Monday, November 27, 2006

Traditional Food Packaging

I was at the Ayer Rajah Food Centre yesterday afternoon when I spotted a Fried Hokkien Prawn Noodle stall selling their noodle wrapped in opeh leaves. I have not seen this for ages and so I promptly bought a packet even though I wasn't hungry.

In our kampong days, most food were packaged in leaves. The most popular were the banana leaf, the simpoh air leaf and opeh leaf. Others included the coconut and pandan leaf. Whilst banana leaf is still quite commonly used today for foods like nasi lemak and otah the other two are quite rare. In the old days, banana leaves were often used to hold slabs of tofu in the market. But they seemed to have stopped this practice.

The Simpoh air (also spelt ayer) leaf was also known as the te-bak-heok or 'pork leaf' in Hokkien, according to my friend Chuck. In the old days, so he claims, pork was often sold in the markets wrapped in this leaf. Frankly, this fact is new to me. I only remember it being used to pack rojak and chee cheong fun. They would fold the leaf into a conical cup shape and hold the edges together with a tooth pick. In my kampong, there used to be a rojak stall at the coffee shop opposite our house. As a kid, I enjoyed watching the hawker prepare the rojak. As for chee cheong fun, every time I eat this snack, I think of our kampong days. Sometimes, we would tell the hawker; "si yao suk yao" in Cantonese, meaning we do not want the sweet sauce; just plain light sauce and oil will do. Of course, we wanted lots of sesame seeds sprinkled on it.

I do not know why this leave is no longer used nowadays. There are so many such plants all over our island. Chuck thinks that it is because of cost. I suspect it is due to hygiene reasons. I hope somebody can enlighten us.

As for the Opeh leaf, it is often used to wrap takeaway fried foods like kuey teow, carrot cake and also chui kueh. I really miss this particular style of packing. Nowadays they use waxed paper like the one below. Somehow, fried kuey teow seems to taste better when wrapped in opeh leaf. I read here that the leaf infuses its contents with a subtle, woody fragrance that enhances its taste. No wonder the hawker who sold me the hokkien noodle told me to wait about 15 to 20 minutes before eating it. In any case, because our sense of smell is associated with memory, the smell of the opeh leave brings back fond memories of our kampong days and adds to the eating experience. The hawker also told me that he got his supplies from Indonesia. He complained that it was quite expensive, each piece costing 40 to 45 cents.

As for the fire for frying, of course nowadays, they use gas cookers. But I have been told that kuey teow fried with wood fire tastes better. I wonder if there is any truth or merely psychological.

In the picture above, the hawker had used a rubber band to bind the packet of noodles. In the old days, they used a kind of reed or straw to tie the packet. No plastic bags were issued. You just hook your finger around the loop and carried the packet. I remember those happy evenings when my father bought back packets of fried hor fun dangling from his fingers this way. I believe this same type of reed/straw was used to tie bak changs (rice dumplings) but of course these days, it is replaced by a raffia string.

In addition to the use of leaves for packaging, paper was often used to wrap food. The most common of course was newspaper, which wasn't very healthy I suppose. The other one that comes to mind is the exercise book pages which was used to pack kacang puteh.

These dead leaves from the row of palm tree outside my office block certainly look like the opeh; but I don't suppose they are they same, are they?


Anonymous said...

Ah! The good old days!
The 'kiam chow' string (now replaced by colourful raffia string)was made from drying strips of the outer layers of the banana stem/trunk. The banana stem was also cut up into small bits to add as a filler to animal feed for pigs.

The simpoh ayer leaf is seldom used nowadays although it is plentiful. The last time I saw it used was a few years ago at a coffee-shop (Blk 959 Jurong West St 91. From this coffeeshop you can see the well-known City Harvest Church across the street. Interestingly, there is a Chinese temple behind the coffeeshop.)
The char-kway (or chyetow kway) stall here would put a piece of simpoh ayer on the plate. In this case, it was not really used as a wrapping. Anyone who happens to work in NTU can lunch at this coffeeshop and check out whether the charkway stall is till there.
Oh, before I forget, check out the wrapping used for Tempeh (usually sold at the towgay/towkwa stall in wet markets). The wrapping may be simpoh leaf although most times it is brown plastic-waxed paper

As to opeh-leaf here are a few places where they used to use it for wrapping:
Farrer Court Road -- Char kway tiow stall, near the famous pau stall, in Food Ctr Blk 7.

Opposite Ang Mo Kio MRT--- Hokien mee stall in Blk 347 coffeeshop.
(There were another 2 hokien mee stalls in AMK that used opeh-leaf but seem to have gone out of business or operating elsewhere)

Bedok -- Hokien mee at coffeeshop opposite the Swimming Complex in Blk 56. The hokien mee is fried by an elderly man. (There is also a hokien mee stall in the adjacent coffeeshop next door where the noodles are fried by a lady but she doesn't use opeh-leaf wrapper.)

As to paper cones for kachang puteh, besides exercise books the pages of the Yellow Pages phone directory also provided some colour!

Anonymous said...

The Char Kway Teow stall at Old Kallang Airport also have a piece of opeh leave on the plate. However, the taste is same to me with or without the opeh leave...
My mum (in her mid 70s) told me one reason why the simpoh leave was used wrap the pork. The leave will absorb the moisture of the pork and thus get rid of those watery and smelly discharge.When using plastic to wrap, we can often see the watery and blood sticking to it. Accordingly to her, the moisture will have an effect on the taste and the simpoh leave does it job in absorbing these moisture to gave it a better taste. Besides those mentioned, it is also used to wrap fried bee noon. But it is not allowed for camouflage when we are in the army.....

Lam Chun See said...

Wah .. Wee Kiat, how come you know so many places where they use opeh leaf? Don't eat too much hor; not good for health.

As for the stall at Blk 959 Jurong West St 91, I will check it out next time I am there. I believe the original gate/entrance to Nantah is nearby.

Your comments are very educational. Readers would have learned a lot. I didn't know that bit about the use of the banana trunk to to make strings and feed pigs. In my kampong, they usually used water hyacinth (hokkien they say 'pio') to add to the pig feed.

But how come you did not comment of the palm tree?

Anonymous said...

>>But how come you did not comment about the palm tree?<<
Ha! Ha! Chun See,
It is hard to comment about anything when 2 young grandsons (1-year old and 2-year old) are fighting with me for the computer keyboard.

Wrt your question, the dried leaf in your photo probably can be used as "opeh" if there is a plentiful supply. The Palm tree trunk in your photo looks a bit too fat to be a Pinang. An easy way to check is to look at the fruit -- the Pinang has pingpong-sized fruits.

Btw on the subject of traditional food wrappings, have you already blogged about Ba-chang; Nonya bachang is wrapped in Pandan leaf while the other non-Nonya bachangs are wrapped in Bamboo leaf.
Another tarditional food wrapping is the coconut leaf for ketupat (satay) and kuay-lopez.

Incidentally, when banana or simpoh-ayer leaf is used to line a plate (nasi lemak; char-kway, etc) it is to reduce the effort of washing the plate since most of the oil, dirt, etc would be thrown away with the leaf.

Anonymous said...


Your blog's really interesting and enriching. I stumbled upon it looking for a famous Chef called Tham Yu Kai.

Then I saw this particular post. The leaves of the opeh come from the leaf sheath of the betel nut palm (Areca catechu).


Lam Chun See said...

Welcome to my blog and thanks for the kind compliment Lekowala.

Wee Kiat. I have blogged about the rice dumpling before. For this post, I wanted to limit to topic of packaging. So I left out cases where the leaf is cooked together with the food; e.g. bak chang, lotus leaf, coconut etc. Shd include otah

I think those palm trees outside my office are called Royal Palm.

Victor said...

Your photo of the fallen 'opeh' looks more like a dried shark dorsal fin to me, hehe.

There is another stall that sells hokkien mee at Blk 86 Marine Parade Central that uses opeh leave. Minimum $4.00 for a packet of opeh leave wrapped hokkien mee (takeaway).

Chris Sim said...

Ahh.... char kway teow and hokkien mee wrapped in opeh leaves. It's more common now than you think Chun See. The coffee shop at Simei also have. So does the Kopitiam and Food Republic at Vivo City. Juz a look at the opeh leaves is enough to stir up memories of growing up years in the 70s. Not sure if it really enhances the frangrance of the mee. But psychologically, the mee does taste better.

Anonymous said...

I remembered:

Opeh leave was also for packing Horfun

Malays & Indians prefer banana leaf and used newspaper for food packaging.

Ang-Mo preferred grease-proof paper (used for baking cakes) and newspaper to wrap the fish & chip.

Does anyone remember those "Ah Soh" brown paper bag with red/white threads as bag handle (also got advertisement on the sides)for carrying live hens as gifts for friends? OR the Chinese medicine shop who prefers pink colored paper to wrap the herbs?

One of the things I like about the good old days is when neighbours would present their good neighbours with food and titbits and in return we reciprocate? Today, my neighbour does not even want to look at my face.

Anonymous said...

From all these stories, we can conclude that nature is very generous and provide us with many useful things, but at the same time it needs respect and good treatment, not destroying the environment needlessly under the the label of progress. I used to see my grandma using wash-up rice water to rinse cups and bowls and the effect was good. Recently I talked with a gardener about ways of growing beautiful plants. He told me that when he visited China, he found people there use soya remains (after the juice being squeezed out) to fertilize plants and result is simply fantastic.

Lam Chun See said...

Unlike Peter and Chris, I am blessed to have very good neihbours.

The Yongs on my right - the wife is an excellent cook. Every Chinese festive season we can look forward to goodies. Chinese New Year we get many dishes including a hakka dish called Xuan Pan Zhi (Abacus seeds) ,,, hmmm fantastic. Others include bak chang's (not like those you get in the shops), mooncakes from Crown Prince Hotel, oh nee, popiah plus much more.

The Foos on the left are very understanding. For years put up with the leaves from our mango tree, then the noise from my children's cockerel, help to water our plants when we go on holidays and feed our pets.

Anonymous said...

I had an elderly Indian neighbour (lady)when I stayed at blk 108 AMK who always gave me very delicious curry and cookie during Deepavali. Whenever that happened, I would thank her being so kind hearted, carrying the food right up to my door steps. She had a very peculiar behavior, as soon as I closed my door and put down the food, she would come again, pressing the door bell for a second time. I opened the door, and I saw her with another tray of food. I exclaimed: " My goodness, Mrs Joseph, thank you very much. My wife and I could not finish so much food". She replied: "Can lah ! hee hee". Feeling very satisfied that she caught me by surprise, went back to her flat. I do not have another kind neighbour after she had shifted house. I could not return her kind gesture in kind as my wife is not a good cook. However, we bought her some presents.

Victor said...

Chun See said:

"...we can look forward to goodies. Chinese New Year we get many dishes including a hakka dish called Xuan Pan Zhi (Abacus seeds) ,,, hmmm fantastic. Others include bak chang's (not like those you get in the shops), mooncakes from Crown Prince Hotel, oh nee, popiah plus much more."

Don't eat too much hor; not good for health.

Chris Sim said...

Oh... Xuan Pan Zhi (Abacus seeds). A colleague of mine, a hakka, makes fabulous Xuan Pan Zhi! Sometimes, she made and gave me some in the office. Never mind got lousy neighbours, at least I have loving colleages. Hee.

Victor said...

Then how come this loving colleague (the one sitting next to me) never passed me some Xuan Pan Zhi for sampling?

Lam Chun See said...

This suan pan zi (算盘子)is not easy to find in Spore. I once met a friend at a hawker centre in Ang Mo Kio Ave 4 who came all the way from Bedok to eat this dish. She was Khek of course. In case you guys interested, there's another stall at the Shunfu Rd hawker centre. But my neighbour's is far better.

By the way, Victor, my BMI is 25, so yes need to be careful. But the rest of the family all very thin. I think BMI all not more than 18.

Lam Chun See said...

Re-reading Wee Kiat's comment about the 'kiam chow' has given me an idea. Every time, after the banana tree outside my house bears fruit, we will chop the whole tree up and dispose. Maybe next time I will recycle the trunk and make some strings. My wife and son use alot of raffias for gardening. But not sure if the kiam chow will last long in the open.

Anonymous said...

Chun See is indeed very health conscious. When talking about 'makan' everyone sit up, eyes sparking. My idea is this, when a chap reaches the wrong side of fifty, buffet meals are not ideal (set meal is better). When buffet meal sets in, it is usually time to throw caution to the wind, and make your money worth. Our inner voice tells us: "Don't worry. We only live once- full steam ahead !" Yes, the voice is correct, but we also do not yearn for a big discount on our longevity which we give to ourselves.

excuse like "Oh, no harm, only once a while". On the other hand having set meal

Anonymous said...

Sorry readers for the above 'cock-up' comment which is like a run-away derailed train. This reflects how good I am at the PC

Victor said...

Zen, you can delete and type again mah. You will see the "wastepaper basket" below all your own comments when you are logged in. Oh, I just remember, you don't log in because you don't have a blogger account, right? Then sign up for one lor.

Even if you are not keen to have a blogger account, what you can do is compose your comments in notepad first. You can amend till you are satisfied with it. Then do a "cut-and-paste" of the notepad contents as follows:

In your notepad, type Ctrl-A, then Ctrl-C. (This will copy the notepad contents into a temporary area in your PC known as a buffer.) Then you just go to the blogger comments window and do Ctrl-V to paste the notepad contents (from the buffer) into the comments window and then continue as per normal.

I hope I didn't confuse you there. There are certain things which only a face-to-face meeting can explain better - you just can't run away from it.

Anonymous said...

Very 'malu', Chun See did teach me to use the note-pad which I have still not mastered. That is why I think, the kids nowadays can beat me hollow.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting blog on food packaging in the good old days. Can someone make a video on all the different types of food packaging eg newspapers, leaves, raffia strings etc?...

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