Morsels of history behind traditional Raya delicacies

PETALING JAYA: Many Malaysians will be feasting on traditional food such as ketupat, lemang, rendang and dodol during Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

Some may not know it but these tasty, time-honoured Hari Raya must-haves have a remarkable backstory.

In olden days, the Malays would prepare such food for use during wartime, said Akademi Seni Tradisional Warisan Melayu director Johan Iskandar.

“Most of these dishes were created by the bendari, the cook of a navy ship,” he said.

These were made so that the Malays could sail long distances without having to replenish food supplies often; they had long shelf lives and did not spoil easily, he explained.

“This was also useful so that soldiers did not need to worry as much about being cut off from their food supply in a war.

“They would prepare the dishes that could be stored at room temperature for a month such as serunding (meat floss) and rendang tok (dried beef),” he added.

Johan said Malays practised the tradition of serving these dishes during Hari Raya as a way to respect, appreciate and remember the struggles of the soldiers and sailors of the past.

The designation bendari is still used by the navy today, he said.

“It’s sad that not many know about the origin of these dishes and the term bendari,” he said.

Other long-lasting food traditionally prepared by the bendari included salted fish and ikan pekasam (fermented fish), said Johan.

He said the ability to prepare such dishes was also used to test prospective brides in the past.

“It was a pre-requisite skill that had to be mastered by Malay women before they could marry.

“This was to judge their level of patience as each meal was cooked by the prospective bride, to be evaluated by her future mother-in-law,” he said.

Among the dishes often prepared for this pre-marriage test was rendang tok, serunding and dodol.

The tradition of lighting up a pelita (lamp) comes from a time when people had no calendar.

“So when kampung folk saw the village chief lighting the pelita, they knew that Hari Raya was approaching.

“This practice continues today,” he said.


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