Food for thought, Ramadhan edition

I HAVE a friend, an acquaintance really, who looks forward to Ramadhan every year. 

As far as I can tell, he’s Buddhist, and an enthusiastic foodie. Any kind of food would interest him, and the more variations the better. 

Botak’s special power is that he can name the best place to eat anywhere west from Maju Junction, Kuala Lumpur (KL) to the port in Klang. 

He has accumulated this knowledge from years of maintaining air conditioning units between KL and Port Klang. 

If you’re stuck for ideas in Batu Tiga, Shah Alam, just ring him up and he will direct you to a small nondescript stall near the big sugar factory there for a royally good fish head curry, for example. 

Or he could point you to the nasi campur stall beside the granite stone shop for excellent freshly fried ikan kembung if you happen to be in Telok Panglima Garang. 

In some Western cultures, people would call him a connoisseur maybe, but we just call him our kaki makan. 

In contrast, mainly because I have uncultured taste buds, my approach towards food is more pedestrian. I will happily fill my stomach at 99.9% of halal restaurants here, unless, of course, they put broccoli in the mee bandung Muar, or there are carrots in the char koay teow. And also, if the “ala bolognese” is too sweet. Other than these unacceptable infringements and a few more trivialities, I’m not fussy. 

But back to Botak and his penchant for Ramadhan, which you can say is a strange time of happiness for someone who likes to eat. 

A foodie who thrives in a month when food and other overconsumption is restrained. 

Ramadhan is supposed to be a time when Muslims refrain from food and other bad behaviour from sun up to sun down. 

“Ah yes, but Ramadhan means Ramadhan bazaars, man,” Botak said one time when we asked him about it. 

“There’s all those foods that you normally have to go all around town to find at any time of the year. But in Ramadhan, it’s all in one place. What a concept! 

“Not to mention those foods that come out only during Ramadhan such as bubur lambuk, the special kuih-muih and those Arabic things they sell,” he added. 

Ramadhan for Botak is a month-long food festival. And I suspect it is the same for other people as well, Muslim or not. 

“When you put it that way, I think you’re right!” I said. 

I can tell you some of my friends actually gain weight after the fasting month, especially when you include the food festival of Hari Raya Aidilfitri after that. 

In fact, food is so celebrated during Ramadhan that bazaar Ramadhan is a big business. You can tell that it is by the keen competition to win a spot in an organised pasar malam site. The competition 

is so keen that controversy would erupt over allocating these coveted spots, very much against the spirit of the month. 

Ramadhan is also big business for hotels and restaurants as corporations rush to treat clients to the obligatory corporate break of fast events, usually at some fancy restaurant or hotel where too much food is served. 

The Ramadhan buffet culture has somewhat abated since its peak in the early 2000s when you cannot escape being drawn into at least one of these gluttony fests, but it is still around. 

Aisehman, don’t make me feel bad lah. We just enjoy Ramadhan because of it,” Botak said when I made this observation. 

He is right. Botak is not Muslim and is not obliged to refrain from celebrating good food and his patronage to these Ramadhan bazaars is a big part of making them a part of Malaysian culture. 

He is also right that it is up to Muslims themselves to refrain from excess and not depend on anybody else. 

“I promise not to eat in front of you guys during Ramadhan,” Botak said. 

Aiyah, Botak, actually not eating and drinking is just a small part of Ramadhan. When you’re an adult food has little temptation for us. It’s the other things like not swearing at you or having bad thoughts, being kinder and having more patience are the more challenging things to overcome for us,” I said. 

“So, you ok lah if I eat in front of you?” he asked. 

I told him that this Ramadhan he can eat and do cartwheels while doing it for all I care because at this very moment in Gaza, people are being killed by Israel just queueing for flour. 

I said a little prayer for our brethren in Palestine, just another one on top of the thousand other prayers I’ve said for Gazans. 

“So even if it’s a really hot day and I cannot tahan, I can drink my teh ais ikat tepi in front of you and you won’t mind?” Botak asked. 

“Now that’s pushing it Botak, but for you, I will draw on my patience and earn extra rewards. Win-win,” I said. 

  • ZB Othman is an editor of The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition