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My first Idul Fitri

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Indonesian TV stations these days have been peppering their news broadcasts with “suka-duka Idul Fitri”, a round-up of the positives (suka) and negatives (duka) over the long weekend. It has been a privilege to spend Idul Fitri, or Eid, with Bama’s family, and experience the celebrations firsthand. For me, the similarities between our home cultures have been brought into sharp focus – I now realise that this festival is a lot like Chinese New Year.

Idul Fitri marks the end of the Ramadan fast, and it boasts special dishes rarely served at other times of year. You sample ketupat, a dense rice cake cooked in palm leaf, and home-cooked opor ayam, a rich, aromatic chicken stew spiced with turmeric, cumin, galangal, coconut milk and a wealth of other ingredients. After tasting your host mother’s opor, you wonder if you can ever have it anywhere else.

This is a time when the front door is left open – even in cities like Jakarta – as an invitation for neighbours, friends and loved ones to enter the home. There are visits with extended family, meeting cousins, aunts and uncles you might otherwise never see. In each household, all kinds of snacks are stacked on coffee tables, from cheese-flavoured breadsticks to bitesize nastar stuffed with pineapple jam, to dainty ‘snow princesses’ coated in a layer of powdered sugar. The hosts bring out cold drinks or cups of hot tea, and relatives greet each other with the phrase “mohon maaf lahir dan batin”, asking for forgiveness from physical and mental (or spiritual) misdeeds.

Children receive gift money, while twenty- and thirty-somethings who are legally single will have to face the same tired question that seems to be present at every large-scale Asian family gathering:

“When are you getting married? WHEN?”

There is also room for plenty of embarrassing moments, especially if you, like me, find yourself playing the role of the goofy foreigner. On the first day of Eid, your host mother may joke with the neighbours about your incorrect use of Indonesian vocabulary, while informing them of your upset stomach after eating four bird’s eye chillies in one spoonful (which you did to clear the plate out of politeness). But you let it slide because the neighbours are warm and you know it is a good sign that your host mother is willing to embarrass you.

On the second day of Eid, you may accidentally tread on a plate of watermelons at an enormous family gathering because you were too busy asking for forgiveness (and you had no idea you would be going lesehan – eating cross-legged on the floor). You might even address your host father’s cousin with the wrong title, reserved for someone of a similar age and/or the same generation.

That night you may unknowingly commit yet another faux pas for not helping your host mother close the front gate before heading out to dinner, and your friend might remind you to be more pro-active. “If it were [Indonesian friend A] or [Indonesian friend B], they would help and wait until she enters the car.” At hearing this, you wish to throw your hands up in the air and cry, “but I am not Indonesian! I do not know these things!”

Such is Idul Fitri for the uninitiated. It warms both the heart and stomach, and just like Chinese New Year, it can be funny, awkward and overwhelming – all at the same time. 

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Ketupat – festive rice cakes cooked in palm leaf

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Bama takes down the ketupat while wearing his ‘baju koko’ shirt for Idul Fitri

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Tante Dhani, Bama’s mother, making final preparations for the feast

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Telur pindang – duck eggs boiled with shallot skin, then cooked in a spicy sauce

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Sambal goreng kentang – chicken liver, shrimp, diced potatoes, dried cow skin, chilli and fried shallot

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Opor ayam – the signature dish at Idul Fitri and one of my new favourites

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A hearty breakfast – Tante Dhani cooked everything save the ketupat (shown foreground left)

42 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mouth watering post, James 🙂

    This one reminds me of my school days, when we used to go to our neighbour’s home for the Ramdan feast…

    Now a days, in city, we explore restaurants known for Ramdan delicacies.

    Thoroughly enjoyed your write up and images 🙂

    July 20, 2015
    • Thank you, Sreejith. 🙂

      I’m glad my own experience has brought back some fond childhood memories for you – from what you’ve told us it sounds like there is a blog post just waiting to be written!

      July 21, 2015
  2. Great post James. Very informative, and evocative. I could imagine being there. How wonderful it is when we get to experience a genuine slice of the local culture. I’d have a problem with the food I’m afraid, not being a fan of anything spicy, especially chillies.
    Alison

    July 20, 2015
    • You are right, Alison – this is something that I could never have experienced within the confines of some hotel or resort. I am so thankful to Bama and his family for opening their doors to me this season; they have been such gracious, caring hosts. Actually you might be surprised about the food… the main dish (opor ayam) was mild and easy on the tongue because it didn’t have any chillies.
      James

      July 21, 2015
  3. That opor ayam looks RIDICULOUSLY good! The fact that it’s home cooked and served infrequently only adds to the enjoyment, I imagine. This looks like an all-around hearty and exotic meal and it’s making me excited to travel to this region once again.

    July 21, 2015
    • Ridiculously good is right, Darcy – you can tell just by the colour of the soup! I am a sucker for spices and coconut milk so it was right up my alley. I have really been spoiled by the home cooking of Bama’s mother. And being able to watch the process has taught me a thing or two about Javanese cuisine!

      July 21, 2015
  4. My definition of wonderful chili-spicy food is probably incredibly pale, my family members even paler.

    I love the rice cake containers. So the rice cakes are steamed/boiled..like the Chinese sticky rice packets in lotus leaves or bamboo leaves?

    July 21, 2015
    • It was the same for me before I started visiting Indonesia several times a year… it took me quite a few months to raise my tolerance levels with the help of bottled chilli sauce.

      The rice cakes are boiled and feel more firm/dense (also less sticky) than the Chinese ones in lotus leaf. Before serving they are generally cut up into smaller pieces – you’d need to be ravenously hungry to finish one on your own!

      July 21, 2015
      • Guess it was like an energy bar for farmers or travellers..

        July 22, 2015
  5. Love it!! And can so completely relate – especially with all the inadvertent faux pas. I’ve had more than one ‘oops’ moment at family festivals. And the food?? I’m especially salivating over the duck eggs. 🙂

    July 21, 2015
    • I’m not surprised, Carissa! The duck eggs were something special – I’d never seen blue eggs before (the colour was all natural), and the water from all those boiled shallot skins gave them a firmer, more chewy texture. I had to stop myself from taking too many. 🙂

      July 21, 2015
      • Wow!! I’m not sure I could have resisted. 😉

        July 21, 2015
  6. Whatever happened to you James, I hope you got the best experience -ever- of Idul Fitri in Indonesia.

    For me, myself, it’s the first Idul Fitri without those-annoying-when-are-you-getting-married-questions 😀

    July 21, 2015
    • Congratulations, Bart! I thought we had it bad in Hong Kong but the pressure feels even stronger here in Indonesia… after meeting Bama’s extended family I can just imagine why. In spite of all the embarrassing moments, I couldn’t have asked for a better Idul Fitri. 🙂

      July 21, 2015
      • That’s one of my reasons why I enjoy to spend my Idul Fitri on offshore 😉

        July 22, 2015
  7. What a great experience. This Idd is also very closely tied to a sacrifice that is recorded both in the bible and the koran.

    July 22, 2015
    • Absolutely. This has been one of those rare instances of genuine cultural immersion that many of us try to seek out on our travels.

      July 22, 2015
  8. A lot of city in Indonesia you already discover :-D. And you enjoy a lot of trip in here, such as a good experience right?

    Ketupat is the best! I got it from my neighbour this year :p.

    I will find some excuse to run away from that ‘never ending’ questions :p (when will you marry? , when will you get a baby?, when will you get a second baby?, etc….)

    How long will you in Jakarta?

    July 22, 2015
    • Well, the more I explore Indonesia, the more I realise just how massive this country is!

      It has been funny seeing all those Facebook posts from Indonesians about the never-ending questions at Idul Fitri. Bama showed me some of the best ones on his news feed.

      I am actually in Semarang now – although I quite like Jakarta (yes, in spite of the macet and pollution) I didn’t spent any time there on this trip. After flying into Soetta, I met up with Bama and two other bloggers; we went straight to Cirebon by car, then Dieng and Jogja.

      July 22, 2015
      • haha yeah, Bama post something is his facebook about it.
        Other country already talked about new planet, and my country still talked about politic, religion belief’s. I already clean that stuff from my facebook, report some annoying post :p.
        How long you will be in Indonesia?

        July 27, 2015
      • This time I’ll be in Indonesia for about three months. It’s hard to believe the first month is practically over!

        July 29, 2015
      • wow haha you still have 2 months to go! 🙂

        July 30, 2015
  9. Glad to know that you enjoyed the Idul Fitri, James. I’m a Christian, but my father, sister and her family are moslem. So my family celebrated The Great Day, too. Yes, there were Opor Ayam, Ketupat, and Sambal Krecek. Just like you had.

    Anyway, I thought Bama is a christian *lol*

    July 23, 2015
    • Wow, Matius. That’s one more thing I find very beautiful about Indonesia (Java in particular): all the mixed Muslim-Christian families. To me, it shows the ultimate level of coexistence and acceptance of differing faiths.

      Actually you’re not the first to think of Bama as a Christian – he says he gets that pretty regularly.

      July 23, 2015
      • Yes, Javanese have a good tolerance in beliefs and religions. Proud to be a Javanese!

        Maybe it’s because Bama’s look and travel experiences 😀

        July 23, 2015
  10. Wow that’s nice! Experiencing idul fitri with indonesians is a must. I was in a small village some days ago on the north of Lombok when idul fitri time started and I was lucky to be hosted by a local family. Awesome to see and feel their joy and their neighbours’. They made me feel one of their own. Delicious food too 😁 thanks for sharing this special time James

    July 23, 2015
    • Eskerrik asko, Mikel! It is really amazing how you have immersed yourself in the various cultures of the archipelago, and writing about it all in Spanish. 🙂 I only wish I could speak the same level of Bahasa Indonesia… guess I should really think about moving to Jakarta for work!

      July 23, 2015
      • Jakarta is a chaotic city as you know, but once you’ve found your spot everything seems great. Let me know if you ever visit (or move to) this city again, take care

        July 24, 2015
  11. LApar…… 😛 😛

    July 23, 2015
    • You won’t find opor and sambal goreng kentang like this in Hong Kong, that’s for sure! 😉

      July 23, 2015
  12. Wow, James! Great post! It seems the holidays are the same all over the world — overwhelming, awkward, but always so fun and full of great food. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Great photos, and Bama looks so sharp! 🙂

    July 24, 2015
    • You are so right, Kelly – now that I think of it, Christmas and Thanksgiving also fit the bill! I felt underdressed seeing Bama and his family in such special clothing. He even kept it on for the feast! 🙂 Had I been wearing a white shirt, I would probably have stained it with sauce in no time.

      July 26, 2015
  13. That is so cool to get to experience this with locals and friends. I feel your pain though on not quite knowing the customs. I stayed with a friends family in South America and made many of the same mistakes.

    July 24, 2015
    • I wish I had read a book on Indonesian or Javanese customs before I came… that would have saved me a lot of embarrassment! Just the other day I committed another faux pas – receiving something with my left hand (said to be unclean) instead of my right. Luckily the vendor didn’t seem to mind or care.

      July 26, 2015
  14. Lucky, lucky you! What a priceless experience to be celebrating Id with Bama’s family! Your evocative account made me ache for Diwali’s spent at home…boisterous, inquisitive family members el al! 🙂

    PS: You should be a pro at S Asian etiquette by the time your reach India! 😀

    July 28, 2015
    • Yes, Madhu, it was beyond priceless! Out of my last month in Indonesia, I count those 10 days with Bama’s family as my favourite period. To me it was even more memorable than the volcanoes and sunrise hikes, the awe-inspiring ancient monuments we visited and the wildlife we saw elsewhere on Java. 🙂

      PS I don’t know about that! Even after a month here I still have so much to learn about Javanese customs and cultural norms.

      July 29, 2015
  15. This post brings a smile to my face, great humor and writing and also great description of Idul Fitri and the end of the Ramadan fast. Food looks great ~ which does not surprise me at all, and I’ve learned two cool words: suka and duka 🙂

    July 29, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Randall. 🙂 I knew I had to include all those embarrassing moments! Suka is literally “to like”, and Bama tells me that duka is the word for “sorrow”. It is funny how they rhyme so perfectly with each other.

      July 29, 2015
      • Yes, you wrote so well about those moments. And thanks for the intro to suka and duka ~ I think it is the rhyming of the words along with the meaning that makes it special.

        July 30, 2015

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