Communal eating, which is the norm during Maulidur Rasul, promotes communication, unity and bonding, writes Zuhaila Sedek-De Booij
ACCORDING to the Islamic calendar, Thursday would be 12 Rabiul Awal which marks the birthday of Prophet Muhammad.
On this special day, also known as Maulidur Rasul Muslims will gather at mosques, surau or schools to pray and listen to sermons.
After that, they might feast togeher and have a makan dulang (communal eating) to make the event more meaningful. The metal tray would be filled with biryani, curry, meat and acar. Communal eating has been practised since the days of Prophet Muhammad (SWT).
I have been eating with my own clique since my school days. We would normally sit on straw mats on the floor. After a while our legs would get cramped but the feast would be so good that it would not bother us. I am not sure why, but for some reason, communal eating makes the food taste even better.
RE-CREATION OF THE PROPHET’S DAYS
Ahmad Hakimi Khairuddin, Head of Malay Socio Culture And Arts Department at University Malaya’s Academy of Malay Studies explains that this tradition of communal eating is not of Malay origin. It is an influence from the Middle East. “The aim is to mimic the days of Prophet Muhammad (SWT) who used to dine in this way with his family and friends,” says Ahmad.
Although the tradition is most often done specifically on Maulidur Rasul, it is very common in Arab countries.
Ahmad recalls his student days in the United States. He says that during Ramadan, his Arab friends would invite him to break fast with them. They would all sit together, sharing one huge serving of food and eating with their hands.
“It was fun and the food was usually biryani topped with lamb, beef or chicken.”
This culture of several people eating from one huge tray of food may have been popularised here in the late 1970s. According to Ahmad, many were beginning to adapt to a more Islamic lifestyle at the time.
Eating with the whole family can improve family relationships.
“On top of that, the Arqam movement was starting and a lot of people began to use Islamic terms as well as adopt the Islamic way of living,” says Ahmad, who is also an anthropologist and archeologist. He says that one of the outcomes from this movement is the Moreh Feast.
According to the Regional Islamic Da’wah Council of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, a Moreh Feast is customary among the Malay community in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It is especially significant during Ramadan.
It is a social gathering where individuals would sit together for a cup of tea or coffee while enjoying bite-sized snacks. In Malaysia, Moreh Feast is usually held in mosques or surau. The aim is to bring people together to enjoy food and drinks donated by individuals.
SHARING MEANS CARING
Ahmad believes that this tradition promotes communication, unity and bonding.
“Eating together with your friends can be so much fun. But, sometimes, you may have strangers joining you. Although this can be challenging, it gives you an opportunity to make new friends,” says Ahmad.
He remembers the time when he had his first big platter meal together with friends from secondary school. They shared not only food, but stories too.
Ahmad recommends families to try this sort of communal dining at home to foster better family relationships. It builds trust as well. It is also a fun way to “lure” children to join family dinners.
A research paper written by Martha Marino and Sue Butkus from Washington State University suggests that children who eat together only three times a week or less are more prone to trouble in school, have poor diets and are more prone to behavioural problems and more.
Communal eating is also practised in Africa. According to an article written by Matthew Kustenbauder on www.theotherjournal.com, in Africa it is rare for people to eat alone. Before meals, hands are washed; usually a child pours water over the cupped hands of the adults in the group. Everyone sits around a common dish. Then, each individual will take a ration for himself. He will then shape it into a ball and dip the ball into a single dish of relish, soup, or greens. If there is any meat, the best portions are first offered to visitors or the elderly. Drinks, too, are often served from a common bowl or cup, which is passed from one to another. The meal ends with another hand washing.
The Chinese also have their version of communal eating. For instance, during Chinese New Year when guests and hosts share a dish of yee sang for prosperity.
On Maulidur Rasul, no cutlery is required. Everyone eats with their hands. Using cutlery while eating on a shared platter is not only inappropriate but also rude. Ahmad says that eating using hands has a lot to do with the local culture. Muslims must use the right hand for eating.
The right hand is meant for eating, shaking hands or receiving things while the left hand is used for taking off shoes or cleaning specific parts of the body.
Vinita Chopra Jacinto, an instructor at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, stated in a New York Times article that Indians eat with their hands because they believe that food is more than just minerals. Food nourishes the mind, intellect and spirit.
According to Vinita, food has to be sensual and mindful. Eating with the hands connects one to the food. The left hand is never used for that because it is considered unclean.
“When I was in the States, the Americans perceived eating with hands as unhygienic. Eating with hands is more personal and it gives more meaning to the meal,” says Ahmad, adding, “Cutlery lacks emotion.”
He adds that communal eating during Maulidur Rasul also teaches Muslims about dining etiquette according to Prophet Muhammad’s (SWT) sunnah (Prophet’s practices). Ahmad explains that the Prophet (SWT) was known to have his food using his hands while sitting on the floor, with one knee up and the other down. It is believed that eating in this manner helps the body to digest food better.
After finishing a meal, it is advisable to lick each finger, just as the Prophet (SWT) used to do.
According to www.lamankongsi.com the Prophet (SWT) did this because every finger is believed to contain an enzyme and acid that helps aid digestion. This enzyme comes from the saliva. In April last year, scientists from the Monell Center in Philadelphia reported that enzyme in saliva can aid the regulation of blood glucose.
Today, communal eating is not solely practised on Maulidur Rasul. Some restaurateurs also offer the same way of eating. They include Restoran R&S Catering Aliff Najwa in Ijok, Selangor and Restoran Barada at Bandar Tun Hussein Onn in Cheras.
“Most will serve Arabic food with biryani and nasi Arab being the most common,” says Ahmad. Local dishes such as nasi ambang or even fried mee hoon can also be served on a platter for communal eating.
Young mother Sharifah Aishah Syed Othman says that as a teen she used to participate in her family gatherings where communal eating on a platter was the norm.
“These days, I only do it during kenduri,” says the Johor-born Sharifah Aishah.
Zuhaila Sedek-De Booij | email@example.com New Straits Times Sunday Life and Times 20 January 2013