For many years, one my food “quests” has been to learn how to make the thinnest lumpia wrappers. Freshly made, they were to envelope freshly cut heart of palm (ubod) stewed in lard. The ultimate lumpiang ubod. I have tried at least a dozen recipes for lumpia wrapper, and they always ended up too thick, too crepe like, too eggy, etc. The next best thing is to find purveyors who make their own lumpia wrappers and buy them freshly made, then rush home and use them in your lumpia. But how hard can it be to make something with so few ingredients? As usual, the simplest things can be the darnedest to perfect. Read previous posts on the quest here and here. On one of my trips to Bacolod last year with Margarita Fores, we managed to identify a market vendor who made their own lumpia wrappers. We managed to convince them to let us observe them at work, but a crazed schedule on the said afternoon meant that we missed our appointment with lumpia destiny… Frankly, we pissed off the folks that so kindly agreed to let us see how they made them. We apologized profusely, and said we would try to catch them the next time we were in Bacolod…
A few months later, we asked the same vendors if they would accommodate our request again, and they were understandably cross with us, and it didn’t seem like we would be invited to their home. But MF’s charm and persistence, pleading from several well-connected aunts and long-time customers of the stall, finally yielded us an invitation, and this time we made sure we were there at the appointed time. From the minute we walked in the gates of this modest suburban home, I knew we had a brilliant food story. So brilliant in fact that I told MF that I would refrain from publishing it, because I thought it should get a wider audience than I had on this blog. At the time, she was toying with ideas for the Roxas VP campaign and one of them was to focus attention on successful market entrepreneurs from around the country, and this was a perfect example. So despite taking photos and watching the family make lumpia wrappers from scratch, I didn’t write a post about it. Instead, a few weeks later, a well-known television host, came with a crew, filmed the story, and we hoped it would air it in the months ahead. I don’t think the story ever got aired. Or if it did air on national television, I missed it. So here is the story from my point of view…
I can understand the reluctance to bring two nosey foodies into the heart of their production facilities, a makeshift cooking area in the backyard area of a nice upper-middle class suburban Bacolod home. And frankly, once I saw the man cooking the wrappers in a ski mask, my first reaction was that he wanted to remain anonymous…hahaha, duhhh, not. The matriarch of the family is Mrs. Lucy Chan, a third generation member of the family that started the lumpia wrapper business some 75 years ago. She must be in her mid to late-70’s now, and one of her eyes was blind, a result of standing over the hot coals every day for decades, making millions of wrappers. She narrates that the heat/smoke/particles are what resulted in her blindness… Her grandparents started the business in the 1930’s or 40’s and they have made lumpia wrappers ever since.
The basic dough is a mixture of flour, water and egg. In the “old days,” the mixture did not include egg, and they felt the flour was better then, probably had more gluten I would guess. The dough is made a few hours before it is cooked, and mixed by hand. It is “slapped” around a few times, still quite wet, but you can pull it away in small portions. Jojo, the guy in the ski mask up top, is one of Mrs. Chan’s eight children, all of whom finished university and many of them working as professionals in Bacolod, some having gone abroad and have since returned. Jojo is the chief lumpia wrapper chef at the moment, and he was brilliant.
Jojo, would take about 1/2-3/4 cup of the dough into his right hand that was lightly oiled with vegetable oil. He then quickly “shmeared” the ball of dough onto a hot cast iron plate, and miraculously a “skin” of dough adhered to the pan in roughly circular pieces that were almost 8 inches in diameter. It took a 2-3 seconds to make each one, and Jojo made 4 in a few blinks of an eye. Next, the wrapper cooked and shrank a bit, pulling away from the pan, and Jojo used his bare fingers to pull off the wrappers and place them on a basket bilao behind him, still slightly damp but already cooked. It was a mesmerizing technique to watch, and even then, I knew I would NEVER be able to do this unless I practiced for hundreds of hours and risked burning several fingers in the process. It was an absolute pleasure to watch this process. It doesn’t get more artisanal than this…
Jojo said that the dough insulated his fingers from the hot pan, and if you moved quickly enough, it was all quite easy and safe. :) But the pan was another gem. Seems they have been using the same piece of cast iron for 70+ years! Talk about being well-seasoned! And over coals all that time, never on a gas stove.
Jojo took of his mask for some photos, but he said it was really necessary to wear it or you could literally feel your skin cooking/baking in the constant heat. They only cooked for a couple of hours from mid to late afternoon, the resulting wrappers to be sold the next day at the market in Bacolod. If there was a special order from a suki or regular client, they added to their daily production of roughly 1,500 wrappers on average. Mrs. Chan said that at their peak many years ago, they cooked some 4,000 wrappers per day (demand still surges during major holidays), all on this lone cast iron plate!
I was calculating quickly in my head that if they averaged 1,500 wrappers a day for 320 days a year for just 50 years, they would have produced a whopping 24 million wrappers! Isn’t that just incredible? I thought it was. In the “old days” they charged just 1 centavo per wrapper, today, the price is up to PHP1 each. Good grief, knowing what I know now, I would personally be willing to pay 2-3x that for these wrappers!
The newly cooked wrappers are dried for a few seconds, and then grouped by ten pieces and marked off with a little piece of banana leaf the size of a post-it note pad. They are set aside overnight and ready to be sold early the next day.
This enterprise managed to provide a good income for Mrs. Chan, and she and her husband educated 8 kids, and now their 8 kids, their spouses and several grandchildren are doing well. Many of them came by to visit when they heard we were there watching the process. It was just an amazing and heartwarming story. Hard work, perseverance, an emphasis on quality and service, longevity, value, etc. all wrapped into one. Success of the most earnest kind. I was personally stunned. And I know there are many stories like this out there. They succeeded the old-fashioned way, by dint of their hard work.
The results? An amazingly thin wrapper, almost translucent, and just enough to wrap the lumpia filling. It wasn’t too thick that it would detract from the filling, not too thin that it would be ineffective at containing the ubod. In fact, it was almost as if there was nothing there. I have given up my quest to make this on my own. I think some things are better made by the experts like Mrs. Chan and her family, and I bow to their expertise.
As for all those Filipino cookbooks out there with recipes for fresh lumpia wrappers, none of them so far, in my personal opinion, are sufficiently good enough to compete with the likes of Mrs. Chan. Brava! A huge thank you for allowing us into your home last year. Maraming salamat!