Friday, September 12, 2008

What's cooking in Asian kitchens?

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Aromatic beef porridge. Spicy snails. Rich mutton and wheat stew. Sweet vermicelli milk pudding, and lots and lots of dates. Ramadan may be a month of fasting, but for many Asian Muslims it's a gastronomical feast.

Food is as much a part of Ramadan, the holy month which began last week, as religious fervor, with Muslims devoting many hours to cooking the perfect meal to break the dawn-to-dusk fast.

The month is also a time for charity, with many mosques and

wealthier Muslims donating or cooking food for the poor.

"Ramadan is a big celebration for us in Asia, with a lot of special foods," said Ichwan Syam, secretary-general of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the leading Islamic legislative body in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

"Food is almost symbolic. It helps the poor, reminds Muslims of their social responsibility. It brings families together and it also brings joy after a day of fasting," he told Reuters.

During Ramadan, devout Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual activities during daylight. A hadith, or saying, attributed to Prophet Muhammad tells Muslims they experience two joys: when they break their fast and when they meet Allah.

In a tradition harking back to Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, many Muslims initially break their fast with dates. The fruit, usually dried, is used in cakes, stews and sweets.

In Indonesia, no Ramadan would be complete without kolak, a refreshing dish made from coconut milk, starch, sugar and fruits which is eaten as an appetizer at the fast-breaking meal.

Kraca, a modest version of the French escargot, is also a favorite starter. It is made from fresh paddy-field snails, washed and shells pierced, that are boiled with lemongrass, spices and best enjoyed by sucking the fiery liquid and picking out the flesh with a stick.

To finish off the meal, most Indonesians eat timun suri, a tropical, pale yellow fruit shaped like a papaya but with white juicy flesh, which is chopped and tossed with a milky syrup and topped with shaved ice.


In mainly Muslim Malaysia, Ramadan means bubur lambuk, a special rice porridge cooked and distributed for free by the centrally located Kampung Baru mosque, one of Kuala Lumpur's most famous, for more than 50 years.

Every day, hundreds of Muslims queue for hours to get a taste of the famed porridge, which was originally made by one of the mosque's former imams.

"It's really nice, I can't wait for Ramadan to taste the porridge," said office worker Fareedah Hussein.

The exact recipe is a closely guarded secret but ingredients include coconut milk, beef, dried shrimps, ginger, cinnamon, star anise, cumin, Chinese celery, onions and fried shallots.

India's Muslims also enjoy similarly rich fare, including haleem, the months' most popular dish which hails from the south. Made from mutton or chicken or a combination of the two, the meats are stewed with spices, wheat and lentils until tender.

The dish is so popular that restaurants in big cities such as Mumbai and Chennai bring in chefs from Hyderabad to cook it. Mosques also provide a meat and rice porridge to the poor, which is usually funded by wealthy Muslims.

Sevian, made from vermicelli boiled in milk with almonds, pistachios, dried dates, saffron, ghee and sugar, is also cooked in large vats during Ramadan and eaten hot or cold.

"The season is unthinkable without the vermicelli preparation," said Pallav Singhal, executive sous-chef at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai.

According to Islam, fasting during Ramadan is meant to purify the soul and unify Muslims.

Although the month's feasting often borders on gluttony with people stuffing themselves, clerics say Ramadan meals are also good for the spirit as many people donate food to the poor and sit down for meals with family and friends.

"Hardly any one goes hungry during Ramadan," said Indonesian cleric Syam.

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