Mysteries of the Coconut: Ketupat
A ubiquitous icon of the Ramadan season is Ketupat. Ketupat is to Hari Raya what candy canes and tinsel are to Christmas: innocuous, non-religious cultural symbols that are inextricably linked to the holiday. Images of ketupat are plastered on greeting cards, banners, cut-shots between TV programs, and so on. Decorative ketupats made of ribbon are hung around desks and doorways of offices. Ketupat is seen all month long but only is eaten in the holidays of Hari Raya. Ketupat is a woven pouch about the size of a fist made from the leaflets of coconut fronds. The leaflets are taken from the emerging frond in the middle of the tree, before the leaflets have seperated. At that stage, the leaflets are yellowish in color, and smooth and plasticy, not unlike a brand new RM5 polymer note. When they’re woven together, they are filled with uncooked rice grains and pulled tight.
Typically, they’ll be filled with standard white rice and boiled in water. Since the ketupat is stuffed full of rice, the grains press together as they expand, and in the end you have a solid mass of white stuff in the shape of your ketupat. This is removed and cut into cubes. Rice is always finger food in Malaysia, but these cubes are even more handy for dipping into rendang and popping into your mouth.
In our case however, the ketupat was filled with glutinous rice and then boiled in santan. The green shown in the picture is a bit of Pandan leaf, which helps the flavor and aroma. Boiling glutinous rice in santan in a constricted vessel is another staple of Hari Raya, but is normally done inside sections of bamboo. The resulting cylinders of dense sticky rice stuff are known as lemang. In our case, what we wound up with is ketupat lemang, I suppose.
Ketupat comes in many shapes, with the most iconic being a flat square shape. The womenfolk in my house could only recall how to make the oddly shaped ones you see above. The excuse: weaving ketupat is the boys’ job. Of course, it takes a bit of time to weave, and tender young coconut leaves must be available. For that reason, city folk and busy people will buy ready-made plastic packets pre-filled with rice. Just steam, cut away the plastic, and serve. Like all fast food, you give up a lot: in this case, the color, the smell, the subtle flavor of the coconut leaf, and the spectacle at the dinner table.