Ili Sulaiman and Basira Yeusuff love Hari Raya.
There’s just something about the season – the way Hari Raya brings people together, drawing far-flung family and friends together to contemplate their roots, renewing the bonds of love and community.
“Both sides of the family come over to ours, and food is constantly coming out of the kitchen,” said Basira. She particularly likes the anticipation palpable in the week before Raya, when her family lights the pelita in the garden and everything is bathed in a glow.
“And I love how everyone is dressed up and blinged out too!” said Ili.
Along with partner Nizam Rosli, Ili and Basira are the hearts and brains behind Agak Agak, the cosy restaurant in APW, the uber-cool F&B enclave in Bangsar.
They serve progressive Malaysian food, taking the classic and the traditional and fearlessly putting their own spin on it.
Here too, community lies at the heart of things; Agak Agak is a social enterprise aimed at helping young people out of the poverty trap, and giving them a solid foundation on which to build careers in the F&B line.
But while they have a great fondness for the traditions that wreathe the season, they come from families who also enjoy putting their own spin on celebrations.
“There are certain things you have to have on the table at Raya, but we do like to push boundaries, do things in a different way,” said Ili. They’re happy to share some of their envelope-pushing recipes, for readers who want to broaden their own family traditions this festive season.
After two days of rendang, Ili’s family can’t look at any more meat.
“It’s just too heavy, all that meat. So then we’ll have fish rendang instead, which is much lighter and faster to cook, too,” she said. “It pairs really well with the sayur lodeh we always have, as well.”
The dish actually came about because one Raya, her mother had friends who did not eat meat over. “Now it’s just become something people look forward to when they come over.”
“The ketupat palas is something we always have in my house, so I decided to pair it with the hae bee for an unusual touch,” said Basira. The kuah kacang is another staple, given a richer, savoury depth with beef fat and brisket.
“So I decided to put in oxtail, because low, slow cooking is my thing,” said Basira.
For busy bees and cooks with little time though, it’s possible to break the kuah kacang down into its various steps and make it over a few days.
“As for kuih bahulu, that’s pretty much on everyone’s Raya food list! That slightly crispy outside and soft, fluffy inside … I like to douse a lot of our cakes here at Agak Agak with lime syrup, so I thought a citrus syrup with a fresh herb like thyme would be a fun addition.
“Also, when you have bahulu, you usually have sirap ros or teh o as well, so there’s a connection there.”
Some of these dishes are quick to make; others – like the kuah kacang with oxtail, can take a while.
“It does take time and care, but hey, that’s what Raya is about – putting that love into what you cook.”
4 garlic cloves
6 dried chillies, seeds removed and soaked in water
8 tbsp vegetable oil
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
salt, to taste
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 piece asam keping
1 daun kunyit
1/2 litre water
1 cup thick coconut milk
1 heaped tbsp kerisik
400g firm fish, cut into 4cm cubes or leave as steaks
Grind the spice ingredients together. Place the vegetable oil in a pot over low heat, then add in star anise and cinnamon. Fry for about 2 minutes.
Add in the spice paste, and fry for a further 8 to 10 minutes over low heat, until slightly caramelised. Sprinkle with salt to taste, and add the ground turmeric.
Add the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, asam keping, galangal and daun kunyit, along with the water. Simmer for another 5 minutes.
When the mixture has reduced, add the coconut milk and kerisik and let it simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes. Season to taste again, then add in the fish.
Turn off the heat, but let the pot sit on the stove for a further 15 minutes, so the hot broth cooks the fish.
KETUPAT PALAS WITH SAMBAL HAE BEE
ketupat palas (makes 40)
40 daun palas, for wrapping
1 1/2 litres fresh santan
3 fresh pandan leaves, knotted
salt, to taste
1kg white glutinous rice
15 dried chillies, seeds removed and soaked in water
1 1/2cm fresh turmeric
6 cloves garlic
3 stalks lemongrass
15g belacan (toasted)
500g dried shrimp, washed and drained
1 piece asam keping, soaked in
4 tbsp water
6 kaffir lime leaves
salt and sugar, to taste
To make ketupat palas
Place santan, pandan leaves and salt in a pot over medium heat. Do not allow the mixture to boil.
Add the glutinous rice and cook over low heat till all the liquid evaporates. At this point, the rice should be half cooked and slightly oily in appearance. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Fold the ketupat pockets (watch the video below to see how).
Pack the rice into the ketupat pockets firmly, and tie a knot at the top of the triangle to secure the parcel. You should get roughly 40 ketupats.
Place in a large pot and just cover with water. Boil till ketupats are cooked, about 45 to 60 minutes.
To make sambal hae bee
In a blender, grind the spice paste ingredients till fine.
Dry toast the shrimp in a pan till aromatic. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Place in a blender and process to a coarse, sandy texture then set aside.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add the spice paste and saute till fragrant and the oil starts to surface again, about 10 minutes.
Add the rest of the ingredients, and continue cooking. Season to taste with sugar and salt. Cook the mixture until it is dry and fragrant.
Dish the sambal hae bee out into a serving dish, with ketupat palas on the side.
KUAH KACANG EKOR LEMBU
10 shallots, peeled
4 cloves garlic, peeled
6 stalks lemongrass, bruised
100ml cooking oil
20 dried chillies, seeds removed, soaked and pureed
1 tbsp tamarind paste
100g gula Melaka
50g caster sugar
800g toasted peanuts, roughly ground
3 pandan leaves, knotted
salt, to taste
Place all marinade ingredients, except lemongrass, into a blender and process with a little water to work the blades.
Pour out into a bowl and add the lemongrass. Add the oxtail, mix to make sure it’s well-coated in the marinade, and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 24 hours.
Just before cooking, remove oxtail from marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve marinade.
Place a bit of cooking oil in a heavy-bottomed pan with a cover (preferably a Dutch oven). Sear the oxtail on all sides. Remove the oxtail and set aside.
Add the reserved marinade to the pan and saute till translucent and aromatic, and the oil starts to surface again, about 10 minutes.
Add the blended dried chillies and saute till cooked. Then, add in water, tamarind paste, sugars, peanuts and pandan leaves. Stir well.
Add the oxtail, stirring lightly. The liquid should just cover the oxtail, so add a little water if necessary. Cover with lid and transfer to an oven pre-heated to 150°C. Braise for 4 hours. Season to taste and serve hot.
ORANGE AND THYME KUIH BAHULU
Makes 80 small or 60 medium kuih
200g caster sugar
2 oranges, zest only
125g all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
250ml fresh orange juice
100g caster sugar
3 sprigs fresh thyme
To make kuih bahulu
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease the kuih bahulu moulds with oil using a brush.
Place sugar and eggs in a bowl and beat till mixture is light, frothy and sugar has completely dissolved.
Add the orange zest to the mixture, then fold in flour and salt.
Pour the mixture into preheated kuih bahulu moulds till almost full. Bake in a fan-forced oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden.
Remove moulds from the oven and, using bamboo skewers, remove the kuih bahulu to a wire rack to cool.
Meanwhile, fill the mould with batter again – grease with some oil first if necessary, and bake in the same manner, repeating until all the batter is used up.
To make syrup
Place all ingredients in a small, heavy-based pot over high heat. Bring to a boil and cook until the sugar melts and the mixture reduces slightly. Remove from heat and let cool. Drizzle over the kuih bahulu at the table.
Drizzle the syrup over the kuih bahulu on the wire rack. Transfer the kuih to a serving dish.