THE traditional dodol will always be one of the main dishes during Hari Raya. This sweet sticky toffee-like candy is equally popular in other parts of the world such as Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines (especially in the Luzon and Mindanao), Sri Lanka and Myanmar where it is called "mont kalama".
Whatever its name, the technique to making dodol is often similar, with coconut milk, brown sugar or gula melaka and rice flour as its ingredients.
Gone are the days when family members gathered around a huge wok, taking turns to stir the dodol mixture until it thickens.
Besides the common brownish dodol, there are many other flavours available. The most popular is the durian-flavoured dodol called lempuk. This is yellow in colour and is popular in Thailand, Kelantan and Terengganu. Durian dodol is also popular in Medan and other Sumatran cities.
In Goa, dodol is eaten during Christmas. Dodol is called halwa in India and Zanzibar. Halwa is usually made with sugar, milk and plain flour, whole wheat flour, semolina and even cornflour. In Bali, dodol is sold in dried corn leaves. This traditional delight has also made its way to Middle Eastern countries.
The Indonesians are the most adventurous and creative in concocting dodol. There are interesting varieties such as dodol garut, dodol kacang hijau, dodol bengkoang, dodol nangka, dodol ubi talam, dodol sirsak (soursop), dodol tomat, dodol tape, dodol apel malang, dodol salak, dodol rumput laut, dodol pisang, dodol nenas, dodol mangga and dodol lidah buaya. Then there is dodol betawi, which takes a bit more effort to make as it utilises white and black glutinous rice.
There is a place called Pangalengan in Bandung, which is famous for its dodol susu while dodol cina is a Chinese version of sweet nian gao, which is made of rich coconut milk and sugar.
Dodol is available commercially all year round in Malaysia, with dodol pilah being one of the most popular, which can be found at the R&R Jemapoh along the Jalan Kuala Pilah-Bahau in Negri Sembilan.
Siblings, Othman Daud and Normawatti Daud, have been making dodol pilah and running their dodol business for the last 10 years.
Dodol pilah is much sought after because of its secret formula, which uses the authentic gula enau.
"Our dodol has a unique, sweet flavour and creamy taste of fresh coconut milk. It's the gula enau that makes all the difference.
"People always ask me what makes a good dodol. For me, the most important thing is you should never stinge on the ingredients.
"The basic ingredients are the same everywhere - coconut milk, rice flour and gula melaka. But we only use gula enau or gula kabung," said the 56-year-old Othman who makes more than 600 kg of dodol every year during Ramadan.
Othman takes great pride in using only gula enau for his dodol, and not gula melaka even though gula enau is not easy to come by.
"There's a lot of difference between these two, which acts as the main ingredient.
"Even the process of making them is different.
"The sugary sap of the nipah tree is called gula enau and these can only be found deep in the jungle and is sold in solid paste. Unlike gula enau, gula melaka is taken from the bud of a coconut palm and is more commercialised. We get our gula enau from our regular supplier," said Othman.
Gula kabung or gula enau is derived from the sap of the Arenga palm (Arenga pinnata) and mangrove palm (Nypa fruticans).
With the help from his sister Normawatti and other family members, Othman usually tries to complete orders during the second week of fasting month.
"At times, we have more orders than we can cope but I'm glad we are able to meet all orders. It normally takes up to seven hours to cook the dodol.
"During the entire cooking process, the dodol must be constantly stirred in a big wok. If you are to pause in between, it might cause it to burn, and will spoil the taste and aroma," said Normawatti who prefers to call dodol as penganan.
The invention of the dodol mixer machine, which they got a grant to buy, has helped them save time making the delicacy.
"We used to enjoy the kacau dodol session, as it was also a time to get together as we took turns to stir the dodol.
"However, even with the dodol mixer, you still have to be on guard to make sure you get the right consistency of the dodol," said Normawatti who also sells burger and other traditional cookies at the R&R.
Irrespective of whether one uses a dodol mixer or stirs it manually, both methods are time consuming.
The process is quite tedious and has to be systematic with proper timing. The first stage is to extract the coconut milk.
"The coconuts have to be of the ripe age because they have more coconut milk. Coconut milk is extracted by grinding the coconut with warm water for maximum output.
"The rice flour is added to the coconut milk and you have to keep on stirring the mixture on low heat. Chopped gula enau is later added to the mixture and all these ingredients are cooked until the mixture is dense. Once done, the cooked liquid is poured in a container and left to cool," said the 48-year-old Normawatti.
Normawatti said the dodol was completely cooked when it was thick and firm, and does not stick to one's fingers when touched.
"The best time to prepare it is a few weeks before Hari Raya. However, some people prefer the fresh taste of soft dodol while others like it slightly firmer.
"It is all personal preferences," said Othman who feels dodol should be enjoyed in moderation as it is really rich in flavour and high in calories.
In the olden days, dodol was packaged and wrapped in different ways like in a coconut shell, upih (made of tree bark) or weaved-mengkuang (pandanus leaves) and daun palas (from the Palas tree).
But the most authentic to store dodol is in a coconut shell, which is normally left to dangle from one of the beams in the kitchen. You have to savour it in small bits. Once the dodol is finished, the coconut shell can be used as a cup to drink coffee.