Popiah, the traditional food loved by all Malaysians, is becoming difficult to find. But some artisans still continue making popiah skin the way it has been made in the past. Famous in Penang Uncle Lim’s shop is one of a few remaining traditional hand-made popiah skin makers.
Holding a blob of the white elastic dough in his hand, a man is whipping and smacking it onto hot flat-bottomed cast-iron pan in front of him leaving a paper-thin layer of popiah skin. The skin heats for barely five seconds, and before it burns, his assistant scraps it off the pan and stacks it on top of the pile. Occasionally, the man peels off the skin himself if his assistant is having troubles keeping up. Skin after skin, the man is making popiah skin in front of his shop with such dexterity and flawless precision that I found him mesmerising to watch.
His shop, located at the busy Chowrasta market, is where Mr. Lim Kim Hoe, the famous Penang popiah skin maker, has been making his popiah skin for half a century. Although Mr. Lim, locally known as Uncle Lim, a fourth generation popiah skin maker, is now physically indisposed, his children continue the family business. The man making popiah skin now is Gary Lim, his son.
Popiah skin is a kind of thin crêpe made from wheat flour. Extremely thin but very resilient, it is used for making popiah, Teochew and Hokkien style spring rolls. Originated in Fujian province of China, popiah was brought to Malaysia by Hokkien and Teochew during the British colonial administration. It has quickly become the favourite dish among the Malaysians, and popiah skin making was a common trade.
Famous in Penang, Lim’s popiah skin is sought after by clients, who keep coming for the high quality of his skin, thin and elastic. The customers come as far as from Singapore and Hong Kong, often buying 1-2 kg of popiah skin to take back home.
“Not many people make hand-made popiah skin nowadays. It takes too long. Popiah skin makers become now rare,” Gary sounds pessimistic about the future of popiah skin. “Come on Sunday, you can see how we make popiah with our house-made filling,” he adds before being engrossed again by his work.
In a couple of days, on Sunday, I am back to Chowrasta market. The market is busy today, and the popiah skin shop attracts a large crowd waiting for their popiah to be rolled. In Melaka, I had popiah on several occasions but I never had a chance to see how it is made, and I only had a vague idea about what ingredients are hidden inside. Here, I find out that popiah is stuffed with grated turnip, lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, shredded omelette, tofu, fried shallots, grated carrots, and chopped peanuts in addition to the sweet sauce and chilli paste applied first to the skin. I am only familiar with one version of popiah but here I discover barley peanut candy, apparently, a traditional Penang snack, which also uses popiah skin.
Malaysians love their popiah but surprisingly, it is difficult to find. Making popiah skin is a tedious and time-consuming process, and popiah skin makers become a rare sight. Nowadays, when mass production is replacing traditional artisans, it is reassuring to see people committed to keeping their heritage alive.
Location: This popiah skin making shop is located at the Chowrasta market in Georgetown of Penang state of Malaysia at the following address: 5, Jalan Chowrasta. They make popiah skin from about 7 am till noon. If popiah skin is made daily, they make popiah with house-made fillings only on Sunday.