The Story Behind Traditional Hari Raya Favourites
Eid al-Fitr or Hari Raya Aidilfitri is the festival of the breaking of the fast, marking the end of the long and arduous month of Ramadan. Families take this opportunity to cook up a storm, but Eid can also be notorious for food wastage. As times evolve, the new generation is more conscious of where their food comes from and this is where sustainability comes into play. As Chef Jamsari Mohamad, the Chef de Cuisine at Hilton Kuala Lumpur suggests, “It’s all about cooking what you need, not what you want.”
As someone who prepares meals for thousands of guests daily, Chef Jamsari practises what he preaches while prepping for the hotel’s Eid events. “The preparation of the dishes will be according to the bookings and number of expected guests,” he says. “We often do a calculation of ingredients before we prep to ensure minimum wastage and all our vegetables and herbs are locally sourced.”
Home cooking may come with fewer resources than a five-star hotel, but this practice can easily be recreated at home. You only need to look as far as your backyard to find the main ingredients mostly found in popular Eid dishes. “It’s all about the flavour of the herbs and spices. We can produce some herbs on our own such as ginger, turmeric, galangal, curry leaves and chilli in a pot or with a hydroponic system,” he says.
Several staple dishes served during Eid in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have shared influences. One of the most revered is the rendang, a rich savoury stew-like dish made with a variety of spices and aromatic coconut milk. The history of rendang in Malaysia can be traced back to the 15th century and is believed to have originated from West Sumatra. The recipe is widely regarded to have been brought to Malayan shores by the Minangkabaus during the Malacca Sultanate era.
Perfecting the dish can be tricky due to the long hours involved in getting the correct consistency, but Chef Jamsari believes the secret lies in the quality of the ingredients used. “During Raya, most of the dishes we cook are traditional recipes and we use fresh produce to obtain the best flavours,” he says. “Normally we will prep our meals a day in advance. With rendang, we use beef that has been aged for two years. I prefer using the short ribs and tail as the flavours come from the bone, making it richer.”
Aged meat is a good sustainable alternative to using fresh meat, thanks to its long freezer-life while also giving the dish a unique flavour and incredibly tender texture. However, you can also recreate the recipe by using fresh beef from the local market. The brisket, fillet or batang pinang are the optimum parts to go for when making rendang.
Most traditional Malay Eid dishes are naturally vegan-friendly such as the ketupat, the triangle-shaped steamed rice dumplings cooked in woven palm leaves. The ketupat is said to have originated from Central Java and is served during the Bakda Kupat, a five-day celebration to mark the end of Ramadan; the ketupat is used as an offering to symbolise forgiveness.
Today, many instant or ready-made versions of the ketupat found in supermarkets are often favoured by busy city dwellers. The age-old tradition of weaving palm leaves is hardly ever practised today and buying ready-made versions packaged heavily in plastic, seems almost contradictory to the natural method of preparing the dish. According to Chef Jamsari are fine ready-made versions as the flavours do not stray too far from the original and it saves a chunk of your time. “If you’re determined to give it a shot, opt for young coconut leaves for aroma and long shape for easy wrapping,” he says.
The ketupat also comes in many variations, such as ketupat palas, ketupat pulut and ketupat bawang, which are all made with vegan ingredients. There is also the lemang which originated from the Ibans in Sarawak. This rice dish is cooked in a hollowed bamboo covered with banana leaves and it has a distinct smoky aroma. The dipping sauce that is served with these rice staples is the kuah kacang or peanut sauce – a rich and nutty-sweet concoction of groundnuts, coconut milk, onions and chilli; it is also entirely vegan.
An Eid celebration would not be complete without the sweet treats, which are mainly vegan-friendly. Desserts such as the palm sugar-based dodol, which is similar from toffee, the sweet and sticky kuih wajik, and other varieties of sweet glutinous rice dishes are vegan-friendly treats that use minimal ingredients you can easily find at home. Times may change but when it comes to traditional cooking, time-honoured cooking methods are here to stay. Whether it be for Eid or for everyday cooking, sustainably sourced ingredients have been an integral part of our culture for ages and it is most likely to stick that way for many years to come.