Malay street food : Popiah (fresh spring roll)


Popiah are a becoming a favourite with us, mostly because flavourwise they’re can be a bit of a lottery and we just don’t know what we’re going to get, sometimes this results in the lady half of our eating team going ‘oooo’.

So far in Malaysia we’ve tested popiah in Ipoh, Penang and Melaka – all a bit different but all very nice.

They are prepared using a steamed pancake which acts as the skin, or outside layer. In our experience it’s varied from a wet, chewier texture (I thought it was a soy product the first time we ate them) to a more omlettey, thicker texture. The contents vary from stall to stall and also from state to state but will always include plenty of vegetables, including Jicama, a type of turnip; beansprouts, Julienne carrots, some herbs, potentially some shrimp and often some crunch – we found popiah with crispy fried onions and also ground pork crackling to give it the textural variation.

They can be served as a fresh, raw popiah or deep fried and golden.  Our popiah experience in Ipoh had a delicious, sweet chilli spiked glaze brushed on the top.

Popiah originate from the Fujian province of China, but have travelled all over South East Asia along with Chinese migration over the last century – They share similarities with the traditional image of spring rolls (but bigger), available in Chinese restaurants all over the world as well as we know them and also other spring roll like products we’ve found on our travels.  Deep fried vegetable rolls are advertised as lumphia on Indonesia streetcarts, and according to Wikipedia the Hokkein dialect the word “lun-BEE-a”(潤餅仔), means ‘thin wafer’. They are also called lumpia in The Philippines. Popiah, are also popular in Taiwan.

Thailand has variations on deep fried rolls, and Vietnamese also present a similar finger food, sometimes anglicised as a Vietnamese spring roll, or a rice paper roll. On our trip to Vietnam last year we feasted on the delicious Bánh cuộn. as well as gỏi cuốn  & nem ran.

In ipoh, it’s absolutely worth checking out a couple of old kopitams which have been going for generations –  Thean Chun & Kong Heng. Two great places (who happen to be next door to each other) to get local favourites like kai see hor fun, Popiah and chee cheong fun.

They’re available all over in simple street cart eateries and foodcourts. Don’t expect to pay more than four, or five ringgit – unless you’re in KL’s Food Republic where we saw one at an outrageous nine ringgits.

Phrases worth knowing 

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you (people will often respond with ‘sama sama’ which means’ you’re welcome)
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry



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