Savory memories from a Malaysian Ramadan

Another bustling day, doing this and that but leaving those these and the other them for tomorrow, and there’s another quick peanut butter & jelly sandwich on my proximal horizon. Wouldn’t it be nice to hop out for quick and delicious food that was interesting, healthy (or at least mostly natural), and cheap? Not fast food, cuz screw that garbage, but… And suddenly the these and those of my To-Do List will have to wait: I’m on mental vacation.

A bowl of spicy laksa in Penang, Malaysia

A bowl of spicy laksa in Penang, Malaysia

Back to Malaysia, the rampant epicureanism of Penang, with its sweet treats and savory curries, where I sat back with a satisfied sigh, then startled at an approaching obstacle: Ramadan. Eating while backpacking is haphazard at best, and even harder during Ramadan, when restaurants are either closed during the day or tacky to visit. But not in Malaysia, 60% Muslim and 100% food-lovers. Malaysian Ramadan comes with special food markets, for those who are not fasting, or are but want to be ready for iftar, the ceremonial fast-breaking evening meal, usually eaten communally.

Georgetown food marketIn Georgetown I swam among bubbling pots of Mamak (Muslim Indian) food and Nyonya, which blends Malay and Chinese. I remember ayam percik, the marinated chicken grilling over coals in the humid air, chipped bowls of the spicy noodle soup laksa, and the ikan bakar heavily spiced fish I found down by one of the wharves.

In Tanah Rata I stumbled on a market bulging with spiced meat and baked treats, and gestured wordlessly at un-fried spring rolls, little pastry balls filled with sweet paste, and slabs of murtabak, a type of pancake normally stuffed with spiced meat, but I opted for a vegetarian version with kernels of corn and a sweeter flavor.

My vegetarian murtabak

My vegetarian murtabak

Many hungry Muslims will buy this delicious food at the markets, but are not allowed to eat it until iftar, so it is pretty callous to dig in when they can’t. This wasn’t much of a problem in heavily touristed and multicultural Penang, and in the Cameron Highlands I could easily sneak off with my treats and find a place with a view of green growing things, but in workaday Kota Bharu I was tormented by the sights in my eyes, the hunger in my stomach, and the desire to not be a tourist a’hole in my brain.

I didn't get a photo of my Buddhist savior, but I did get his neighbor's squid collection, later that night

I didn’t get a photo of my Buddhist savior, but I did get his neighbor’s squid collection, later that night

Then I found the Buddhist. With smiling eyes over a laughing grin he beckoned me inside the spare restaurant behind his stall, pointed first at the Buddha statue, then at a chair, and finally showed me the little bowl of food that he’d been eating when I walked up. Decadent co-conspirators, we dug into our lunch of rendang daging, a spicy beef dish with ginger, garlic, chilies, and turmeric among the mystery curry mixture. He served it over rice, which he cooked in a woven lattice of palm leaves.

That’s the danger of education via travel: your adjusted perspective will sometimes remind you of how incredibly good you have it… And sometimes it will make a perfectly good PbJ look like a mouthful of blah. I’ll take that double edged sword, as often and as wholeheartedly as I can.

But I’ll meet you at the market.