With Ramadan coming to a close and Muslims around the world celebrating Eid al-Fitr, there’s no better time to revel in the things that have been off limits during daylight hours for the last month.
Across Asia, where millions follow Islam, food is a central theme to nearly all social occasions.
Here are 20 of the most delicious dishes from Malaysia, though they can also be found elsewhere, that can now fill stomachs around the clock, not just after sun down.
1. Rendang daging or ayam (beef or chicken)
Though sometimes erroneously labeled as a curry, aficionados will be quick to point out that this chunky cauldron of coconut milk and spices is nothing of the sort. The difference is in how it is cooked: slowly simmered (to let the meat absorb the spices) until the rosy liquid completely evaporates.
A favorite, especially during festive seasons, grabbing some rendang is as easy as picking up a warm, freshly ladled plastic bag and some rice to complement it.
2. Apam balik
You cannot say you truly feasted unless you titillate your taste buds with sweet treats. Apam balik, a pancake-style snack wedded with the compact package of an omelet, is the kind of dessert that it’s tempting to devour before your meal is done.
Stuffed with more than a sufficient amount of sugar, some peanuts and the occasional sprinkle of corn, apam balik is a style that is constantly being reinvented.
3. Nasi kerabu
If the blue-colored rice doesn’t make you curious, the constant queue of people waiting to get served this favorite Kelantanese dish will. Hailing from the state of Kelantan in Northern Peninsular Malaysia, nasi kerabu gets its eye-grabbing color from Telang flowers, which are crushed and mixed into flour.
Top the aquamarine delight with bean sprouts and fried coconut, and drench it in warm spicy sauce and dig in (using your hands) to experience the true Kelantan style.
4. Ayam percik (chicken with percik sauce)
Barbecued chicken lathered in spicy chili, garlic and ginger sauce mixed with coconut milk. KFC’s instant popularity in the region (and indeed across Asia) over that of other American fast-food chains should not be a surprise to those familiar with ayam percik.
Spicy chicken – be it barbecued, roasted or fried – draws its roots from Kelantan. With the right amount of percik sauce, this staple stall food packs more of a zing than anything the Colonel could muster.
5. Roti john
Whoever John was, it is apparent that he distinctly preferred his sandwiches made with minced meat and egg grilled in the middle of slim bread, and drowned in a confection of condiments.
Mayonnaise, ketchup, barbecue and chili sauce – choose one, or choose them all. Though John’s identity is not clear, it’s easy to picture the girth of the man, especially if he routinely stuck to his eponymous food.
Variety, variety, variety – that is way to properly explore kuih, or Malay-style pastries. Small enough to snap up in a gulp and sugary enough to give you a modest jitter, kuih vendors are the most colorful stalls at Ramadan bazaars.
And many diners are drawn to them by instinct. This kaleidoscope of soft, sugary morsels goes quickly – few pieces are left by the time daylight begins to fade.
7. Air tebu
While inhabitants of some regions in Asia prefer to gnaw on sugar cane (China and Vietnam, for instance), others have taken the refined approach when it comes to extracting the sweet nectar within.
Much of the smoke wafting through the bazaar crowds comes from pots of boiling, frying liquid, but a significant portion of that also originates from the engine of a sugar cane grinder.
Stalks are fed into industrial-sized juicers; the liquid is collected and served by the bag and bottle. There is no dearth of syrupy drinks on offer at the bazaars, but this is the only one that comes with a show.
8. Cendawan goreng (fried mushrooms)
Deep-fried fungus doesn’t get much better than this. One version, cendawan goreng, is typically peppered with chili or barbecue seasoning, giving it its own sass.
Eaten as an appetizer or snack, with a meal or while on foot, this one will have you imagining what else you can fry – and how else it can be seasoned.
9. Serunding daging or ayam (beef or chicken floss)
Another contribution from the state of Kelantan, serunding (Malay for floss) is a common dish that appears during the month of Ramadan. But don’t be deceived, these dried-out strings of meat are not meant to be used as carnivorous teeth cleaners.
In fact, it’s best to eat your serunding with a side of traditionally prepared rice, be it impit or lemang.
Eaten along with a meat or vegetable dish, lemang is glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk, which is cooked in bamboo. The time-consuming process to make lemang starts by lining hollowed-out shoots with banana leaves to ensure the rice doesn’t stick.
Then the bamboo is left over a fire to slowly cook the rice in a process known as tapai. The result is sticky, wet rice that can, and regularly does, substitute its plain-Jane counterpart.
Otak-otak is a fish paste mixture of selected spices and diced onions. It is loosely wrapped in a banana leaf and barbecued over charcoal until the pinkish contents become warm and the leaves slightly charred. Otak means “brains” in Indonesian and Malay – but this graphic moniker stems from its appearance, not its taste!
And, with a name like otak-otak, you can bet no fuss or frills are needed when it comes to eating – picking at it straight from the leaf is the only way to do it.
12. Tepung pelita
A kind of kuih (Malay-style pastry), tepung pelita easily takes the cake when compared to its post-dinner relatives. At some point just about everyone has (or knows someone who has) overindulged in this two-layered coconut milk-based sweet.
On the top layer, thick coconut milk with salt; on the bottom, a similar milky liquid mixed with sugar and pandan leaves to turn it green. Served in bite-sized pandan leaf bowls, the packaging of tepung pelita makes for easily fulfilling gluttonous desires.
Few snacks come saltier, or more gratifying than rempeyek. Rempeyek is commonly made by deep frying a doughy batter into a thin brittle and topping it with peanuts and anchovies.
The amount of salt can vary, and there are variations that use dried shrimp or garlic instead of or with the anchovies.
14. Popia basah (wet spring roll)
A hefty sort of spring roll, popia basah speaks best to those in need of the familiar crispy snack, but without the added oil.
Not to be confused with wet rolls found in parts of Vietnam, popia basah comes complete with its own regional-specific flavor. In place of lettuce, the Malay wet spring roll has turnips, fried onions and bean sprouts.
There’s no standard recipe, but you’ll almost certainly ask for a second bowl.
15. Bubur (porridges)
At Ramadan bazaars, there is a plentiful amount of bubur to sample – and they are easy to spot. Just look for the stall with the giant steel pots of liquid and matching ladle.
The contents of these coconut milk-based, sometimes sugary soups can cover a medley of vegetables and meats, and even dyed balls of flour and coconut milk. There is no standard recipe in preparing bubur as different regions boast their own specialty.
16. Roti jala
Roti jala, or net bread, gets its name from the net-like, lacy formation of bread that is created by making zigzagging lines with flour on a large skillet.
The final product is folded up like a crepe and usually complemented with chicken curry. Roti jala can be eaten during any time of the day outside the month of Ramadan.
This pan-fried bread stuffed with minced meat and onions and dipped in spicy sauce is a meal and a half, only recommended to the truly famished. That’s why during Ramadan these stalls see stock disappear almost as soon as it’s cooked.
A perfect murtabak is made with a robust amount of minced meat so that the taste comes through on the first bite.