Ramadan Reflections: A Malaysian Ramadan Iftar in Brooklyn

A portrait from Brooklyn

This is a guest post from Shahirah Elaiza, creator of the Colours of My Life blog, and Colors of my Kitchen on Instagram.

As newlyweds living in Brooklyn, New York, Shahirah and Juan hosted their first iftar (a meal to break one’s fast) to celebrate the coming of Ramadan, the month of fasting with their friends.

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Introduction

To make it a memorable experience for their friends who come from different parts of not just New York but the world, Shahirah created a Malaysian-themed iftar and prepared food and a music playlist that reflected her experience of Ramadan in Malaysia and New Zealand, where she resided for a substantial portion of her life. As an interracial and intercultural couple, Juan and Shahirah embraced their faith and cultures as part of their intertwining roots that help to ground them in their colorful life together. 

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Shahirah Reflects

I believe when things don’t always go according to plan it is life’s way of keeping things interesting for us. After all, that’s how I ended up moving to New York City nearly a year ago. I never expected to fall in love with a Juan, an Ecuadorian-American, let alone live in this soul-stirring metropolitan city.

However, diversity and multi-cultural seem to be a common thread in the cities I’ve found myself in, like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where I was born and raised, and Dunedin and Wellington, New Zealand, where I lived for a decade. As this is my first year of living in New York, many experiences feel new to me – from discovering shops and cafes in my Brooklyn neighborhood to observing Ramadan and having iftars in various boroughs of the city.

Ramdan Iftar

The sacred month of Ramadan is the most significant time of the year for many Muslims. We not only fast from food and water (yes, even water) from the start of sunrise to sunset, but we also focus on being more devoted to our Creator and serving our community. Apart from the usual daily routine, our schedules revolve around suhoor (pre-dawn meal), the 5 obligatory prayers and of course, iftar (a meal to break the fast). This is the time of the year when eating and drinking becomes an act of worship (getting bonus points for eating is awesome!) and providing food for others is a highly commendable act of love and worship.

“Whoever offers a meal to his/her Muslim brother/sister at the time of iftar), s/he receives as much reward as s/he has earned. Nothing becomes less of the reward of those s/he offered meal to.” – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

As someone who is still learning about Islam and someone who is new to New York, respectively, Juan and I decided to host an iftar in our home during Ramadan so we could learn about Islam and Muslims and our new friends in New York together. As newlyweds, hosting an iftar was also an opportunity for us to continue learning about each other and each other’s cultures.

On the 12th day of Ramadan (17th May 2019), we invited our friends to join us at home as we had an iftar with dishes that reflect my personal journey and Ramadan traditions from Malaysia and New Zealand while being serenaded by the recordings of gamelan, traditional instrumental Malay music.

Breaking Ramadan Fast
An Instagram story about our iftar posted by our friend, M.

It was an honor to share parts of my life story with my husband and friends during this iftar. Even though it was a lot of work before and after, it was worth it if they left feeling inspired to embrace their roots and uniqueness as their strengths and gifts that allow them to add beauty and color to the world… starting with this little corner in the world called New York city.

Juan and I find comfort, meaning and joy in understanding that various experiences shape us to become who we are, so naturally we will evolve, grow, hold on to traditions or create new ones. In sharing my journey from Malaysia to the United States, I hope our friends (and readers) can see unexpected as opportunities to become better and stronger. In sharing our journey as an interracial and intercultural couple, we hope others will be inspired to embrace love and faith and one’s unique roots and background, not as elements that absolutely define who we are, but as aspects of our identity that can create beauty and meaning in our lives and in the lives of others.

Malaysian iftar
With our beautiful friends who joined us for our Malaysian iftar

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Malay Gamelan Music

“Everything was great. Right from the moment we entered [your home] and heard the music.”

D. on the gamelan music

The Malaysian experience wouldn’t be complete without traditional Malay gamelan music. The soothing sounds of these percussive instruments were played in the background as our friends enjoyed their iftar meal. Although the gamelan is originally from Indonesia, it has developed a distinctive sound in Malaysia, where it is traditionally played during royal occasions to welcome guests and audiences. Today, the gamelan is also played during formal and special occasions, such as university graduations and weddings.

Hearing the enchanting and regal melodies of the gamelan during our iftar brought back memories of our wedding reception in August 2018 and I felt like I was not only sharing my cultural tradition with our friends but also a part of Juan and I’s personal journey as husband and wife.

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Breaking the Fast

As soon the adhan (call to prayer) was heard on our digital adhan player, everyone reached for a date (tamar in Arabic, kurma in Malay) to break their fast as it is a Prophetic tradition to break one’s fast with a date or sweet because sugar helps to restore energy. True to the Malaysian tradition of Ramadan, guests were also served the sirap cincau drink (rose syrup and grass jelly) to break their fast.

The menu for the evening was thoughtfully chosen and curated to represent pieces of my identity and/or a Ramadan tradition from Malaysia or New Zealand. (Which reminds me of something else that didn’t go according to plan in my life: growing up, I steered away from cooking Malaysian food because they tend to be complicated with so many spices, steps and techniques but ironically, I ended up marrying an American who likes Malaysian food, so I now find myself learning how to make Malaysian food and surprisingly enjoy it.)

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Bubur Lambuk

“It tasted like a warm hug.”

S. on the bubur lambuk
Bubur Lambuk

In Malaysia, bubur lambuk (Spiced Congee with Mince Beef and Peanuts) is synonymous with Ramadan because it is commonly distributed for free at mosques during this time of the year. The most well-known version of this spiced congee is called ‘Bubur Lambuk Masjid Jamek Kampung Baru’ in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. According to The Malay Mail, the tradition of preparing and distributing thousands of packets of bubur lambuk at Jamek Kampung Baru Mosque began in the 1920s:

“Legend has it that the Kampung Baru bubur lambuk recipe came from a man named Haji Said who brought the dish to share with a few of his companions during the breaking of fast at the mosque around 90 years ago.

It is said his friends fell in love with the dish and later asked that his wife make more of the porridge for them.

Word spread fast and more and more residents around the area started giving Haji Said and wife ingredients to make the bubur. As the reputation of his bubur lambuk and demand grew, the mosque decided that they would cook the dish as a staple, so that it could be distributed among those who break fast there.

The exact same recipe has been handed down four generations and the popularity of the Kampung Baru bubur lambuk has now spread beyond the city’s Malay enclave to as far as Singapore and Indonesia.”

Malay Mail

It began and still continues because Ramadan is a time of increased generosity and love for our community, and what better way to express these values than to prepare and give away a dish that consists of a Malaysian staple food – rice! (Malaysians eat rice everyday, sometimes 3 times a day.) Due to its distinctive flavor, bubur lambuk always seemed very complex to make but like many things, the fear of doing something is often scarier than actually doing it. I can’t believe I made bubur lambuk for my guests and they loved it!

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Murtabak (Paratha with Minced Beef Filling)

In honor of my beloved late father, I prepared one of his favorite foods for the iftar. While it isn’t specific to Ramadan, I have seen murtabak sold at Ramadan food bazaars in Malaysia because it’s a popular dish until today.

Murtabak (Paratha with Minced Beef Filling)

This paratha with meat filling not only reflects our Johorian heritage in the south of Malaysia (across the Singaporean straits) but also reflects his roots in Yemen from several generations ago. The murtabak is said to have originated from India and Yemen (‘mutabbiq’ means ‘folded’ in Arabic) and was brought over to South East Asia by Tamil Muslim traders and Hadhrami traders from Yemen in mid-18th Century.

During that time, the Straits of Johor was a popular port for traders. My father himself was a descendant of one these Hadhrami traders, many of whom were scholars of Islam who spread the message of Islam through trade around the world, including Malaya. It’s not impossible that these Yemeni traders also brought recipes and cuisines into Malaya.

In order to save time, I made a ‘cheat’ version of the murtabak by using frozen paratha instead of making it. I was able to find Malaysian-style paratha from my local supermarket but any plain paratha would suffice. All I had to do was prepare the meat filling and pickled onions. It would have also been ideal to serve dhal curry with it and I’ll be sure to do it next time!

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Maghrib Adhan

During Ramadan, my family and I would gather around the dinner table and have the television switched on to hear the Maghrib adhan (call to prayer) as soon as it comes on. There is a joke among the Muslim community that Ramadan is the only time of the year when we know the exact time of Maghrib prayer right down to the minute and seconds because we are in full anticipation to break our fast.

Jokes aside, the adhan is not merely an invitation to the physical act of praying but an invitation to mentally and spiritually reconnect with our Creator and find peace in our daily lives. Clearly, I didn’t expect the adhan to be played on television here in the United States. Hence, as a substitute I brought a digital adhan player from Malaysia, which plays a recording of the call to prayer during designated prayer times. As soon as the Maghrib adhan was played our friends knew it was time to break their fast with some dates and/or water.

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Kuih Bakar Kemboja (Baked Coconut Milk and Screwpine Cake)

A meal is not complete without dessert. A particular dessert I served during for iftar was a traditional Malay kuih (cake) called kuih bakar kemboja, which literally translates to baked frangipani cake. The frangipani flower is known as ‘bunga kemboja’ in Malay and the cake is named after the flower because it’s traditionally made in a bronze mould shaped like a frangipani. (By the way, I don’t have a traditional frangipani-shaped bronze mould, so I used a round cake tin to make this cake).

I served this cake because it’s not very sweet and it has the soft texture of a baked custard cake, especially when it’s fresh out of the oven. Additionally, I used to call it ‘kuih hujan’ (raindrop cake) when I was a little girl because I didn’t know the name of the cake and the sesame seeds scattered on top of it looked like raindrops. One day, while walking through a Ramadan food bazaar I asked for ‘kuih hujan’ much to her confusion. It made sense to her when I pointed out the cake to her. Who would’ve thought someday I’d make ‘kuih hujan’ in New York city?

Our friends enjoyed the unique cake, thanks to ButterKicap.com’s recipe for the kuih bakar kemboja.

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Zainab’s Fingers

One of my favorite desserts of all time is an Omani deep-fried pastry filled with cream cheese called Zainab’s fingers (asabe zainab in Arabic). Who is Zainab and why is there a dessert named after her? Find out more here.

Zainab's fingers on an iftar table.

I first learned of Zainab’s fingers when my friends from Oman brought to the mosque in Dunedin, New Zealand for iftar during Ramadan. I was lucky enough to learn how to make them when I lived with a few Omani girls for three months, so decided to serve this dessert as a tribute to those wonderful memories we shared as friends and students in New Zealand.