Popiah: Singaporean Summer Rolls, Just Like Grandma Made

I’ve been thinking a lot about popiah, a Singaporean-style summer roll, recently — not just because temperatures have been creeping up in New York City and the foods of my tropical native country are starting to beckon once again.

As you may know, I’ve been on a bit of a book publicity blitz with the February publication of “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” And in all the interviews and signings I’ve done, popiah — a roll filled with ingredients such as julienned jicama, shrimp, shallots, tofu — has been a recipe that has come up frequently.

It’s a roll my grandmother used to make when I was growing up in Singapore — and it’s one that I crave in the U.S. as you don’t see it often on restaurant menus. Because it’s light, a little spicy and the filling has a nice crunch to it, it’s the perfect snack food or appetizer for warm weather — in Singapore, people often have popiah parties in which the filling, summer roll skins and various condiments are set out and guests mill about, casually making their own rolls whenever they feel like eating one.

During my research for the book, however, I made sure to learn how my grandmother and chef Simpson (of Cafe Asean in New York) make theirs — so when my Let’s Lunch group of virtual lunch buddies decided on small spring bites for our March date, popiah immediately sprang to mind …

The process of making popiah is somewhat easy — the trick is to find a dedicated sous chef (or a small army of them) because the hardest part of making these rolls is chopping everything up. You want to make sure that the ingredients are thinly sliced so you don’t get too much of one in each bite — the spread should be even.

Once all the ingredients (listed in the recipe below) are finely chopped, you stir fry them together in a pan until it’s slightly softened. You don’t want it to be so soft that it’s soggy but you don’t want it too crunchy either.

Now, Simpson’s recipe (which is in the book but also shared below) features a fairly standard list of popiah ingredients (shrimp, jicama, tofu, garlic, shallots) but my grandmother’s is a little more elaborate, involving carrots, beansprouts, crushed peanuts, Chinese sausage and scrambled eggs as well.

In Singapore, when we have popiah parties, all the ingredients are laid out on a counter and people are invited to roll as many as they wish to eat.

The grandmother was happy to show me how it’s done. First there is the wrapper — now, in the U.S. you can use any basic summer roll wrapper that you find in Asian grocery stores but in Singapore, my family likes to get its wrappers at Kway Guan Huat, a famous popiah stall in the Joo Chiat neighborhood that has been making its own popiah (and popiah skins) since the 1940s. The place is a true treasure in Singapore — if you’re ever there, you must check it out.

On the day of our popiah-making in Singapore, however, my mother and I were lazy to drive to Joo Chiat so packaged wrappers from Spring Home it was.

Next, you lay a leaf of lettuce on the wrapper — this is an essential barrier between the slightly wet filling and the wrapper and prevents the popiah skin from breaking. Then you start piling on the stir-fried filling …

… and other ingredients (shrimp etc.) in the amounts that you desire.

Once that’s all piled on, the roll is ready for wrapping.

When wrapping, you want to make sure the ends are sealed so the filling doesn’t come tumbling out. Once you’re ready to eat, you just slice it up, dip it in chili sauce and sweet sauce (a brown sauce that’s slightly salty — it basically tastes like a sweet, thick soy sauce) and dig in.

Now, when learning how to make popiah, I had the great fortune of learning from not one but two great cooks — chef Simpson agreed to teach me his recipe when I was particularly heartsick for them one chilly day in New York.

And I was so grateful for his recipe that I included it in my book. Now that spring is finally here, I think it’s the perfect food for a little party. You have the recipe below, warm weather is here, so take out your calendars, and get to it!

Enjoy …

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Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ small bites for spring below! And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #Letslunch — or, post a comment below.

Cathy‘s Dandelion Bread Pudding with Sundried Tomato & Gruyere at Showfood Chef

Danielle‘s Bomboloni with Meyer Lemon Curd at Beyond The Plate

Ellise‘s Bite-Size Black Pepper-Strawberry Scones at Cowgirl Chef

Emma‘s Radish Phyllo Cups at Dreaming of Pots and Pans

Karen‘s Sushi (with a video demonstration!) at Geofooding

Linda‘s Breakfast Cookies at Free Range Cookies

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SIMPSON’S POPIAH

From “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family

Makes 4 rolls

3 tablespoons canola oil
12 peeled, deveined shrimp
1 tablespoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 pound julienned jicama
2 tablespoons preserved soybean paste
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1?2 cups water
Salt and pepper
4 (8-inch-by-8 inch) popiah (spring roll) wrappers
4 lettuce leaves
4 ounces julienned five-spiced tofu
2 tablespoons minced scallions

For sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha chili sauce
1 tablespoon preserved soybean sauce

In a pan, heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil over medium heat, add the shrimp, and sauté until they are cooked through. Remove the shrimp from the pan and set aside.

Add the remaining canola oil and the sesame oil, heat over medium heat, add the shallots, and cook until soft but not brown. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another 30 seconds; stir constantly to prevent the mixture from browning. Add the jicama, 1 tablespoon of soybean paste, oyster sauce, and sugar, and toss evenly. Add the water, turn the heat to low, and let the mixture cook for 15 minutes or until the jicama is soft. Season with salt and pepper. Strain the mixture, set the solids aside to cool, and reserve the “juice.”

Lay a sheet of popiah skin on a clean surface; put a piece of lettuce on top; place the cooled shrimp, jicama, tofu, and scallions in the middle; and gently fold the extra skin over to form a roll. Continue making the rolls.

Add Sriracha sauce and the remaining soybean sauce to the juice.

Slice up rolls into 3?4-inch-thick slices; serve with dipping sauce on the side.