Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – It is 7.30 in the morning and the smell of fragrant spices fills the air around the Masjid Jamek Kampung Baru Mosque in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
In the mosque’s basement kitchen, a group of eight volunteer chefs is already hard at work as they fire up two rows of pots – about 80cm (31 inches) wide – to sauté a mix of cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, star anise, cloves and fenugreek.
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Next, they toss in onions, garlic and fragrant pandanus leaves before adding minced beef and prawns, stirring the mixture with a giant ladle.
Once the meat is carefully browned, they add the rice – 15kg (33 pounds) of it – submerging each pot’s contents in water and coconut milk and leaving the mixture to boil for more than an hour.
After that, it is another hour-long wait before the chefs can add spring onions as well as fried shallots and bag up the porridge, known as bubur lambuk, for distribution to the growing queue of people outside.
“We have our exact measurements and we just have to follow the same recipe that we have been using for 100 years,” chief cook Adham Abdul Manan told Al Jazeera as he wound down from a busy morning in the kitchen, still wearing his green apron and black cap, and rustling through his checklist for the next day.
The mosque, situated in a village now surrounded by skyscrapers and highways, is renowned for its creamy sweet-savoury porridge. It produces 15 pots a day during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.
While many other mosques prepare the same dish for distribution to the public in mostly Muslim Malaysia, it is Masjid Jamek Kampung Baru’s version of the dish that is most sought after.
Adham is the man behind the team in the kitchen and with 3,500 packets to distribute every day, his job is relentless.
The 63-year-old from the central state of Pahang was an Air Force officer before he retired in 2000.
“Working with volunteers and army-trained personnels is definitely a different experience but I enjoy doing this,” Adham said, adding that he was always happy when the feedback was positive.
He learned the bubur recipe by heart by observing previous chief cooks in the years he spent as a Ramadan volunteer.
“We have to learn everything by observing and the first pot we make at the start of Ramadan is our trial and error process,” he said.
Adham leads 20 volunteers in the hot and sweaty kitchen.
The preparation for the morning is done in advance – the spices are pre-packed, and the meat, prawns and rice are measured and put aside the day before.
The volunteers come from around the village and some even from other parts of the city, many willing to devote hours of their time in the kitchen even though they are not permitted to eat or drink water because it is Ramadan.
“We cook together, we work as a team and when Ramadan is over, we meet each other in the morning for Eid prayers,” Adham said, adding that they would frequently joke with each other when they cook.
Kampung Baru, which means New Village, is just 15 minutes away from Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Petronas Twin Towers.
Founded in 1900 it remains – despite the pressures of development – an attraction to many who want to observe traditional Malay life in the city.
When the mosque first began making the bubur, there was no such thing as “crowdfunding”, so the people in the mosque gathered the necessary ingredients from people living in the wider village, distributing the finished product to the residents.
The idea was to make sure that even the poorest were able to eat a good meal when they broke their fast.
“It was like a potluck amongst the villagers in Kampung Baru and the tradition lives on even a hundred years later,” mosque committee chairman Mohd Khay Ibrahim told Al Jazeera.
Kampung Baru born and bred, Mohd Khay grew up eating the iconic porridge every Ramadan and is the third generation from his family to be a part of the village’s mosque community.
“I used to be a small kid around the block and now I am one of the old men but this is a volunteer role that I and other members of the mosque are very happy to be a part of,” he said.
In the kitchen, the volunteers who have been cleaning utensils and preparing for the next day’s cooking while the porridge cools are getting ready to package and distribute the food.
A group of 10 men line up around the pots, two scooping the hot porridge into plastic packets with a ladle before three others dip their fingers into an ice bath to make the heat more bearable before they begin tying up the packets with strings.
They can whip up to 200 packets from each pot in just 20 minutes.
By 4:30pm, they are handing it out to those waiting patiently outside.
Mohd Nor Bin Salleh has heard of the porridge’s renown and is keen to try it for the first time. He has been queueing up outside the mosque since 4:00pm, waiting for his chance to bring home a packet for the breaking of the fast at sunset.
“I am here to try it and I cannot wait to share this with my family,” he told Al Jazeera.
For regulars like Naharuddin bin Amri, the wait is worth it.
Naharuddin says he has tried bubur lambuk at other places but they “cannot challenge the flavour” of the Kampung Baru mosque recipe.
“I have been coming to collect the porridge here every Ramadan whenever I get the opportunity because it is delicious and the taste has remained the same over the years,” he said.
Mohd Khay agrees that it is the unique flavour, unaffected by the passage of time and at least nine chief cooks, that keeps Malaysians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, coming back.
“As a Muslim, we call it Barakah, or blessing, so while the recipe is an open secret and everyone who makes the porridge uses the same recipe, they cannot get the taste of the Kampung Baru Mosque,” he said.