Festivals and events

What It’s Like to Fast and Feast During Ramadan

Food brings people together, but sometimes its absence can be just as meaningful. Neneng Alfi reflects on the festive foods Indonesians share at Ramadan and Lebaran

It’s 3am and I’ve had three hours sleep. Around our dining table sit my mum, dad and brother, and in front of them, an array of curries, meats and vegetables we spent hours preparing. This isn’t the kind of breakfast we normally eat in my town of Ponorogo in Indonesia’s East Java. But this is a special occasion. This is the start of Ramadan.

Ramadan, the Muslim world’s holy month, runs from late April until late May this year. It’s something you’ve probably heard a little about, perhaps as a month of fasting.

But for me, and millions of other Muslims around the world, it represents so much more. It’s the most important time of the year, like Christmas in the West or Lunar New Year in the East. Ramadan represents a coming together of our family and community, of humility, of joint celebration. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, it comes with its own unique inflections. And many of these revolve around food.

It starts with this breakfast, a special moment together as we prepare to embark on this month.

Then at 4am, the fasting begins.

For 30 days, we refrain from food or drink from around 4am to 6pm, breaking our fast with a family meal and a refreshing cendol – an iced drink of jelly, coconut milk and palm sugar – that does its best to combat the relentless Indonesian heat.

The whole month works up to Lebaran, the Indonesian term for Eid al-Fitr or ‘The Festival of Breaking Fast’. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Raucous. Vibrant. Celebratory. And delicious.

Of course, Lebaran comes with its own array of festive foods. The menu in my house is a mix of Indonesian classics, such as rendang (dry beef curry), opor ayam (a chicken and coconut milk curry) and nastar, a popular pineapple cake.

A major part of Lebaran celebrations is going to visit your relatives and neighbours, a process that can involve seeing hundreds of people over the course of a week. This year, of course, might be different, but the ubiquitous snacks that you normally find as you visit each of their houses are sure to remain an important part of the celebrations. Putri salju, a sugar-coated biscuit that deserves its literal name of ‘snow princess’ is my personal favourite, while madu mongso – a fermented black glutinous rice candy – is to me the quintessential taste of Lebaran.

But perhaps the most special Eid delicacy is ketupat, a diamond-shaped rice dumpling filled with things from bean sprouts and egg and intricately wrapped with palm leaves. It’s like an Indonesia version of zongzi and holds a very special place in our Lebaran traditions. To me, they are the symbol of Lebaran.

Now that I live overseas, whenever I see something like a ketupat, I get a tinge of nostalgia, automatically transporting me to my family’s living room, hugs from my mum and all the memories of our Lebaran celebrations.

When I talk about Ramadan with non-Muslims, the question they always ask is: ‘is fasting difficult?’ I always say that you don’t really think about it. More often than not, you’re too busy looking forward to the good times.

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