Lemang Raya

Lemang Fire Pit
Creamy, chewey cylinders of lemang lift easily out of the split bamboo.

Lemang is quintessential Malay holiday food, impossible to find throughout the year, impossible to avoid come Hari Raya.  Lemang is glutinous, or sticky, rice cooked in coconut milk inside a length of bamboo and roasted over an open fire.  The work involved in making it is considerable.  First, locate and chop down a giant piece of bamboo.  Giant bamboo of this sort is covered in fine hairs that are very itchy, like fiberglass insulation, so the bamboo sections need to be handled carefully and scrubbed to get the hairs off.  Then the bamboo is chopped at the joints to open up the hollow chamber.  If the rice and santan were just poured in directly, the sticky
mess would be impossible to get out neatly, so a peice of banana leaf is rolled up and slid into the chamber first.  Once the chamber is loaded, the bamboo is set upright on a bed of coconut-shell charcoal and roasted.  No surprise that most city folk don’t bother to make their own!

Luckily, living at the edge of the city in the direction of the forested uplands around Mt. Serapi, I’m a short drive from where the big lemang operators set up.  Our favorite vendor has a dozen people working the fires – that doesn’t include whoever is in the back prepping the bamboo.  He claims he sells 15,000 batang a year, with virtually all of that in the month of Shawwal.
Lemang in the bambooSpringing the lemang out of the casing isn’t so tough; after roasting over the fire, the bamboo is pretty weak and cracks open.  The mixture inside has fused into a long tube of creamy, chewy ricey-ness, and the banana-leaf lining peels away as you slice discs off.  Lemang is great with rendang or peanut sauce, or if you are a seven-year-old of my household, pretty good for munching as is, too.
Enjoy your lemang everybody! Selamat Hari Raya // Eid Mubarak.

Good News for Mixed Kids

Malaysia never stops changing. Controversial areas like race, religion, native privilege (bumiputera status), and national language are constantly in a state of flux. Most recently, when I registered the birth of my latest child, I discovered that the birth certificate itself had changed (for the second time), and that now the race of the child was explicitly stated on the birth cert. Prior to this, the race of the mother and father were stated, but not that of the child. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I figured it implied some latitude in determining the child’s race at some future time, like when he got his national Identity Card, for example. Instead, now, the child’s race is designated on the birth cert, AND the child takes the race of the father. Well that’s clear enough. Except wait. What race am I?

They call me Orang Putih over here, and I’m white back home (let’s not get into that again), but Lo! There is no Putih option. I didn’t even ask about Jewish. I tried to put American, which would be great if it would stop people from telling my son he’s an Englishman, but the counter clerk said that wasn’t an option either. So, my son and I, we’re Europeans now. It’s been a long 150 years from the Motherland, but finally, in Malaysia, I return to my roots and throw European offspring.

That’s fine really, if that’s what it has to be. But does it? Jordan MacVay, who is expecting another child, got on the telephone and tried to get some straight answers out of JPN, the National Registration Department. And it appeared he did, until the exceptions, the workarounds, and the contradictions started cropping up, as they always, invariably do. Check out the comments section for more.

Along the way at Jordan’s, I took the chance to whine again about the extra-special immigration and registration laws here in the Land of the Hornbill. The most bizarre inconsistency being that in the rest of the country, children born of one bumiputra parent inherit bumiputra status, whereas in Sarawak, both parents must be bumiputra. Combined with the ruling above about inheriting race from the father, and you wind up with West Malaysians who are ethnically European but receive Bumiputra privileges, and Sarawakians who are ethnically Malay or Iban but do not receive Bumiputra privileges. The recent Marina Undau case in particular caused widespread murmuring in Sarawak, which our Chief Minister could probably not ignore, considering his own children of mixed descent.

Barely had I finished venting on the topic at Jordan’s, when I received a government circular in my Inbox. As of November 23rd 2009, all Sarawakians and Sabahans with one bumiputra parent are to be considered as bumiputera by all government agencies. Amazing. No newspaper headlines, no parliamentary act, no public debate – just a government memo and it’s done. Download it and read for yourself.


Pokok Kekabu Among the more dramatic trees in the settled landscapes of Malaysia is the Kekabu or Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra), a gargantuan tropical version of the common large-for-Michigan Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) of my youth. A truly massive tree, it grows to easily 100 feet high, with thick strong lateral branches radiating out in whorls at nearly 90 degrees from the trunk. The most striking feature is at ground level: the muscular buttress roots that rise 8, 9, 10 feet out of the ground to join the main trunk, giving the tree the appearance of a rocket ready for take off. A tree of such stature cannot be planted just anywhere – the roots could easily buckle pavement or crack a foundation – but at the edge of a parade ground or athletic field it is a perfect choice. The specimen in the photos is growing at the side of Kuching’s historic Independence Field (Padang Merdeka) where it dwarfs even the Rain Trees (Samanea saman).
Pokok Kekabu
Beyond its impressive landscape qualities, the tree was for a long time an economically important plant. Like the cottonwood tree back home, it produces pods holding great quantities of seeds inside with a cottony fibre for wind dispersal. One summer the cottonwood trees in Detroit had a flag year and the grassy floodplain across from my house was dusted white like a half-inch of snow. Fleetingly beautiful, but useless. The kekabu Kekabu Tree by comparison can produce kilos of cotton every year. That cotton is thick, soft and waxy, and for a long time was bought and sold commercially for furniture cushions and pillows, before being replaced by foam products. Nowadays it is hard to find in West Malaysia, and quite expensive: RM18/kilo or more. Here in Sarawak though, it is still readily available and affordable. My wife was feeling domestic in the days leading up to the birth and decided to make pillows. I was able to pick up several packages of 2nd grade kekabu for RM7.50/kilo, or about a dollar a pound. “Tok ada jahat sikit“, said the old man: “it’s a bit wicked” meaning that it needed a bit of cleaning before it could be used. Sure enough, the cotton had some seeds and twigs inside, but sorting through it was exactly the kind of meditative finger-work my wife was looking for to prepare for the baby to come. She stuffed 8 pillows all in all (careful not to stitch them up completely – pantang you know) before AbangChu made his appearance, just the perfect thing for 40 days of bedrest.

Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton.  Jahat sikit, but usable.
Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton. Jahat sikit, but usable.

The Mawlid of al-Barzanji

Manaqib Productions is releasing the Mawlid Barzanji on CD in August, with a booklet of the Arabic verses and English translation. The first chapter is available for preview in mp3 form, via Abdassamad Clarke, who has been involved in the production. Mawlid Barzanji is the most commonly recited mawlid in Malaysia. Copies of it are found in every masjid and surau throughout the country and it is a superb way of making salawat for Allah’s Beloved.

Wild Honey

wild honey
Wild Honey
Wild Honey

Honey is a blessed food, mentioned in the Quran and praised often by Nabi Muhammad (saws) for its healing properties. Not to mention, it tastes great too! My mother keeps bees on her farm, and the raw honey she produces has such a fantastic flavor. Whenever my family visits, I beg then to bring along a few bottles that vanish almost as soon as they leave.

In the long interim periods, I used to make do with whatever was on the supermarket shelf. Priced out of the premium Australian and New Zealand raw and organic honeys on the top shelf, I was always surprised to find a large selection of common honey produced in Malaysia, with China and Australia common honey alongside it, the Australia common honey commanding double the price. I’d heard of local Malaysian honey, but I couldn’t see how jungle-gathered honey could come in at the same price as China industrial beekeeping honey, or how there could be such a large and plentiful supply such as to keep a supermarket shelf stocked.

At the same time, I had seen at the open markets and roadsides wild honey for sale in simple glass bottles, but I had been warned that it was likely watered-down or inauthentic and would taste funny. Considering it was half the price of the supermarket stuff, and it seemed less viscous when I tipped the bottle, I figured it must be watered-down and never bought it.

Little did I know the dark secrets that lay beneath… Honey Laundering:

The honey business is plagued with international intrigue, where foreign hucksters and shady importers sometimes rip off conscientious packers with Chinese honey diluted with cheap sugar syrup or tainted with illegal antibiotics.

There are a dozen amazing stories in that link, with titles like “Don’t let claims on honey labels dupe you” and “Tainted product still slips easily into U.S.” It turns out that honey is one of the least regulated food products on earth, and its trade is caught up in smuggling, adulterating, false marketing and other criminal activity. The FDA doesn’t even have a straight definition of what honey is, and so water and sugar can be added without telling anyone. Honey is often imported from one country, mixed, cut and rebranded as it exports from another. Thus Malaysia turns out to be a major exporter of honey, but it’s all China honey in disguise. That’s why the supermarket China and Malaysia honey looked the same and cost the same: it was the same honey!

If you really want to get your hands on honey the way God intended, the solution is to buy your honey local from people you know and trust. If you’re in Michigan, you know where to go. For me, I took a chance on the anonymous glass-bottled stuff in the open market that had seemed so shady before.

It was clearly a different product. It was darker yet much thinner, and the taste was odd: it had a significant bitter aftertaste. No doubt it was these qualities that had generated the rumors I had heard. But I put it on the breakfast table and my children all thought it was just fine.

Poking around a bit, I’ve learned that the reason wild Malaysian honey looks, tastes and pours different is because it is made by different bees. The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, is used worldwide in commercial honey production. This honey is produced by Apis dorsata, the Rock Bee. The bees build their massive, meter-long hives high up in the Tualang tree (Koompasia excelsa), where it is retrieved by honey gatherers through methods you can scarcely imagine. (pdf) The gatherers scale the 100’+ trees in the middle of the night, distract the bees with a flaming torch, cut down the combs with a wooden knife and haul it all down in a cowhide bucket, all while singing soothing songs to the bees. One day I’ll have to go see it – until then that report is worth reading.

Hidden Mosques

Surau Al-Hidayah is the pale blue building in the center
Surau Al-Hidayah is the pale blue building in the center
The azan can be heard all around Kuching from the suraus in most every neighborhood. Sometimes it takes a bit of work to find where it is coming from. Taking a shortcut through a secluded neighborhood on my way home late from work, I would often hear the azan called loudly nearby, see old uncles walking down the street in kain palikat and songkok, but never saw the mosque. I decided to explore one day on foot, and discovered the surau tucked away in a block of homes, with only a signboard Roadside Signboardat the alley entrance. From the air, it is easy enough to pick out: it is the only building not orientated toward the street, but toward the direction of prayer. The Surau Al-Hidayah is surrounded on all sides by homes, with two paths leading in between the neighbors’ fences. Gates in neighbors’ fences allow them to slip in from their backyards for the prayers.

Often, land for suraus is gifted by old landowners to a waqaf, or Islamic trust, as part of their will. approaching the surauPerhaps that’s what happened here. The surau is obviously well-endowed and looked after. The front entrance is tiled, and well-tended bougainvilleas bloom in decorative pots along the open space behind the mihrab. Several airconditioning units hang from the outside wall. Unfortunately, many urban suraus are locked before and after prayers to prevent theft. The anjung or front porch Since I arrived about an hour after Asr prayers, I was unable to go inside. Like most neighborhood suraus, it is a community gathering place as well as a prayer hall, as shown by the large covered front porch equipped with tables and chairs for relaxing and socializing before and after the prayers. This surau even had a pair of ping-pong tables in the back for entertainment.

Surau Al-Hidayah Suraus exist somewhere between the public and private sphere, open to the random seeker looking to catch his salat but populated by a core group of regulars. They all have their own atmosphere that makes them so enjoyable to visit and discover. The favorable siting of this one makes it feel particularly warm and cozy. Finding it is the hard part.

Full Surau Al-Hidayah Photoset on Flickr

Neighboring homesAnother occulted mosque in town is the Masjid India, utterly hidden from view. Photosets of other masjids and suraus around Malaysia. Previous entries about local suraus and masjids at Bin Gregory Productions.

Looking back down the front entrance

Front door

Social space with ping-pong

the rear entry

The alley entrance

Neighbor's fence adjoining the front entrance