This post was originally published on murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com.
We had popiah for lunch at Coronation Plaza; the first time in a long time for both Coronation Plaza and popiah.
Coronation Plaza used to be a regular haunt when I was growing up. Like Katong Shopping Centre or Beauty World, Coronation Shopping Plaza was built during the “boom” that Singapore enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s as we emerged as a “newly industrialised society”.
They seemed so new and exciting back then, but feel like ageing suburban malls now. Like I’m an ageing suburban “aunty” to the store keepers who in the old days eyed askance our school uniforms (it was a stop off point between school and swimming practice).
Anyway, the popiah stall we went to has been in the same corner of the Coronation Shopping Plaza since 1988. Mr Leong, who runs it, is a nephew of the famous (in Singapore at least) late Peranakan author Leong Yee Soo.
And the popiah was great, but what struck me is that my late mother had a copy of that cookbook and I suspect the popiah she used to make for special occasions came out of there. She didn’t like to cook. But she produced popiah that more than satisfied most special occasions.
The best thing about popiah is, once you’ve got the ingredients prepared, the serving is a DIY business.
First you take your popiah skin,
‘Poh piah’ means thin flatbread, and the perfect popiah skin is very thin, elastic, and chewy.
It’s made by rubbing lumps of viscous, wet wheat flour dough in rounds against a very hot steel plate. The thin layer of dough that sticks and starts to cook is peeled off while still white and untoasted.
Fortunately most popiah skins are bought and kept moist under a damp cloth till needed!
Then come the sauces and seasonings:
There’s usually sweet bean sauce, soy sauce, shrimp paste, chilli and garlic sauce and chopped spring onion and it’s up to you to adjust the heat levels.
After that, everything on the table can be piled on as you like. There’s always crushed roasted peanuts, lettuce and bean sprouts, and fried tau kua (bean curd) and omelette cut into strips, and often chinese sausage, roasted Pork belly minced into small little cubes as well as shrimp and crab meat.
So if you are vegan (as long as you’ve pre-warned the cook not to use meat stock in the braise) you can eat alongside everyone else.
The main hot filling is stewed bangkuang or Chinese turnip and carrots. This is usually the only hot part of the meal. Since popiah was traditionally eaten after visiting the ancestral graves during the QingMing Festival, all the side dishes were prepared early and left cold, with only the bangkuang kept on the kitchen coals.
That’s what goes on last:
When my mother and aunts made popiah, they would reminisce how, during the war years, they would have popiah with only vegetables. Thanks to the jungle ‘garden’ there were always beansprouts, kangkong and green papaya, which made them among the lucky ones.
They talked about how, back in the war years, they would pretend they were rolling up pork and eggs and shrimp into their popiah skins–all the rich foods they stuffed us with years later, to try to make up for the hunger their childhood selves had gone through.
To roll up your popiah, you tuck in the short ends first, to keep the filling in place. Then fold over the top flap and roll it over the centre, keep on rolling till you have a smooth tube.
Then either cut it into rings to be eaten with chopsticks or eat them whole like we did, with your fingers.
But as a result of their stories, when we well fed, pampered children ate our popiahs, we liked to fold them with just bean sprouts and Chinese turnip and pretend we were trying to survive the war.
Maybe it’s the pretending that we’re all looking for. Or the novelty of other lives and possibilities. Because who can tell what delectable mysteries (or over spiced disasters) you’ve wrapped inside the discreet skin of your popiah? Or in the skin of a day or just of the next hour?
Since no one knows but you, you can roll up whatever you like in there. And I’m only now coming to realize that what I choose to wrap in the thin elastic skins of these precious moments doesn’t have to be limited by what’s put on the table in front of me.