We are in the first week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. During this period, all able-bodied Muslims will abstain from food and water, and other bodily indulgence from dawn till dusk. In addition, this period is for spiritual contemplation, prayers and doing good deeds. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with the feast day of Hari Raya Puasa or Aidil Fitri.
Being back in Malaysia allowed me an opportunity to share in this experience. Shops and offices may close early to allow their workers to break fast and pray. My family would make restaurant reservations for later than usual time slots to allow the Muslims to eat first. Sidewalks all over Malaysia are suddenly populated with stalls offering all sorts of tempting cooked foods so people could eat it straightaway when they reach home. Bazaars, also known as Pasar Ramadan, may pop up in neighbourhood shopping areas hawking festive foods. The range of foods offered in the bazaars in Malaysia is usually more diverse than what one would find in Singapore. In Singapore, every other stall would sell either serunding, Ramly burger or putu piring. In Malaysia, the cookies are more colourful (occasionally a little too luridly so), the kueh selection mindboggling, and no self-respecting Pasar Ramadan would be without stalls selling ayam percik, briyani, keropok, ice campur, lemang, grilled seafood and even durian fritters. These are some pictures from a jaunt to a Pasar Ramadan in Johore Bahru last year.
Closer to home, our domestic helpers, who are Indonesian Muslims, would observe the fasting practices. At my parents' home, the three of them would wake up at 3.00 am to eat their pre-dawn meal. After the meal, they would pray and then catch a little more sleep. In the evenings, they listen to the call of the muezzin which is the signal for them to buka puasa, or to break their fast. Dried dates is a traditional food to buka puasa with. Dates provide an instant jolt of sugar but it also has spiritual meaning as the practice dates (erm...) back to the times of Prophet Muhammad.
As an alternative to buka puasa at home, one could do so in restaurants. For the Ramadan period, many places hold buka puasa buffets. The buffets usually offer a wide and tantalising selection of food, because after a whole day without food, buka puasa could be an easy excuse to have a feast and overindulge. For this reason, my family does not eat at buka puasa buffets too often, but husband was a buka puasa virgin, so we took him to one at the Concorde Hotel along Jalan Sultan Ismail. According to my family, the standard of food at this place have been consistently good throughout the years, although my sister was slighly disappointed they did not offer roti canai or murtabak on the day of our dinner. The other attraction was a very good gamelan band, not that many people notice, the crowd was understandably more interested in other offerings.
First, my favourite part of the meal, the spread of kerabus, or salads. On my plate were (clockwise from the top) keropok (prawn cracker), Thai-style beef and glass noodle salad, Sambal Kacang Botol (four-angled beans), piece of fruit, Serunding (dried spicy beef floss), Kerabu Jantung Pisang (Banana Flower salad), Kerabu Ikan Bakar (Grilled Fish Salad) and grilled okra / lady's fingers. In the middle is some spicy-sour-creamy shrimp kerabu. Yum Yum indeed. Writing this now makes me wish I had taken more of that grilled okra and kerabu jantung pisang.
The spread included various curries, rendangs and sambals. A typical buka puasa dish would be Bubur Lambuk, which is a savoury rice porridge, considered a gentle way to re-introduce the body to food after a fast. One of our favourite items was this rice dish which looked like Nasi Ulam to me, but the staff informed my sister it was Nasi Briyani. Whatever, this was one mighty tasty dish. The rice came with some chopped herbs a la Nasi Ulam, and was accompanied with a fingerlickingly good Ayam Percik (spicy grilled chicken) and herbed fish paste reshaped to look like fried fish. It tasted very homecooked and wholesome. According to the promotional brochure, the food was all cooked under the supervision of a Kelantanese lady known as Kak Aini.
The drinks selection included soyabean milk, Rose Sirap, Ais Bandung, Air Mata Kucing, and even Teh Tarik. Rose Sirap is the pink drink on the left made with rose-flavoured syrup, a very popular beverage among the Muslim community. If one adds evaporated milk to Rose Sirap, the result would be the Ais Bandung in the glass on the left. Air Mata Kucing is a sweet drink to which dried mata kucing, similar to longans, are added. Teh Tarik is pulled tea of course, basically sweet milky tea made silkier and frothier by the action of being "pulled".
I was too stuffed to make room for desserts. The dessert selection was not particularly impressive, although the usual favourites (read, non buka puasa items) like Ais Kacang, ice creams, various mousses and cakes were available. At the end of such an extravagant meal, the only thing I wanted was a restorative cup of plain tea.