There comes a time in every urbanite’s life when you grow sick and tired of the burger and fries, the instantly prepared mee goreng from the mamak, and the quick pizza delivered to your home in less than 30 minutes. There is simply a craving from your taste buds for more, a longing for an elaborately prepared dish, spiced with that personal touch and effort that only a home-cooked meal can offer.
This is why I’ve come to relish Raya holidays and the rare opportunity it provides for me to indulge myself in a myriad of culinary experiences back in my hometown in Sabah. Every Raya holiday, my mother would cook a huge batch of food for the benefit of guests, and this Raya proved no different. My hometown retreat this Raya was stocked from the more typical hallmarked foods such as ketupat and rendang, to the more atypical variety such as the lada putih & kacang panjang, ikan sambal, and other sugary Raya treats like the kuih makmur.
Invariably, Raya in my hometown in Sabah follows a strict schedule: first the early morning start to participate in the Raya prayers, and after, the customary handshake asking for forgiveness from both my parents, followed by a visit to the graveyard of relatives who have passed.
Then comes the food!
Before the arrival of the guests I speedily treated myself to the hallmark of Raya foods: the ketupat and rendang traditionally prepared in my hometown. The ketupat is essentially rice that is cooked from the pouch made from the woven leaves of the palm tree; when the rice expands during cooking, it fills the pouch and forms a rice dumpling with a rich texture. The ketupat is of course incomplete without the notorious rendang, beef that is simmered over many hours with coconut milk and spices. There is a misconception that rendang is actually curry, although this is not entirely accurate; rendang is cooked for longer until the water evaporates and the meat absorbs the sauce and becomes soft and tender. Eaten together, this culinary mix is a tasty combination!
The next item on the menu is the lada putih and kacang panjang, or white peppers and long beans. Cooked with salted fish and pepper, the dish provides a little bit of crunch, spice, and salt to any rice dish. This makes it a versatile addition to any assortment of dishes. In this case, it was complementary to the ikan sambal dish, another speciality of my mother’s. As per the name, the ikan sambal is fish cooked with a spicy condiment made of chili, called the sambal, which, when added with sugar, gives the fish a sweet and spicy taste. Other dishes of note were the mixed vegetables, a combination of steamed carrot, broccoli, mushrooms and snow peas, and also the daging masak halia, slices of beef sauted together with slices of ginger to give it its succulent flavor.
Of course, by now I’d stuffed myself silly with the dishes, and therefore contented myself to a day of bliss as I greeted the guests for the rest of the day who also enjoyed the food to their hearts content.
On the second day of Raya however, with renewed hunger I eagerly rushed to see what was on the serving table for the day. Mother had not disappointed me! Laid out on the table was a new menu even grander than the day before. The feast included mee kari, yellow noodles served with curry and a choice of condiments such as prawns, fried chicken bits, sliced herbs, fish meat, etc. The noodles were served separated from the condiments so you could customize your own dish. I personally like my mee with a lot of meat, so I added a lot of beef and chicken for my protein fix. Those who preferred something heavier like rice however, were spoilt for choice as they could choose from a wide variety of lauks (dishes) such as the daging masak kicap, (beef cooked with soy sauce) ayam masak merah (chicken cooked with chilli sauce) udang goreng (fried prawns) as well as hati daging (beef liver, cooked with potatoes and sweet sauce). My favourite pick of the lot was the beef liver, just because the meat was very tender and had an exquisite flavour that left a sweet aftertaste.
Of course it wouldn’t be a celebration without the sweet Raya treats of the ‘kuih raya’. This year my mother prepared something a little more western; the London Almond biscuit, which is basically baked cookie dough with roasted almonds with skin, covered with melted dark chocolate and sprinkled with crushed almonds. The chocolate was a suitable match to the subtle sweetness of the almonds, and I couldn’t stop picking at them! Always one to spoil others for choice, my mother also made kuih makmur, baked dough with ghee, covered with powdered sugar after being baked. This is an important step because if the sugar is applied while the cake is still hot, it would just melt and stick onto the surface, making the kuih unpleasantly sticky. Another distinct characteristic of the kuih makmur is the way it crumbles to dust in your mouth; be careful not to spray a mouthful of powder all over the place!
Needless to say, this Raya was a treat for the culinary senses, as I indulged myself in some delicious festival food! For now, all the weight I gained during Raya will have to last me until the next Raya celebrations before I can indulge again!