Early in the morning last December 24th we were, like many around the world, anticipating a feast. But this was to be no dinner or turkey or roast beef or roast lamb or ham. We'd been invited to village about an hour from Kuala Lumpur to watch the preparations for a kenduri (Malaysian for 'ceremony' or 'celebration').
This particular kenduri was to mark the engagement of my Malaysian teacher's sister. All kenduri involve protocol - there are must-do's and must-don'ts; dress should be appropriate, and ritual respected. But this is Malaysia, a country where food is never an afterthought. So, as the betrothed-to-be prepared herself for the afternoon's events, assorted relatives and neighbors cooked up an amazing meal for the guests.
We arrived early to find M's grandmother sweeping the courtyard and his father on a ladder plucking rambutan from one of the many fruit trees that shade the house. Cats lazed about here and there in the early morning sun. Preparations had already begun at the bangsal, an outdoor raised and covered platform that's usually used for lounging but that can be called into kitchen use when the weather is fine and extra space is needed.
M's family expected 100 or so guests for lunch, so caterers were called in - a few village ladies, reknowned for their culinary skills, who have experiece cooking for crowds. They arrived with huge pots of half-cooked curry sauces that would be finished off in the one-room hut opposite the house that serves as a second kitchen.
These ladies may have been asked in to do a job, but when it came to cooking, everyone - M's sisters and mother included - deferred to Aunty, a sturdy and smiling 69-year-old relative who'd been driven in from Kelantan state for the occasion. After chopping carrots and longbeans at the bangsal she moved to the power position in the cooking hut - a low stool within easy reach of ingredients and a couple of portable gas burners - and, with the village caterers, set to finishing the meal.
Mul bari is a sort of curry made, on this day, with chicken. Aunty started by heating the brick-red sauce, made with loads of dried chilies, onions, shallots, and ginger, and then added chicken pieces that had been marinated in serbok kuzi - a mixture of garlic, ginger, and condensed milk - and then deep-fried. The pan holding the curry sauce was large, but the amount of chicken to be cooked larger, so Aunty added the bird in batches, leaving each to simmer in the sauce for a half an hour or so before removing it to make room for more.
Once all of the chicken was cooked and removed from the pan, in went chunks of red onion and long red chilies, halved. After they'd simmered and softened for another thirty or minutes or so Aunty added the chicken back in and finished the dish with a flurry of curry leaves. This spicy, fragrant dish with its textured sauce was our favorite of the meal.
Dalca, a dish of vegetables and protein (beef stomach, in this case) is a Malay dish with Indian influences - the sauces incorporates dal, an Indian pulse.
Dalca includes plenty of chilies as well, though the heat is softened by coconut milk.
Long beans, globe eggplant, and potato round out this Malay-Indian stew.
Most of the residents of M's village trace their ancestry to Bengkulu, a coastal town in southern Sumatra (M's family hails from peninsular Malaysia's east coast). Bengkulus were brought to this part of Malaysia in the latter part of the 19th century to work on rubber palm plantations as tappers.
This tahu masak kicap (tofu cooked with soy sauce), a dish of deep-fried tofu and fresh green chilies in a rich coconut milk sauce, is part of the Bengkulu culinary repertoire. It includes both regular and Indonesian sweet (kecap manis) soy sauces.
The ginger-fragrant dish was a perfect sweet-salty addition to a menu otherwise dominated by spicy foods.
While Aunty and two of the village caterers saw to curries in the hut, and M's mother and sister continued to wash and prep vegetables outside,
the other caterer prepared nasi minyak ('oil' rice) for one hundred, in two batches. Each started with a heart-stopping amount of butter and ghee, melted in an oversized rice cooker.
Once she had melted the oils and allowed them to bubble a bit the caterer threw in dried spices - whole cloves, cardamom pods, and cinammon sticks - and chopped garlic and ginger, and stirred the lot with a wooden paddle large enough to be a boat oar. Seven and a half kilos of rice followed, then water, and then the lot was left to steam.
Halfway through the cook removed the lid, flattened the rice with her paddle, and pressed a banana leaf on top. After more steaming, she mixed in golden and black raisins. Fifteen or so minutes later she dished up perfectly cooked (each grain distinct), fragrant rice to accompany the meal.
No kenduri is complete without pulut kuning (yellow rice), rice that has been soaked with turmeric for two hours, drained, and then steamed with coconut milk. The finished dish is a bit al dente, like a risotto, and delicious, though much too rich to be eaten in quantity if other dishes are on offer.
Around 12:30, after four and a half hours of chopping and washing and boiling and simmering and steaming, the caterers and their helpers, along with M and his guests, gathered on the bangsal for lunch. Guests were to arrive at 2 but we were all much too hungry to wait.
Along with the rices, and the dalca, chicken, and tofu, there was a rich beef rendang, a chile-hot and belacan-fishy sambal, and a wonderfully refreshing acar (a sort of pickle/salad) of red onion, fresh red chilies, garlic, tomatoes, pineapple, shredded carrot, and cucumber in a sweet-sour-salty white vinegar-based dressing.
We ate until we could eat no more, and then went inside with M to see the hantaran, or gifts that the bride-to-be's family had prepared for the groom's family, who were driving in from Terengganu (it's a Malay tradition for the families to exchange gifts at the beginning of the engagement celebration). Among kuih (sweets) and textiles was this beautiful old tepak seri, or betel set. The lidded containers are meant to contain ingredients to wrap with the nut in its leaf, before it's popped in the mouth.
Just as we were about to leave, grandma emerged from the house in her kenduri finery. We weren't able to stay for the engagement ceremony itself because we'd been invited to a tradition of an entirely different sort. Our neighbors were holding a Christmas Eve open house.
Thanks to M and his family for so warmly welcoming us into their home.