The fasting month of Ramadan is a wonderful time to be in Malaysia as we mentioned here but out of the many attractions, the main one is that Ramadan bazaars or food markets pop up during this time of the year.
Ramadan bazaars operate daily during the fasting month and usually open from 4pm, giving you ample time to get there, make your purchases and scoot off back home or wherever you plan to eat your meal.
Like street markets all over the world, the appeal of Ramadan bazaars is the wide variety in choice. We all have our personal favourites when it comes to food, but here’s another thing about the fasting month in Malaysia: this is when you get to eat traditional food that you don’t usually see at other times of the year.
Because of that, we’ve done away with recommending pasar malam (night market) staples like murtabak, roti bom and chicken wings. Instead, we’ve listed food that we love but don’t see enough of, which thankfully make an appearance during Ramadan.
Before we begin, here’s a quick glossary of terms you’ll find useful when buying food in Malaysia:
Nasi: Rice, whether fried (‘goreng’) or cooked in a steamer (‘kukus’)
Mee: Noodles, whether fried or in a broth or soup (‘rebus’ or ‘sup’)
Roti: May refer to either Indian-style flatbreads or bread baked in loaves
Kuih: Traditional Malay cake. Usually sweet, but may also be savoury
Daging: Literally, meat, whether beef (‘daging lembu’) or lamb/mutton (‘daging kambing’), but can also specially refer to beef. Ask to be sure.
Sambal: In its most basic form, a sambal is a hot chili paste with shallots eaten with rice or noodles and sometimes, Indian-style roti. Variations include sambal with dry-toasted shrimp paste (‘belacan’), white anchovies (‘ikan bilis’) and prawns (‘udang’).
Here we go- here are the things we recommend you look out for in Ramadan bazaars:
Like many traditional Malaysian sweets, kuih lopes is made with glutinous rice, pandan leaf flavouring, grated coconut and gula Melaka (palm sugar). The palm sugar appears in liquid form as a syrup that is poured over the rice cake, which is green from the pandan leaves. We like kuih lopes because the syrup allows you to decide how sweet you want the dessert to be.
Ikan bakar is grilled fish but the wow factor is the hot and sour chili sauce that goes with it. The sauce is made with tamarind juice, tomatoes, salt, sugar, garlic, shallots and cut chilies, and is a perfect accompaniment to fish (usually stingray) that’s just been taken off the grill.
Putu piring, steamed rice cakes with a melted palm sugar filling and topped with grated coconut, are Indian in origin. Sadly they aren’t seen as often as they used to be, so make sure to grab some putu piring if you spot them because they’re very tasty.
If you love peanut butter, you’ll love apam balik, which is a kind of folded pancake filled with crushed peanuts, sweetcorn and sugar. It’s made on a griddle, tastes delicious and when freshly-baked, imparts the most amazing aroma- in fact, Malaysians can actually smell apam balik before they see it. Ignore non-traditional variations with jam or Nutella filling- what you want is the authentic apam balik with peanuts.
There is nasi kerabu and there is nasi kerabu. The type you should be looking out for is the one that is accompanied by lots of herbs and vegetables, because that is what nasi kerabu traditionally is. Modern-day variations include a chicken, fish or beef dish to go with it, but we suggest you pick fried fish or a chicken or fish percik (grilled, then topped with a coconut milk-based gravy). Don’t be alarmed by the light blue colour of the rice- that comes from the natural hue of the petals of the butterfly-pea flower, which is used in the recipe. As long as the rice isn’t psychedelic blue, you’ll be fine.
Nasi Kukus Ayam Berempah
Nasi kukus, which refers to rice cooked in a steamer, is softer and tastier than rice cooked in an electric rice cooker, but the operative words here are ‘ayam rempah’, or chicken cooked with spices. This chicken isn’t chili hot, but fried with lemongrass, galangal, ginger and turmeric, and the result is a distinctive taste which will grow on you once you’ve tried it. The rice and chicken are usually accompanied by a light clear soup, acar timun (cucumber salad) and a chili sambal.
Laksa Johor is another delicacy that you don’t get to see much of because it isn’t usually commercially sold in restaurants, owing to its origins as a ‘family’ dish, cooked at home for your family to enjoy. Like all laksa, Laksa Johor (so called because it comes from the southern state of Johor) consists of noodles and vegetables eaten in a fish-based broth. Unlike other laksa however, the unique thing about this particular laksa is that instead of using rice noodles, the recipe calls for spaghetti.
Nasi Ayam Penyet
Another rice-with-chicken dish, although the chicken here is ‘penyet’, which means flattened. And yes, the chicken is fried then flattened, which makes it all the more interesting, although we would dare say it’s the accompanying chili sambal and vegetables that make the dish. Ayam penyet is Javanese in origin, and comes with raw vegetables like sliced cucumber, green beans and cabbage, and fried tofu and fried tempeh, or fermented soya bean.
We hope we’ve given you some ideas on what to look out for when you visit a Ramadan bazaar in Malaysia. Better still, stay with us at BackHome because from now till July 1, our hostel will be running food tours at Ramadan bazaars from 4-6pm, Monday to Friday. So now you know what to do: book a bed at BackHome and go on our Ramadan food tours!
Have you tried any of the food we mentioned, or do you have any favourites to add to the list?