Culinary Inspirations: Raya at Tok Mat’s

One of the columnist's most memorable Hari Raya memories is of making ketupat. Photos: KALSOM TAIB

For many of us, our childhood is very much linked to our grandparents. Before my maternal grandfather, Tok Mat, passed away on 31 May 1972, we would, without fail balik kampung, every Hari Raya and stay at his house in Muar. The house used to be a landmark in Muar. It stood on the junction of Jalan Ibrahim, leading from the main roundabout near the Muar Club, and Jalan Othman, which goes on past the old Muar Rest House (now JKR office).

I remember we had to use the ferry service to cross the southern part of Muar town. For 53 years, this was the only means of transport to Muar before the bridge, Jambatan Sultan Ismail, was completed in 1967.

Tok Mat’s house was a spacious and airy wooden Malay house resting on large stone pillars. Most of the family activities were focused at the back portion of the house. An informal second entrance led to a small inner courtyard and the cellar (keladak) and to its left was a spacious family lounge area. Two large ambins (low platform), one on the right and the other on the left, separated the passage to the kitchen and dining area.

At the rear of the kitchen, there was another area which had a large earth floor bungsal (wooden shed) to the right which was used for cooking large meals. Stacked in a corner were coconuts, firewood and sabut (coconut coir) which were all cooking accessories.

Tok Mat’s house was a hive of activity during Hari Raya, overflowing with children and grandchildren. What I remember most was that every morning a long line of grandchildren would straddle astride the drain to relieve themselves in full view of cyclists along the busy Jalan Ibrahim. Then all the boys would rush into the bathroom to fight for the gayong (small bucket) to wash themselves.

Most of us would arrive at least two days before Raya so that we could help with the preparations. Hari Raya preparations gave the family a chance to catch up, affirm bonds and enjoy the delicious results of their co-labouring. For the children it was an enjoyable activity to watch their uncles take turns to stir the dodol and aunties sweating out near the charcoal fire to bake the kuih bahulu.

Dodol is a traditional Malay delicacy. Making dodol is not meant for solo cooks. They require the arms of a family, the hands of the uncles and the strength of the older cousins. Embok would place a giant, deep-bottomed brass kuali (wok) over a wood-fire and add the ingredients, starting with the coconut milk, then glutinous rice flour and finally the palm sugar which resulted in a rich silky brown batter.

The mixture is continuously and evenly stirred, using a paddle-like wooden spatula. It needed to be cooked for many hours, between three and five hours, until the batter thickens to become a sticky chewy toffee-like candy. The stirring is a family effort. As it gets thicker, my uncle, Ayah Omar, the strongest of all my uncles, will take over. The stirring would get harder and could not be stopped. When Ayah Omar could not continue, Ayah Nal took over. Embok would continuously check the wood-fire to ensure that a moderate temperature was maintained.

The dodol was considered ready when it sticks slightly onto the wooden paddle used. You can also see the bubbles under its surface. Embok would then wrap the dodol in the fronds of the Areca palm (upih Pinang). The grandchildren watched with anticipation. When the last of the dodol was wrapped, she would clap her hands and allow us to scrape the kuali to try the freshly made dodol. It was simply so sedap (delicious). Embuk made sure that she left some hot pieces of dodol in the kuali.

Kuih bahulu is a traditional cake served during Hari Raya.Kuih bahulu is a traditional cake served during Hari Raya.

I also remember the wonderful smells that came from the bangsal. It was there that Embok would bake her kuih bahulu. Kuih bahulu is one of the traditional Malay cakes served during Hari Raya. It is a small golden brown sponge cake, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It can come in many shapes depending on the mould but the bahulu cermai (button) is the most common type. We all look forward to eating Embok’s bahulu that are freshly baked. You can smell the fragrance from a distance.

Embok did not really have a defined bahulu recipe but referenced the bowl as measurement. She used one bowl each of eggs, sugar and flour. She first placed the eggs and sugar in a terracotta bowl known as pasu and my mother’s sister, Aunty Nom would beat the eggs and sugar with a big, spiral egg beater until creamy and fluffy, as thick as softly whipped cream.

In the meantime, Embok would season the bahulu moulds with a bit of oil and place the moulds on the charcoal stove. My mother’s youngest sister, Chu, would slowly add the flour and fold it to the mixture. Embok would then pour the mixture into the moulds, cover them and placed the moulds in the ‘oven’.

Her ‘oven’ was a small hand-made one with two layers of live coal one below the stove and embers placed on the top. She used an old- fashioned charcoal tongs to arrange the moving coal and move the cover. Bahulu are best enjoyed fresh and I remember the grandchildren queuing up to get a warm bahulu each.

It was hard work, during our grandmother’s time, to make the kuih bahulu. We now use an electric mixer and an oven to bake the bahulu, and apparently, there is now an electric kuih bahulu maker in the market. Not sure whether it tastes the same as Embok’s bahulu ! To me, nothing beats the ecstasy of eating a warm, homemade bahulu, especially one baked over charcoal.

Another memorable event was the making of the ketupat. Ketupat is a traditional Malay dish served in almost every household during the Hari Raya celebrations. It can be served with soto ayam (a spicy chicken soup), lodeh (mixed vegetables in a fragrant coconut milk gravy or kuah), rendang, satay and kuah kacang (peanut sauce).

During my childhood years, ketupat casings were not sold in the markets. Tok Mat would bring back the young coconut palms and Embok would cut them into strips. The whole operation would be done inside the house. Embok and Tok Nah together with my mother, Aunty Nom and Chu would be sitting with legs folded on the right ambin.

There would be a betel - leaf box within easy reach. Tok Nah would stop, now and then, to chew sireh (betel leaf) whilst she watched over her ‘assistants’, to ensure they do it right. Tok Nah would take two strips of young coconut leaves and weave the leaves in a criss-cross fashion to form a pouch which must be perfectly close to ensure that the rice grains do not fall out. Her deft fingers would complete case after case in quick succession whereas it took longer for her three assistants to complete a perfect casing.

In 2009, dodol was gazetted a heritage food under the National Heritage Act 2005.In 2009, dodol was gazetted a heritage food under the National Heritage Act 2005.

Embok would then fill two thirds of the casings or pouches with rice that had been soaked, and then she’d seal them shut. She would then tie the ketupat into bunches of four to six, and hang them on a wooden pole. The ketupat will only be cooked after the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal had made the announcement on the sighting of the moon and declared the beginning of Hari Raya.

This was usually announced well after maghrib. There would be frenzy in the bungsal. A large cauldron filled with water was placed over a wood fire and when the water was boiling the bunches of ketupat would be placed in the cauldron and cooked for several hours. It is important that the water was already boiling so that the ketupat did not become soggy from absorbing excessive amounts of water.

When cooked, the bunches of ketupat were hung to dry so it can last for a few days.

On the day of Hari Raya, after all the men and boys returned from the mosque, we would eat together, the men on the dining table, the women on the right ambin and the boys on the left ambin. Several traditional foods would appear as if by magic – lodeh with all the accompaniments, ketupat, kuah lodeh, kuah kacang and serunding kelapa; soto ayam, harissa and the kuih bahulu and dodol and not forgetting Embok’s refreshing sirap bandung.

Incidentally Aunty Nana inherited the sirup Bandung recipe from Embok and the recipe is in Johor Palate, Tanjung Puteri Recipes. It is only now with hindsight that we appreciate the amount of planning and hard work that went into making our Hari Raya perfect.

Dodol, Bahulu and Ketupat have been gazetted as traditional foods (makanan warisan) under the National Heritage Act 2005 (Act 645) by the Department of National Heritage Malaysia, in 2009. The recipes are in the book I co-authored with Hamidah Abdul Hamid, Malaysia’s Culinary Heritage: The Best of Authentic Traditional Recipes.

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