Yesterday afternoon, I took a walk down old Joo Chiat Rd to document the story of third generation owner of Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah — Michael Ker. 39-year-old Michael is running his family business of over 70 years since the 1930s, despite being a pharmacist by training and a bodybuilder in his free time.
Michael started our interview off by taking me on a tour of the shop…
It was old, small and dripping with history. I loved how almost all the ingredients of the popiah was made by hand there. These included the popiah skins, kueh pie tee shells, chili paste, their specialty sweet sauce that is cooked with actual fruits like apples and oranges for a citrus, full-bodied flavour.. And of course, their secret ingredient — crispy fish flakes made by deep frying flour, fish sauce and other seasonings to add that crunch and added texture to the popiah.
According to Michael, there are two kinds of popiahs found here in Singapore — the Hokkien-style and the Nonya-style. The Hokkien version of the popiah is characterised with more vegetables like bamboo shoots, beans and is slightly lighter in taste. The Nonya popiah emphasises pork, seafood like prawns and is what Kway Guan Huat has been preparing for many decades now. But to keep it accessible to all Singaporeans, they’ve done away with the pork and focused on keeping the dish halal and the Malay community seem happy with that move, as seen by the two makciks who wandered in for some popiah skins during our interview.
In the past, Michael’s grandfather used to make all the dough and fillings by hand, which was incredibly tough work given the amount of dough and ingredients they had to work with everyday. But today, they’ve got an industrial vegetable fryer and some mixing tools but still, he claims its not easy work and the staff have to be up at 4am everyday to get everything ready.
“It took me one whole year of apprenticeship to master the skill of making popiah skins. It’s not easy,” he says.
Check out his mad skills here:
All the skins are made upon order and sell by half or 1kg. These days, to make things easier for customers, Michael tries to make Kway Guan Huat a one-stop place for everyone to get their ingredients for a popiah party, a day of sales as a hawker and even caters for corporate functions or events.
“The kueh pie tee shells have an interesting story behind them,” Michael shares.
“My grandfather came here many years ago as an immigrant from Fujian and fell in love with a Nonya girl here in Singapore, my grandmother. Back then, they made popiah skins together everyday but always had some left over. My grandmother was the on e who came up with the idea of using the leftover dough, diluting them to make batter for kueh pie tee crusts.”
So how are the pie tee crusts made?
The dough is basically adjusted to be more watery, a mould is dipped into the batter and then deep fried for that crispy golden finish.
Michael then shows me how to roll a popiah correctly. And I took notes.
The key is to make sure you layer a good amount of sweet sauce on the skin because that will make the skin less susceptible to breaking. Then top with some lettuce, add prawns, fried egg and fish flakes before topping with chili and the vegetable filling (which takes only 15-20 minutes to cook). Then fold in the two sides on the left and right, press it flat, fold the skin over front to back tightly wrapping the filling, and voila! Your popiah bursting with juicy, savoury goodness is ready for the eating. Slice as you like and eat as quickly as possible.
I was very impressed with how well the popiah skin holds the ingredients. It truly takes decades of refining to get it firm, slightly chewy and yet thin and delicate enough so as not to overpower the filling. The kueh pie tee was excellent as well and i gobbled them down happily.
Kway Guan Huat is truly a place that has held true to tradition. They definitely know what they’re doing when it comes to popiah and I feel truly privileged to have been given a peek into the history of one of Singapore’s best-loved hawker foods.
Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah
95 Joo Chiat Road