Excitement grew during the month of Ramadan for the holiday right after, Eid al-Fitr, Hari Raya. Teachers sold and bought holiday cookies, biscuit raya, and students came in shy groups to my office to invite me to their homes. At Hari Raya it is traditional for families to host open houses with special holiday foods. Reminiscent of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all at once, Hari Raya is a time when groups of family and friends roll-up in their most stunning baju raya (holiday clothes), eat a plate of food or some biscuit raya, greet each other with the Salaam, and say “Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri!” It is also a serious holiday, a time to honor dead ancestors by visiting their graves, and a time truly to appreciate the abundance of food and water after one month of fasting. It is when you forgive others and start fresh. But above all, Hari Raya is a joyful celebration of food, friends, and family.
I slept over at one of my student’s houses the night before the first day of Hari Raya. Teacher/student relationships are more casual and have no special separation here, so it’s normal for teachers to spend time with students and their families outside of school. We ate raya eve dinner at her grandmother’s house. This is a special meal because it is the end of the last day of fasting in Ramadan.
When I got there all the women of the family—the kids, the mother, the grandmother, the great-grandmother, and some of the aunties–were sitting in an outdoor kitchen area. The family’s kitchen helper was butchering a freshly slaughtered duck. She had a block of soft stone and she used two different knives and no gloves. She expertly hacked through bone, slicing and scraping. As it approached 7:30pm, the time of Iftar, breaking fast, we went into the dining room and sat on mats on the floor for a traditional Malay meal. We each had a plate of white rice and added whatever curried, stewed, meat and veggies we wanted from the communal dishes, and of course we ate with our hands. Dinner was fast, as every Iftar I’ve experienced has been. You listen to a short prayer, drink some water, eat a date, then dig into your rice. Everyone’s done eating in about ten minutes.
My student woke me up a couple hours later, around midnight, to get up and cook with the family. They were preparing food for the next day. I helped make potato dumplings for a bihun soup and stirred a bubbling beef curry for 30 minutes. I watched as all the men in the family congregated around the technical task of setting up a fire to roast the lemang. Lemang is s big deal, it’s a raya specialty of sticky sweet rice and coconut milk tightly packed into half-meter bamboo stalks and slow roasted over a fire.
We went to grandma’s house again for breakfast. Families members all wore color-coordinated outfits, and my baju raya was purple to match. Everyone did a quick prayer, then we intensely ate chicken satay in peanut sauce and sweet rose syrup drink for ten minutes. I’ve noticed it’s more polite in Malay culture to eat your food fast and heartily, as opposed to slowly and intersperced with talk, as it is in Western culture. Most meals here are short and silent, and it is considered rude to ignore the food in front of you for too long once you’re begun eating it. After the satay, the children received duit raya, cash in envelopes adults give to children. Then we took family photos together!
We went home to continue cooking and eating. One Hari Raya specialty is tapai. Tapai is a leaf from the rubber tree folded over and stapled together with a wet blob of sweet, fermented rice in the middle. It’s definitely an acquired taste. I see the nuanced appeal only after eating many during the holiday.
I was so overjoyed to be included in my student’s family’s most intimate and special yearly festivities. I was the only guest, and they treated me both as a special honored guest and as a long-lost cousin. Several times all three sisters and I piled into the back of the family car to go to grandma’s house–they leaned their heads on my shoulder and fell asleep.
After days of festivities another student texted me last minute to ask if I could come to her house. I was a pro by this point. She offered me biscuit raya and a sweet drink. We piled into an SUV with all my student’s friends, uncles, and brothers and a few minutes later were at a wedding. I never found out whose. But at Malay weddings, uninvited guests are welcomed, encouraged, and expected. We ate plates of rice, meat, and fruit, and greeted people. We went into the room where the bride and groom were seated on the traditional Malay wedding platform, surrounded by flowers, draped cloth, and soft lighting. They were in their best clothes. It’s traditional in a Malay wedding for the bride and groom to sit on a beautifully decorated throne and greet members of the community and take photos. I was standing in the doorway and they furiously motioned for me to take pictures with them. They placed me between the bride and groom with some of my students assembled in the foreground.
Hari Raya was joyful. It was a time to enjoy being with friends and family, to feast, and to be reminded of all the pleasures and good fortunes of life.