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RAMADAN, HARI RAYA, EID -
MUSLIM NEW YEAR IN MALAYSIA

Story and photos by

Did you know that the fasting month of Ramadan is a good time for food-lovers to visit Malaysia? Hotels serve huge buffets, called Buka Puasa, to break the fast at the end of each day. The buffets feature an irresistible assortment of Malaysian dishes, including many foods that aren't prepared at other times of the year.

Chef stirs dish on Buka Puasa buffet, served on Ramadan evenings in Kuala Lumpur.
Chef stirs dish on Buka Puasa buffet, served on Ramadan evenings in Kuala Lumpur.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The end of Ramadan, Hari Raya, signals the end of fasting and the beginning of Eid and Muslim New Year celebrations. In Malaysia, where Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully, there are four New Years — Indian, Chinese, Western and Islamic. All are celebrated with open houses to which everyone is invited.

When is Ramadan and Hari Raya?

The 2017 Ramadan dates are May 27 to June 25, depending on the country's location. Ramadan begins with the waning of the moon at the end of the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, and continues for the full cycle of the moon until religious leaders sight the new crescent moon of the 10th month, Syawal.

During this 30-day period, Muslims fast, abstaining from all food, drinks, tobacco and sexual activity from dawn to dusk. Restaurants are still open, however, for tourists and Malaysia's non-Muslim inhabitants.

Hari Raya Puasa (literally, "The Big Day of the Fast") or Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, is not to be confused with Hari Raya Haji, which takes place about three months later. The former commemorates the end of Ramadan, while the latter is a festival that celebrates the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca made by Muslims.

Muslim New Year celebrations

Eid or Muslim New Year is similar, in many ways, to Christmas and New Year's Day. Turning on the radio, we hear Selamat Hari Raya (Happy New Year) songs, rather than Christmas carols. Garlands and signs bearing holiday wishes decorate shopping malls, but their colours are yellow and green, rather than red and green. (Green is the colour of Islam.)

Stores sell Hari Raya cards below signs advising purchasers to mail before a particular date "to guarantee delivery." Shoppers buy new clothing and sweet and savoury foods to serve guests.

Hari Raya foods for sale
Hari Raya foods for sale
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Television ads depict families stopping at gas stations to fuel up for the traditional balik kampung (going back to the village). Telephone company commercials show children phoning home. The scenes are familiar ones; only the clothing and greetings are different from those in North America.

Public buildings display signs, lights and giant ketupat — packets made of woven coconut palm leaves, traditionally stuffed with rice and boiled. People eat ketupat with satay (barbecued meat on sticks) or rendang (meat simmered in a spicy sauce until most of the liquid has evaporated).

Hari Raya decorations

In Kuala Lumpur, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building is bright with strings of tiny lights, while streets sprout bunga manggar — tall poles, topped with colorful tinsel sprays of flowers. With their flashing colored lights, they look like Christmas palm trees.

When New Year arrives, newspapers feature pictures of crowded airports, train and bus stations, as well as messages from the King and headlines such as "Storks Keep Hospitals Busy with Bundles of Raya Joy." Children born on Hari Raya are often given special names, just as we sometimes name Christmas babies Noel or Holly.

We arrived in Malaysia during the last week of Ramadan and joined our Muslim friend, Amran, for a Buka Puasa at a Kuala Lumpur hotel.

Buka Puasa, or Ramadan Buffets, are held at major city hotels during the month of Ramadan. They start at sunset (about 7 p.m.) and continue to about 10:30 at night. The menu changes daily and prices are very reasonable.

As the sun sets, a drummer hits the bedok, creating loud, resonant booms signalling the time to end the fast. We're surprised to see local people bypass the tempting array of soups, salads, and main courses and head straight for the desserts.

Buka puasa Ramadan dessert buffet
Buka puasa Ramadan dessert buffet
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"The prophet Mohammed broke his fast by eating dates, so we traditionally break ours with dates and sweets as well," explains Amran. "The sugar also helps us regain our strength quickly."

Buka Puasa buffet foods

We sample colorful layered kuihs (cakes) made with rice flour and coconut milk, served beside western desserts, like trifle and Black Forest cake. Malaysian ice kacang — shaved ice served over condiments (like red beans) topped with syrups and coconut milk is refreshing and delicious.

Main courses are just as varied and flavorful: prawn fritters, curried chicken, red snapper in coconut milk, beef, seafood, rice and noodle dishes. Even the drinks are wonderful — fresh guava, starfruit and pineapple juices, teh tarik (vanilla flavored tea with milk), air tebu, sugar cane juice and air mata kucing (cat's eyes), a lychee-like fruit drink.

Amran tells us that he's going home to Gantok, about two hours from KL, to celebrate Hari Raya with his family. "Would you like to join me?" he asks. We eagerly accept his invitation and agree to meet early the next morning.

The normally crowded streets of Kuala Lumpur are deserted, as we leave the city. "Most people have already left for balik kampung," notes Amran. As he speaks, we see families, dressed in their best clothing, going to the mosque for thanksgiving prayers. Amran is wearing a splendid gold baju melayu, the national costume, comprised of a silk shirt and pants with a black songkak hat and a songket (fabric with gold thread) sheet wrapped around his waist.

Hari Raya open houses

Visitors to Kuala Lumpur, who don't have the opportunity to visit kampungs in the countryside, can attend a Hari Raya Aidilfitri Open House held by the King and Queen of Malaysia in their royal palace, the Istana Negara. The Malaysian Prime Minister and cabinet ministers also host a public open house. It's very popular, so be prepared for long line-ups.

Families visit cemetery during Hari Raya celebrations in Gantok, Malaysia.
Families visit cemetery during Hari Raya celebrations in Gantok, Malaysia.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

People gather in countryside cemeteries to pay respect to their departed loved ones. When we stop to take photographs, the villagers invite us into their homes for open house. We politely decline, telling them we are expected at Amran's home.

Reaching the kampung, we turn down a narrow dirt road and follow a flock of sheep through a fruit tree grove to Amran's home. His sister, Fauziah, a schoolteacher, greets us and brings Barb to the back door where the women remove their shoes and enter. Ron and Amran go in through the front door, again leaving their shoes outside.

Amran's mother greets us with "Selamat Hari Raya," and immediately makes us feel at home, even though she speaks no English. We sit on the floor to sample dodol (coconut milk and palm sugar sweets), tiny shortbread cookies and sponge cakes from plates arranged on tablecloths on the carpet.

Fauziah hands us a silver teapot, which contains water for hand washing. One of the children laughs, telling us that a visitor once poured the water into a glass for drinking.

Amran gives Hari Raya ampung to a nephew as his sister Fauziah and his other nephews watch at Kampung home in Gantok.
Amran gives Hari Raya ampung to a nephew as his sister Fauziah and his other nephews watch at Kampung home in Gantok.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ampung envelopes

Amran's nieces and nephews pay their respects to their elders by kneeling in front of them, kissing their hands, and requesting a blessing and forgiveness for any wrongs they may have done. Amran gives his young relatives ampung, envelopes containing money, a custom adopted from the Chinese — only the envelopes are green, rather than red.

The village men, socializing in the front room, decide to move on to the open house next door. Ron and Amran join them, in a circle on the carpet. After praising Allah, and reading from the Koran, they snack on crispy deep-fried peanuts, spicy lamb satay with peanut sauce, and pastries.

Hari Raya open house in kampung
Hari Raya open house in kampung
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

One of the men collects coins in his songkak and distributes them to the children. After 20 minutes, they leave to go on to the next house. "The more visitors people have, the happier they are," explains Amran. "People who live the furthest from the mosque usually have fewer visitors than those who live close, so they're always disappointed."

Malaysian New Year meal

By the time Amran and Ron return, the open house visitors have left and Amran's mother invites us to join the family at the table for a traditional Hari Raya meal. Taking a machete, she cracks open tubes of bamboo that were simmering in a pot, and removes a banana leaf-wrapped cylinder of lemang — glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk. We eat the rice, along with rendang and tapai (sweet fermented rice) that tastes like rice pudding.

When the time comes to say goodbye, Amran's mother reaches up on the wall, pulls down a hand-woven basket, and presents it to us. We are touched by her thoughtfulness.

The basket, now in our home, is a treasured souvenir of Hari Raya — the traditional customs, wonderful foods and the heartwarming hospitality.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Tourism Malaysia

Malaysia Airlines

More things to see & do in Malaysia

Day Trips from KL Malaysia to Batu Caves, Melaka and Genting Highlands

What to See and Do in Georgetown and Penang Malaysia

Cameron Highlands Resort — Green Roses and Boh Tea

Kuala Kangsar — Ubudiah Mosque and Sultan of Perak's Residence

Borneo Holiday in Sarawak Malaysia Longhouses