Cultural Exchange

Written by Azleena Wan Mohamad

Through my work with Look Out Libya, I have come to realize the importance of opening up the Libyan culture to others and vice versa, which is partly why I started We Are Food in English. Many of you who follow me on Facebook will know Azleena from all the wonderful pictures of Malaysian and Libyan food she has made or sampled throughout the course of Ramadan. Many emails later we met over Iftar and Azleena kindly fulfilled my request to share with us her experience of Ramadan in Libya as a Malaysian expat family. Azleena previously worked with the Department of Environment in Malaysia. She now does freelance editing and is a mom to 2 kids. She previously lived in Kuala Lumpur then Sarawak, Malaysia when her husband joined Shell. This is their first posting overseas. I would also like to wish the Malaysian community a happy Malaysian Independence Day, today August the 31st.

My name is Azleena, I come from Malaysia and have been in Libya not quite 2 months yet! This is my first Ramadan in Libya – actually my very first Ramadan out of Malaysia.

Ramadan in Libya is very different from in Malaysia, partly because of Malay customs, partly because Malaysia is a very multiracial country – around 50% of the population consists of Malays (who form the great majority of Muslims), the rest are mainly Chinese, Indians and Orang Asli (aboriginal) tribes. Thus, unlike Libya where restaurants do not open at all during the day and shops mostly open late, close during Iftar, and reopen late into the night, business in Malaysia goes on as usual. Offices also work the usual hours, though muslim employees are allowed to leave early (but are expected to work through the lunch hour).

Although many families break the fast together, eating out is a major event during Ramadan too. Many restaurants, especially in hotels, have special Iftar buffets featuring specialties from the different states in Malaysia. Even fast food chains like Pizza Hut and KFC have Ramadan special dishes and offers! Close to Maghrib time, the restaurants are full with people claiming their table and salivating over waiting plates of food while counting down the time till the Azan…

"Berbuka di Kuantan" or iftar at Kuantan taken by Zaini Abdullah. Malaysian family and friends break their fast with food bought at the bazaar on the lawn of this magnificent mosque

Ramadan in Malaysia is very festive, with decorations of ketupat (traditional diamond-shaped packets made from woven coconut leaves in which rice is cooked so that it is compressed) hung in the streets and in shop windows, and Malay Eid Al Fitr music – songs of family and forgiveness, journeying back to the kampong (hometown) for family reunions, celebration and food – start playing on the radio.

But what I miss most about Ramadan in Malaysia is the Ramadan bazaars that spring up in every muslim-majority neighbourhood. Small stalls are set up along the road, selling sweet and savoury delicacies from all around Malaysia. The Ramadan bazaars are so popular, selling treats that can only be found at this time of year, that they are frequented by all races in Malaysia.

Kuih Bakar, a pandan flavored baked coconut custard that Azleena kindly made for us. Dana couldn't resist stacking them up! Photo credits Azleena Wan Mohamad

My personal favourites from the Ramadan bazaars are:

  • popia basah (fresh spring rolls with a filling of cooked jicama eaten with a chilli sauce),
  • tepung pelita (green and white layered soft pandan and coconut milk pudding, traditionally in small cups made from pandan leaves),
  • cucur udang (fried prawn fritters eaten with a sweet chilli sauce),
  • puteri mandi (literally translated as “bathing princesses” – small dumplings made from glutinous rice flour, coloured in several pretty colours, ‘bathing’ in a sweet sauce made from coconut milk and fresh grated coconut),
  • Cek mek molek (translated as “pretty girl” in the Kelantanese dialect – a fried torpedo-shaped dumpling made from sweet potato with a filling of sugar which melts to a syrup during frying).

Apart from the traditional Malay dishes, we also enjoy foods influenced by our neighbouring races and countries. Indian murtabak (a wrapped roti [crispy fried Indian flatbread] filled with a mixture of ground meat, onion and egg), Chinese tau foo fah (soft soy pudding with sugar syrup), and Thai and Indonesian dishes are also popular choices at Ramadan bazaars.

An assortment of home-cooked Malaysian and Thai food at an Iftar gathering in Tripoli. Photo credit to Azizi Ahmed

Now I’m hungry!

The Malaysian community in Tripoli is not very big, but very close.  We have been to several Iftar gatherings and potlucks, at which many Malaysian favourites are served, so we are not too homesick. Having never lived out of Malaysia before, I have always been able to easily buy Malay kuih (cakes) and have never felt the need to learn to make them… but I will have to start learning now!

In Malaysia, similar to Libya, we usually break the fast with dates and sweet kuih. Then after a pause for prayers it’s on to the main meal, usually starring rice. An everyday dinner would be rice with several side dishes of meat, vegetables and eggs. Some examples of special rice dishes are Byriani rice and from the North Eastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu are nasi kerabu /nasi ulam (rice with herbs) and nasi dagang.

Ikan Kering, dried salt fish. Photo credit to Azizi Ahmad

Nasi kerabu is rice traditionally tinted blue by being cooked with the petals of the telang flower, eaten with very finely julienned herbs and vegetables like torch ginger flower, turmeric leaves, long beans, cucumber, lettuce, bean sprouts, etc. and accompanied with  keropok (fried fish crackers), kerisik (fried grated coconut) and ayam/ikan percik (grilled chicken or fish basted in a spicy coconut gravy).

Nasi dagang is traditionally reddish-brown glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk mixed with halba seeds and very finely sliced shallots, garlic and ginger, eaten with fish or chicken curry and acar (fresh pickle of cucumber and carrot or pineapple).

OK, now I am really hungry! How much longer till Iftar?

During our stay in Libya, we have been very honoured to be invited for traditional Libyan food for Iftar on two occasions. Thus we have enjoyed Libyan delicacies like sharba Libiya, dibla, kefta, m’batten, o’sban, burik, rushda, and the very traditional and ancient Libyan dishes of bsisa and bazin with camel stew.

Libyan O'sban, rice and offal stuffed sausages similar to the Scottish Haggis. Photo credit to Azleena Wan Mohamad

Middle-Eastern food is becoming popular in Malaysia, and hubby and I love trying new food, so we are really enjoying Libyan food. The kids are still getting used to Libyan tastes, but they do enjoy the simple snacks like dibla, burik and kefta. One major difference is the Libyan use of parsley in almost everything, while Malays (and Malaysians) rarely use it, except perhaps as garnish or in western dishes. The use of spices seems a bit milder than in Malay cooking, although a glance at the spice counter shows that many of the same kind of spices are used. Malaysians eat mostly rice and noodles, compared to the Libyan staples of bread, couscous and pasta. And of course Malaysians use mainly palm oil instead of olive oil.

Fukhda Mashweya wa Roz bil Khalta. I served this special dish of roast leg of lamb and rice with almonds and raisins to Azleena and her family when they visited for Iftar last week

Eid Al Fitr in Malaysia is called Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and is celebrated in a bigger fashion than Eid Al Adha. During Hari Raya Aidilfitri, people who have migrated from small towns to big cities return to their hometowns for family reunions. Thus, the Balik Kampung (Return to Hometown) rush begins a day or two before Hari Raya, and all roads leaving major towns become jammed with cars returning to all the far away villages. Some Malay traditions for Hari Raya are getting new clothes (Baju Raya, or Raya Clothes) and the distribution of Duit Raya (Raya Money) in little green envelopes to kids. (This tradition is also practiced by the Chinese community during Chinese New Year, except with red envelopes.) The Duit Raya tradition is sometimes taken to the extreme – kids in neighbourhoods gang up and go from house to house requesting Duit Raya! The Hari Raya celebrations go on for at least a week, with open houses where friends, neighbours, and colleagues of all races are invited to sample Malay goodies. Even the Malaysian celebrities, Ministers and the Prime Minister have Hari Raya open houses, held in halls and convention centres, open to everyone!

Thank you Azleena for your informative article. I think you will have all of us heading to Malaysia for Ramadan next year! I would also like to thank my dear friend Azizi Ahmad, also a Malaysian expat in Libya and a photographer during his spare time, for allowing us to use some of his great photos. Another big thank you to Azizi’s friend, Zaini Abdullah in Kuantan, Malaysia, for sending us a picture that captures the spirit of Ramadan in their home country.

If you would like to post some thoughts or photos about Ramadan in your community, be it expats in Libya or Libyan expats abroad, please write to me at selmusrati@yahoo.com

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Yaseen El kanuni says:

    Thats quite a read i must say. Malaysia is in many fronts a leader , not just festive seasons and Islamic occasions . Education, industry, environment just to say the least.

    You are welcome in Libya and i am sure all readers will wish you the same.

    Food for Libya has certainly reduced the distance in bringing different societies and nationalities together to speak about food and the sociality serenity that governs it.

    Whilst you are at it Azleena, Libyan food is easy to lean about, but even though it’s not that lavish in the number of national dishes, it is however non the less delicious.

    Good luck

    1. azleena says:

      Thank you Yaseen, I am enjoying the variety of Libyan food, and definitely do intend to learn to cook a few dishes. Did attempt to steam couscous for the first time, but didn’t go very well thanks to faulty directions….🙂 Glad to have an online food community to learn from!

  2. Zaleha M. Rashid says:

    Salam,
    As an ex-colleague of Azleena’s at the Department of Environment Malaysia, I am happy to learn that she is fitting in well and enjoying herself and the food in Libya. From her link I learned and had the opportunity to see what Libyan’s food are like (been licking the screen every time … hehehe).
    As a Malaysian, I am proud to have Azleena as our `representative’ of Malaysians in Libya… Thumbs up and thank you Azleena…🙂
    And to all Libyans : You are welcome to visit our country, Malaysia, and have a taste of our culture and sample our food especially during Ramadhan Al Mubaraq month.
    Last but not least…Happy Eid Al Fitr to all🙂

  3. Good work Azleena and gang…Thanks.
    a lot.

    1. Hi Zaini,
      Thank you so much for allowing us to use your photo. It captures the spirit of Ramadan so well that when I first saw it I was carried there. Wish a blessed Ramadan and a Happy Eid.
      Sarah

      1. My pleasure..Sarah.
        Maybe you can join us next ramadhan..Iftar in front of our state mosque.[Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Mosque]..
        Salam Aidil Fitri..

  4. Salma says:

    Hi dear,

    ~Clapping~
    This is adorable contribution and a very promising project, interesting information elegantly presented… Indeed you took my breath away, it’s a very positive perspective to our culture, thank you for sharing and Ramadan Mubarak, I will make sure to visit this beautiful spot very often.
    Regards

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