As I may have mentioned before, Malaysians like their food. It’s one of the few things which cuts across all the main ethnic groups in the country. One big difference between the races though, is that while fantastic Chinese and Indian food is easily accessible to tourists, good Malay cooking is far more difficult to find.
Apart from a handful of high end restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, the very best Malay food is confined to the home. Except for one month of the year that is, when the city teems with Malay culinary treats. Ironically, this feast for the tastebuds coincides with Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
During Ramadan, which this year (2012) runs until August 19, Muslims are expected to abstain from all food and drink, from dawn until dusk. One sign of this is blissfully quiet eateries during daylight hours, especially halal places. Another is the open-air food markets (known as pasar ramadan or bazaar ramadan), which spring up around the city.
Getting going at about 15:00, these markets offer a stunning array of dishes, many of them regional delicacies, which are seldom seen in KL outside Ramadan. Although the majority of the food is Malay, Nyonya (a fusion of Malay and Chinese), Mamak (Muslim Indian) and Middle Eastern dishes are well represented too.
The most popular offerings include: ayam percik (grilled, marinated chicken); ayam goreng (fried chicken); nasi biryani (fried rice, with chicken, lamb or beef), laksa (spicy noodle soup), nasi tomato (tomato flavoured rice, usually served with chicken), popia (spring roll); murtabak (pancake with spicy filling, most commonly beef); otak-otak (fish paste with spices, cooked in banana leaf); kari (coconut milk based curry, most commonly with chicken or fish); rendang (dry curry, usually beef or chicken); lemang (rice with coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaf) and ikan bakar (baked or barbecued fish).
The above list barely scratches the surface, and does not even begin to address the huge variety of sweet, brightly coloured drinks, as well as desserts, on offer. You will notice however, that virtually none of the food mentioned is vegetarian. Unfortunately, unless you are the sort of vegetarian who eats fish, pasar Ramadan is not for you.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of customers are buying food that they cannot eat until much later. Buka puasa (the breaking of the daily fast) does not happen until about 19:30, and even then, the main meal is not usually taken straight away. It’s considered bad form therefore, to start scoffing your pasar Ramadan food while you are surrounded by hungry Muslims.
Another issue for visitors is that the best of the markets are to be found in the suburbs, away from the main tourist accommodation areas. The easiest ones to get to are in Kampung Baru and Bangsar. More of a trek, but worth the effort, is the one in TTDI (Taman Tun Dr Ismail).
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.