When celebrating Ramadan in Malaysia and Singapore, millions of Malay Muslims spend the daylight hours avoiding food. It makes sense that the food awaiting them at iftar (the end-of-day breaking of the fast) should be good, hearty, traditional Malay food that warms the soul and rewards the assiduous Muslim after his day of sacrifice.
Ramadan bazaars are full of such Malay dishes - curries, rendang, porridges, roasts, and rice cakes in endless varieties, along with a few innovations here and there. "Every year the pasar malam always come up with new food," says Abdul Malik Hassan, proprietor of Selera Rasa at Adam Road Food Centre. "This year, the popular food was onde-onde churros, dipped in a palm sugar sauce."
Traditional food becomes even more important as Ramadan gives way to Eid al-Fitri (Hari Raya Puasa in Malaysia and Singapore).
During Hari Raya, families go "balik kampung" (back to their hometowns) and converge in family reunions - "Most houses have really big feasts," Malik explains. "For Hari Raya, we always go to my grandmother's place - the night before, we'll make the food, everybody will help each other. In the morning, food will be put on in a buffet style, and we eat - it's a family thing."
The dishes in this list reflect the most popular foods during both Ramadan and Hari Raya - you'll find them in abundance whether you stick to the pasar malam scene, or find yourself invited to a Hari Raya open house!
Bubur Lambuk - Soup for the Start of the Day
"During Ramadan, we start fasting at about 5 o'clock to about 7 pm," Malik explains. "before 5 am, we eat, but we will not eat spicy food. We eat nonspicy food like soups and porridge." Bubur lambuk is one of these kinds of foods Malays like to eat for suhoor, or the pre-dawn meal.
Bubur lambuk is a rice porridge with a variety of ingredients, among them sweet potatoes, prawns, beef, and herbs. Bubur lambuk is a comfort food, favored more for its easy-to-digest constitution (and lack of spices) than its flavor. Bubur lambuk is also traditionally served free to the public during buka puasa, after sunset when Muslims are free to break their fast.
The preparation of bubur lambuk is a communal event, sponsored by corporations in urban Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia, and prepared in huge batches to feed whole communities.
Ketupat - a Ramadan Icon
Ketupat is a dumpling made of rice cooked in a woven palm leaf container. The rice is cooked inside the woven pouch - as the rice absorbs water, it expands, and the palm leaf container compresses the rice mass. Ketupat is never eaten on its own; during Eid, diners cut the palm leaf covering open, remove the rice cake, slice it up and serve it with beef rendang, satay, and other Eid favorites.
For Malays, ketupat is a symbol of Aidilfitri, in much the same way that mistletoe or a Yule log is a symbol of Christmas in the West. This tradition may have originated with the Javanese of Indonesia, for whom the ketupat's name bears a resemblance to ngaku lepat, or "to admit one's mistakes": seeking forgiveness is a major theme of Ramadan.
A related rice-cake favorite for Hari Raya is lontong: compressed rice cooked in rolled-up banana leaf, resulting in a cylindrical shape. Cut into small pieces, lontong is usually served together with meat or vegetable dishes, including gado-gado, curries, and satay.
For the traditional Hari Raya feast, "lontong is a must," declares Malik, who prefers his Hari Raya lontong served in lemak, or curry sauce.
Ramly Burgers - A Must-Have at Any Pasar Malam
You won't find these unassuming Malay-style burgers on a Hari Raya homestead feast, but these sell like hotcakes at most Ramadan pasar malam.
Ramly burgers taste nothing like their Western counterparts - every bite is rich with Malaysian spices and Worcestershire sauce, the envelope of scrambled egg adding extra body to the mouth feel.
Singapore's government frowns on Ramly burgers coming in from across the causeway; frozen Ramly patties are regularly confiscated at the border. Locally manufactured Ramly burgers have filled the demand for these Malaysian street food favorites; you can order a Ramly special at any pasar malam across Singapore, without fear of arrest!
Rendang - Rendered to Perfection
Rendang is a preparation of beef, duck, or chicken that has been slowly cooked in coconut milk and spices over the space of a few hours. (Spices favored for rendang include ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, chili, and blue ginger or galangal.)
The long cooking time reduces the sauce and lets the spices permeate into the meat. As the oils seep out and the moisture evaporates, the simmering converts into a frying process.
Kuih Lapis - Layers of Meaning
Kuih lapis is a Malaysian dessert that seems particularly beloved during Ramadan - a layered pastry made from thin alternating sheets mixed from tapioca starch, coconut milk, pandan leaves and sugar, colored separately and piled on top of each other.
The dish was invented in Indonesia, but is now just as cherished in other Muslim countries in Southeast Asia as an iconic Ramadan foodstuff - one that seems to complete the Ramadan experience!