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For us, Ramadan began this year with a bag of bubur lumbuk(savory spiced rice porridge).
On the first weekend of the Holy Month we headed to Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur's Malay 'village', in search of Ramadan bazaar excitement. We parked and walked .... and walked. We were lost in Kampung Baru's maze of streets and alleys. It began to mist. And then to rain. We had no umbrella. It was getting dark, too dark to get any photos. A wasted Sunday evening.
A car slowly pulled up beside us, and stopped. From the window emerged a hand, dangling a big bag of bubur lumbuk (savory, spiced rice porridge). 'For you! From the mosque.' (As evening approaches mosques distribute bubur, a fast-breaking food, free.)
Thus is the spirit of Ramadan. And of Malaysians.
And for us, Ramadan came to a quiet close last Sunday, in Temerloh, a small town on the Pahang River about ninety minutes from downtown Kuala Lumpur.
We'd spent a good portion of the three weeks that had elapsed since we received that gift of bubur from a perfect stranger investigating KL's Ramadan markets. In case you haven't heard, Ramadan is a wonderful time to visit many Muslim countries. We first learned such years ago in Istanbul, when we found that the end-of-the-day approach to the breaking of the fast brought a giddy joyfulness - and many vendors of wonderful Turkish specialties - to the streets. It's no different in Malaysia. As the afternoon light fades markets offering prepared food with which to break the fast sprout like mushrooms in a compost heap. For us, being at a KL Ramadan market is akin to being the proverbial kids in a candy store.
By last weekend, having already wandered and photographed many of the city's Ramadan markets, we decided to take to the road. Temerloh, a mostly Malay town, seemed a logical destination. We love its Pekan Sehari (Sunday market), and figured its Ramadan bazaar would beat any we'd visited in KL.
Initially we were a bit disappointed. We'd expected something along the lines of the huge Pekan Sehari, which stretches for more than a kilometer along the river. Temerloh's Ramadan bazaar was really rather small, even in comparison with some of the markets in KL.
But we were quickly reminded that the Pekan Sehari's size is not its only attraction. It had been one and a half years since our last visit, and in that time we'd forgetten one of the things that makes the market such a pleasure to pass a morning in: Temerloh-ites.
Lots of smiles, and a big welcome, everywhere we went. And actually, the size of Temerloh's Ramadan market turned out to be just right. Big enough to host vendors not only from the area, but also from other parts of Malaysia, small enough to peruse at a leisurely pace once, twice, even three times, without fatigue (or blisters).
Ayam golek, rempah (spice paste)-rubbed, spit-roasted chicken, is standard at all Ramadan markets, but we saw more spits turning and chickens roasting in Temerloh than at any market in KL. This vendor from Lanchang (a small town about 25 kilometers towards KL from Temerloh), sitting in the back of his truck ramming bird after bird onto a stainless steel rod, sang a happy refrain common to every seller we talked to:
'I love Ramadan! We make more money in this one month than we do in several months outside the season. It's hard work, especially with the fast, but we look forward to it every year.'
One of his fragrant birds became the centerpiece of our Temerloh Ramadan market dinner.
That, unfortunately, left no room in our market basket for another potential main course, and one not often seen in Kuala Lumpur: ikan bakar tempoyak (banana leaf-grilled fish rubbed with a chile and fermented durian paste). Catfish are raised nearby in the Pahang river, and these specimens smelled heavenly.
One of the first stalls to catch our eye as we entered the market was this one run by a couple from Narathiwat, in southern Thailand. They'd come from Kelantan (the eastern Malaysian state bordering Thailand), where they live, for the month just to sell her nine different kerabu ('salads') made with ingredients like young jackfruit, fern tips, beef, chicken, and wing beans. We purchased a selection and ordered a couple of freshly-pounded green papaya salads to go.
Another couple from Kelantan assembled beautiful boxes of nasi kerabu (a Kelantanese dish of rice tinted blue with dried pea flours, served with shredded herbs, beansprouts, and kerisik, dry-toasted grated coconut) and added turmeric-marinated and deep-fried fish and a whole green chile stuffed with coconut-enriched chopped fish.
We had to pass it up because we'd already purchased rice, in the form of pulut ubai, coconut-scented glutinous rice cakes with a sweet-spicy topping of grated coconut fried with chilies and turmeric.
A jaunt to Temerloh's Sunday market always turns up foods unfamiliar, and so it was for the Ramadan market. We can only guess that these kuih net bug - sponges soaked in tinted sugar syrup - are named for their incredible, insect-attracting sweetness.
The highlight of the evening came when we discovered, at one end of the market, the mother of all perfect palm sugar vehicles. Called
badap berendap, bedak berendam ('wading hippos') these sweets consist of gula Melaka (Malaysian coconut palm sugar)-flavored glutinous rice balls enclosing yet more gula Melaka, floating in a banana leaf filled with unctuous coconut cream. For serious gula Melaka fans (count us among them), it doesn't get much more sublime than that.
We left the market with a full bag (we ate very well that night), and a certain sense of sadness that Ramadan would soon be coming to an end (we'd have no opportunity in its waning days to take advantage of the markets).
Happily, there's always next year.
Selamat Hari Raya!