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

Knowing its history makes food more delicious 🇸🇬 johorkaki@gmail

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, 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 📧 

Thank you.


Palm morphology and anatomy
Betel nut palm

Date: 10 Jul 2020


  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!

    1. Yes yes organic food wrappings are the best.

  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!

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


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