Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur is famous for its weekly night markets, where foodies can find an endless array of local Malay snacks and sample the delicious cuisine of the city’s large Chinese and Indian communities.
But the biggest and greatest night market of all happens only once a year – during the holy month of Ramadan.
As devout Muslims fast all day, the night market is the perfect place to fill empty bellies with a day’s worth of feasting. And during daylight hours, the market offers the best place to shop for everything locals need for Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which marks the end of Ramadan and is Malaysia’s biggest festival of the year.
And so for one whole month, the streets around Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman – Kuala Lumpur’s main shopping district – turn into a bustling bazaar of colorful tents.
Located just around the corner from must-see tourist sights like Masjid Jamek and Merdeka Square, the market provides an exciting (and delicious) taste of Malaysian holiday cheer, as well as a dive into the age-old traditions of this very modern metropolis.
Make sure you come with an empty stomach! Food stalls take up a big part of the market, offering classic Malaysian favorites, as well as holiday treats eaten only during Ramadan and Hari Raya.
Out of respect for fasting locals, it’s best to order everything to go during the daytime and enjoy your meal in privacy. But once night falls, feel free to dig in right then and there!
Our favorite was rendang, a spicy curry filled with generously large, tender chunks of beef. Other popular market snacks include roti john, a pizza-like open faced sandwich; char kuey teow, stir-fried rice noodles, as well as plenty of dumplings and other finger foods to mix and match (5 pieces for 3 ringgits is a typical price).
Wandering through the market, you’re sure to see a lot of small packages wrapped in woven palm leaves. These are ketupat, and inside the leafy casings are sticky rice dumplings, a perfect accompaniment to rendang and other dishes served at the Hari Raya dinner table.
Today, ketupat have become a symbol of the Hari Raya holiday, and you’ll find plastic and paper imitations hanging up everywhere from shop windows to the KL Sentral train station, along with colorful lights and other festive decorations.
Cookies are definitely the most in-demand treat at the market, with vendors selling them by the boxful at every few steps. These are another Hari Raya treat, they’re served to relatives and guests during the endless flurry of social visits that take place during the entire month after the holiday, so you can see why people might need to buy in bulk!
You’ll find cookies in nearly every shape, size, and most importantly color. One of the most popular varieties is kuih bangkit, a light and fluffy cookie made from tapioca and coconut cream. But crunchier versions made with cornflakes (yes, the breakfast cereal) and drizzled with honey are also a real winner among Malaysian kids.
Without a doubt, our favorite snack at the market was kuih lapis, a soft, steamed cake made from rice flour and coconut milk. The neon-colored, irresistibly photogenic and irresistibly delicious treat comes in a wide range of flavors, but keep an eye out for the green ones. They’re made from pandan, a local plant that’s similar to vanilla, but with a tantalizingly rich, herbal aftertaste. And don’t forget to try agar-agar, a light, fruity, jelly version of kuih lapis.
Many shoppers come to the market to stock up on supplies to celebrate the coming Hari Raya festival. And what’s a festival without firecrackers? Except for the tiny and delightfully-named Pop Pop and Happy Boom, fireworks are technically illegal in Malaysia, but that doesn’t stop sellers from setting up shop right in the middle of the market, presumably with a watchful eye out for the authorities. But on the night of Hari Raya, everyone else needs to be a little watchful too, or end up in the middle of a sudden street corner pyrotechnic show!
With Hari Raya approaching, it’s only natural to want to celebrate the holiday looking your best. Henna artists are a common sight in the market, most of them from the city’s Indian community, painting their intricate temporary tattoos on hands and wrists. Local girls page through thick laminated books filled with different patterns and designs, looking for just the right one. Prices typically range from 10 to 20 ringgits, depending on complexity and size.
Hari Raya is one of the few times each year when most Malaysians will ditch their everyday outfits for traditional dress. In the market, you’ll find many stalls selling a rainbow of colorful outfits, from embroidered headscarves and dresses for the women, to stiff black pillbox hats and elaborately woven sarongs (or samping, as they’re often called here) for the men. For budget travelers looking for a unique souvenir, be sure to visit around the end of Ramadan, when most clothing sellers offer generous discounts as they prepare to close up shop for the holiday.
Perfume sellers always attract a crowd at the market, with row upon row of bottles offering every scent imaginable… and probably some scents you didn’t even know existed!
But the perfume here is more than just a holiday indulgence – for devout Muslims, a dab of fragrance is an act of faith. During Ramadan, when believers are encouraged to go out of their way to perform good deeds, a special attention to staying clean and looking proper is seen as a holy deed. Putting on a drop of perfume before heading out for Friday prayers is said to bring extra merit.
Whether you go to buy or just to look around, visit at night or during the day, a trip to Kuala Lumpur’s Ramadan market is a fascinating look into Malaysia’s cultural and religious traditions. Fill your belly with delicious snacks, fill your phone with colorful photos, and experience a special celebration like none other!
Based in Beijing, Michael is fascinated by the surprises hidden just around the corner from the well-worn tourist trail, but is just as willing to venture into the foothills of Tibet or bike down country roads in Vietnam, as long as he knows there’s a good story waiting at the end.
Follow him on Instagram to check out his latest adventures.