Ketupat is a rice cake wrapped with coconut leaves. Rice is a staple food for many communities in Southeast Asia. For the Malay community, there are several ways that rice is served- and ketupat is one of the ways where rice is cooked in small pouches made from young coconut leaves. The use of coconut leaves is a commonly found example of traditional food packaging found in the region.
Ketupat comes in various shapes and sizes. The manner of weaving the ketupat is the same, and the difference lies in the complexity of each weave, particularly the kepala (head) and ekor (tail). The more complex ketupat can use up to four leaves.
Traditionally used in religious ceremonies in the Malay world as a form of offering, the name ketupat is believed to be derived from the Javanese words ngaku lepat, which may be translated as “admitting one’s mistakes”. The crossed weaving of palm leaves is said to represent mistakes and sins committed by human beings, while the inner white rice cake is said to represent purity and deliverance from sins after observing the Ramadan, prayers and rituals.
In Singapore, ketupat is often prepared as a celebratory food, commonly enjoyed by families during the Hari Raya celebrations where they are served with a variety of other dishes.
Variations of ketupat can be found in Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.
Natural materials have been used for food packaging for generations in many communities in the region, and the coconut leaves and banana leaves are the leaves that are more commonly found and used in Singapore.
The weaving and preparations of ketupat often takes place in households, before festivities and celebrations. Usually about a week before Hari Raya, young coconut leaves would be collected or sold in markets.
In Singapore, the weaving and eating of ketupat is mostly associated with the Malay Muslim community, though ketupat is also consumed and enjoyed by many beyond the community and across the population.
Associated Social and Cultural Practices
Although ketupat can be eaten at any time, it is closely related to celebration of Hari Raya Puasa and Haji in Singapore, as the celebratory atmosphere of the festivals is said to give a different kind of pleasure as an occasion to savour the delicacy with loved ones.
Ketupat weaving used to be a family activity when children were taught how to make it and when family members competed with one other to weave the most ketupat. Ketupat pouches were also woven from colourful ribbons which typically adorn Malay homes during festive periods. Due to the level of difficulty and practice required for mastery, the weaving of ketupat is increasingly becoming a rare activity.
The weaving of ketupat involves the following steps: First, the leaf is separated from the spine. The spine is also useful as it can be made into part of a broom after it has been smoothened. The more pliable part of the spine could also be used as a string for tying the ketupat. The weaver will have to wrap one part of the coconut leaves onto the right and left hand as many as four times, and this will determine the size of the ketupat. Next, the weaver has to hold the end of the leaf on the right hand and left hand tightly, and insert the leaf coil, right over left, continuing with the next like weaving a mat. When the weaving is completed, the ketupat can be tightened by pulling gently on the “tail”, to tighten it.
Rice is put into these woven pouches, and the ketupat is boiled for several hours, and cooled before serving.
The Malay Muslim community believes that the way to eat the ketupat is not by peeling away the coconut leaves but by cutting them into halves.
In Singapore, ketupat is particularly associated with satay and its accompanying peanut sauce, but traditional ketupat is hardly found at satay stalls now. Instead, those are commonly available are either wrapped in plastic or banana leaves. These days, plastic-wrapped ketupat, also known as “instant ketupat” can be bought easily, while pre-woven empty ketupat pouches can also be purchased for quicker preparations.
Experience of a Practitioner
Madam Sabrah is an individual practitioner who weaves and makes ketupat for her family.
She grew up in a village in Selangor and learned to make ketupat and other types of food from her mother. It became a hobby for her, as well as an activity for family bonding. Her siblings and her would gather under a tree near her house together to learn how to weave ketupat. Some of her siblings even cried until they were able to make it. Her late father would tell them how to do it and would tighten the ketupat for them. Out of all her siblings, only she and her younger brother ended up being able to weave the ketupat. These days, she has ended up being the one that her family relies upon to do it every festive season.
Madam Sabrah views that the skills for weaving ketupat should be taught and passed down to the children. Madam Sabrah’s daughter, Madam Anita bte Tompang, who learned how to weave and make the ketupat when she was 11 years old, believes that preparing food and cooking together keeps the family harmonious. Due to the rarity in which ketupat is made—usually twice a year before the Hari Raya celebrations—her own children have become more appreciative of such food as they watch her do it, especially when there were times when they had to make up to 200 pieces of ketupat. Though it was tiring, they enjoyed doing it. It has been the family tradition and she said that she will keep to it for as long as she can.
In Singapore, ketupat has been increasingly being replaced by lontong (rice cake in a cylinder shape, wrapped with banana leaves). The two primary factors identified include how the price of young coconut leaves increased, making it more expensive than banana leaves. It is also easier to make lontong as it does not require weaving of the leaves.
Community members have observed that the sustainability of this tradition is affected not just by the modern lifestyle but also the attitude of the community about tradition and the maintenance of traditional practices. For Madam Sabrah’s family, the tradition of weaving ketupat have been transmitted through generations, due to the attitude and determination of Madam Sabrah and daughter in maintaining the traditions within the family.
Reference No.: ICH-076
Date of Inclusion: October 2019
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