The holy month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar, which calls for 29 or 30 days of ascetic fasting during the daylight hours.
Important Hari Raya Dates
Ramadan 2012 begins on Saturday, July 21 and continues for 30 days until 18 August, which is a Saturday. When the new moon comes out on the final day of Ramadan, it puts an end to the fasting and heralds the first day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, known better in other parts of the world as Eid al-Fitr. This year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri is on Sunday, 19 August, 2012.
Hari Raya Aidilfitri is the first of the two Eid festivals celebrated by Muslims. The second one is Eid al-Adha, known in Singapore and Malaysia as Hari Raya Haji which is celebrated on the 10th day of the last month in the Islamic Lunar Calendar. This year, it will be on Friday, October 26, 2012.
Roots of Ramadan
Getting back to Ramadan, it’s not just about food, because Muslims all over the world refrain from all forms of self-indulgence during Ramadan. In fact, the original Arab word for fasting is “sawm” or “to refrain.”
You cannot think bad thoughts, and your body and senses must follow. The eyes cannot look at bad things, the hands cannot touch what is wrong, you cannot speak ill of others or listen to it. Giving up all such physical needs during the day allows those fasting to do some introspection and focus on correcting one’s own moral compass. It helps people give up vices, reach out in friendship to those who have been wronged and get back in touch with family and friends.
This last communal aspect is what attracts foreign visitors who come to Malaysia and Singapore in droves during Ramadan. People come home to their families and after a pre-dawn meal and a full day of fasting or “Puasa,” millions of Malays break the fast in the evening in a communal meal known as “Buka Puasa” or “Breaking the Fast.”
This is a veritable feast, with traditional Malay food and delicacies piled up and enjoyed together by family and friends. Malaysia is majority Muslim nation, with a minority contingent of Chinese and Indian populations. Singapore is majority Chinese, with minority Muslim and Indian populations. Be that as it may, Muslim homes and public places in each neighborhood are filled with people from all three communities enjoying “Iftar” parties.
The main entertainment quotient is made up of the Ramadan Bazaars, which come alive a few hours before the Buka Puasa and then people celebrate with food and shopping. Everything is on sale, from clothing and electronics to household appliances and utensils. Some of these places are replaced the rest of the year by evening markets, known as a “Pasar Malam” or “Night Market.” But it’s just not the same as a Ramadan Bazaar, which has a holiday or carnival vibe where the crowds, the food and the kaleidoscopic colors will just reel you in.
Visitors can make it easy by booking a Ramadan Tour package. Apart from the usual sight-seeing and tourist activities, the package will include a special hotel promotion for Ramadan, with Iftar meals included and a trip to some of the most famous and biggest Ramadan Bazaars.
Mouth Watering Food of Hari Raya
But Ramadan is best experienced with a special Buka Puasa meal at a food court in one of the Ramadan Bazaars or an Iftar party in a friend’s home or neighborhood. The food is freshly cooked over open charcoal grills. You will get to taste a dazzling array of Malay cuisine, from the traditional Kueh which are sweet desserts to rendang which is a meat cooked in coconut milk and spices, and Roti Murtabak which is a kind of wrap with eggs and minced meat inside the roti.
There will be a huge variety of rice (nasi) dishes, from the popular Nasi Lemak to Lontong, Lemang and Nasi Kerabu. Chicken dishes and items are quite popular, including Nasi Ayam (chicken rice), Ayam Percik and satay (grilled chicken).
The food, shopping and celebrations continue so long into the night that the government allows shopping malls and bazaars in popular tourist hotspots to stay open all night right up to the Sahur (pre-dawn meal). Visitors can either schedule trips to popular Ramadan Markets like the one in the Shah Alam Stadium, Bandar Tun Razak Bazaar in Kuala Lumpur proper and Geylang Serai in Singapore, or leave it up to the tour operator to take you to the right places.
Please take note of a few points that might come in handy, especially in Malaysia. Because a majority of the people will not be eating or drinking anything during the day, many Malay and Indian restaurants (called Mamak Stalls) are either closed or have a bare minimum staff. Chinese food courts are open and it will be business as usual.
Do Spare a Thought for those Fasting
Restaurants in popular tourist areas are also mostly open all day and they will happily serve food to foreigners. There’s no shortage of fast food outlets either, with plenty of KFC and McDonalds outlets everywhere. You can get chilled beer anywhere, which feels pretty good in the heat. But in the sprit of Ramadan and as a sign of respect for local customs and culture, try to avoid takeaways and eating or drinking in public places during the day.
After the month of fasting, Ramadan gives way to Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which is as important as Christmas for Christians, and just as eagerly awaited by Muslims all over the world.