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03/03 Sunday 01:45AM

the art of packaging

text . Pauline Chan .

My daughter likes to eat muah chee.  Last week, I discovered one of my favourite lunch spots sold excellent muah chee in quantities of two, neatly presented in a stiff plastic purse-like packaging that was sealed with a sharp toothpick at the top of the plastic. I was so thrilled for my daughter that I bought up everything they had on the shelf – all 9 little packets – at only 50 cents each.

Muah chee is a round, walnut-sized soft snack made from gelatinous dough and filled with a sugary, ground peanut content.  White and limp, it looks like a ball of starch that was accidentally dropped into a basin of flour, carefully fished out and made to sit obediently where it was laid to rest.

When I got home, I took one packet out and paused to admire it.  It was an extraordinarily neat sachet. The whole presentation was enough to make me think that perhaps the maker was a meticulous and thoughtful person who enjoyed making these precious little nuggets and wanted to share them with the community.  The muah chee-maker has thought of everything possible to make the whole experience of eating take-away muah chee fuss-free and enjoyable.

Let me take you through this little package of snack that fascinated me. The quantity of two is just nice as a snack for one person. The bite-sized portion means you can conveniently pop the whole object into your mouth and still have room to manoeuvre and masticate. The toothpick provided a tool to pick up the snack without dirtying your hands.  The stiff plastic bag is obviously the choice of holding-material as it can stand upright, keeping its shape and preventing the soft contents from getting squished. The bag is cut to a standard size (probably from a much larger piece of plastic) to hold just two pieces of pastry and a rectangular piece of perfectly trimmed banana leaf that the pastry sits on. I guess the banana leaf base stops the bag from sagging when you pick it up with its contents. Turn the plastic bag around and you can see the folding that forms the rectangular base and the folds are held in place by a 2-cm piece of scotch tape. Great balls of Muah Chee! What a complex invention to hold 50 cents worth of a product!

One must appreciate that this whole exercise of marketing a 50-cent item is time-consuming and thought-provoking.  I wonder whether it is worth the returns received in the form of profits. The ingredients used to make this ball of flour, peanut and sugar pastry are cheap.  The home-made packaging of plastic, banana leaf, scotch tape and toothpick won’t add much to the cost either, so I assume a small profit still ensues from this activity, provided several hundreds of these balls are sold each day. But it is the effort that makes me wonder if it is all worth it.  The peanuts and sugar have to be ground to a fine mixture; the flour have to be beaten to form an elastic consistency, and then stuffed with the peanut mixture and finally, shaped into a sphere that would be perfect if it wasn’t so naturally floppy. Then, there is the plastic sachet I was so intrigued with.

Such a presentation can only come from an entrepreneur who loves what he or she does.  The snack is not just an item of trade but a labour of pride, worthy of a specially-created receptacle rather than a characterless Styrofoam box or a crackling plastic container. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it is mediocre. The muah chee maker went to great lengths for food presentation and I respect that. It’s good to see creativity and originality in the presentation of good, simple food. Psychologically, it makes food taste better.  I am not saying that all food can be redeemed when their attractiveness quotient is raised, but if the food was average, good presentation gives it an edge over other average food that looks sloppy or done wrong. 

What’s more, our muah chee maker is keeping in line with the eco-consciousness of the day by keeping the plastic minimal and using natural materials such as leaves and toothpick. So, I am glad that someone still thinks it is worth all the effort and continue to roll out the balls.

Still on the subject of presentation, I recently bought some pulut panggang – tubular glutinous rice with spicy dried prawn filling –wrapped, unfortunately, in clean, supple banana leaves. (Sigh.) The operative word here, pulut-making-people, is ‘panggang’, which means grilled.

This snack is made by grilling it over a charcoal or wood fire, hence a slightly charred exterior.  Without fire treatment, the pulut does not have the special smoky flavour from the burnt leaf. They should be diligently toasted over the grill until the leaf looks like it had weathered some flaming trauma. I implore purveyors of traditional food to do justice to the original recipes of our grandmothers.  If fire and smoke is called for, burn it!  

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