Third-generation owner of Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah and Kueh Pie Tee, Michael Ker, is determined to preserve the dying craft of making popiah skin by hand
Kway Guan Huat is determined to preserve the dying craft of making popiah skin by hand
One of the first things that catches the eye upon entering Kway Guan Huat located along Joo Chiat Place is the sight of a worker making popiah skin by hand. Standing behind four cast iron pans, the man skillfully twirls dollops of elastic dough around one hand, then places them effortlessly on the pans that have been heated to about 180 degrees Celsius. He is unfazed by the heat and is quick to lift his hand off, leaving a thin layer of dough on the pan. After about 10 seconds, he removes the perfectly cooked skin and stacks it up neatly in front of him, and repeats the process all over again.
Made individually, the popiah skins are almost identical—in terms of dimension and thinness—which can only be achieved by someone with years of experience.
“An apprentice normally takes about one year to pick up the skill, and thereafter, many years of practice to master the craft,” shares Mr Michael Ker, the third-generation owner of Kway Guan Huat.
Kway Guan Huat was started in 1978 by Ker’s grandfather, who was a popiah skin maker from Anxi County in Fujian, China. He passed on the skill to Ker’s father and uncles, who have been running the business together for the past 80 years at the present location. Ker’s grandmother, who was a Peranakan from Malacca, came up with the popiah filling recipe, which she handed down to her daughters.
Ker, a trained pharmacist, started helping out in the shop when he was about 12 years old. He took over the business in 2013 after spending over a decade working in the corporate world as he did not want heritage foods like popiah to become a lost tradition.
“Initially, my father was not supportive of me joining the family business, as he wanted me to have a better life. Making popiah skin is a physically demanding and strenuous task—you have to stand for long periods of time at the stove, and it puts a huge strain on the fingers. But I saw that the second generation was getting on in years and if nobody takes over, the popiah making craft will be gone forever,” Ker says.
WHAT IS POPIAH?
Originating from Southern China, popiah is a thin, paper-like crepe stuffed with ingredients like vegetables and egg. The dish was brought over to Southeast Asia by immigrants from the Fujian province. Following their arrival in Asia, the Chinese created several variants of the roll, incorporating ingredients from the local culture. In Singapore, there are two distinct versions—the Hokkien popiah and the Nonya popiah.
The former comprises bamboo shoots and pork, while the latter tends to feature a seafood-based filling, such as prawn or crab meat.
From selling just popiah skin and condiments when they first opened, Kway Guan Huat has since expanded its offerings to sell freshly made popiah rolls, available only on weekends from 9am to 2pm. The Nonya popiah they make consists of garlic chilli, dark sweet sauce, lettuce, scrambled eggs, crispy fish bits, prawns and stewed turnips and carrots, rolled up in freshly made skin.
While there are many popiah stalls in Singapore, not many make their own popiah skin. Ker estimates that there are only about three to four popiah skin makers like them left who make the skin from scratch.
“A lot of shops out there use machinemade popiah skins because they are cheaper and faster to produce, compared to those made by hand. But the difference in taste and texture is significant—machine-made skins taste somewhat ‘plasticky’, whereas the ones made by hand are soft and boast a delightfully springy texture,” Ker explains.
When asked what’s the secret to making good popiah skin, Ker was quick to say it is the dough.
“Unfortunately, we don’t follow a fixed recipe. Our dough is made with flour, water, salt and oil, but the amount of each ingredient we use changes every time as the flour differs with every harvest, and the amount of water and oil is variable. It has to be done by touch. The final dough should be really springy—the consistency is between a waffle batter and a roti prata dough,” Ker shares.
Since taking over the business in early 2013, Ker has injected fresh ideas into the company, among them the DIY popiah sets comprising popiah skin, filling and condiments, which customers can order online and have delivered right to their doorstep. Great for dinner gatherings and parties, the DIY sets allow everyone to get involved in making their own popiah rolls.
Additionally, Ker has also been trying to raise the level of appreciation of heritage foods by educating Singaporeans on the popiah trade. He has taken part in several events over the years, such as The Fullerton Hotel’s Young Hawker Series, where he demonstrated how to prepare the popiah dough the old-fashioned way—by hand and with a wooden pole. He also showed how the skin is made a la minute at the live stations.
Beyond Singapore, Ker has also headed to cities such as Copenhagen and New York to showcase his popiah-making skills at various Singapore Tourism Board and Tiger Beer events.
Looking ahead, Ker plans to continue providing live demonstrations on popiahmaking at his shop despite ongoing renovations. The new space, expected to be ready by next year, will include a heritage gallery that will showcase popiah-making equipment from yesteryear such as charcoal griddles. It may also include a new popiah restaurant.