Celebrating Hari Raya Puasa in Malaysia

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Some of my Malay students at a Hari Raya Puasa school celebration

I spent the past year teaching free English classes in a rural village in Malaysia. This specific village consists of about 1,000 villagers whom identify themselves with 12 different indigenous tribes. Between the mischievous monkeys, ghost sightings, and tribal feuds, I experienced more adventure in this tiny village than I could have ever imagined. Even though the majority of my time was spent in the village with indigenous people, Malaysia’s vast variety of culture and religion allowed me to participate in so many distinct ceremonies and try so many amazing foods. One of my most memorable experiences was participating in Malaysia’s biggest holiday, Hari Raya Puasa.

In Malaysia, about 60.4% of the population that identifies as Muslim, making Islam the country’s official religion.  Like all religious and cultural celebrations, food plays a significant role in their gatherings. The biggest, most widely anticipated holiday for Muslims is Ramadan, which occurs on the 9th month of the Islam’s lunar calendar. Ramadan involves 30 days of fasting from sun up to sun down. Ramadan is so important to the faith that it is considered one of the 5 pillars of Islam, and its purpose it to purify the mind and body while strengthening the relationship between the follower and Allah (God) through prayer and reliance.  After the sun sets, Muslims are allowed to eat and drink.

Kuih is a very popular Malaysian dessert. It has a smooth texture and is commonly served with coconut shavings on top

Kuih is a very popular Malaysian dessert and often eaten during Ramadan. It has a smooth texture and is commonly served with coconut shavings on top

One of my Malaysian friends told me that he typically gains weight during Ramadan. This is not unusual. Many of the followers who fast all day tend to binge eat at night. This can be commonly seen in our culture as well. Examples include skipping breakfast and overeating at lunch or following a fad diet that involves eating one big meal a day. Not only can these methods sometimes lead to weight gain from overeating, but eating one meal a day is linked to higher blood pressure, higher blood sugar, and a weaker immune system.

This is a trap used to catch porcupine for porcupine rendang

This is a trap used to catch porcupine for porcupine rendang. Rendang is a very popular Malaysian sauce made with coconut milk and spices.

Hari Raya Puasa marks the end of Ramadan and is a time for families to “balik kampung,” which means to return back to your hometown. During these two days, Malaysians participate in what they call “open house.” Families in the village open their homes up to their friends and neighbors. Everyone goes door to door, sits cross-legged, and eats with their hands as is custom in Malaysia. The followers feast for hours at each other’s houses. A typical open house in Malaysia includes white rice, glutinous rice*, and/or spiced rice served with beef, chicken, porcupine and/or fish. The meat is typically cooked in a curry or a very rich, flavorful sauce.  Last but not least, there is always a plethora of sweet treats and biscuits for dessert. Drinks include sugary juices, sodas, and water. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol.

These are my neighbors. They are cooking lemang in my village

I watched my neighbors prepare lemang for the celebrations

Lemang

One of my personal favorite dishes is called lemang. Lemang is glutinous rice that has a slightly salty, bland taste and a very chewy texture. Lemang is unique because it is typically cooked inside bamboo shoots. Malaysians usually pair lemang with chicken curry, or beef or porcupine rendang.

Recipe for Lemang

This is my roommate and I enjoying the final product! Be glad you don't have to struggle with the bamboo.

This is my roommate and I enjoying the final product! Be glad you don’t have to struggle with the bamboo.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dry glutinous rice
  • Water, enough to soak rice for 6 hours
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • Pinch salt
  • Banana leaves

Method

  1. Soak the rice in water for at least 6 hours
  2. Bring a can of coconut milk to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the coconut oil separates from the milk
  3. Add the rice and cook, uncovered, for ten minutes over low/medium heat. Stir occasionally.
  4. Meanwhile, cut 4″ wide strips of banana leaf. You can soften them by quickly passing them over an open flame.
  5. Roll the banana leaf up into a cone. Make sure there is no hole at the bottom for the rice to come out.
  6. Next, stuff the banana leaf full of rice (stopping about 1 1/2 inches from the top). Pack it down tightly with the back of a spoon.
  7. Now, fold the sides in, and you can then fold over the top and bottom, just like the edge of a present.
  8. Layer each cone into the steamer basket, pressing the folded edge against the sides of the steamer to keep packets shut.  Steam for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender.
  9. Let them cool for several minutes.

*Glutinous rice is called ‘glutinous’ because of its stickiness. It does not contain gluten.

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