Hari Raya 2015

Hari Raya 2015

Selamat Hari Raya Maaf Zahir Dan Batin Eid Mubarak from Sarawak.  May your fasting and ours be received by the Most High in His Mercy rather than by our merits, amin.  It’s a special one for us this year since my eldest is in his last year of high school.  Who knows when we’ll all be able to gather again for another Raya?  We were doubly fortunate to have my mother-in-law with us for the month of fasting. It appears she has enjoyed herself as well; she plans to stay till the next Eid, Hari Raya Haji.

MRE: Botok and Pulut Udang

Mengkudu, Morinda citrafolia

As Ramadan winds down, I race to give credit to local foods that got me through the month. These MREs, Malaysia Ramadan Essentials, are practically complete meals in one package. Add rice as needed.

Pulut Panggang Udang

Pulut Udang
Pulut Udang


Wrapped in banana leaves held in place by bamboo pins, pulut panggang udang is beras pulut, sticky or glutinous rice, cooked with a bit of santan, stuffed with a spicy shredded coconut filling cooked with tiny dried shrimp.  The whole package is grilled on a skillet to impart the banana leaf flavor to the rice.  The size of a large cigar and selling for a ringgit a piece, one unit is equivalent to a light meal.




Botok tenggiri
Botok tenggiri


Botok is a huge favorite of the adults of the household.  It is a Sarawakian favorite not well known in other parts of the country, and it is basically unavailable outside of bulan puasa, the month of fasting. The package looks fairly unappealing: a moist black leafy lump of organic matter.


Botok dissected
Botok dissected


Open it up though, and you find a piece of tenggiri fish surrounded by a shredded coconut preparation.  It is said the best botok is made with fish past their expiration date.  The fish has absorbed the nutty oils, the coconut is pungent and fishy and the whole shebang is given a fresh, bitter taste by the leaf it is wrapped in, something akin to mustard greens or collards.


Mengkudu, Morinda citrafolia
The botok wrapper: Mengkudu, Morinda citrafolia


That leaf comes from the Mengkudu tree, Morinda citrafolia.  Westerners may recall it as the source for Tahitian Noni Juice, an MLM miracle food craze big around the turn of the century.  Mengkudu is a weedy tree in the mulberry family, popping up in cracks in the pavement just like mulberries do back home.  The fruit gives a hint of the relationship, but mengkudu fruit tastes utterly vile and smells nearly as bad as it rots on the ground.  The juice is strictly for medicinal purposes, whatever those may be.  Consult your bomoh.  But in our house, we eat the leaf wrapper along with the fish, just the sort of veggie dish to keep you regular through the fasting month.

Morinda growing beside the river
Fruits ruined by a fox in hunger
Wait til I collapse in death my lover
Fallen into the hands of another
Batang mengkudu di tepi sungai
Putiknya musnah dimakan musang
Abang menunggu mati terkulai
Adik lah pindah ke tangan orang

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Malay pantun sourced from Malay Civilization.  Translation mine.

36 hours in KL

Street Art

Time for my semi-annual ritual humiliation at the Immigration Department. After 12 years here married to a Malaysian, I ought to be well on my way to Permanent Resident status. But permanent residency is predicated on holding a Spouse Visa, and I have as yet been able to get one. Kuching says I’m married to a West Malaysian, and therefore a foreigner in Sarawak, so I must apply in Ipoh. Ipoh says we live in Sarawak so we can only apply in Kuching. And Putrajaya, seeing that I am caught in a catch-22 between two state governments, be like

ada aku kesah
“Like I give a f..k.”

Yet hope springs eternal and every six months or so the wife and I conceive another gambit that just might work and we’re off to Putrajaya again. We planned for an overnight stay. Mana tau, they might need something notarized, or the photos need a blue background instead of white or the other way around. Maybe they’d like me to drop urine! Or give a blood sample. But in the event it took a mere 30 minutes for a mid-ranking official to come up with a reason to say no this time around. That left me with nearly 36 hours to kill in KL! Yay!

Masjid Jamek
Masjid Jamek

Coming in from the provinces as I do, riding the trains and hitting the pavement in the great metropolis is excitement enough. I took a train to Masjid Jamek and decided to strike out for Chow Kit, where I might be able to break my fast on some durian. KL was not so hot as Kuching has been this Ramadan, and with breeze and clouds I was able to walk at a steady pace without needing to stop and cool down. The streets were busy with foot traffic although the cafes were empty. Most of my trek was a straight shot down Jalan Raja Chulan, a part of town I hadn’t seen before. I reached the Chow Kit market and finally plonked down in the Masjid Jamek Pakistan as worshippers assembled for a second round of Asr prayers.

Masjid Jamek Pakistan
Masjid Jamek Pakistan

After berbuka I headed out for a spot in the market I had noted on the way in. Everything was very different by night! Big trucks belonging to veggie wholesalers had pulled in and were unloading industrial quantities of produce. Great hills of petai! Fields of lemongrass! It reminded me more of Eastern Market in Detroit than Pasar Satok, the large central wet market of Kuching.

Mounds of Petai
Petai, or Stinkbean in English

Interesting, but I was after Durian. The seasons are different between the Peninsula and the Island, and so the Sarawakians have had no durian as we endure a particularly hot and dusty Ramadan this year. In Sarawak also the durians are all unnamed varieties – durian kampung. Which I like just fine, don’t get me wrong, but when in KL I do enjoy trying all the fancy cultivars that are on offer: Musang King, Udang Kunyit, D2, D101. Finally I made it to the durian stalls and settled in to my reward. Little plastic chairs at a folding plastic table, but the drinking water was freeflowing and the view of KLCC in the distance was magnificent.  Magnificent?  Well pleasant, certainly.  It was pleasant.

Durian by KLCC-light
Durian by KLCC-light

The next day took me toward the view I had been admiring the night before. The wife had business to attend to in the gently swaying twin towers, leaving me with a few hours to kill in the ultra-opulent shopping extravaganza that makes up the bottom of KLCC. With food off the menu, there was really only one destination for me: Kinokuniya. As far as this out-of-towner knows, there is no better bookstore to be found in the city. Leaving was harder than walking away from the durian stand, because you can count on your belly to tell you when to stop eating but your credit card lies lies lies.

Books from Kinokuniya
Books from Kinokuniya in descending order of seriousness.

Looking up from the shelves, who should I see but A. Samad Said, sasterawan negara, browsing the shelf next to me. I was starstruck! I would have, I should have taken a picture, but… he looked exactly the way he does in every picture I’ve ever seen of him: long white hair flowing into long white beard falling over white cotton clothing, wizened, squinting behind thick round glasses, shy beneficent smile ennobling his countenance. When we married, my wife had an old copy of Hujan Pagi in her collection and I told myself I would be able to read it one day. Reader, I still can’t get off the first page. But I’m sure it is brilliant! And one fine day when I have read the whole thing from cover to cover and understood every blessed word, I will march down to Putrajaya, slam it on the counter, and, Pacino-in-Scarface style, demand my Permanent Residence.

MRE: Ikan Masin

Ikan Masin masak cabai

Dried fish, salted fishSweets and savoury dishes of every sort fill the special neighbourhood markets set up for Ramadan.  While our kids binge on the colorful kuih and sugary drinks that they rarely get other times of the year, the wife and I are more likely to turn to a few basic dishes for the “few morsels needed to support our being”[1], as it were: our Malaysia Ramadan Essentials.  One of these MREs is Ikan Masin, salted fish.  There are more kinds of salted fish in the market than I have been able to identify, much less try, in 12 years of living here.  Shark, mackerel, ikan gelama, many many more.  They aren’t just salted, but somehow fermented during the process, so that they take on a flavor that is reminiscent of an aged sharp cheddar cheese: tangy, salty, crumbly and creamy-oily.  The house favorite is ikan tenggiri, some kind of mackerel.  I could tell you which kind but come on – how many kinds of mackerel can you identify anyway?  We Americans don’t know from fish.  Ok, Narrow-banded Spanish Mackerel.  Doesn’t help, does it?  So anyway, imagine a fishy version of old cheddar, crumbled and sauteed in tiny bit of oil with sliced garlic, onions, and dried chili peppers.  Serve with fresh hot rice.



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1. “No human ever filled a container more evil than his belly. The few morsels needed to support his being shall suffice the son of Adam. But if there is no recourse then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath.” – Nabi Muhammad, peace be upon him


Hari Raya 2013


Selamat Hari Raya!  Eid Mubarak!  Happy Holidays, everybody!  May the fasting and the prayers during the blessed month of Ramadan be accepted from us and from you and may Allah prolong our lives to arrive at another Ramadan in the year ahead, Amin.


Ramadan in Malaysia

tadarrus, reading quran in the surau

Ramadan through the eyes of foreigners in Malaysia” :: Borneo Post. I’m one of the foreigners interviewed.  The article also ran in Bahasa Malaysia as “Ramadan Menerusi Kaca Mata Warga Asing Di Malaysia.”


Ramadan through the eyes of foreigners in Malaysia

Posted on August 5, 2013, Monday

KUALA LUMPUR:  Zikir, which occurs before the start of fasting, azan at iftar, and the chatter of neighbours as they proceed to the surau for Tarawih prayers are cherished by Zayn Al-Abideeen Gregory, who was born in the United States.

“Perhaps these are not significant events, but in a non-Muslim country, it is not easy to experience these sounds of the surau,” said the 38-year-old when contacted by Bernama recently on his Ramadan experience in Malaysia. He currently resides in Kuching, Sarawak.

Zayn, who teaches agriculture at a local university in Sarawak, was raised in Detroit, Michigan. He converted to Islam in 1992, at the age of 17. He married a Malaysian citizen in 1997, and the family moved to Sarawak in 2003.

“During the ten years I fasted in Michigan, Ramadan was in the winter, when the days are short and the nights long. Sometimes we would fast for only 11 hours. Now my friends back home are fasting for 17 hours in the heat of summer,” said the father of seven children.

However, Zayn misses the ‘simplicity’ of Ramadan in the United States, where there are no elements of ‘commercialisation’ in the blessed month.

Aidilfitri celebration in the United States though is ‘anti-climactic,’ he said because the American Muslim community is so diverse that a shared or common Muslim way of celebrating Aidilfitri does not exist.

He added that since Muslims in the United States are scattered across the country, it is difficult to visit one another during Aidilfitri. This is not the case in Malaysia, where relatives and friends live in close proximity.

“The neighbourly warmth that I have experienced in Malaysia during Aidilfitri is remarkable,” he said, adding that the tradition of visiting family and friends enhances children’s social skills and etiquette.

According to Sufiana Sarisae, 29, who is from southern Thailand, since Ramadan is a month of blessings, observing the holy month anywhere in the world is the same. However, she noticed that Muslims in Malaysia place emphasis on Tarawih prayers during Ramadan, while Muslims in Narathiwat recite the Quran for long periods of time.

“I enjoy going to the Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah mosque in Gombak for Tarawih prayers. People from all over the world gather there for prayers,” said Sufiana Sarisae, who has been residing in Malaysia for the past five years.

When Bernama asked Imene Tabet, a 20-year-old Algerian student, about her views of Ramadan celebration in Malaysia, she replied that the celebration of the holy month in Malaysia is more spiritual .

“During Ramadan, people should examine their thoughts and change their behaviours to become better individuals. When people celebrate Ramadan away from home, they tend to be more focused on prayers,” she said.

Imene has taken a liking to Malaysian food, and her favourite dish for iftar is ‘Nasi Ayam’ (chicken rice). She believes that Nasi Ayam is easy to digest, which is why she consumes the dish before carrying out Tarawih prayers.

She will celebrate the month of Syawal by travelling to other Malaysian states to learn about Malaysian traditions. — Bernama


Read more: http://www.theborneopost.com/2013/08/05/ramadan-through-the-eyes-of-foreigners-in-malaysia/#ixzz3A3eDqfrA