Where to feast like the locals at Malaysia's Ramadan bazaars
During the Muslim holy month, visitors to Malaysia are greeted with a smorgasbord of street food at lively sunset markets held at the end of each day of fasting
It seems ironic that Islam's holy month is one of the best times to wrap your taste buds around Malaysia's delicious kaleidoscope of Chinese, Indian and Malay flavours. The myriad spicy and sweet food offerings, brilliant at the best of times, peak during the Ramadan festivities, as Muslims switch from fasting mode to a public feast. For non-Muslims, post-fasting Ramadan bazaars are the place to celebrate with Malay friends.
From late afternoon, main city thoroughfares close to traffic and morph into an array of outdoor restaurants as crowds descend on the sunset markets for a communal buka puasa — a breaking of the fast. As many as 300 stalls are lined up under a rainbow of marquees or umbrellas to protect them from the frequent tropical downpours. Here are five of Malaysia's best.
Jalan Masjid India, Kuala Lumpur
One of the capital's liveliest bazaars unfurls along Jalan Masjid India and the adjacent shopping strip of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, or "TAR" for short (light rail station Masjid Jamek). Bargain snacks, textiles and knickknacks mingle here. The food stalls are a showcase for national and regional dishes such as sour fishy Penang laksa, Hokkien mee fried noodles with prawns, samosas and pau mince dumplings as well as special celebratory foods. Some stalls have set up makeshift kitchens and cook dishes on the spot. Others have everything meticulously prepared and pre-packaged in individual portions.
Here you will find rice, noodles and chicken dishes galore: the ubiquitous mixed rice, or nasi campur; steamed rice with fried chicken (nasi ayam), honeyed chicken (ayam madu) and fragrant, aromatic Persian-style nasi briyani served with chicken. Amid the tents are tables with cutlery and napkins, so you don't have to eat on the go. Every table boasts a pot of lada, a fiery chilli and vinegar condiment.
The sound of Muslim prayer floats through the streets from the Mogul-inspired old city mosque, Masjid Jamek.
Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
A few minutes away in the shopping and entertainment hub of Bukit Bintang, Ramadan stands are laden with rows of grilled skewered meats, banana-leaf-wrapped delicacies and takeaway tubs filled with rice, fish, prawns and chicken. On others, large plastic containers of colourful icy chilled drinks — mango, mauve, hot pink and lime green — are lined up like paint pots. The libations are made from sugar cane, soybean, rose syrup, pandan palm and lychee-like longan.
Be prepared to sniff around a bit to find the most authentic stalls, or simply follow the longest queues. On-the-spot cooking is as theatrical as it is appetising. As you navigate through plumes of billowing smoke from barbecuing meats and grilled corn cobs, the atmosphere is high in pungent aromas, action, colour and forms.
The ochre-coloured kebab chicken, ayam percick, marinated in tamarind, ginger, garlic and chillies is another big Ramadan favourite, as is charcoal-roasted lamb. Others find the divine in the form of the custard-filled kuih akok — a golden, poached-egg-shaped sweet from Kelantan in northeastern Malaysia made with glutinous rice. During Ramadan, the little tarts are dolled up with a variety of flavours including pandan, coconut shreds and corn.
Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Those staying in the hip expat neighbourhood of Bangsar won't miss out on the festival of food, with the daily Bazaar Ramadan on Jalan Telawi, right alongside the gold-domed Saidina Abu Bakar As Siddiq mosque. The putu piring — rice flour cakes steamed in cheesecloth under conical steel covers and served with palm sugar and coconut shavings — draw fans from all over KL (light rail station Bangsar).
There are many stalls piled high with pyramid-shaped piles of Malay cakes known as kuih. Coconut-and-turmeric-flavoured kuih cara berlauk; small green sponge cakes called kuih cara manis made with coconut milk, pandan paste and palm sugar; and baked pandan custard cakes called kuih bakara pandan are favourites. So is apam balik, a kind of pancake filled with crushed peanuts, raisins and condensed milk.
Jalan Makloom George Town, Penang
Every bazaar revels in its regional treats. Up north on the "betel nut" island of Penang, the markets add extra spark to George Town's frenetic mass of speeding motorbikes and rickety trishaws. Between the Chinese temples and wooden houses, 50 or so stalls along the river-nudging strip of Jalan Makloom form a seamless alfresco diner.
"The Penang laksa is the most loved street food," says one vendor. "Locals here eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are two varieties — the traditional sour Assam laksa with tamarind and fish paste, and creamy coconut-based laksa lemak, or Nyonya laksa. Both are garnished with onion, cucumber, chilli, lettuce, mint and ginger."
Many local eateries also set up stalls out front. At an Armenian cafe a man is sculpting dough into dozens of triangular, potato-filled boregs ready for deep-frying. Then there's the murtabak man weaving his unleavened roti canai dough through the air, stretching it out on the hot plate, filling it with chicken, beef or a combination of spinach, curry, onions and egg, and folding it into a parcel to cook until golden brown. This moreish snack is the most typical mamak or Indian Muslim food. One of the most unusual Penang Ramadan dishes is the char koay teow — stir-fried rice cake strips served with bean sprouts.
Sweet treats include glutinous, green, coconut-rolled balls — onde-onde — that squirt palm sugar syrup and mung bean paste into your mouth when you bite them. One of the confections is kuih lapis — a lurid pink-, green- and white-striped concoction of steamed tapioca, rice flour and coconut milk with a bit of food colouring and flavoured with pandan leaves.
Bazaar Ramadhan Mega Melaka
An hour's drive south of Kuala Lumpur, the sugar and spice of the ancient trading port of Melaka infuses its food at the Bazaar Ramadhan Mega Melaka, which extends along Jalan Hang Tuah north of the city centre.
Take a flamboyantly festooned beca or trishaw to the long sinewy street and its line-up of about 350 stalls. Here you can sample the signature Melaka savoury dish, Hainanese chicken rice balls. The sticky, golf-ball-sized orbs, served with steamed chicken strips, are a local adaptation of Hainanese chicken rice. Putu piring are also a Malaccan Ramadan staple.
Many of the kuih here are typical Nyonya or "grandma" specialities — a fusion of Straits Chinese and Malay flavours. Dark gula Melaka palm sugar syrup douses the iconic sago gulu Melaka, a pearly dessert floating in coconut milk. Don't forget the weird-looking Nyonya cendol — a twist on the typical Asian dessert of "green worm" noodles, made from mung bean flour.