This essay is among the many treasures included in the book “Table for Ten: ASEAN Shared Food Traditions” which is newly published by the Department of Foreign Affairs. The writers behind it are Micky Fenix, Bryan Koh and Datu Shariff Pendatun who each write their own essays on how the practices and traditions of Philippine cuisine share similarities with those of the cuisines of our Asian neighbors.
“Most of the ingredients that lie at the heart of the foundation of Philippine cooking, from ginger to lemongrass, sour citrus to mellowing coconut milk, rice to noodle, are also cornerstones for the other cuisines of the region,” says the book’s synopsis. “The same can be said of the cooking techniques, such as denaturing in acid, grilling, steaming, boiling and braising, as well as fermentation techniques of seafood and carbohydrate. And there is of course the palate, a shared adoration for the salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter, combined in various degrees so that the result, though similar, is seldom completely the same.”
The book is divided into 12 chapters, with topics that range from rice cakes to salads, with each chapter containing two recipes so that the reader can bring to life what he or she has just read. It is named “Table of Ten” after the number of countries in the ASEAN. The essay below is published here with permission from its author Micky Fenix. Take a bite and enjoy.
Philippine cuisine has many stories about the origins of some of its food. One is about the origin of a roll called lumpiang ubod. The filling is made of strips of coconut pith (ubod), cooked with shrimp and pork. It was done first in Silay City, Negros Occidental by hawkers called manuglibud who plied their wares of rice cakes and other merienda food (afternoon snack) around town, particularly in the houses of the rich where, because of the successful sugar industry, the patrons spent their days gambling and would not move from their seats to eat. The lumpiang ubod was perfect for snacking, the filling contained within an edible wrapper, the brown sauce already within the wrapper, and made small enough to be held easily.
To obtain ubod, the heart of palm, a coconut tree had to be killed. And because coconut is an important agricultural product, the people of the place who were known as Negrense intentionally grew small coconut trees just for the pith, planting them between regular coconut trees. That was according to renowned Filipino food writer Doreen Gamboa Fernandez who was from the place, in her essay, "The Lumpia of Silay" in her book “Tikim: Essays of Philippine Food and Culture” (Anvil Publishing, 1994). She wrote how the chopped pith was also enjoyed in a drink called ensalada which had coconut water and fruits.
The lumpiang ubod had its variations as it moved from its birthplace to other parts of the country. The roll became bigger, the wrapper made softer when egg was used, the sauce now served apart, accompanied by crushed peanuts and chopped garlic.
Like the lumpiang ubod, other Philippine lumpia use mostly the main ingredient in its name to distinguish it from the other versions. And so lumpiang togue is for a roll of mung bean sprouts, lumpiang labong for bamboo shoots and lumpiang gulay for different vegetables.
A curious story is that of lumpiang Shanghai. While the roll is an influence from China, it cannot be found in the place it is named after. According to Clinton Palanca in his book, “My Angkong's Noodle” (Summit Publishing Company, Inc., 2014), it must have come from the Fujian dish Lum pia Shong Hai which had ground pork as its main filling. The Chinese version would have more ingredients and hence would be a bigger roll. The lumpiang Shanghai made do with less and ended up as thin rolls, usually cut to smaller sizes, served with a sweet-sour sauce.
Southeast Asian Rolls
There are three elements of a Southeast Asian roll—the wrapper, the filling, and the dipping sauce. Then, there are two ways to serve it—fresh or fried.
There are essentially three kinds of wrappers used. There is the flour-water mixture with the flour made of wheat or rice. It can be an egg and flour mixture, softer than the flour-water mixture. There is the most unusual wrapper made of vermicelli noodles wrapped around the filling, the Lao Yaw Sen Khao Poon. The noodle can be colored and so forms an attractive covering.
The wheat flour wrappers can be rounded or square and are unflavored. The Vietnamese rice paper wrappers, however, can have many sizes, different textures and shapes and can be made thicker with the addition of tapioca flour and sometimes flavored with sesame, coconut, and dried prawn.
At many wet markets, there is a place where a hot griddle is used to make the flour wrappers. "Stretchy blobs of dough are tapped on a griddle" is how the starting action to make the wrapper is described in the book Inside the “Southeast Asian Kitchen” (ArtPost Asia, 2007). After the stretched dough detaches from the main dough, the dough on the griddle is then rubbed to form a wrapper. This action is done several times on the other areas of the griddle. Each wrapper that is finished is stacked with the rest of the finished pieces, and in the Philippines, some are grouped by tens then separated with a strip of banana leaf.
Inside the roll
Vegetables serve as the main filling for most of the rolls. Any number of vegetables can be used that can be steamed or stir-fried.
Common vegetables used are carrots, green beans, yam bean, cabbage, and spring onions, all sliced thinly or julienne. Root crops like radish and sweet potato are also sliced thinly. Bean sprouts are arranged in a row and so are cilantro leaves. Many of those fillings can be found in the nime chow of Cambodia.
Additional kinds of fillings may include eggs that may be made first into an omelet. Proteins include meat such as barbecued chicken, sausage, or ground lamb. The latter is used in the Myanmar kaw pyant. Seafood like shrimp or crab meat are also used. For a vegetarian roll, tofu and Indonesian tempeh can be added to the vegetables.
Noodles are also used as filling such as rice noodles in the Vietnamese Gila go and vermicelli noodles in the Thai por pia tod.
The assembly can sometimes include a bit of flavoring wiped on the wrapper. The Singaporean popiah, for instance, can have chili paste and garlic paste.
Green salad leaves are used as both part of the filling and as a decorative touch peeping out of the roll.
Without the wrappers, the filling can be a vegetable dish or a salad. Such is the idea behind the Philippine lumpiang hubad, literally a naked roll because it has no wrapper covering. On the other hand, a salad with shrimp and rice noodles like the Vietnamese bun tom heo nuong will become goi cuon with the wrapper which usually comes out so artful because the transparent rice wrapper shows the shrimps arranged in a neat row.
Apart from Singapore, popiah is how the wrapped roll is called in Malaysia. Chinese Filipinos call it po pia and, as in Singapore and Malaysia, there will be family gatherings where members make their own rolls, choosing the fillings and the quantity according to their individual taste then wrapping while socializing.
Popiah has its origins from the Fujian word for the roll and so points to its Chinese origin. But so does the lumpia of Indonesia and the Philippines which is a Hokkien word.
The old spelling for lumpia in Indonesia was loempia which the Dutch still use today for their offering of Rijsttafel, the elaborate Indonesian meal still served in The Netherlands. There are so many versions of the Indonesian lumpia but the most common has bamboo shoots and is called lumpia Semarang after the city of its origin and so are many of the other lumpia versions. Or the name may indicate the main ingredient in the filling such as lumpia ayam (chicken).
The popiah, the lumpia, and other versions can either be fresh or fried. As for the noodle wrapper of the Lao Yaw Sen Khao Poor, it is always fried otherwise the noodle will not form into a roll and so Will not hold the filling.
While the fillings for the roll are usually cooked and so are already flavored, there is still a need for dipping sauces to give additional flavor.
Dipping sauces can be store-bought like bottled sweet chili sauce, hot chili sauce or even Hoisin sauce.
Many sauces, however, are prepared together with the roll and served separately. Each achieves a balance of salty, sweet, and sour flavors.
The Vietnamese make the nuoc cham, a chili garlic sauce with vinegar, lime, fish sauce, water, and sugar.
The Indonesian lumpia Semarang has a sweet chili sauce that is made with coconut milk, sugar, chili peppers, white pepper, tapioca starch and sometimes added with dried shrimp.
The Philippine peanut sauce has both peanut butter and crushed peanut mixed with sugar, coconut milk, Hoisin sauce and lime.
For the Philippine fresh lumpia, the sauce is a simple mix of sugar, water, soy sauce and cornstarch to thicken. But for the fried lumpia, it's vinegar spiked with chili and flavored with crushed garlic. Hawkers will have the vinegar sauce in a bottle and it's hardly a dipping sauce when buyers break the roll in two and then pour the vinegar into both halves. But it serves the purpose.
[Michaela Fenix is the author of Country Cooking: Philippine Regional Cuisines which won the National Book Award Food Category in 2014. She is Chair of the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award and President of the Food Writers Association of the Philippines.]