Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · History

Food Explorer Storyteller with 63 million+ reads 📧 johorkaki@gmail.com

Where Do Opeh Leaf Wrappings Come From? It is not a Leaf

FHM wrapped in Opeh Leaf to keep it hot, hot, hot

When I was a child, hot hawker food was often sold wrapped in a light brownish wrapping known as opeh leaf or opeh hak.

Crab Vermicelli wrapped in Opeh leaf

Char kway teow, fried Hokkien mee, chai tow kueh, char hor fun, fried crab bee hoon, orh luak, etc. Can you name more?



Opeh leaf is an excellent hot food wrapping as it insulates heat very well with lots of small air pockets inside its sheet, like organic bubble wrap. As an organic product it is earth friendly too.



But, opeh leaf or opeh hak is a lot more than just a traditional food wrapper. When the brown sheet wrap around steamy hot food and its sauces, they all interact with each other, infusing the food with a nice woody fragrance. The opeh hak was more than just a wrapping - it was like one of the essential ingredients for the best fried Hokkien mee, fried hor fun, fried kway teow, etc. 

It is hard to describe that smell and taste but anyone who grew up in that era (Malaysia and Singapore up to the 1980s) will know it.


 
In recent years, opeh leaf has made a come back, not as a wrapping but an underlining or decorative tray for nostalgic reasons. Used in this way, it imparts little if any fragrance to the food 😔

Where do opeh leaf or opeh hak come from?

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Opeh leaf or hak comes from the betel nut palm (scientific name, areca catechu).

Image credit: Wikipedia
Betel nut palms are found in tropical India, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. You are able to see them in Singapore parks today (if you look out for them lah).

Image credit: Wikipedia
The young betel nut fruit is green and turns reddish brown to light brown when ripe.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Betel nut chewing is popular in India and Taiwan. It was also popular in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia until it was banned as its red juice spat on pavements was hard to clean and it was later found to have negative side effects like oral cancer.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The Malaysian state of Penang was named after the Malay word for the betel nut palm, pinang. The betel nut palm is featured on the flag of Penang since 1949 when it became a British Crown Colony. 


Image credit: Wikipedia
When the betel nut leaf dies, it falls from the palm together with the sheath at its base. These are collected for opeh wrappings.


Image credit: Wikipedia
Although commonly referred to as opeh "leaf", the wrapping is actually the base or sheath which attaches the leaf to the palm trunk.

Image credit: Wikipedia
So, the more accurate term is opeh "hak" which is Hokkien Chinese for wrap.

Image credit: Wikipedia



The betel nut palm leaf sheath is made into plates, bags and other products in India. Using opeh for food wrapping is probably started by south Indians in Malaysia (though I have not seen Indian food in opeh wrap myself yet). If you know, please share 😊

I am just told that Mamak mee goreng (Indian spicy fried noodles) used to be sold wrapped in opeh hak. So, this could be among the earliest use of opeh hak in Malaysia and Singapore.

I love all forms of natural wrappings as they make the food taste and smell better. Equally, if not even more important, natural food wrappings do not damage our planet like plastic and styrofoam wrappings.

Please share where in Singapore and Malaysia can I get food fully wrapped in opeh hak, the old way.

Take a photo of opeh "leaf" and email it to 📧  johorkaki@gmail.com 

Thank you.

Reference:

Palm morphology and anatomy
Betel nut palm

Date: 10 Jul 2020

22 comments:

  1. Not only is banana leaf a great decomposable wrapping for nasi lemak, it gives a lovely fagrance to the rice too. Best of both worlds!

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    1. Yes yes organic food wrappings are the best.

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  2. Good read! Found your article as I was searching about Opeh Leaf Hokkien Mee. Found a new favourite food delivery with minimal waste, from Ah Soon Geylang Lor 29 Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee. There is an option for delivery in Opeh Leaf! Not in plastic nor polystyrene!

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    1. Thanks! Hokkien mee tastes so much better with opeh :-D

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  3. Ah yes, my parents also used to buy back the black hokkien mee in opeh leaves. We called it zichar hokkien mee to distinguish it from the other type of hokkien mee. Nowadays, younger Singaporeans think that the black/zichar hokkien mee is "KL hokkien mee", as if Singapore copied it from the KL restaurants. They don't know it existed in SG from a long time back, and isn't copied from KL.

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  4. My father was a hawker and I remember helping him to wash and trim the opeh leaf, in the 70s and 80s. Some were recycled... haha. At least I did my best to wash them before recycling.

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  5. Xuan En Xuan En En17 October 2023 at 19:41

    yah , my mum loved such . During my teenager days I would save my pocket money to buy food of such for Family Supper. One of such is the popular from Fatty Restaurant, the popular fried HKT at beach road ( 海南) and those island wide . Even till today , I would still do for mother’s request - even through platform like grab n panda / islandwide

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  6. Yes!!!!! And the food tasted soooo good! No food in plastic lined paper can ever come close, not themee goren, the kway teow, the hokkien mee, the Indian rojak or any other foods!😌☺️

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  7. somehow the food taste much nicer wrapped in upih! it's a treat for us children when parent brought this home, but must share with siblings!!!

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  8. Yes , I remembered , that's the wrapping from the " Beetle Nut " palm leaf base .We used the whole " Beetle palm " leaf , sit in them and pulled along by grabbing the leafs , partially identical to the coconut palm leaves in the front only . The rear are wide and pliable where you can sit on

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  9. Those days indian muslim food like fried mee goreng. Indian rojak are packed this this

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  10. my father used to buy hokkien mee and whole sauce duck every pay day. both wrapped in those opehs. i remember tiong bahru plaza one stall still used it in the early 2000s . i used to go there and eat. dont know if its still there.

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  11. It's best consumed an hour after its been wrapped,can smell the strong aroma and the tastes of its ingredients

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  12. Those were the days.. heathy food with no plastic.. upeh leaves can maintain the heat of the food.. my late dad used to bring mee Hong Kong in upeh leaves.. it was such a luxury to have mee Hong Kong those days..

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  13. My late dad used to da pao ee mee in these leaves for supper when he returned home from his taxi shift past midnight. Everyone got one pkt. Nonetheless, we didn't appreciate them coz he would wake us up to eat but we had to wake up at 6 a.m every morning to go to school !

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  14. Only pioneer n medeka generation have this sentimental feeling. Food cheap n nice with quality and quantity. One packet is enough for a family of four. Now one packet is just enough for one child not adult.

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  15. Tan David Chao Hsiung17 October 2023 at 19:53

    keok road the old coffeeshop where the lok lok satay is has one of the best black hokkien noodles

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  16. When I was young, the hawker would wrap CKT in opeh ( leaf sheath of a palm). CKT tasted exceptionally fragrant.

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  17. A head chef once demonstrated to me the same hor fun with and without opeh leaf. He said most eateries stop using this leaf due to the high costing. And you need to use a brush to remove bug eggs between the grooves.

    Just wrapped it for 5 min minimally and try it. It’s was extra smooth and the wok hei flavours locked back into the food.

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  18. Tony Boey no problem at all. I was very fortunate to be able to taste the difference side by side. The smoothness is evident and the sheen on the noodles is unlike the usual plating. One leaf was said to cost $1 ten years ago. I’m not sure how much it cost now per sheet.

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  19. Opeh leaves are still available. It is our hawkers who removed free condiments and charge for it and supported by the current generation that left our heritage dishes in shambles.

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  20. 以前的食物,全部用香蕉叶来包的,味道真的很香。现在年轻的一辈根本没有机会去感受那种感觉😋

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