Traditionally tasty Malay food is matched with traditionally ornate Malay dress to mark the end of Ramadan, the
Muslim month of strict fasting and abstinence. In 2012 Hari Raya Aidilfitri is celebrated on 19-20 August in Singapore and Malaysia.
The men wear baju melayu, pastel long sleeved shirts and silk pyjama -style pants, over which they wear the kain songket with knee- length sarong tied at the waist. The younger women wear long, graceful embroidered kebaya, close-fitted tops; matronly women may opt for the looser baju kurong. Colourful head-scarves are worn by all during Hari Raya, and children run about in their gifts of new clothes, happily gobbling up the many sweets and delicacies on offer.
Malays begin the day with morning devotions at the local mosque, and then proceed to the cemetery to clean their ancestors’ graves and recite the Yasin, a chapter from the Qur’an, and the tahil, the special prayers for the dead. The rest of the day is left to entertaining and meeting friends and family.
And there will be many guests. Malaysia becomes one vast “open house”, with hospitality for all who drop by. Visitors take off their shoes at the door and the host touches his guest’s hand and his own heart in the traditional selamat greeting.
For supplies, Muslims will buy large quantities of chicken, lamb and beef (pork is forbidden by the Qur’an) at the halal butcher shop that conforms to strict Islamic codes governing the slaughter of animals. These speciality stores are plentiful in today’s diverse Australia. In Sydney alone, one can find halal meats in many suburbs, east to west, from Kensington to Lakemba and in between.
The most anticipated dish served during Hari Raya is the ketupat, a dish with sticky rice wrapped into triangular coconut leaf parcels held together with satay skewers and then steamed. The ketupat is often served with chicken satay and sauced with a crunchy peanut dressing and chunked cucumber adding balance to the rich sauce. Satays of all kinds are invariably served at Hari Raya, grilled on small coal-fired braziers with the wooden skewers pre-soaked in water to prevent charring.
Rendang is a favourite festival dish, an elaborate and aromatic beef curry made with 13 herbs, spices and ingredients from the garden including: lemongrass, ginger, galangal, garlic, onions, coriander, fennel and cumin seed, pounded star anise, chilli paste, soy sauce, toasted coconut and finally coconut milk. The curry is slow-cooked for hours to tease out the complex aromas and flavours. For Hari Raya, it is not uncommon for Malays to cook a 10-kilo rendang for five hours in a massive wok set up in the garden, stirring the giant curry with wooden paddles. Rendang is commonly served with sticky rice and a crisp cucumber salad.
Lontong, a coconut soup with lemon grass and bamboo shoots, is another festival favourite. As is nasi lemak, a coconut rice served with dried and fried ikan bilis (tiny anchovies), prawn sambal and a coddled or fried egg, all wrapped inside banana leaves.
The beguiling perfume of saffron-infused buriyani rice, spiced with cardamom, cloves and all the spices of Arabia, also wafts delicately through Malay homes on Hari Raya, mingling with the flavours of sumac and pomegranate seeds, chicken curry made with coriander, fennel and cumin, served buffet-style from an elegant side board.
Also on the sideboard and around the house are bowls and platters of many other kueh kueh, sweets and desserts to satisfy the whim of every guest. There are specially made sweets, too, that only appear at Hari Raya. One of the these high sought after is the delicate egg nets coated with spun sugar, a specialty from the north east of Malaysia.