The 41-year-old owner of Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Original Popiah & Kueh Pie Tee will be showcasing techniques for popiah skin making at The Fullerton Hotel’s Young Hawker Series from 8 to 18 March. He tells us more about his family’s business:
Tell us more about Kway Guan Huat and yourself.
I am a third generation popiah skin maker. I am also a trained pharmacist, and I took over the family’s business in 2013. We are still running our business from the original shop [at Joo Chiat] that my grandfather set up in 1978. My grandfather was a popiah skin maker from Anxi County in Fujian, China, where popiah is called chun bing (literally spring pancake). He passed the skill down to my father and his brothers. My grandmother was a Peranakan from Malacca. The kueh pie tee, and popiah filling recipes were from her, she handed down her skills to her daughters.
Is there a reason why the skill of popiah skin making was taught to the boys only?
It is a physically demanding and strenuous task. In those days, the dough making was entirely done by hand and required a lot of stirring using a wooden pole. There was also heat you had to bear with, the strain on your fingers, and you have to stand for long periods of time at the stove. There are also the giant sacks of flour that needs handling. Each sack is about 25kg and you have to be able to lift it and pour the flour into the mixture. As such, only the boys were involved.
What is the key to good popiah skin making?
The key to good popiah skin is the dough. Flour, water, salt and oil, those are the main components of the dough. It is an art that takes a lot of experience to perfect. I can tell you that there is no exact recipe 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 is really springy and you have to learn how to work the dough properly. The consistency is between waffle batter and roti prata. We heat the pan to about 200 deg C and make a thin wafer – the thinness and the texture (slightly springy) of the popiah skin is what we look out for. Once the side curls up, you know it is cooked and the popiah skin is ready.
Does it take long to pick up the skill?
When you are an apprentice, you first learn to peel the popiah skin from the pan before you learn to handle the dough. It takes about two years before you know how to make good popiah skin. It does not mean you can achieve good popiah skin consistently in the two years, but by then you should be able to tell what good popiah skin is. After that, you can learn to make the dough.
What prompted you to make the switch from your career as a pharmacist to running a family business?
I was in my 30s and working as a pharmacist. It was quite a struggle for me to come to the decision. My father was not supportive at first; he wanted me to have a better life. But the second generation is getting on in years and somebody has to continue the business, so I decided to take on the challenge.
I grew up in the shop – in fact, I used to stay upstairs. This is where the heart of the family is, all the happy times, the hardship, the family gatherings, the ups and downs. The memories I treasure, they are all here. If we don’t carry on the tradition, then it will all be gone.
I started helping out in the shop and learning the craft when I was about 12-years old. In the early days, we sold only popiah skin and condiments, but now customers can also enjoy eating popiah at our shop from 9am – 2pm on weekends. I am still working on the fine-tuning my skills, especially when it comes to preparing the condiments and popiah filling.
Can you share what you have done so far since taking over the business?
When I took over in early 2013, I thought we needed a stall, so, with the support of the family, we set one up at Tangs, Orchard. I woke up early everyday to prepare ingredients – we sold popiah and rojak. Everything was freshly prepared, we also made popiah skin on the spot. Business was good, however, we could not handle the rent, so we moved out after about a year.
In 2015, we decided to open an outlet at Singapore Polytechnic. I picked a school location because I wanted to introduce popiah to a younger audience. I’ve noticed that my customers are mainly from the older generation. I was worried that the younger generation is not familiar with heritage food such as popiah. So I thought it would be good to run the business, and at the same time let more youngsters appreciate popiah. Again, business was good, but school holidays were too long and it was not sustainable for us. We were there for about a year.
After that, I decided to focus on our main shop and to take the business online as e-commerce was gaining traction. We introduced the DIY Popiah Sets that came with popiah skin, filling and condiments, and, for a fee, we can also arrange for delivery. It is doing pretty well. We see more customers from other parts of Singapore, especially the West, and also a younger crowd ordering our popiah.
What are your thoughts on the hawker trade?
I cannot speak for everyone, but I feel that it is more positive now, especially after a hawker was awarded a Michelin star. Some parents still may not understand, just like my father, who was not supportive in the beginning. He is more open now. I would share stories of my “adventures” outside of the shop with him, especially when I go for events, of how good the response was. The elders, they never had the chance to step out of the shop.
I was in New York for a Tiger Beer event, and when I saw the foreign crowd enjoying my popiah, the first thing on my mind was how I really wished my father were there with me to witness the scene. Hopefully next time I can bring him along.
What can we expect from Kway Guan Huat in the future?
From my experiences at events, such as The Fullerton Hotel’s River Hawker Festival 2016, I realise that customers enjoy seeing how food is prepared. Eventually I want to set up a restaurant where I can have a ‘live’ station and prepare popiah, kueh pie tee, and other dishes in front of customers, and be able interact with them throughout the meal.
In order to take the business further and showcase our craft, I think it is also important to improve the processes and set up a system to increase productivity and efficiency. There are certain labour intensive steps that machines can help with, but no matter what, the dough still has to be finished by touch, and the popiah skin made by hand. There is no compromise.
I am planning to renovate the shop in the third quarter of this year, and works should be completed by 2018. We will take this time to refine our plans for the future. I am now looking for a temporary space nearby to set up shop while we renovate, so it will be business as usual.
Ker and his team will be at Town Restaurant from 8 – 18 March 2017, 6.30pm – 10.30pm, showcasing his family recipes of popiah and kueh pie tee as part of The Fullerton Hotel’s Young Hawker Series. For reservations, tel: 6877 8911 / 8912 or visit www.fullertonhotels.com.