Letter from Malaysia: it's a date


With the pandemic, it has been a long while since I've been able to travel anywhere and I've been getting nostalgic for some of the travel writing I used to do. So..., here is a piece that appeared in the Guardian newspaper a few years ago:

Letter from Malaysia: it's a date

The many cultures and cuisines of Malaysia offer unique flavours for Muslims breaking their holy month fast after dusk 

Malaysia's cross-ethnic culture is in itself a culinary celebration, and this grows during the fasting month with the daily Pasar Ramadans (open-air food markets) found across the country. As the heat of the day subsides, to be replaced by the heat of grilling satay, Malaysians of all backgrounds congregate along lines of hawker stalls and self-service buffets.

A festive atmosphere takes over as people try to choose that night's feast from an unbelievable diversity of dishes. Kari ayam (curry chicken), nasi goreng (fried rice), otak otak (fishcake in banana leaf) and popiah (spring roll) are local favourites, but no dish ever seems out of place.

Interspersed are stalls with huge vats of iced drinks, serving super-sweet ABC (red bean), day-glow bandung (rose syrup) and the classic cendol (coconut milk and sugar) in plastic bags.

Each state has its own take on the conviviality, adding in local flavours and culinary influences that tell the story of their extraordinary histories. Penang displays its Chinese majority with its kway teow noodles, Terengganu and Kelantan remember their east-coast merchant pasts with the fishy nasi dagang (trading rice), while the universally loved roti canai (flat bread) recalls Kuala Lumpur's long-time Indian residents. Tubs of soya bean jelly to end the break-fast meal complete the shopping spree for almost everyone.

Within this unique celebration, tradition is not forgotten as Muslims return with the setting sun to homes decorated in green and yellow to break their fast with a date and their families. Others sit on walls, shaded by palm trees, and offer a date and a smile to strangers, an expression of the collective spirit of the occasion. Joined by tourists and night workers, the streets take on a liveliness, all the more noticeable compared with the subdued atmosphere of fasting days.

The markets stay open into the night for snacking and shopping ahead of the next day's abstinence. The stalls and streets become quiet again by day, before the buzz returns in late afternoon - a daily ritual that continues until the sighting of the new moon brings the festival to a close, leaving a sense of longing for next year's celebrations and this Malaysian take on a global event.