Community Culture Family Food

Posted on November 1, 2013

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The most surprising thing about this residency so far is that the aspect we thought would be most challenging has turned out to be the least challenging. The initial task for us in creating the new work was to feel that we had a good understanding of the Malaysian culture. Not a superficial, touristy understanding but one that highlights, the good, the bad and the in-between. The intricacies of a particular culture are the juicy parts, the stuff that interests us and funnily enough, without becoming overly literal or symbolic, our work reflects what we have already come to understand. Embedded with layers of complexity, perhaps not obvious on first inspection; questioning ownership; walking the fine line; deep set pride; the art of story telling.

On that note, how we have engaged in this culture has been tested, as you will find below:

Tuesday the 15th of October was a religious holiday here in Malaysia. Hari Raya Haji, which translates to Hajj Celebration Day, is the Malaysian version of Eid al-Adha or Festival of the Sacrifice. It is the official celebratory end of Hajj (Hajj being the Muslim period for pilgrimages to Mecca). As we understand, Hari Raya Haji is a day observed by Muslims all over the world to commemorate the willingness of Ibrahim/Abraham to follow Allah’s/God’s command to sacrifice his son Ismail/Ishmael. We were told that the Quran indicates that as Ibrahim was about to strike his son, Allah stopped him and revealed that it was a test and a ram could be sacrificed instead. Today, families can purchase a cow or cows and the meat from the sacrifice is shared among them and also with those less fortunate, such as orphanages and the poor.

We had been warned that not all the artists that stay at Rimbun Dahan welcome the experience as it can be quite challenging. Gabe was interested to witness and experience the events, Caitlin opted out.

There were many conflicting opinions about what time the Hari Raya Haji proceedings would begin, Gabe decided to be early rather than late. The ‘proceedings’ entail the ritual sacrifice, butchering, and sharing of the cows’ meat. Here in Kuang, the local community gather the cows on the grassy footpath directly outside Rimbun Dahan.

Gabe went out at 830am. The street was very quiet and peaceful, around 10-12 cows were tethered along the roadside, calmly eating the grass. Most of the village were at Mosque across the road.

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After sharing a peaceful hour with the cows, Gabe became just one in a huge crowd of people; families, young and old, most in their ‘good temple clothes’ of bright and silky colours. The air was filled with excitement, anticipation and chatter. Due to the price of a cow, families would join with other families in the community to share the costs. Gabe, being the only westerner there and also carrying a big camera, was quite an attraction. Many curious and friendly people wanted to know who he was and what he was doing way out in Kuang.

The ceremony begins:

(Caitlin doesn’t recommend reading this part if you feel at all displeased by the idea of animal sacrifice)

The first cow is restrained and bound; it doesn’t go down without putting up a valiant fight. The crowd swells around the area. A prayer is recited.

The throat is slit and the blood flows.

As some move on to the next cow, a group would stay behind and begin the butchering of the animal. It was fascinating to watch how quickly and cleanly, the skin, flesh and everything else was separated. Nothing went to waste.

This process was repeated over the next hour or two.

After many conversations, many photos and much bloodshed, Gabe headed home.

The rest of the day we spent celebrating the holiday with the Taff family. Getting to know this new side of Gabe’s family has been so effortless, mostly due to the fact that they have opened there arms and hearts to us. We feel very fortunate.

We met more of the cousins, aunts and uncles. We watched some incredible footage of recent family weddings (in traditional Malaysian style), comprising of four individual ceremonies (and dresses) for one union. We ate several different and delicious meals, some traditional dishes from the Johor region (where Gabe’s family are from) and in a style that we are still getting used to – eating when you are ready and when there is a seat at the table, not all together at the one time (an ingenious idea when it comes to socialising). Perhaps we have learnt where Gabe gets his passion for food. We saw some really interesting architecture, went swimming and went for our first ride in a new Mini.

In keeping with the family theme, Caitlin’s Aunt and Uncle made a short trip to Melaka, a perfect opportunity to spend another two days there, catching up with family and getting to know the area that we will be performing in a bit better. We stayed at the Majestic Hotel and would definitely recommend it if you are ever looking for somewhere nice to stay in Melaka. Although, we have only spent a short time there, we felt like we actually new a little about the place (thanks Bilqis). We spent most of our time walking, exploring, and showing the family around: The food and shops of Jonker Street (in particular the chicken rice balls); the many art galleries; the Baba-Nyonya (Chinese-Malay) Musuem; St. Pauls Hill and the list goes on. It was really nice to realise how much we had actually absorbed from out first trip.

Food culture is without a doubt one of Malaysia’s biggest assets and as we are food enthusiasts we decided that a cooking class might be a good way to learn more about the people and the area. We were not disappointed. We took a class at the Equatorial Hotel with Chef Ruby and her assistants. We learnt to make Apam Balik (thick Malaysian folded pancakes), Ayam Pongteh (Nyonya style chicken and potato) and Udang Lemak Nenas (Nyonya style prawn and pinapple).

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After two hours of cooking and fun, they set us a table laden with the dishes we prepared, plus several extra dishes including fish, vegetables, noodles, rice, and for dessert… Baba Cendol (the best Cendol we have had to date).

Cendol is: predominantly shaved ice, coconut milk/cream, gula Melaka/plam sugar, pandan flavoured rice-jelly-noodles, red bean (although most places use kidney beans – nowhere near as good) and sometimes corn. Cold, sweet, refreshing delicious. Sidap!

And of course all this family time was sandwiched between travelling across the country and witnessing the overwhelmingly present palm oil industry, navigating the city and finally getting a hang of the public transport system. Not bad for three days work!

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