My Mother's Popiah
Like all Peranakan girls, much of my childhood was spent in my mother's kitchen. My tasks were simple—stirring, plucking the tails off beansprouts, operating the hand mixer, or the most dreaded of all, peeling shallots...mountains of them. Like most Peranakan matriachs, my mother preferred to see through the entire process of cooking herself. The tasks she delegated to my brothers and I were merely well disguised disciplinary measures, meted out to keep us from trouble while she devoted herself to her woman's work. To my mother, everything about a dish—from the amount of ingredients to the way it is stirred and when—is instinctive. There are no written recipes; everything is in her head.
As a result, I am only able to make a paltry few dishes from my mother's fabulous and immense repertoire. My skills extend to the simpler stuff like babi assam (tamarind pork), temperah (fish or chicken cooked in dark soy, chilli and lime juice) or curry chicken. For the most part, I've long taken for granted that dishes like babi pongteh (stewed pork with bamboo shoots), mee siam, itek dim (duck and salted vegetable soup) and kueh pie tee are best made by my mother's hand. 'Ask and you shall receive' is a mantra that's played out in my mother's house for decades, even years after we flew the roost. Whenever any of us fancies something, my mother will happily oblige us, slogging away in the kitchen for days to put our favourite things on the table.
And if I had to name an absolute favourite dish from my mother's repertoire, it has to be popiah (fresh spring rolls). Not for any of our family members are the Hokkien popiah sold in hawker centres and food courts everywhere, with their shredded carrots, Chinese sausage and peanuts. Noooo! Nonya popiah, as we know it, should be chock full of bamboo shoots (julienned, not shredded), a deep caramel hue from the use of fine soy sauce, and infused with a rich, fragrant stock made of prawns and pork. Within the popiah should also be a generous sprinkling of fresh crab meat and sliced prawns, deep fried bits of garlic, freshly ground chilli, and a lick of Colonel's mustard for that extra kick. Even the sweet flour sauce (tee cheo) has to be a certain brand (Sin Ngee Seng)—any other, my mother will have us know, is inferior; either too thin, too thick, too sweet, or "with so much flour you can taste it". Over the years, the only popiah I've tried that's ever come close to my mother's was at the now defunct Soul Kitchen, at the hands of chef Damian D'Silva. He too shares my mother's philosophy of "the more bamboo shoots, the better" and that the bamboo shoots and turnip should never be shredded against a mandolin, but painstakingly julienned.
Faced with some free time last week, I decided now was as good a time as any to give making popiah a shot. I called my amused mother, who talked me through what I needed ("a few cans of bamboo shoots, make sure you use the winter one"; "make sure the heat is not too low"; "not too much turnip"; "do you have fresh chillies?"; "would you like me to a fry the garlic for you?"; "why don't I just make the whole thing for you?")
I guess having eaten a certain dish a certain way for as long as you've lived, bestows upon you some instinct of how a dish should turn out and what needs to be done. The thing that surprised me about making popiah is that it really isn't as complicated as I had convinced myself it would be. It's just time-consuming. But because I made it over a weekend—slicing the turnip and bamboo shoots on Saturday morning, making the stock and stewing the vegetables in the afternoon, boiling and shelling the prawns and crabs on Sunday morning and doing the rest (grinding the chillies, frying the garlic, etc) that afternoon—the whole process turned out to be less of a mission. The only thing left to do was buy popiah skins from the stalwart supplier, Kway Guan Huat, at 95 Joo Chiat Road (open daily from 9am till 9pm, ph: 6344 2875). The family has been making popiah skins for decades and it is one of the few places that my father, for all his impaired vision, can guide me to without incident (without him, I'd definitely lose my way around the little lanes and one way streets).
As it turns out, I am my mother's daughter. My virgin attempt at popiah was more successful than any complicated French daube I've attempted. In fact, it tasted just like my mother's. This my brother told me as he made approving noises at the dinner table. "Good lah," he said, "at least if anything happens to mummy, someone knows how to make popiah." Polite pause. Then, "So when do you think you'll learn to make Babi Sioh?"