Leaves in the tropics are big. Bigger than the ones up in Greenland and down in New Zealand. This is because larger leaves tend to frost during cold nights and overheat in desert-like climates, but they cope very well in hot and wet tropical areas such as Southeast Asia (Klein).
Leaves of banana, bamboo, coconut, water lotus and betel nut palm in particular are put to good use in the Singaporean kitchen. These leaves are flexible and can be folded to wrap around food of different shapes. They also have strong water-proofing quality to withstand hot water and steam, as well as the gravies so common in Singapore’s food cultures. Some of them even impart a fragrance to the wonderful treat they carry (Ng).
Coconut leaves are best known for their use as a pouch to make ketupat, a diamond-shaped rice cake popularly served during the Hari Raya Puasa celebration at the end of the Muslim fasting month. The leaves are woven into a box-shaped packet, which is then partially filled with rice. After the ends are woven to seal the ketupat, it is immersed into boiling water to cook. Stalls at the annual Hari Raya Bazaar used to sell coconut leaves to meet the increased demand, but nowadays, people either buy ready-made ketupat or pre-woven ketupat cases for convenience (Hari Raya Bazaar, Tan). When wood fire cooking was the norm, fallen coconut leaves were also used to feed the fire (Chan). Their dried, thin leaf bone was originally used as rojak and satay sticks, but has since been replaced by bamboo (Vasu, Oh).
Banana leaves are associated with many foods in Singapore. The older generation would remember nasi lemak in the form of a pyramid-shaped banana leaf wrap. It was the way the coconut rice was sold or packed for picnics by the kampong dwellers who had a banana tree in their backyard (Abdullah). Today, waxed papers and plastic boxes are the norm. However, banana leaves continue to be popular for otak-otak, a wrapped fish custard that is either steamed or barbecued. The leaf enclosure helps to hold in the heat and steeps the fish in its own juice. When barbecuing, the leaf protects the fish from direct flame, and imparts a subtle smokiness when it is charred (Ng). This is also why many hawker stalls selling barbecue seafood still place banana leaves on top of their griddle, which hawkers nowadays use instead of charcoal fire.
Another dish synonymous with the leaves is the Indian banana leaf rice. In a restaurant, the leaves are placed face up, midrib parallel to the diners, who then pick the dishes they want to be spooned onto the leaves. The meal is traditionally eaten with hands but utensils are acceptable too (Ng). During the kampong days, Indian households used the leaves as plates because they were easy to get from the banana trees right outside their doors. Before the meal, a leaf was harvested, rinsed with water, and cut into smaller pieces to be divided among the family members. After use, the leaves were simply thrown away (Menon). Indian families today prefer plates and save the banana leaves for special meals like the mandatory vegetarian food served in a traditional Hindu wedding (Koh and Ho 123).
Lotus leaves are frequently used in Chinese dishes such as lo mai gai. This classic dim sum item comprising glutinous rice, Chinese sausage, dried shiitake mushroom and dried shrimps is wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed. A similar dish is served at Chinese weddings but with regular white rice and more luxurious meats or seafood. Beggar’s Chicken, another banquet delicacy, requires a lotus leaf to be wrapped around a whole marinated chicken before it is covered in clay to bake in an oven. Unlike banana leaves, lotus leaves need to be soaked in hot water to become soft enough to fold (Ng).
Bamboo leaves similarly require soaking for culinary use. They are to bak chang what coconut leaves are to ketupat. Bamboo leaves are first softened and cleaned, and then folded into a conical cup to pack glutinous rice, pre-fried pork belly, chestnuts, dried shiitake mushrooms and a salted egg yolk. The sealed pyramid-shaped dumpling is then submerged in water to boil. Bak chang is usually eaten on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to commemorate a patriotic ancient Chinese minister, Qu Yuan (Ng).
Betel nut palm leaves, also known as opeh leaves, was a common takeaway packaging for char kway teow, Hokkien mee and hor fun. Only a handful of hawker stalls still provide that today as the light brown leaves have become more expensive than paper and plastic packaging. Another leaf once used for packing food was the simpoh air. It was typically folded into a cone to pack rojak or chee cheong fun which were eaten on the go. This too has become history (Lam).
Ng, Casey. “Plant Leaves in Food Preparation and Packaging.” Agriculture Science Journal, Oct 2015, eprints.utar.edu.my/1986/1/Plant_leaves_in_food_preparation_and_packaging_-_Casey_Ng.pdf.
Klein, Alice. “We May Finally Understand Why Tropical Plants Have Huge Leaves.” New Scientist, 31 Aug 2017, www.newscientist.com/article/2145966-we-may-finally-understand-why-tropical-plants-have-huge-leaves/.
Tan, Bonny. “Ketupat.” Singapore Infopedia, 26 Oct 2015, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2015-10-26_111827.html.
“Hari Raya Bazaar at Geylang.” National Archives of Singapore, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/photographs/record-details/15726d23-1162-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad, Accessed 20 Feb 2018.
Chan, Chee Seng. Interview by Audrey Lee-Koh. 15 Aug 1980, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/viewer?uuid=deb9ab65-115d-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad-OHC000021_002. Accessed 20 Feb 2018.
Vasu, Suchitthra. “Satay.” Singapore Infopedia, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_888_2005-01-10.html. Accessed 20 Feb 2018.
Oh, Patricia Choo Neo. Interview by Bonny Tan. 25 May 1995, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/viewer?uuid=3842d163-115e-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad-OHC001631_006. Accessed 20 Feb 2018.
Abdullah, Masmunah. Personal Interview. 15 Oct 2017.
Menon, Sukumara Ittamuittil. Interview by Jenny Goh. 3 May 1985, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/viewer?uuid=721e767f-115f-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad-OHC000557_007. Accessed 20 Feb 2018.
Koh, Jaime, and Ho, Lee-Ling. Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia. Greenwood Press, 2009.
Lam, Chun See. “Traditional Food Packaging.” Good Morning Yesterday, 27 Nov 2006, goodmorningyesterday.blogspot.sg/2006/11/traditional-food-packaging.html.