The holy month of Ramadan may not seem like the most obvious time to enjoy traditional Malay food but every evening, once the daylight hours of abstinence and spiritual reflection are over, Penang’s Muslims gather at Ramadan bazaars across the island to break the fast and spend quality time with family and friends.
Georgetown’s Muslim community is particularly visible at this very special time of year, and the bazaars are a great chance to experience the warmth and hospitality of the Malays and Indians who gather each night to celebrate the end of the day’s fast.
One of the most popular bazaars in central Georgetown is the one run by the League of Muslims on Queen Street. The atmosphere is welcoming and inviting, and you can see a cross section of Penang’s community, from Malay and Indian Muslim families, groups of friends and work colleagues, to Chinese locals eager to sample the food on offer.
In Georgetown, traditional Malay food is perhaps not quite as ubiquitous as the Chinese and Indian fare, but you will quickly discover that it is every bit as delicious and the smells wafting through Queen Street at dusk draw people from all over town.
Begin your Ramadan street feast with some deep-fried Indian snacks or samosas. Alternatively, snack on some Malay bites, including pulut panggang, a roll of glutinous rice stuffed with fish, then wrapped in a banana leaf and barbecued, or marinated grilled fish known as ikan bakar, or perhaps murtubak, a delicious pan-fried bread stuffed with minced meat and onions and served with a spicy sauce.
If you need something a bit more substantial, try ayam percik (grilled chicken with a sweet and spicy garlic, chilli, ginger and coconut sauce), traditional Penang nasi kandar, consisting of rice and curries prepared by the town’s Indian Muslim population, or even a rendang curry with ketupat (glutinous rice boiled in a woven palm leaf).
For a more unusual dish, look out for the stall selling roti jala (‘net bread’), made using a special five-hole ladle which drizzles streams of batter onto a hot griddle. The bread is folded and eaten with curried dishes, which you can pick up from big vats on the next-door stall.
To follow up your main course, there are numerous stalls selling all manner of different sweet treats known as kuih. Choose from onde onde glutinous rice balls, filled with sticky palm sugar syrup and coated in grated coconut , or kuih bingka, a cake baked from mashed sweet potato and flour, flavoured with vanilla and coconut milk.
Alternatively, try kuih bugis, which consists of ground rice flour and tapioca filled with grated coconut and sugar, all wrapped in a banana leaf and then grilled. If that still hasn’t satisfied your sweet tooth, a glass of freshly squeezed cane sugar juice and a colourfully-layered steamed riceflour cake flavoured with coconut and sugar, known as kuih lapis, will definitely do the job.
Why not combine a sunset visit to the Queen Street bazaar with a walk down the nearby ‘Street of Harmony’ to experience more of Penang’s varied cultures, finishing up at Georgetown’s most impressive mosque, the Masjid Kapitan Keling.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 28th November, 2014.