two opposite corners toward the middle of the wrapper with your pointer fingers. With your thumbs, fold the corner on top of the PoPiah down over the other two corners and roll the PoPiah towards you while using the sauce around the outside of the wrapper as glue. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and ingredients.
If you make this recipe at home, comment below and let me know what you think!