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Malaysia’s Ramadan bazaars draw crowds, but some tighten their belts | Al Jazeera News

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – It was late afternoon in Kuala Lumpur, and despite the scorching heat, there were still groups of people wandering the streets lined with food stalls.

The smell of grilled chicken and fried fish filled the air as buyers – mostly Malay-Muslims looking for food to get through Ramadan – scoured for their favourites.

Although prices are higher this year than in previous years, the atmosphere is festive. The country’s central bank said in February that while inflation is likely to slow, it is likely to remain “elevated.”

“The rising cost of living has affected the affordability of food and other items sold in the bazaars. We have seen a sharp rise in prices, leading people to spend cautiously,” Aiedah Khalek, a senior lecturer at Monash University Malaysia and an expert on Muslim consumer behavior, told Al Jazeera TV station.

Ramadan bazaars can be found in almost every corner of Malaysia, where there are mainly Malays, but there are also large numbers of ethnic Chinese, Indians and aboriginals.

Many were drawn to markets in the capital Kuala Lumpur, where they could also visit traditional shopping areas around Jalan Tuanku Abdul to buy new clothes for Eid al-Fitr, known in Malaysia as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which falls at the end of Ramadan.

At the Ramadan food markets in Malaysia, one can see and capture people flocking to these festive food markets regardless of age, race and religion.
Ramadan bazaars are popular with Malaysians of all ages and races [Bhavya Vemulapalli/Al Jazeera]

Bazaars usually open in the early afternoon so people have time to buy food and get ready to break their fast at sunset.

Aiedah has been researching halal communal dining and its impact on social cohesion in multi-religious communities.

“The special thing about Ramadan bazaars is that they offer different types of food, especially food that is rarely served outside of Ramadan,” she said.

“Now we can see huge Ramadan bazaars, especially in urban areas, unlike 20-25 years ago.”

Lower prices

Due to the high cost of living, some small traders this year joined the government’s Rahmah Ramadan Bazaar initiative, which aims to ensure that food for buka puasa (iftar) is sold at reasonable prices.

Nur Mastura’s stall has a Menu Rahmah sticker, meaning she sells 13 rice cakes with a price cap of 10 Malaysian ringgit ($2.26) each.

“The Ramadan bazaar is a way to celebrate many cultural delicacies. For four years I have been selling putu bambu, an Indonesian pastry, at the bazaar. People keep coming to try it,” the 19-year-old told Al Jazeera .

She is studying for a banking diploma but helps out at her family’s stall at the Masjid Jamek Ramadan bazaar in central Kuala Lumpur.

Vendors selling Malaysia's popular Putu Bambu (green rice cake) at a Ramadan bazaar.
Mastura sells her putu bambu.Traditional rice cakes filled with palm sugar, flavored with pandan and steamed over bamboo charcoal [Bhavya Vemulapalli/Al Jazeera]

Traditionally, Malaysians prefer to break their fast with dishes that are gentle on the stomach when going without food or water for long periods of time.

One such traditional dish is bubur lambuk, which is made by cooking ingredients together in one pot, which translates to loose porridge.

In most mosques, the dish is given out for free during Ramadan. Porridge is usually made with meat, onion, garlic, coconut oil and several spices such as cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, star anise, cloves and fenugreek.

“Everyone has their own secret recipe. It depends on the budget and the ingredients,” said Saiful Azrul, who and his brothers – both full-time hawkers – stirred their porridge in roadside pots for the evening set. city ​​to prepare. “We love to cook together and will donate half of our meals.”

They only sell bubur, which they start cooking in the morning during Ramadan.

Saiful Azrul (left) and his brother cook three pots of Bubur Lambuk (Malaysian porridge) - one for charity and two for sale.
Saiful Azrul (left) and his brothers cook three pots of bubur lambuk – one for charity and two for sale [Bhavya Vemulapalli/Al Jazeera]

Malaysian food is often spicy, incorporating styles and flavors from around the world.

“I was amazed by the variety of food options, as there were some that I had never seen before in Malaysia,” said Anne Hilbert, a 23-year-old exchange student from a Dutch university. There is a strong sense of community among the people at the fair.”

They’ve been sampling Thai kebabs made by Adlin Ahmad and her sister at the Ramadan bazaar along the river in central Kuala Lumpur.

“My sister and I sell skewers and noodle soup. During Ramadan, everyone gathers to sell their specialties,” said Adelin, 29, who graduated from university in 2015 and now sells snacks for a living.

Vendors at a Ramadan bazaar in Malaysia.
Adlin Ahmad (left) and her older sister Awatif Ismail sell food at a Ramadan bazaar along the river in Kuala Lumpur.Usually, they sell their food at Bachok in the northeast of Kelantan [Bhavya Vemulapalli/Al Jazeera]

“We pay 600 Malaysian ringgit ($135) a month to set up a stall,” the Ahmed sisters told Al Jazeera. “Because raw material prices have risen post-COVID-19, food prices have also risen.”

Higher prices mean slower sales for some, increasing food waste, which was already on the rise even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Aside from bazaars, Ramadan in Malaysia also sees hotels and restaurants sometimes serving up lavish buffets of buka puasa.

The amount of solid waste, including food, collected during Ramadan last year rose to 252,521 tonnes compared to 208,143 tonnes in 2019, said Deputy Local Government Development Minister Akmal Nasrullah Nasir.

“The amount of waste is increasing every year, and in the last five years we have seen an increase of up to 21 percent,” he told reporters after launching his Eid campaign on April 10, adding that food accounted for 44.5 percent of waste.

Local suppliers say they try to donate leftovers so they don’t have to throw away a lot of food on a busy day. They also pay more attention to the amount of money they earn in the first place.

“There’s usually not a lot of leftovers because we’ve gotten used to cooking the correct amount over the years. Snacks like ours stay fresh for a week. If not, I usually donate the rest at my brother’s school,” says Adlin .

A man pays a hawker for his food purchases in a plastic tote bag at a Ramadan bazaar in Malaysia.
Bazaar offers dizzying food options [Bhavya Vemulapalli/Al Jazeera]

In the evening, the bazaar winds down as the Malays go home to wait for the sunset to pray before they can start eating together.

The bazaar will be open until April 21, the eve of Eid al-Fitr.

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