[I normally write an article during the fasting month about Hari Raya in the past but I have done a few times and decided to write about the ketupat. I was intrigued as my mother told me that when she first arrived in Brunei, there was no ketupat for Hari Raya. But nowadays ketupat is the symbol for Hari Raya. This article was published in my column The Golden Legacy in Brunei Times on 22 August 2011]
WITH less than two weeks of the fasting month left, attention has now shifted towards the preparation of Hari Raya Aidil Fitri as Bruneians and other Malays around the region called it.
Today, the symbol for Hari Raya is the outline of the ketupat or boiled compressed rice wrapped in a pouch of palm leaves. Everywhere you go, you will see the ketupat hanging everywhere. Nowadays, the ketupat does not have to be filled with anything. They are no longer made out of palm leaves but out of colourful ribbons.
To the younger Brunei crowd, ketupat has always been there. They see the ketupat everywhere. Almost all of the open houses would be serving ketupat cut into small square cubes to be eaten together with rice or beef or chicken rendang, another local Brunei Malay food.
It is also traditionally served with satay, the barbecued skewered meat. Some even served the ketupat with Sayur Lodeh, Serunding, Sambal as well as Soto. With the extensive serving of ketupat, it is no wonder that many have even thought that the ketupat has been served during Hari Raya since time immemorial. But this is not so.
The ketupat as food has a long history. Someone in the past discovered that by boiling rice compressed and encased in leaves will allow the rice not to spoil and to keep for quite some time. This is especially important for seafarers to keep the rice from spoiling during long sea voyages.
The shape of the ketupat allowed moisture to drip away from the cooked rice while the leaves allow the rice inside it to be aerated. At the same time, pests such as insects and flies will not be able to get to the rice during those sea voyages. It is not just the sea voyages. Farmers and hunters who had to work in the farm a whole day or for a few days would also be taking the ketupat with them.
Rice cooked wrapped in leaves is a relative common dish among the races of Southeast Asia. The Chinese version is called rice dumpling and is known as "Cang" or "Chang" and in Mandarin "ZongZi". These dumplings are usually wrapped in bamboo leaves. The shape of the pouch is different, where the ketupat is generally square but the Chinese rice dumpling is tetrahedral. The Chinese version is usually glutinous rice with fillings such as meat, dried prawns, black mushrooms, chestnuts, salted eggs, and red or white beans. The Brunei kelupis is another version of wrapped rice and filled with meat or prawns.
Ketupat is also used as a religious offering for some of the indigenous races. Elderly Dusun people called it "tebuu". However the ketupat is not encased in the traditional square weaved leaves but usually in the shape of an object such as the head of a bird or an animal. These ketupats are not eaten with beef rendang but usually with bananas and eggs.
In the Philippines, ketupat or "puso" as it is known is used as a pabaon or a packed lunch. It is also called "bugnoy", "patupat" or "ta'mu" in the other languages of the Philippines. In Bali, ketupat is also used as ceremonial offerings. In Indonesia, the word ketupat or "kupat" is derived from the Javanese word "ngaku lepat", which means to admit mistake.
Ketupat had indeed been made and sold throughout the generation. One lady hailing from the Kampong Ayer remembered that even the padians, the water village peddlers, had been seen selling ketupat from their sampans.
When indeed did ketupat made the jump from everyday food to become a Hari Raya symbol in Brunei?
According to Datin Hajah Faridah, when she first arrived in Brunei in the very early 1960s as a young bride from Johor, Hari Raya food in Brunei was the traditional dry Brunei food. Unlike today's many multicoloured cakes being served are the norm but in those days the food served would be much simpler. Local and much drier food such as dried agar-agar, kueh Mumbai, kueh sapit and kueh bahulu were the flavour of the day. Drinks too were limited to black coffee with sugar. Soft drinks were not served or indeed were not yet available in the Brunei market then.
In those days, the tradition of open houses, inviting people to come in to have a meal is not practiced. If there is no meal to invite to, then there is no necessity to serve food let alone ketupat. For about three decades after the Second World War, ketupat was not yet a Hari Raya symbol in Brunei. By the 1970s, with the help of television and the radio, and the crossover of cultural practices between Brunei and the other nations around the region, only then did ketupat evolved to become the symbol of Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and a new "traditional" must have for the Hari Raya festivities.
By the 1980s, open houses became the norm and the serving of food to family members, visitors and guests became the new norm. Until today, many Bruneians celebrated the achievements of the whole month of fasting by serving food to their guests which includes having ketupat as part of the main courses. Ketupat makers need to buy ketupat casings in this month of Ramadhan. Many of the ketupat casings can be seen to be made by the vendors at the tamu at Kianggeh. These casings are generally made out of "nipah" leaves or better known in Brunei as "daun puchuk". The nipah is a type of palm. The spine of the nipah leaves are first removed with a knife before the leaves pressed to flatten them to ease the weaving of the ketupat casing.
Prior to weaving, the leaves are left to dry, as the shape of the ketupat would not hold if the leaves are damp as the leaves need to hold together as the casings are filled with two thirds or three quarters of uncooked rice before being boiled.
Weaving ketupat casings is a skill learned from past generations. Haji Awang Daud remembered as a small boy helping his mother tightened the loose ketupat casings.
Generally Brunei casing maker used only one leaf rather than two. The ketupat casing in Brunei are usually made up of three different shapes. The traditional square one is called ketupat satay. The ones for Hari Raya is called ketupat raya which is usually a more diamond shaped and another is called ketupat bawang which is shaped like an onion.
There is another type of ketupat in Brunei which is made from palas leaves. These are usually triangular shaped and is not boiled. It is usually filled with glutinous rice cooked in santan or coconut paste and then steamed which Bruneians called "di dadih". In Malaysia, palas leaves would be used to make the regular diamond shaped ketupat pulut. The leaves has a green edge and the ketupat would be cream coloured with green tints thus making the palas leaves ketupat as the new symbol of Hari Raya. This is more likely due to the green colour as green is seen as the colour of the religion.
However despite the symbolism, most importantly, Hari Raya is not about ketupat. It is a day to pay tribute and a day of victory. It is a day for reaching out to the Al-Mighty and prays to express our gratitude for being bestowed prosperous blessings.