You know what’s great about being Jewish? No Lent. No Ramadan. Sure, there’s been thousands of years of persecution and an annual fast or two, but nothing that compares to the longevity of the institutionalized pain of those two holidays. Worse still, sometimes Ramadan falls in the summer and you can’t even drink water. With all of these thoughts in mind, I found myself in Malaysia in the summer in the middle of Ramadan. And in Sandakan in Borneo, this meant the nightly Ramadan Market. The most impressive part about it is that observant Muslims somehow manage to walk up and down the market and order food without eating a bite of it until the sun goes down. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait.
Some of the goodies are unique to the region, like the banana leaf-wrapped Nasi Kuning Ayam, which is essentially yellow rice with fried chicken. It’s both simple and complex at the same time.
Portable grills like this can also be found all over the market, giving the whole place a delicious smoky haze. They’re mostly used for grilling up chicken.
You can also find roti canai all around the market, which is essentially a fried flatbread. Here, it’s used more like a wrap so the vendors fill it with things like cabbage, eggs and even beef or chicken.
Amazingly, I could only find one tent that came close to resembling Middle Eastern food. They had a bunch of prepared “burgers” and a spool of chicken. However, while the cooking style was Middle Eastern, the flavors and spices of finished chicken pita I had tasted more Japanese than anything else – aside from the pita itself.
A bunch of vendors were pushing noodles in mass quantities that kind of blew my mind. There were generally a couple options to choose from and I had myself some traditional Hokkien-style, which were brown and fried. For spice, they kind of depended on whatever I added to the mix and they also had an option to add an egg, which is almost never a mistake.
But it wasn’t just about the food, stalls were showing off some pretty beautiful drinks packed with strong flavors like bubble gum, chocolate, taro and more. The bagged versions of these drinks were called ABCs and the big cupped versions were called Halo Halos, which is originally a Filipino word, but The Philippines are literally a short boat ride from Sandakan so this kind of made sense.
More than anything, there was an amazing spirit at the Ramadan Market. Smiles abounded, patience was never a concern and cleanliness really never felt like a concern. So maybe there is something to a month-long fast. It gives people an excuse to get together every night, to build up community events and to take down some tasty food and drinks.