Subject: v. 13. hari raya hajj

You will find this the sloppiest Merlihat Malaysia I have written. I was just writing a note to Dave about my weekend, and as I kept adding to it I thought I should turn it into a Merlihat. I am too busy getting packed, getting tickets, and getting ready for my new research project, so I'm sure I won't go back to revise this anytime soon and may as well forget about it all together - so here it is raw. [Ed Note: Almost raw. This version has been slightly massaged. /d]

The end of Ramadan month is called Hari Raya Adil Fitri. The end of Hajj month is called Hari Raya Adil (something). Hari Raya (great day) Hajj fell on Sunday (yesterday) this year, so we're getting Monday off work. Adil Fitri is a bigger deal (except in one state.) Essentially both days are the same - visiting friends and serving food, back in the kampong. If no one is at your house at the moment, you go visit someone else. If they aren't home, stop by another friend or relative. Each visit means serving a small, but real, meal. They all seem to have lemang -- sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in a banana leaf -- and another kind of rice without coconut milk but wrapped first and then steamed, so it comes out as cubes rather than loose rice (Dave: like they serve with satay kajang.) They also have rendang, which is a very thick dry beef or chicken curry -- and, yes, coconut milk again. In Negeri Sembilan they make it a bit hotter, and more yellow, not as red. They also serve maybe one other meat/fish dish, plus a lot of cookies, kueh, candy.... When guests arrive, the wife sets the table and everyone eats a little. We went to 3 houses in about 4 or 5 hours and ate 3 lunches. Adults visit friends and relatives, many of whom they may see only on the 2 hari rayas every year. When they drive to a relative's house they may take the kids along, or the kids may stay home w/other relatives, or just go around to other houses, all dressed up but on their own, in the neighborhood, even to people they don't know. [Ed Note: Satay Kajang is the version of Malaysian shish kabob (satay) served in Kajang, the town next to our campus, and famous for using particularly large pieces of meat, with very spicey peanut sauce. You haven't had satay until you've had it in Kajang. /d]

My bahasa tutor is from Negeri Sembilan, the next state down from where we live. Actually we live near the edge of Selangor, so were quite near to Negeri Sembilan. Seremban is the capitol and about an hour away. I was invited to the house of one of my researchers, in Seramban, so I invited my tutor, Asiah to come along. I said I would drive, and she could visit some of her relatives, and I wanted to see some of the Minangkabau architecture. These days, no one lives in their ancestral house in the kampong, but the family often collects there for hari raya. They did for Hari Raya Adil Fitri, but did not plan to for this one. The Minangkabaus came to this state several centuries ago from Java, and have a distinctive, matrilineal, culture, as well as distinctive house forms.

First we visited Badlishah, the researcher who is extracting carotene from palm oil. He has a big fancy, modern house in Seremban (but no western toilet). His wife has a little sewing business going in the house, about 6 sewing machines, and 2 employees. She studied commercial sewing in college, visiting factories and whatnot besides sewing. They have bought another piece of land near their house and are planning to build something for her to move the workshop into. One of the neighbors had a patai tree, which Asiah said is unusual because you can just go in the jungle and pick it, most people won't grow a tree; "he must like patai very much". She pointed out all the food-related plants all day, because we share that interest. I even saw a cocoa tree, with cocoa pods on it!

Next we visited an auntie of Asiah's who lives in a kampong house. The two daughters and their 3 children who are staying for the weekend were also there. Actually one of the children stays w/ grandma all the time. The youngest one, 8 months, was napping. Infants sleep in a little hammock attached to a gizmo like our jolly jump ups, hanging from the ceiling and with a bit of spring. The other two little girls were 5 and 3. When we walked in the littler one said "orang putih, macam dalam tv" (white person, like on TV). Asiah said she'd never seen a white person before, except on TV! All during our stay the children would periodically say orang putih this or that. The older one told them all to speak in English for the Orang Putih, the grandma said she likes English, but grandma can't help her with it. All this was in bahasa of course. Obviously I knew they were talking about me, but Asiah had to translate for me.

They had a beautiful woven mat, very soft and fine, in natural and pale lavender. Visually simple pattern, by their standards, kind of a complicated checkerboard, but difficult to weave. This is basket weaving -- on the diagonal -- not loom weaving. It looked brand new, no wear anywhere, and in a pretty high traffic area, and they said it was 10 years old. Another Auntie had woven it, but passed away last year without teaching anyone, and this pattern is quite unusual, and very beautiful by western standards. They said she used to sell mats she made to buy carpets.

They still have the betel tray displayed in the china cabinet, though no one chews betel anymore. Betel chewing used to be a very important social custom, and they have very elaborate paraphernalia for serving it. Just a few decades ago this would have been an important part of the Hari Raya visit. In addition to the tray and several bowls, there is a long tube with a cork in one end and almost like a screw-driver that fits in the other end. This is used to chop up the betel wad for old folks who don't have their teeth anymore! Asiah said she remembers doing it for her great grandmother, who also smoked and was great fun. (My American friend, Stephannie, found a book called "Betel Chewing Customs of SE Asia", and my eyes lit up when she showed me. She said "You're probably the only friend I'll ever have in my life that would get as excited about this book as I do." We geeks have to stick together.)

Then we went to an older uncle's house (tok=datuk). The women were just starting to grind rice flour for dodol on a little stone mill. I took some pictures of this. This was only because it was hari raya; most people don't even make dodol anymore. A visitor said you can make rice flour in the blender. So yesterday they spent a good part of the day taking turns grinding rice flour. Today they planned to start cooking the dodol at 8am and take turns stirring all day. The stuff gets very thick and difficult to stir, and I think mostly the uncles do this part, at least later in the process. Dodol is caramelized rice flour and coconut milk candy. When it is finished you eat it at room temp, and it is the consistency of dried rubber cement. I guess that doesn't sound very appetizing, but it is quite good. How could you hate caramelized coconut milk?

This place was even more kampong-like, a bigger plot of land, and more foodstuffs growing, longan tree and a curry leaf plant, pisang awak -- translates as "your banana" and Stephannie says her students all giggle when they refer to this kind of banana -- pandan, yams, local herbs (daun selum, laksa leaf and daun kuning, turmeric leaf) plus chickens. Negiri Sembilan seems to have mostly sheep rather than goats you see elsewhere. It also is in the hills and a bit cooler. I like it there a lot. Visiting relatives there felt a lot like visiting my relatives on the farm when I was child. I felt right at home, even though I could only understand a few words of the Bahasa. Asiah said it was Negeri Sembilan dialect, I might not understand. I don't think the dialect makes much difference, I only pick up a few words in any case. I think I would be very happy living there, except of course, knowing how to make enough money to support my book habit. I guess that is what drives most people into the city from the kampong.

This auntie made a very unusual kueh. It is rice & coconut milk, of course, but wrapped in a yam leaf and steamed, and then she adds a little yeast and lets it ferment! I said "Alcohol!" Asiah said "Yes, I suppose it is, it's very "heaty", but you don't eat enough to get drunk" (another one of these adaptations of Islam to traditional culture!). From the taste I would say there was the tiniest bit of alcohol. It was very sweet, but had just enough of a tang to be interesting instead of cloying, but not to taste like alcohol. I tried to ask how long they let it ferment, but they kept giving me cooking directions. On the drive home Asiah said some people collect the water from these kueh and drink it... tuak!

I will miss Malaysia very much.