Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Embracing the last 10 days of Ramadan

The countdown to Eid ul-Fitr, the first day of Shawwal which marks the end of Ramadan, starts here.

But Muslims must go through the last 10 days of Ramadan before the rejoicing begins.

The final 10 days of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, are finally here.

Muslims believe that the Night of Power or Lailatul Qadr (also spelled Laylat al-Qadr) falls within this period.

They hold that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet (PBUH) by God through the Angel Gabriel on the Night of Power.

Nobody knows when the Night of Power -- which the Quran describes as being "better than a thousand months" -- takes place and Muslims are encouraged to seek it out during the last 10 days of Ramadan by taking part in late-night prayers, Dhikr and spiritual contemplation.

According to many accounts, the Night of Power is probably "on one of the odd nights on the last 10 days of Ramadan and most likely to be on the 27th".

"It could happen on the night of the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th," says a religious teacher.

"The advice to believers is to be aware of the specific nights and to do all the necessary prayers and more during the small hours," he says.

What divine secrets are revealed on the Night of Power?

"The sky gates are open and Insyaallah (God Willing) all your doa (prayers of hope) will be answered," says the religious teacher, who agreed to talk to me on condition of anonymity.

It has been said that those who have been touched by the grace of God on the Night of Power will never forget it.

Muslims, who faithfully observe Ramadan, feel a deep sadness as the blessed days quickly go by.

They greeted the fasting month, which began on August 11, with joy because it is the time to renew their relationship with their Creator by abstaining from food, drink, sexual contact during daylight, bad thoughts and deeds as well as performing prayers and acts of charity.

The questions are, will God accept their devotions and will they be able to welcome Ramadan next year?

Only God has the answers to these questions.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The lure of Ramadan bazaars


A Ramadan bazaar in Wangsa Maju, Selangor.
If you throw a stone in Malaysia during the month of Ramadan, you are likely to hit a bazaar.

Bazaars offering a wide variety of food had sprouted up all over the country since Ramadan began on August 11.

Lists of the top bazaars to go to have been drawn up. The more known and established bazaars attract enthusiasts from everywhere. Plans are made early in the day as to which bazaar they should visit.

Malaysians enjoy their Ramadan bazaars just as they love their pasar malam (night markets).

The tired soul derives great pleasure from soaking up the sight, sound and smell of stalls laden with delicious food.

Food shopping at the bazaars is enjoyable but do it wisely.
And there is something for everybody at the Ramadan bazaars.

The appearance of dishes (such as bubur lambuk or savoury rice porridge) peculiar to the fasting month and normally not seen Malay cakes especially traditional ones (such as tepung pelita and pisang sira, among others) in the bazaars is cause for celebration and a simple trip to buy food for the berbuka puasa (the breaking of fast at sunset) table turns into a jolly outing.

Choosing your favourite comfort food at a familiar stall for breaking the day's fast is a fun and satisfying experience for many.

There is nothing wrong with that.

Tepung pelita, a Malay dessert, is popular with shoppers.
Also, the month of Ramadan provides jobs for budding entrepreneurs and that is a good thing.

But, as consumerists and other concerned Malaysians point out repeatedly, people tend to overspend and overeat during the fasting month.

Food shopping on an empty stomach is a bad plan because every item on the stall counters looks appetising.

It is bound to lead to buying food that will probably end up in the dustbin.

Bubur lambuk, a savoury rice porridge, makes its appearance during Ramadan
It would be a good idea to make a list of food items that you need and stick to it.

If you are not careful, food shopping at the Ramadan bazaars can take a considerable chunk out of your monthly food budget.

The goal is to be prudent consumers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A healthy Ramadan

Dates, dried kiwi fruit and apricots as well as pistachio nuts could make up the meal that breaks the day's fast. Dates "provide a refreshing burst of much-needed energy," notes Ramadan health guide.
Serendipitous. That is the word I would use to describe a discovery in my mailbox last week.

A friend had emailed me a file on Ramadan health guide, compiled by Communities in Action.

It was exactly the thing that I had been looking for. About a month before Ramadan, which began on August 11, I had been searching for materials on staying healthy during the fasting month.

Then came Ramadan Health Guide, which hopes to create awareness of the health matters connected with  fasting.

What concerns many Muslims is staying healthy during Ramadan, a point noted by the Ramadan health guide.

The booklet guides readers through physiological changes that occur during fasting, offers examples of beneficial and harmful foods, examines potential medical problems and remedies and suggests a diet plan, among others.

Click here to read it.

Ramadan fine dining

Guest blogger Jehan Mohd had her first taste of Malay fine dining at a berbuka puasa (breaking of the fast at sunset) event hosted by Commercial Radio Malaysia. Ibunda, the venue for the evening, offers a delicious mix of traditional Malay cooking dressed up in the trappings of the gastronomic equivalent of haute couture. Here are her thoughts on her experience.

Our starter served in four bowls -- there was (from the left) lemang (glutinous rice soaked in coconut milk and cooked in bamboo over a slow fire) and rendang (stewed beef in coconut milk), rojak mamak (Indian Muslim style salad with peanut sauce), some really nice fish in unidentified yummy sauce and bubur lambuk (savoury rice porridge).The rendang had a strange aftertaste but the fish and bubur were lovely! Also in the picture are my first air sirap bandung (a concoction of rose syrup water and evaporated milk) for the year, a vintage glass bottle of ice-cream soda (!) and dates dished up in a boat-like porcelein plate.

Our main course -- this dish is enough for three (hence three of everything) -- fried fish on the left, fried chicken at the bottom, keropok (fish crackers) and prawn curry. All round, these taste good, the prawn was so big, I ended up having to peel the shell off with a knife rather than the usual spoon.

The rice portion of the main course comprises nasi kerabu (a traditional rice dish from the northern states of the peninsula), keropok (fish cracker), curried mussel and a scoop of lentil and okra. I avoid mussels so mine ended up going to someone else but the rest of the fare is what you might expect from a high-brow restaurant, not the type you would eat at mum's.

Traditional Malay kuih (sweet cakes) dressed up like pastries from a high-end bakery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Taste-wise, it's what you would expect from these desserts normally. I still prefer to get my sweets from the roadside vendors (not sure if they are legit) in any Malay area such as Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.

The interior of Ibunda is homey, reminiscent of a traditional Malay house -- only high-end with air-con.

The quintessential berbuka puasa (breaking of the fast) drink much loved by all Malaysians -- air sirup bandung (a concoction of rose syrup water and evaporated milk) and a vintage bottle of ice-cream soda (another local favourite). I love this combination of sweet stuff when breaking fast!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Breaking the fast with orphans



Some 300 orphans from five welfare homes and orphanages in the Klang Valley (pictures) were treated to berbuka puasa (the meal which breaks the day's fast, also known as iftar in some cultures) at Nikko Hotel, Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

Members of the media were also invited to the event, which was organised by Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), Malaysia's biggest fund management company. It is a yearly occurrence.

The special guests received duit raya (the customary cash gift for Eid ul-Fitr, the first day of Shawal that marks the end of Ramadan), dates and cookies for Eid ul-Fitr.

PNB is among many corporations in Malaysia that organise berbuka puasa for the underprivileged sections of the community in Malaysia.

While I laud the move by these corporations, I could not help but wonder why hotels are chosen as the venues for these social functions?

What is wrong with community halls, mosques or school halls?

Other members of the community -- rich, poor, thinkers and construction workers -- and not just officials from the corporations should be part of the guest list.

The idea is to get to know the orphans and to reflect on their situation. Do they eat properly, go to school and get access to medical care?

Close your eyes and imagine that you are an orphan without the support of a loving family!

The Prophet (PBUH) described Ramadan as "the month of mercy".

He said: "I am the person who looks after an orphan and provides for him, will be in Paradise like this," putting his index and middle fingers together. (Al-Bukhari).

Hotels are anything but cheap.

What is the message that organisers are trying to get across to the orphans? That mee rebus (noodles with thick gravy) costs RM 28 a plate at the coffee house of a luxury hotel? That taking your meals at a hotel is something to aspire to? That five-star hotels are the only places for celebration?

Don't get me wrong. I am not against the occasional dinner treat at a hotel but I do not condone teaching extravagance and wastage to Malaysian youngsters.

The aim is to help them to help themselves.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ramadan reminder

Muslims will do without food and drink from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, but after a day of fasting, they will want something refreshing to quench their thirst and good to eat.

When people have been starving all day long, they expect cooling drinks and tasty food at the breaking of fast which takes place just after sunset.

Watermelon juice is a popular thirst quencher for breaking fast.
A long menu of Malaysian delicacies such as bubur lambuk (savoury porridge especially prepared for Ramadan), mee rebus (noodles with thick gravy), the various types of soups, piping hot rice eaten with ikan bakar (grilled fish), sambal tempoyak (fermented durian condiment) and ulam (local raw greens) are usually hot items on the buka puasa (which means breaking of fast in Malay or iftar in some cultures) table while the best-liked thirst quenchers include cold sirap bandung (a concoction of syrup water and evaporated milk), coconut water and watermelon juice.

Mosques and suraus (places of worship in residential areas) throughout Malaysia undertake to cook huge quantities of bubur lambuk which is distributed to families living nearby everyday of the month.

Mee rebus is my preferred comfort food.  
Apart from drinking and eating, Muslims are also required to refrain from smoking, idle gossip, bad behaviour and sexual contact during daylight.

There are only two meals during the fasting month: the first is taken at sahur, which is just before dawn, and the second at berbuka puasa or the breaking of fast.

Preparing food for the breaking of fast is a major activity during Ramadan, and yet that is NOT the most significant ritual of Islam's holiest month.

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables will boost your energy.
More importantly, Ramadan calls on believers to spend more time in prayer and religious contemplation.

A month of prayer and contemplation! Why is that necessary?  Muslims must do this if they want to receive the light of Ramadan, a religious teacher often tells me.

That means praying five times a day and more. In addition to the obligatory prayers, supplementary prayers are encouraged besides reciting the entire Quran at least once during the month, performing the Dhikr (Remembrance of God) and giving alms to the needy, among others.

Carrying out the extra devotions usually takes believers well into the small hours.

The result is a lightness that only practitioners understand.

I am writing this post to remind myself that Ramadan is essentially a period of self-restraint and NOT TOO MUCH about hearty meals and NOT AT ALL about merrymaking.

Good bread and dip. I like this a lot.
The act of abstaining from meals reminds Muslims of the poor for whom going without drink and food is a daily occurrence. For people living in poverty, hunger is part of everday life.

Charity, generosity and kindness are in order.

Do we look in on our elderly neighbour whose children have long vanished? Do we make an effort to visit our elderly relatives who live in another town? Are we aware that our aging parents miss us?

Elderly people easily become socially isolated and they are fearful of being abandoned by their loved ones.

Newspaper reports confirm this; many aged parents were deserted by their children. That is a scary scenario.
 
Ramadan is also an excellent time to strengthen feelings of friendship between people especially family members and friends -- Muslims and non-Muslims. This is particularly useful for those who have not met in a while.

Drink plenty of warm water after breaking fast.
The breaking of fast is a suitable occasion for bringing Muslims together. The simple ritual has grown into small and large gatherings of amity between relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbours, who are members of the same mosques or suraus.

Is the basic meal of dates and a favourite beverage followed by comfort food at home a thing of the past for many urbanites?

Do city dwellers prefer Ramadan buffets with the sumptuous spread of dishes from around the globe offered by small and big hotels?

Apparently so. You have to book early to avoid disappointment. For many corporations Ramadan buffets are perfect for informal meetings with staff and business associates.

For that reason you see Muslims and non-Muslims mingling happily during breaking of fast.

That is indeed a wonderful sight.

Still, the emphasis on food and the commercialisation of Ramadan (many hotels in Malaysia are taking advantage of the fasting month to make money by charging ridiculous prices for Ramadan buffets) can negate the good intentions of believers.

They do not want to become blind to the true purpose of Ramadan which begins tomorrow in Malaysia.

Selamat berpuasa to Muslims throughout the world!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The warmth of friendship

Old friends. They are individuals you know well and like.

They could be one of your best, close or childhood friends.

What do they mean to you?

I am asking you this question because I had just spent the whole day with an old friend from Singapore. Let us call her Pat.

Pat was one of my colleagues at the Singapore Monitor (now defunct) in the early 1980s. We were junior journalists at the newspaper organisation back then.

We were part of a circle of journalists in Singapore; shared ideas and experiences saw some of us forging bonds of friendship between each other.

When the newspaper folded in the late Eighties, Pat and I went our separate ways.

I returned to Malaysia and resumed my career as a journalist at the newspaper organisation I was attached to before I left to go to Singapore.

Pat fell in love with an English man, got married and relocated to the United Kingdom. She came back to Singapore when her husband passed away several years ago.

Initially, we kept in touch but distance and preoccupation with our own lives disrupted the connection between us. There was a point when there was no contact at all. That lasted for several years.

We reconnected a few months ago when I found her through Facebook and hence his post.

We arranged to meet this morning in Petaling Jaya; she was here with her two children to celebrate her uncle's 80th birthday on Saturday.

There was no awkwardness in our meeting. We greeted each other like the old friends that we are and chatted away from the word go.

The time spent with Pat and her children was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

We talked about our lives now, work, men, clothes, Singapore, the past, present and future, and the mistakes we have made, among others.

What does Pat's friendship  mean to me?

I will rely on C. S. Lewis to answer my question.

He said that "friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art ... it has no survival value; rather is one of those things that give value to survival."

Survival. The word evokes  images of difficulties and our battle to overcome them.

Indeed, the idiom "the survival of the fittest" encapsulates the rationale behind our fight to continue to exist on Earth.

And all other issues fade into insignificance compared with the struggle for survival.

The friends in our midst make life bearable. They are there to give us a prod, if we have given up.

Haven't you craved for a word of encouragement from a good friend? Do you know a certain someone who is always there with a sympathetic ear? When was the last time someone gave you lots of tender loving care?

Old friends in particular reassure us that the big bad world can sometimes be a nice place to live in. They keep alive our past which is necessary to understand the present and future.

Their belief in us can change the way we see ourselves and our problems.

It is possible to fix our broken hearts, move towards that promotion, go after the job we want and attain spiritual perfection.

A word of thanks to Pat and all my good friends: I am extremely grateful for the warmth of your friendship.