Mysteries of the Coconut: Ketupat

ketupat_finishedA 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_productionKetupat 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.

ketupat_lemangTypically, 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.

ketupat_adabiIn 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.

Keputat ServedKetupat 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.


What’s a rainforest minus the rain?  We’ve been finding out over here.  It’s been over two weeks without a drop of rain, and things are as dry as a bone.  The dry season here in Sarawak corresponds with a change in winds which bring our weather in from the south and west.  Because of the dryness, fires set to clear land in Indonesia burn hotter and get out of control more.  Because of the change in winds, all the smoke from those forest fires blows over the border right to where I sit right now.  This week has been almost frightening.  The sun is a dull red ball in sky, buildings down the block fade in and out of view.  The locals call it haze, but it’s not haze Los Angeles style (as awful as that is).  It’s smoke, pure and simple.  The first step outside in the morning carries a whiff that is unmistakeably woodsmoke.  By the second breath, you’re used to it and don’t smell it anymore.  But it’s all around.  I can’t quench my thirst.  I drink and drink and drink  (young coconuts are especially good).  But five minutes later my mouth and throat are thick and parched again.  The most shocking thing is going to my car and finding it with a dusting of ash.  Sometimes you can even see large particles drifting through the air.  It’s amazing to think of the scale of the fires that must be producing this on the ground in Kalimantan.  Lucky for most of us, the air pollution levels are not so high in most of the country.  Unfortunately for me, Kuching is getting the worst of it this year.  The API has hit the low nineties, just a few ticks from the official “unhealthy” mark.
Pray for rain.

The situation in Indonesia

On the Malaysian side 

Mysteries of the Coconut: Umbut

It may resemble an ice sculpture or some kind of high tech snowman, but it is in fact the heart of the coconut palm, or umbut in Malay, the growing part at the top of the coconut tree from which all the fronds develop and emerge. It is smooth, shiny and pure white. I’ve heard people use putih macam umbut the way we might say “as white as the driven snow”.

Umbut for salePutih macam umbutPile of Umbut

Umbut can be eaten, and that’s what it was doing at the market that day, being sold like a vegetable. You don’t have to buy the whole thing; they’ll carve a peice off for you. It is served cooked, often boiled in a mild watery dish. The taste isn’t that much different from bamboo shoots or nibong shoots, with a nice firm texture. The thing that makes umbut a bit of a delicacy, of course, is that you have to kill a whole coconut tree to get it.

The first time I had it was back in Bagan Datoh at my brother-in-law’s place, when a line clearance crew came down the road felling all the trees overhanging the power lines. Since they had to drop one of my brother’s trees, he asked them to salvage the umbut. They happily complied and made sure not to drop the trunk into the canal. They even took a minute to chainsaw the umbut out of the crown of the tree for us. At the market, the hawker brought the whole crown along, as you can see here, presumably to keep it fresh. Some short work with the parang and they’ll have the snowman.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya

My in-laws are from a small isolated village mostly preoccupied with growing coconuts. It has only between 50-60 homes, two small stores selling basic necessities like sugar, rice and fermented shrimp paste, a primary school …and three mosques. One of them is Madrasah al-Kamaliyya, a surau lying about 150 meters from my mother-in-law’s house.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya was built in the 1920’s. It is built essentially the same as a traditional Malay house, entirely of timber on stilts, with the prayer area one full floor above the ground. It was not uncommon for homes in those days to be built entirely without nails, as was the home my late father-in-law built. Instead, the posts and beams are assembled using a mortise-and-tenon system, with the beams leveled and tightened in place by wooden wedges. The forests of Malaysia and Indonesia have some of the best timber in the world for building, and the Malays certainly make good use of it.

The design of the surau does have some differences with a house. It has two stairways leading to the prayer hall. During a mixed gathering, men and women would use separate entrances. The two flights of stairs are on either side of the ablution pool. The stairs are withdrawn under the building, such that they enter the prayer hall in the middle. This allows women and men to both enter without disturbing each other’s sections. In a home, there would be a single stairway that would enter the living room in the front of the house. If there was a second stairway, it would be to the kitchen, around the side or back.

Unlike Surau Darul Rahman and most other modern suraus, this one was built directly by the villagers of the area without government funds. I don’t really know how this affects the nature of the waqaf; I imagine it is still held by or at least under the oversight of the religious department – maybe someone can inform me. But it is a source of pride for the village that it was built entirely by their fathers’ and grandfathers’ hands.

The village is not as heavily populated now as it was twenty years ago, with many of the young people migrating to the big cities. The bulk of the population now are older couples without children at home (not unlike the American farming heartland). Maybe because of this, the surau is not as actively used as a madrasah as it may once have been, resulting in the library deteriorating sadly.

Another element of the surau that has not aged well are the drums. There is a double-headed goat-hide drum, and an all-wooden drum that is a hollowed out log with a long narrow opening along one side. In the days before amplified speakers, these drums, or beduk, would be struck prior to calling the azan, since their sound would carry farther through the jungle and plantations than the human voice could. The drums at the Masjid Jamek Jawiyyah are still struck even now. The drums of the surau, unfortunately, have become unserviceable. The wooden log has cracked. The uncle I spoke with the day I took these photos said that there’s only one man he knows of who is skilled in making and repairing these drums, and he lives a great distance away. So the drums have been moved to below the stairs until someone is able to have them repaired. They used to hang in the prayer hall.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya was the first surau I prayed at in Malaysia, and it remains the one most dear to me. I was struck with wonder the first time I prayed there, when, after the salat, the imam and the whole congregation recited an awrad that was virtually identical with the one I had learned from the Tariqat Naqshbandi Haqqani. I was later to learn that many of the elders who founded the community a hundred years ago were followers of Naqshbandi Tariqat, albeit from a different branch. Others held bayats with other orders. The righteous practices that they taught their children have persisted within the surau although they themselves have passed on.

Mysteries of the Coconut: Santan

Coconut Shredding Machine
Coconut Shredding Machine
When I was a kid, I remember my father bringing home a coconut once or twice as a novelty. He used a screwdriver to knock a hole in one of the three dark spots at the end of the coconut, then drained the milky liquid into a cup. After we had shared the drink, he busted open the coconut and we ate the white meat inside. It was fun. I liked it. Now I am in the land of coconuts; there are coconut palms growing everywhere you look. But any Malaysian reading this would think we were absolutely crazy. No-one would dream of doing what we did. There are uses for almost every single part of the coconut palm (something I hope to write more about soon), but the unprocessed meat is considered inedible.

The principal way coconut is used in Malaysian cooking is through the coconut milk, called santan.
Continue reading “Mysteries of the Coconut: Santan”


tanah kubur, graveyard

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e visited my late father-in-law’s grave on Eid al-Fitr to read Ya Sin and pray on his behalf. This is a common practice on the Eid, maybe because families are gathered together at that time. He was buried only about a kilometer from our village. The cemetery was so humble and unassuming. Graves were marked by simple posts at the head and feet. More often than not, the posts were without writing of any kind. The posts were most often carved stone, but many were fashioned of wood. Some graves were only marked by oblong stones stood on end. Families could be seen righting stones that had toppled over. The arrangement of graves was not organized in any perceptible way, except that family members were buried close to one another.


The landscape was similarly bare and unpretentious. Coconut palms and a single species of white flowering tree were the only intentional plantings. The tree, Ervatamia coronaria or susun kelapa, was in flower, and had littered the cemetery floor with its small whorled flowers. The austerity of the scene was striking. Truly, those resting here had left everything of this world behind. Only the prayers of their offspring remained to connect them to this world, and when those descendants forgot them, their graves would vanish as well.

Eid amidst the coconuts

Miniature chickens or <em>ayam serama</em>
Miniature chickens or ayam serama

The kids had a great time for Eid. We all flew back to West Malaysia to my wife’s village, just got back last night.. It was the first time my wife had been there for Eid in 8 years, and my first time ever. The kids got along great with all their cousins and second cousins, and were spoiled
rotten by all their uncles and aunties. All 7 of my mother-in-law’s children came back this year. She was very very happy. She has 10 grandkids now and 12 step-grandkids. I’m finally getting fluent enough with Bahasa to keep track of what’s going on in the family, and beginning to really remember all my cousins-in-law. My wife must have first cousins in the triple digits. The custom here is to go visiting neighbors after the
eid, to have tea and snacks and then move on the next house. Kids are given a little bit of money from everyone they visited. Long cleared 55 RM. He was a little avaricious banker by the time it was all over, counting and recounting his money in the corner of our room.

The worst incident of the whole trip was when KakNgah got attacked by our neighbor’s rooster. He’s lived next door all his life, knew my wife’s late father very well. He’s also a distant cousin. Well, he likes to keep chickens, and they peck and scratch in our yard too. One old rooster is a little daft, and the d*mn thing attacked KakNgah. Luckily she had the good sense to turn around and run, so she was only pecked on her back and arm. But the bites ripped her shirt and drew blood. This would all be terrible
on its own, but the worst thing is, this all happened to Long three years ago! The same damn rooster! At the time, back in 2000, we were quite upset of course, but since it had never happened to anyone, we just let it lie. Then it attacked my three year old nephew a little while later, after we went back to the US. That was the last I heard about it, and I just assumed the rooster had wound up in the stock pot after it’s second offense. But in fact, the rooster was spared. Then it attacked our neighbor’s own grandson and tagged him right above the eye. His son-in-law demanded the chicken’s death but our neighbor would not relinquish the bird, claiming it was good
luck. The son-in-law took his wife and kid and has not been back. Well, I was furious, but social ettiquette just would not allow raging at the old man, and besides, if he denied his own grandson justice, he certainly wouldn’t grant it to me. So I plotted to kill the rooster. If it was dead and gone, I could simply apologize and he would have to accept. But I failed. I had a good go at it with a machete, and several times with a
slingshot, but I couldn’t bag it. After every failed attempt, it would crow upon reaching safety. Sometimes, when it was in the yard, it would see KakNgah and crow some more. What a cock.

Strange Fruit pt. 5: Jackfruit

Monstrous Jackfruits, known as <em>nangka</em>
Monstrous Jackfruits, known as nangka

In Michigan, where I’m from, we have large fruit; watermelons and pumpkins for example can reach great size. Sensibly, these fruits grow on trailing vines, right on the ground. But imagine a fruit that size that grows suspended from a tree! Aiee! Maybe it’s called Jackfruit because it will jack you up if it lands on you. Actually, the cultivated trees are not that tall, only a few meters, so we’re not really talking Durian kill-factor here. Still, seeing something that size just sprouting out the side of a tree is very odd, like a tumor or something. That’s my six-month-old there in the background, for scale.

Jackfruit is nangka in Malay, Artocarpus heterophyllus botanically. It is in the same family and genus as the previously mentioned Terap and the Cempedak. Underneath the green warty skin is a great mass of fleshy, sticky yellow fibers surrounding a dozen or two fruits surrounding large smooth seeds not unlike avacado seeds. The fruits themselves are also yellow, sticky and somewhat sweet. I’d have given you pictures, but Good Lord, one of those monsters can set you back 30 or 40RM! So instead here is a website with lovely photos.

Update: Now we have pictures!
Update: Now we have pictures!
Close-up of Jackfruit rind
Close-up of Jackfruit rind

The flavor is not particularly pronounced. Maybe for this reason it is frequently used like a vegetable in cooking. Often it is cooked together with coconut heart, umbut, in a coconut milk sauce.

The pictures you see were taken at the wonderful Ming Kiong Gardens on Airport Road. The place is a little pricey but they grow superior fruit from hybrid and improved varieties. You can be sure you’ll get a tasty orchard fruit, not some wild-gathered thing. They carry their own variety of golden mango that is available nowhere else. They also have a Jackfruit-Chempadak hybrid called nan-chem that is better than both mother fruits, in my opinion. It is more like cempadak in flavor but less gassy, and more like nangka in texture.