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.