Hari Raya, or Eid ul Fitr, celebrates the end of the holy month of Ramadhan, whereby Muslims fast from sunrise till sunset. It falls on a different date every year as it follows Takwim Hijrah, the Islamic calendar. And Takwim Hijrah follows the cycle of the moon. When a new moon is sighted after the sun has set, it is considered the beginning of the new month. In this case, Hari Raya marks the first day of the Syawal month. Here in Sarawak, the celebration is marked by an official holiday that is expected to fall on May 24 this year.
Although Hari Raya is observed globally, how it is celebrated varies in different parts of the world. Sarawak itself has several distinguishing cultural traditions that set it apart from Raya celebrations in Peninsular Malaysia. In Sarawak, the Muslims are predominantly Malay and Melanau. Even so, a Sarawak Raya is not only limited to them. Other ethnic groups, namely the Dayak and the Chinese, regardless of their religious background, also celebrate it together with their Muslim friends.
Before Raya, the Malay Muslims would paint their houses in bright, striking colours and decorate their lawns with pelita (oil lamps). Just go to any Malay village in Sarawak and you would see the entire village painted in a wide spectrum of colours. Houses are painted in purple, yellow and many more bold colours, somewhat resembling a magnified version of the kek lapis (layer cake).
On Raya morning, before prayers, the Malay Muslims would put on their best baju Raya (Raya clothing). Baju Raya is none other than baju Melayu and baju kurung, which are traditional Malay clothing. The baju kurung is a two-part female attire consisting of a long-sleeve enclosed dress and a long skirt. Meanwhile, the baju Melayu is a two-part male attire consisting of a stiff collared long sleeved shirt and a pair of trousers, adorned by sabok, a songket skirt for men similar to the Scottish kilt.
What’s unique about the baju Raya in Sarawak is that it is worn for the whole week of Raya, with different colours each day, unlike in Peninsular Malaysia, where they only wear their baju Raya on the first day.
For seven days, the streets of Sarawak will be filled with women in their extravagant baju kurung and men looking sharp in their baju Melayu, complete with their black songkok (oval brimless hat).
Must-have Raya food
Every festivity has their first important meal for the whole family. If lemang and ketupat are the must-have dishes during the first Raya meal in Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak has the kelupis. Lemang and kelupis are all glutinous rice-based, but the way they are cooked and prepared are totally different. Lemang is cooked in bamboo lined with banana leaf whereas ketupat is steamed rice wrapped in woven palm leaf. Kelupis on the other hand, is steamed glutinous rice wrapped in daun palas (fan palm leaf), and is a Bruneian Malay tradition.
Cooking the kelupis is a rather tedious process. It can take an entire day if one follows age-old recipes passed down from generation to generation. These days, there is a modern alternative to making the kelupis, requiring less than a day’s process. However, kelupis that is cooked overnight stays fresh up to two weeks if refrigerated, compared to modern ones that only last for about three to four days. Kelupis is usually eaten with dishes like beef rendang, chicken curry or satay sauce.
The Dayak Muslims of Sarawak have lemang periuk kera, their own version of glutinous rice, cooked in pitcher plants.
As it is nowadays, people do not have as much time to prepare food for Raya like in the old days, mainly because they mostly have day jobs. Therefore, many people opt for catering services instead. Merdeka Palace Hotels and Suites is a one of many great choices for authentic Malay dishes for Raya.
Open house – the full Sarawak Raya experience
Like any other festivity, Hari Raya provides a chance to catch up with friends and family. In Sarawak, people visit open houses to reconnect over food, drinks and sharing of fond memories. Guests will be greeted with a spread of kek lapis on the coffee table, alongside Sundrop orange drinks. Being the iconic dessert and drink for this festivity, they are a must for every household in Sarawak. Though visiting open houses commonly occurs during the first seven days, the recent years have seen many continuing to do so on the weekends or at night time, until the month of Syawal ends.
If you happen to visit open houses in Sarawak for the first time, do take the time to indulge in the varieties of kek lapis served. From one house to another, they are never the same, as some bake these kek lapis from their own family recipe. A few classics to try are the hati pari, lumut cheese and lapis India. Often, open houses also serve special dishes of kelupis, rendang, and satay. There is no such thing as dieting during this time of festivity.
The beauty of Raya open houses in Sarawak is that people of all races would come together to visit. Some even make the effort to look the part by dressing up in full Raya attire. Strangers and tourists too, are welcome into the homes of those celebrating Raya.
Experience what a Sarawak Raya truly is about by going to open houses at any Malay kampung (village) in Sarawak. Simply look for houses that seem typically ‘open’ and cheery, with some guests feasting on the festive food in the front yard, and some singing Raya songs in a karaoke session.
Once you enter an open house, be sure to say the greeting ‘Selamat Hari Raya!’, which literally means Happy Eid ul Fitr in Malay language.