What Is a Popiah?

Eugene P.

Popiah is a dish from Southern China that is eaten in many countries in Southeast Asia. It is similar to a spring roll, except it usually has a much longer list of ingredients and is encased in a special crepe-like wrapper. A popiah usually contains shredded or julienned vegetables, including turnips, carrots, jicima and cabbage, although many others are often used. Meat is sometimes included, as well, specifically pork belly, chicken or even seafood such as shrimp. The wrapper is made in a special way to ensure that it is very thin, and it is frequently covered in a sweet sauce or a chili sauce before being filled and rolled.

Bamboo shoots may be used to make a vegetable filling for a popiah.
Bamboo shoots may be used to make a vegetable filling for a popiah.

As much a social food as it is a fast treat, it is commonly sold from food stands on the streets of Singapore. There are popiah parties, during which all the ingredients and sauces are laid out, buffet-style, for the guests to choose from as they assemble their own rolls. The ingredients are, in general, divided into three sections: the vegetables, the meat, and the sauces and spices. The types of fillings vary, depending on taste, but popiah most commonly sold in food stalls generally contains mostly carrots, turnips and pork.

Pork belly is sometimes used in popiah.
Pork belly is sometimes used in popiah.

One of the unique parts of making popiah is forming the wrapper, or the skin. It begins with dough made from flour — sometimes rice flour or wheat flour — and mixing it with water until very loose and wet dough is formed. This dough is repeatedly lifted up and slapped down on a counter until long ropes begin to form.

Part of the dough is taken in the hand and rolled quickly over a hot pan or other cooking surface. By doing this, only a thin layer of the dough catches on the heated area, leaving the rest of the dough uncooked. The thin pancake is cooked quickly and removed from the heat, after which the process is repeated until all the dough has been turned into thin crepes.

Typical vegetable fillings for popiah include cabbage, turnips, carrots, tofu, green beans and bamboo shoots. These are shredded or cut into very thin strips. They can be stir-fried, steamed or blanched. It is traditional to use mainly vegetables that are fresh and in season.

The type of meat used can be nearly anything, or meat can be excluded altogether. Pork belly that is boiled and then shredded is a common filling. Shrimp, chicken, Chinese sausage and beef also can be used. The meat is not generally seasoned, except with some salt.

Assembling popiah starts with the skin. Any sauces, such as chili sauce or hoisin sauce, are spooned on the wrap, and that is covered with a lettuce leaf to help hold the ingredients. The filling is placed inside the lettuce leaf and topped with any desired flavorings, such as fried garlic or cooked eggs. It then is rolled up tightly and is ready to eat.

The skin of popiah can be made using wheat flour.
The skin of popiah can be made using wheat flour.

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