There are certain food experiences that remain with you forever, indelibly branded into the far recesses of your brain.
For me, I'll never forget the first time I tried street food in Singapore.
I was in high school. My family was taking one of our first family trips to Asia, complete with stops in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
In Singapore, we were overwhelmed by the countless night markets that stayed open all night long! Singapore is seriously a night owl's dream, with readily available food stalls open 'til the wee hours of the morning.
I remember walking around these street food areas where rows and rows of stalls appeared to go on for infinity. We tried some really fresh fruit smoothies. We snacked on tropical fruits. And then . . . for the first time in my life, I tried a lumpia.
It was the most amazing combination of flavors I'd ever had. Fresh cilantro, juicy pork, fresh ground peanuts, carrots, all wrapped up in a soft egg-roll skin. The memory of those bites stayed with me for a long, long time.
It wasn't until about a decade later that I finally learned how to make them myself.
A lumpia (or popiah as it is also called) is a fresh spring roll common in Singapore, Taiwan, and Malaysia. It originates from the Fujian region of China and became popular in Southeast Asia when Chinese immigrants from Fujian settled there.
The hardest part in making fresh, homemade lumpia is probably the crepe-like wrapper. I did not attempt to do this because you can purchase frozen wrappers at Asian supermarkets. However, if you are ambitious, you can always try to make it yourself.
Once you've got the skin, a lumpia is really not hard to make. The biggest challenge is the time that it takes to prepare and gather up all the components. I think lumpias work great at parties where you can let guests each make their own. People can custom-design their lumpias, adding as much or as little meat, cilantro, sauce, etc. that they want.
So What Are the Components?
Components vary from region to region. In the most general sense, lumpias have meat, eggs, and vegetables. The classical Taiwanese version incorporate sautéed pork, preserved radish, carrots, cabbage, cilantro, crushed peanuts, and shredded egg omelet.
Crushed peanuts can be easily made in a food processor. Alternatively, you can make them the way my mom used to make them (pre-convenience days!), with a mortar and pestle. If you want your lumpia to be more Southern Taiwanese style, add sugar to the peanut mixture before grinding it up.
The fried egg omelette is pretty straightforward. I basically followed the technique that I used for making tamagoyaki, except that I did not add the Japanese flavoring ingredients. Slice into ¼ inch strips.
Preserved turnip is a bit harder to find in ordinary grocery stores. You can find them in most Chinese supermarkets. They usually come vacuum packed, and may or may not be pre-chopped. These are pretty salty, so you may want to soak them in water for a bit. If you do that, they will absorb water and expand, thus becoming less salty.
I usually like to stir fry some lean pork loin strips. If you want more fat and flavor, you can stir fry pork butt or shoulder instead. Alternatively, chicken, beef, or any other protein should work as well (though my mom always uses pork). Marinate the meat with a bit of soy sauce, corn starch, and sesame oil. Stir fry and set aside.
For veggies, cut up cabbage and carrots into thin strips and stir fry until soft and cooked. Optionally season with a bit of salt and pepper.
Fresh cilantro is important to have on hand, as the crisp, bright flavors of the cilantro work well in offsetting the savory pork, strongly flavored hoisin sauce, and the salty turnips.
You can also blanch fresh bean sprouts and add them as well.
Assembling your own lumpia is not too hard. If you've ever made Mooshu pork before, it's pretty similar. Start by adding just a small bit of hoisin or Sriracha sauce (I think I've actually put a little too much in the photo, but it's all kind of subjective). Next, add your sugar peanuts. Then slowly layer on whatever ingredients you want to add. I personally think it tastes best with everything on it. If you're using a lot of hoisin sauce, I would recommend skipping the sugar in the peanuts, because it makes the entire lumpia a bit too sweet.
Lumpia or Popiah
Serves approximately 4
Prepare all the different components and put them in separate bowls. Allow guests to roll their own lumpias based on the instructions above.
Please note: this "recipe" is very flexible, and the amounts I have written are approximations that I have made. Think of this as more of a guide, not so much a precise recipe. Feel free to alter the amounts based on personal preference, dietary restrictions, what you might have at home, etc.
Cabbage + carrot stir-fry
Add about 1 T canola oil (or any vegetable oil) to a heated wok. When the oil is hot, add cabbage and carrots. If necessary, add a bit of water and cover. Stir fry for about 5 minutes until the cabbage and carrots are softened. Optionally add salt (about ½ teaspoon or to taste).
Cut pork loin into thin strips. Marinate pork in soy sauce, corn starch, and vegetable oil for about 20 minutes. In a heated wok over medium high heat, stir fry pork until it is no longer pink. Remove from heat.
Using a fork, mix together three eggs in a bowl. Over medium heat in a nonstick pan, add a thin layer of the egg mixture and cook until it is no longer runny (see this post for pictures and details). Slowly scroll up the egg omelet into a cylinder. Remove from heat and slice into thin strips. Set aside.
3 oz preserved turnips, soaked and rinsed
Cut up the turnip into small cubes, about ¼ inch wide. Set aside.
Wash cilantro and optionally chop into 4-6 inch long pieces
Using a food processor, add peanuts and sugar at a 3:1 ratio (peanuts:sugar). Grind these two together until you have a sweet peanut powder.
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[…] my choices, since I had no one with whom to share any of the food. I ended up choosing to eat a popiah (comfort food for me) and rojak, a very interesting and very local Singaporean salad consisting of […]