25 Aug2010

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

COMMENTS:

  1. barang says:

    What a heart warming story! It is amazing to think that one simple flat iron pan has supported the clan and its artisanship, as well as the millions of lumpia lovers who partake of this gift! More power to Mrs Chan’s family.

    Aug 25, 2010 | 7:03 pm

     
  2. Gerry says:

    The Salcedo Weekend Market should invite these artisans to feature their products here in Manila, maybe even pay to get them here.

    Aug 25, 2010 | 7:30 pm

     
  3. Gay says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing this story MM. This reminds, there is also a lumpia wrapper maker in Los Banos bayan market. They cook the wrapper in a much bigger cast iron than on the picture above and you could watch them cook. They cook early in the morning though, and I have never been able to catch them start cooking (too early for me) but the warm wrapper tells me it is freshly made.

    Aug 25, 2010 | 7:47 pm

     
  4. Artisan Chocolatier says:

    The Chan’s should put up one of those big markers ala McDo stating “24 Million wrappers sold since 1935!!!” Major, Major Bravo!!!! ;->

    Aug 25, 2010 | 8:41 pm

     
  5. kitchen says:

    Amazing Story, they should be a national heritage.

    Aug 25, 2010 | 9:04 pm

     
  6. farida says:

    Wow! I am in awe of Mrs. Chan’s and her family’s perseverance. I agree with you, MM. Some things are better left to the experts.

    Aug 25, 2010 | 9:15 pm

     
  7. Vanessa says:

    Beautiful feature and just inspiring!

    Aug 25, 2010 | 10:18 pm

     
  8. Clarissa says:

    After seeing how the lumpia wrapper is made in YouTube, I’ve always wanted to catch the real show. But after a couple of months going back and forth the Alabang Market, I still haven’t been able to catch them in the act! They make it look so easy! :)

    Aug 25, 2010 | 10:39 pm

     
  9. Gej says:

    What a great story! And it’s heartwarming that there are people like you who open up our eyes to to the kind of work and skill that goes into something that many of us usually take for granted. I certainly look at lumpia wrappers with new eyes, and I haven’t even tried to make them.

    Aug 25, 2010 | 11:08 pm

     
  10. Lava Bien says:

    Wow, nice! I like cooking stuff on my iron cast too.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 12:12 am

     
  11. sunflowii says:

    those are beautiful, thin wrappers.
    i first saw the same technique in bangkok, by the road-side. the maker would have a bigger ball of dough in his hand and smear the pan. the dough even came in pandan flavor and was therefore light green in color. they wrap very thin strings of sugar (sort of like the dragon’s beard dessert) in it. dessert sugar lumpia made fresh and eaten right there. =)

    Aug 26, 2010 | 12:32 am

     
  12. Joey in Dubai says:

    Wow, major, major impressive! What a heartwarming story. May Mrs. Chan’s tribe increase!

    Aug 26, 2010 | 2:49 am

     
  13. Beth says:

    Oftentimes, the technique matters much more than the actual recipe. That is definitely the case here.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 3:48 am

     
  14. Ley says:

    Wonderful post MM! Kudos to you for documenting stories like this.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 8:37 am

     
  15. Emman says:

    It’s nice that you’re documenting and sharing through this blog Filipino food artisans like this lumpia wrapper maker and the broas maker in Bohol. I hope that NCCA would consider their contribution to our culinary heritage and give them the proper recognition like the Gawad Manlilikha awards.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 8:44 am

     
  16. millet says:

    thanks for this wonderful story, MM. this is the kind of lumpia wrapper i have been looking for! one of my dad’s staff was from bacolod and would hand-carry dozens of these special fresh bacolod lumpia for us whenever he returned from vacation.

    the ones sold these days do no come close to this version. many of the lumpia now use even the toughest parts of the ubod that it feels as if you’re eating wood wrapped in a thick yellow crepe. ugh!

    Aug 26, 2010 | 8:56 am

     
  17. Jen, Singapore says:

    Hi Marketman, In Balibago Public Market in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, there’s a stall there where you can buy freshly cooked (?) lumpia wrapper. As in, they are making it there at the stalls. You could still feel the warmth of the lumpia wrapper.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 11:59 am

     
  18. Blaise says:

    I hope this would continue through the generations. Thanks for sharing.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 12:21 pm

     
  19. Christine Tham says:

    This is a very common wrap found in Singapore and Malaysia. We use the wraps to make spring roll known as “popiah”. The fillings are turnips, carrots, bamboo shoots, bean paste, shrimp paste, sweet dark sauce and chilly sauce.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 2:49 pm

     
  20. Marketman says:

    Christine, yes, lumpia is the local evolved name for popiah, brought in by immigrants perhaps a few hundred years ago. However, few people still make the wrapper this way in the Philippines. Most of the time, it is much thicker and made by ladleling? the liquid dough onto a crepe pan… hence the interest. There are several videos on line showing how this is done. But none of them tell the story of 24 million wrappers from one pan over 70 years and through 4-5 generations… :)

    Aug 26, 2010 | 3:00 pm

     
  21. tamale8888 says:

    Another great read from you, MM. Thanks for sharing. You’ve already turned into a daily habit.

    Cheers!

    Aug 26, 2010 | 3:50 pm

     
  22. erleen says:

    Hi MM! The Pasig Wet market has several lumpia wrapper makers. Basically the same process only that they use bigger cast iron plates and lumpia wrappers are sold as soon as they are cooked. You can buy them while still hot. Wrappers are sold in 3 sizes. Small medium and large. Egg wrappers are sold by order only. With the new layout of the market, purveyors of the same products are grouped. Vendors of lumpia wrappers are are located at the right side, rear of the market, together with the vegetable and fruit vendors.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 4:02 pm

     
  23. Marketman says:

    erleen, may I ask, where exactly is the Pasig wet market? Thanks. :)

    Aug 26, 2010 | 5:34 pm

     
  24. sgboy says:

    they also sell this fresh in guadalupe market- with the flat stove and all- prata style where they “damp” the flat pan with the dough mix.

    easiest way to go to pasig market from makati— turn right to edsa crossing intersection — follow the jeepney routing pasig palengke- crossing!!!
    when in pasig- try also ado’s pansit— its been rated no. 1 even by korina on her rated K show! its the famous pansit in pasig!!!

    Aug 26, 2010 | 6:07 pm

     
  25. hungrycurious says:

    Wow. Just wow. I hope the grandkids follow the family tradition.

    Aug 26, 2010 | 7:00 pm

     
  26. linda says:

    MM,thank you for sharing this heart-warming story!

    Aug 27, 2010 | 6:34 am

     
  27. bagito says:

    Bravo indeed! Thanks for this heartwarming story, MM.

    Aug 27, 2010 | 10:43 am

     
  28. joyce says:

    this is inspiring and goes to show that there are still so many aspects of our culinary culture that are under appreciated and undiscovered

    Aug 27, 2010 | 12:46 pm

     
  29. cusinera says:

    I remember when my mom sent me to buy some lumpia wrapper in Malabon when I was in elementary school, I have to walk a couple of blocks away from our house. She only have a street name and I have to ask people living there where the lumpia wrapper maker lives, he got a bigger flat iron plate and he would twirl a much thicker dough on his fist and lightly slaps it on the iron plate “as quick as you blink”, he used cut pieces of typing paper as posts-its to layer the lumpia wrapper in tens on a large bilao, I was mesmerize with the rhythm, it was like a dance=) Only saw it once but will never forget….

    Aug 27, 2010 | 7:52 pm

     
  30. mbw says:

    I love these heartwarming posts of yours, MM!

    Aug 28, 2010 | 5:39 pm

     
  31. krissy says:

    They didn’t by any chance share the recipe or ratios? Wheat or rice flour or both? Now if I could only find some fresh ubod or those tail-less mongo sprouts. Thanks for the post. Now to experiment…..

    Aug 29, 2010 | 5:19 am

     
  32. erleen says:

    Hi MM! The Pasig wet market is behind the Pasig City hall. The market itself Is a dead end so it serves like a rotunda that all the jeepneys plying the routes goes around the market. Its more orderly now unlike a couple of years back.

    Yes, its ‘that’ city hall with the shabu tiangge scandal.

    Don’t forget to visit Ado’s pansit!

    Aug 29, 2010 | 9:59 pm

     
  33. Marketman says:

    erleen, thanks for that.

    Aug 30, 2010 | 6:39 am

     
  34. marketfan says:

    I’ve also seen this in the Kamuning market. They do it the old-fashioned, manual way without a ladle. Must take a lot of practice to be able to make uniform, round lumpia wrappers with a hand swirl. Fascinating to watch.

    Aug 31, 2010 | 12:09 pm

     
  35. julie says:

    Where can I buy lumpia wrappers n or round the Nashville, Tennessee area?

    Nov 11, 2010 | 11:20 am

     
  36. marghi says:

    so glad you posted it ….even after a year…..heartwarming story indeed….

    Nov 22, 2010 | 1:15 am

     
  37. saffron says:

    ei MM, where exactly is the Chan’s business located? I go to Bacolod practically every week for 5 yrs now and try to bring pasalubong for the kids when I go home. For a change I’d like to make something for them using this lumpia wrapper. If you’re impressed, it’s definitely worth checking:) Thanks!

    Feb 26, 2011 | 9:00 am

     
  38. Marketman says:

    saffron, unfortunately, I don’t have an address or telephone number. We just went to the market, through the seafood section, to the veggies, and if you find the largest seller of fresh ubod, usually with several trunks worth of ubod being sliced to order, the Chans are right there. Ask around and I bet you will find them in the main market in Bacolod. Sorry, I can’t be more precise, but I was being guided around by locals…

    Feb 26, 2011 | 10:10 am

     
  39. Deng says:

    Hi, can you please share the recipe of the wrapper with me? I have tasted fresh lumpia from Bacolod with this kind of wrapper and it was really good. I would like to try making it as well. Thank you.

    Apr 17, 2011 | 10:07 am

     
 

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