I had never been in an Islamic country during Ramadan before. When I realized we were coming to Malaysia during the holy month where Muslims abstain from (among other things) food during daylight hours*, I was a bit concerned at first. After all, our primary travel activity is eating. Would restaurants and street food venders be open? Assuming we were able to find food, would we be able to find a dark corner to secretly scarf down our lunch, our would we have to resort to eating in front of fasting locals who might take a dim view of our gluttony in the face of their rumbling bellies?
Fasting in Melaka? A city famed for food? Torture!
When I don’t eat at regular intervals, my wife says I get “hangry” (a clever little mash-up of hungry and angry. Get it?). I will, on occasion, announce to my family that I am a couple of hours behind in my eating schedule, and therefore they should either be prepared to ignore or forgive any unflattering statements I may issue to them (often at an unflattering volume) until we can find food. If I go too long, they also may need to be prepared to duck whatever handy trinket I may find to hurl at anyone who does something really offensive to me. Like talk. Or stand where I want to stand. Or not read my mind to carry out my desires without my having to voice them.
I need food. What if the Muslims in Malaysia were like me? If I had to go an entire month without eating (or even drinking!) between sunrise and sunset, I expect I would end up in prison for assault. Or at the very least, I would end up permanently severing all my social relationships.
What would I do to a crummy foreigner who was happily slurping away at a bowl of noodles while I was in a hangry rage?
So, yeah. I was a little nervous.
But I was also intrigued. How would people deal with their hunger? What would it be like when the sun went down on the end of a day and communities broke their fast? I got online to do some research and found that “Ramadan Bazaars” sprung up in locations around Malaysia. At these bazaars, conglomerations of street food vendors would set up in the afternoon, selling food that could be packaged up and taken away. There would also be some tables set out for those who wanted to wait until evening and eat at the bazaar.
We decided to visit one of these bazaars on our second evening in Melaka.
A Riverside Walk to the Bazaar
We asked our guesthouse owner where we could go to attend one of these bazaars. He seemed to think it odd we wanted to break fast with the muslims celebrating Ramadan. “Are you Muslim?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in surprise. We told him we were just curious. He shrugged and told us where to go. It turned out that the bazaar was about a 15-20 minute walk right up the river, through a very scenic part of town. Perfect!
And so that evening we walked along the footpath by the river, away from the traffic and bustle of the old town. Crumbling whitewashed buildings hugged the river on the one side, walls covered with colorful murals on the other. The wife and kids liked the murals. I kind of like the plain, aging, water-stained whitewashed walls.
The heat of the day slowly, little by little, began to ease. A breeze came off the river, and lights began to blink on. Sunset was still a good half an hour away, but the day began to feel still in a way that only evening can.
It was a wonderful walk, marred only by a slightly strange interaction with a Pakistani man that creeped my wife out a bit.
Eating at a Melaka Ramadan Bazaar
As we neared the bazaar area we began to smell cooking meat. Just as we left the river to walk on to the street to find the bazaar, we saw several men in an open area behind a restaurant placing an entire goat over a bed of coals to roast.
At a large, covered stall near the river, there was Muslim Indian food. Rice and all kinds of curries. Fried chicken. Tandoori chicken. Roti and naan. We walked up the street, the bazaar stretching for about 100 meters. Most of the area was devoted to street stalls selling clothing, but food vendors were scattered throughout.
The food stalls were staffed by mostly men. The clothing shops by women. And while everyone did seem to have low energy, and many people looked quite tired, there was no “hanger” to be found. The people returned our smiles. A police officer stopped a whole street of traffic to help us cross. The food vendors called out to us merrily to come try their wares.
Eventually, we walked back to the stall at the very beginning of the bazaar, the first one we had come across. We decided to eat there.
A grizzled old man sat near where the food was waiting. The chords in his neck stood thick. He tried to help us when we were a bit overwhelmed at trying to order. He couldn’t speak much English, but he was reassuring and clearly everyone was patient (more than I would be at the end of a day of fasting).
Nearby, a woman and a man sat. The woman had her head covered. The man had a thick mustache with just the tip of a cigarette poking out from under it. Unlit as of yet.
At another table sat two women, an older and a younger. A brood of young kids were huddled with them at their table.
In the corner sat an old man and an even older woman. Lost in thought, staring off into the distance. She looked cranky. Hanger? But it was a quiet, reserved kind of cranky.
Each of the tables was piled high with food. Rice, biriyani, curries, chicken, vegtables all laid out before them. But no one touched it. They sat patiently. They didn’t even look at the food or acknowledge it existed.
There was no desperation. There was no hurry. I got the feeling that everyone was completely unconcerned about the time. They were too focused on what they were doing (sitting quietly) to even care that they were hungry.
We waited with everyone else. We ordered a plate of rice with chicken curry, a piece of fried chicken, some tandoori chicken, and a couple of big, soft, chewy pieces of naan, each with three different sauces to dip it in.
And then instantly, but quietly, there was a transition.
The evening call to prayer sounded over the loudspeaker system along the street, and suddenly everyone was eating. But it wasn’t a mad dash for food. It was solemn transition. It had dignity. It seemed as though everyone just simultaneously decided that it was time to take a casual bite. And then another. And then another.
It was quiet. There was relatively little talking. But the eating wasn’t rushed. It was simply enjoyed. And let me tell you it was delicious.
We ate quietly too, not wanting to break the mood.
We would go on to learn that the Malaysian Muslims who observe Ramadan are extremely patient at both carrying their burden of fasting and in tolerating the outsiders who come to their country to eat. While we tried our best to be discrete with our eating during the day, we never felt judged or resented. The Malaysians deal with their hunger issues, as a group, much better than I do.
And so I was given a model of a better way to behave that I can work on. Because travel.
*Note: in general finding food is not a problem in Malaysia during Ramadan. While many (but not all) Muslim restaurants are closed during the day, the Chinese restaurants and food carts are open. So you may be restricted to Chinese places during the day, and Muslim/Malaysian places in the evening. The only time that really caused a problem for us in Malaysia was in Kuala Lumpur when we were not able to eat anything in Kampong Bahru . . . but that is another post.