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Ramadan in Malaysia: Fasting and Feasting in a Food Paradise (Part 1)

Heritage and Culture, Malaysian Festivals, Malaysian Food, Penang FoodHeritage on a PlateComment

Looking back, my first Ramadan in Malaysia was actually one of the more memorable times of my life--as a lover of food, culture, and basically any experience that I can learn from. As a secular American, I knew pretty much nothing about the most sacred holiday in all of Islam--and after doing a little research, it seemed to have something to do with solemn reflection, spiritual cleansing, and a month of fasting? As in, not eating? Yeesh. This isn't the type of sacrifice I'm used to making, but I'm pretty respectful of and intrigued by peaceful, meditative, spiritual endeavors, so when I had the opportunity to spend time in Kuala Lumpur during Ramadan in 2015, I was respectfully anticipating the observance of a pious and reverent affair. I was fascinated to learn that many (especially in Malaysia) don't cook as much during this period--which, after a day of fasting and for many, work, would be a torturous amount of labor--but instead, they head out en masse to the market to procure dinner (and a little something extra for the next day's pre-dawn breakfast) for their families. And then I discovered the food. THE GLORIOUS FOOD. And here is my gushing ode to my first encounter with Ramadan--the night markets, the family traditions of Raya, the warm and welcoming open houses, all of which have left an indelible impression on my soul--and my waistline, but hey, I'm fine with that. 

Ayam Goreng Berempah, national treasure

My first Pasar Ramadan (Ramadan night market) sent me into a state of sorts--somewhere between ecstasy and a full-blown panic attack. This is not hyperbole; I food geeked out. It didn't compute, that I'd only been given one lousy stomach to sample all of this--essentially, its like the usual pasar malam (night market) on steroids. Upon surveying the golden mountains of crisp and fragrant ayam goring berempah (spice-crusted fried chicken) bejeweled with emerald curry leaves and crackling rempah crumbs, and the spiced rotisserie lambs glistening as they spun on their spits...or the endless selection of technicolored kuih and cakes scented with pandan, coconut, rose syrup, or palm sugar...I thought was going to hyperventilate and pass out. The throngs of hangry devotees waiting in queues before the endless spreads laid out on buffet tables, amid stalls decorated with intricately woven bamboo ketupat parcels (containing compressed rice), and those fragrant aromas--smoke and spice mingling with pungent fruits (including my beloved cempedak and mounds of spiky durian); it was almost too much. So, with the aid of my charming local hostess and fellow food fanatic (and her more-than-hospitable family), I decided I'd have to roll up my sleeves and get down to business [also, it was just too damn hot for sleeves].

Even torrential downpours will not deter the hungry throngs or dedicated vendors

At the epicenter of the every night market meal in Malaysia, are the requisite pungent and rich laksas (noodles in soup), and the many luxuriant, festively-colored rice dishes, synonymous with Muslim/Malaysian cuisine--and they are all out in full regale at the Pasar Ramadan. Red-tinged nasi tomato (spiced tomato rice), nasi lemak (coconut-pandan scented rice), pungent and delicately herbed, pea-flower-blue nasi kerabu from Kelantan state--all served with traditional sides dishes, curries, special sambals, kerabu (fiery, chili-spiked shredded fruit or vegetable salads), to name a few. The mother of them all, however, was the biryani gam, an enormous vat of baked rice and mutton, so frangrant and well seasoned--dark Indian spices, peninsular aromatic roots, turmeric, saffron, sweet condensed milk, toasted nuts, raisins, and golden fried shallots--that it was down right intoxicating. While many indulgent things are forbidden as part of Ramadan's month of fasting (and "intoxicants" in general), flavor is not one of those things--once it's time to buka puasa (break your fast), of course. In fact, flavor seems to make up for almost any ascetic sacrifice I could imagine. But then, I'm not really good at piety. I came, I saw, I stuffed.

Yes, there  is  more than chicken on offer, but that doesn't mean you can pass up this  ayam percik.

Yes, there is more than chicken on offer, but that doesn't mean you can pass up this ayam percik.

Another beautiful thing about the Pasar Ramadan: each bountiful market I went to in Kuala Lumpur--5 in total--featured different specialties, sold from stalls, or out of the backs of trucks by home-cooks and talented chefs alike. Popular satay slingers rub elbows with seasonal vendors hawking those artery-clogging but delightful stuffed and deep-fried roti [oh Roti McGyver, you will be the death of me]. I was astounded at how the creativity--and the flavor--are turned up to 11; all of the stops are pulled out. Competition amongst the stalls is friendly but fierce. Who has the best mutton shanks? Whose murtabakis going to deliver the goods? You will find the answers to all of these questions and more, and you will probably hate yourself the next day, a little. I still have yet to experience Penang's Pasar Ramadan in Little India, but with the variety of Muslim-Indian-Malaysian food that comes out of that community on a daily basis, I can only imagine. If variety is the spice of life, the Ramadan night markets are enough to induce a fit of sneezing, but they'll leave you with a pleasantly filled belly.

kueh, glorious kueh: from pandan custard-filled kueh cara, to...the ubiquitous glazed donut.

kueh, glorious kueh: from pandan custard-filled kueh cara, to...the ubiquitous glazed donut.