I have been to Singapore countless times over the past forty years and during that time, I have occasionally been there for Ramadan or Eid al Fitr (which they call Hari Raya Puasa or Hari Raya Aidilfitri in Singapore and Malaysia). Of course Ramadan is a month of prayer, abstention and meditation which culminates in the celebrations of Eid. The Muslim communities in Singapore and Malaysia have their own customs and traditions during Ramadan and as with other communities and countries, these revolve around family gatherings and special meals. During Ramadan, most Muslims have special dishes that, while often eaten throughout the year, are more specific to this month. In Kuwait for example, special dishes include Harees (a type of porridge sprinkled with cinnamon sugar), yireesh (a cracked wheat savoury porridge like dish), tishreeb (a stew with bread) and lugaimat (deep fried pastry balls in syrup).
Singapore and Malaysia are no exception and during Ramadan, the communities enjoy special dishes that local non-Muslims also like to enjoy. As in the Middle East, people gather in their homes to break their fasts but going to restaurants or food courts is also very popular during Ramadan, and that is something we have experienced in Singapore and Malaysia.
In both Singapore and Malaysia, “Ramadan Bazaars” are popular during the holy month and people flock there to shop and to buy food for the evening meal, whether to be enjoyed in their homes or in the food courts of the bazaars themselves.
One Ramadan I was in Singapore with my mother, the late Jehan Rajab, who was very fond of both Singapore and Malaysia, and we decided we would like to go to a traditional Malay area for Iftar, so that we could get a ‘feel’ for the local way of breaking the fast. We went to a traditionally Malay/Muslim area known as Kampong Glam which is where a lot of the Singaporean families of Arab and Malay origin used to live, such as the Aljunied, the Alsakoff and the Alkaff families. This area is spread out around the Sultan Mosque and a street called Arab Street and although these days the area has become gentrified with many touristy shops selling local handicrafts and products, in the past it was a vibrant area with local restaurants cafes and shops and also street food stalls and food courts.
We headed to the market around 5:30 pm and had totally forgotten that Iftar in Singapore was not at the same time as Kuwait. We bought our food from various stalls, collected our trays and went to sit at one of the tables and we sat, waiting for the call to prayer that would signal the time for Iftar. We ended up waiting until around 7:00 pm which is when the sun sets in Singapore, being so close to the equator. Needless to say, we had a cold meal, but we did enjoy watching the market fill up with people as Iftar time approached: families with children, young couples, the odd tourist (such as ourselves) and local Chinese Singaporeans, non-Muslims, who would come to the Muslim food courts for the local Malay delicacies and dishes.
These dishes include various local curries, rendangs (which is a beef or lamb dish cooked in a thick, spicy coconut sauce), satays, porridges and rice cakes among other things. One type of porridge is Bubur Lambuk which is made with rice and perhaps sweet potatoes mixed with prawns or beef and herbs. This dish is often made in large communal kitchens around the mosques or community centres and is then distributed to anyone who comes. Then there is ketupat which is a dumpling made of rice cooked in a woven palm leaf container. The rice is cooked inside the woven pouch – as the rice absorbs water, it expands, and the palm leaf container compresses the rice mass. This rice is eaten with satay, curry or rendang.
After the meal, there are various sweet dishes such as kueh lapis which is a dessert of Indonesian origin. This is popular throughout the year but especially during Ramadan and Eid. It is a cake made of thin layers of alternating sheets, sometimes coloured and made with tapioca, coconut milk, pandan leaves and sugar. There are dozens of other wonderful dishes that are especially enjoyed during the fasting month.
Travelling to other countries really does broaden one’s mind and if visits are made during festive seasons, such as Ramadan, exposure to local culture is increased. During Ramadan one is very likely to see locals in national dress, eating traditional foods and celebrating outdoors and one does not always see these activities the rest of the year.
By Dr Ziad Rajab,
Tareq Rajab Museum