Usually made by baking or deep-frying a mixture of prawns, tapioca flour, and water, kropek is a welcome addition to dining tables and pantries all over the country. But while this crusty cracker is usually associated with Chinese cuisine, its origins are actually as complex as its fulsome flavor profile.
Where did kropek come from, exactly?
The name itself points to its country of origin. Though it’s a popular snack throughout Southeast and East Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia are traditionally credited with inventing the kropek, with the former having the largest variety of the delicacy in the region. Called krupuk in the Malay tongue, the pale pink, angular crackers were initially created as a way to draw the flavor from seafood parts that were usually discarded, and thus minimize waste.
Legend states that crushed prawn heads left over from a feast were used to make the first batch of krupuk. Although the name krupuk might mean “prawn chips” in various parts of the world (even all the way to Holland, whose occupation of the Southeast Asian country back in the 19th century led to their adopting the kroepoek as a Dutch snack), it can also be made by mixing the essence of fish or squid with rice, fruits, nuts or vegetables to come up with endless variations on the flavorful biscuit.
How kropek made its way to the Philippines
Although kropek is now a prized ingredient in the Asian fusion scene, it’s actually been around longer than even some of the most old-school Filipino dishes.
Before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, Malay settlers from the neighboring islands washed up on our shores, and assimilated themselves into the local population. One of their chief contributions to pre-colonial society was the recipe for a light, fluffy cracker made with crushed shrimp heads and flour that was left to dry under the hot, tropical sun for maximum crispness.
It didn’t take much for the locals to appreciate the inventive little snack, continuing to do so for centuries all the way through to modern times, buying them from vendors and peddlers on the road so they could have something to munch on while waiting out rush hour traffic in their cars.
The homegrown fastfood giant Chowking even took things a step further in the ‘90’s, rebranding the kropek as “Chicharap”, thus turning it into one of their most popular menu items, and the inadvertent Oriental counterpart of fries on the side.
Super Bowl of China, the famed Chinese food chain, has also been known to serve wooden bowls of kropek as complimentary appetizers, and no order of the pricey and celebrated Peking Duck would be complete without handfuls of the translucent cracklings peeking out beneath the glistening pieces of juicy roasted fowl.
With a name as crunchy as its texture, the kropek has gone from being a humble roadside snack to gracing the plates of some of the swankiest fusion restaurants as an edgy garnish or appetizer. With its varied transformations throughout the centuries and decades, one can only look to the future, and eagerly anticipate just how far this snack time staple will go as it continues to tantalize the taste buds and memories of generations to come.
This article was originally published in 2014.