Sunday, October 28, 2007

Raya '07 : Berasak

“Berasak” is a rice dish that is not very well known outside of Johor and pureblood Johoreans. I first rediscovered it about 10 years ago when I spent my Hari Raya holidays with my relatives in Pontian, Johor. It was after a few years after my paternal grandmother’s death when my dad’s side of the family decided to resurrect the tradition of making our own “berasak”. I had it before as a kid but I never remembered it until I was told what it is much later. All the memories that I thought I had forgotten did came back with my first bite of “berasak” 10 years ago. It was a taste that I had long remembered and associated with my late paternal grandmother but never knew what it was.

“Berasak” is basically a rice dish that is popular among the Johoreans of Bugis descent which is usually made during celebrations like Hari Raya. In my father’s family we would either have normal rice ketupat or berasak since none of the people of that side of the family were fans of glutinous rice which make up lemang and ketupat palas. I have not actually seen the process of making the “berasak” since I was always unable to come back early enough to see it made but I was told of the process by my aunt who currently is the only one in the family that makes it for the rest. Much like my dodol, my aunt’s branch of the family is currently the only custodian of the family tradition which she makes to be distributed to everyone else.

The process of making “berasak” starts first with the one main ingredient that differentiate it from other festive rice dishes. Unlike ketupat, the “berasak” is wrapped in the young pisang nipah leaves. It can only be the leaves of this particular banana type as it imparts both flavor and color to the finished product. It is also the only type of banana leave that would held up to the rigors of the cooking process. The leaves had to be the very young ones that you would find still curled in a tube at the top of a banana tree. The leaves that have already unfurled further down the banana tree would not be usable in this instance.

Once the banana leaves are available, the rice would then be prepared. “Berasak” uses normal short grain white rice which is washed and the cooked in coconut milk much like making nasi lemak. It is important that only fresh coconut milk from the first pressing is used in the making of “berasak”. A little salt is added to the coconut milk before it is used to cook the rice with to enhance the richness of the coconut milk. Once the rice has fully absorbed the coconut milk and fully cooked, it is immediately portioned out onto squares cut out of the pisang nipah leaves. While the rice is still steaming hot, it is compressed into a tight rectangular shape which is then wrapped with the pisang nipah leave. The wrapping method is quite similar to how a kuih lepat is wrapped. Throughout the process of wrapping the “berasak”, continuous pressure is applied to it to ensure that the rice in it is compressed well.

The individual parcels of leave wrapped rice would then be grouped into groups of about 10 and wrapped again in a few layers of pisang nipah leaves. Each bundle would then be tied up as tightly as you could with either raffia string or heat resistant plastic raffia string. Tied up bundles would then go into a large pot of boiling water to be boiled for a minimum of 8 to 10 hours to fully cook the “berasak”. At the end of the process, the cooked rice inside the “berasak” parcels would expand more and become denser in texture. Once the cooking time has expired, the “berasak” is taken out and hung out in the kitchen area to dry before it can be opened and the individual wrapped rice parcel served.

Taste-wise, the “berasak” basically tastes like compressed nasi lemak. The pisang nipah leaves imparts a subtle aroma and taste to the rice inside which is quite unique when compared to other festive rice dishes like ketupat and lemang. It is also quite denser compared to the normal rice ketupat since it is cooked with coconut milk before being reboiled for a second time unlike the ketupat which is only boiled once. Unlike ketupat palas or lemang, you should not be able to differentiate the different grains of rice when you bite into a well made “berasak”. A well made “berasak” also travels well since it could last at least 2 weeks without refrigeration and up to a month if you kept it in chiller. The “berasak” however cannot be frozen as the resulting ice crystals would leech out the taste of the coconut milk from the rice.

Any side dish that you can eat with ketupat and lemang can also accompany the “berasak”. My family prefers to eat it with something that has more sauce that the normally dry beef or chicken rendang. My father for instance loves to eat his “berasak” with ikan masak assam pedas. I actually prefer eating it drenched fully in a really hot curry. The other peculiar way how we enjoy our “berasak” is that we only eat it after it has been chilled at least for a day in the fridge. I personally find that the low temperature actually enhanced the taste of the “berasak” and contrast beautifully with the heat from the curry that I put on it when I eat it.

Some pictures of the “berasak” that I brought back from my parents house last week.

(Wrapped bundle of berasak as it would look first taken out of the pot)

(About 10 pieces of individual wrapped berasak tightly tied within the bundle)

(The individually wrapped berasak which is the size of your normal kuih lepat)

(When unwrapped, the compressed rice is feels slick on the touch from the coconut milk, has a unique aroma and a greenish tinge in appearence)

(My favorite Hari Raya dish - Berasak with beef curry)

The “berasak” is another piece of my family heritage that I have begun to discover as I grow older. The rediscovery is somewhat of a bittersweet experience for me. On one hand it meant that it was time for us the younger generation of the family tree to know of our family traditions so we can continue the legacy. On the other hand it meant that the generation before us were getting older in age and would not be around for that much longer. There is a sense of racing against the clock to make sure that legacies are passed down to those who are willing and able to carry it. I personally know that I have a few things that will be coming my way and it would be my future responsibility to ensure that passed on to the next generation.

Legacies are so much larger than the individual. By passing it on, we carve a little bit of immortality for ourselves.


wahdi said...

ooo camtu rupanya...
macam lemit keladi/pisang ek?

Nickxandar said...

Ahaks ... now you got me on obscure food items lak!

Lemit tu apa bendanya? Lepat pisang tahulah tapi lemit tak pernah dengar