This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I Guess It's Chinese for Lunch

During the 40 days of Ramadan Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. In Malaysia this means having breakfast around 5:00AM and dinner at after 7:00 PM. No food or water in between. When in Kuala Lumpur fancy hotels were advertising dinner buffets. We wondered if we would be participating in de facto fasting. However, we were assured that KL is a very multi-cultured city, there will be plenty of places to eat. Nobody will get angry if we are seen munching during the day.

Ramadan has started a few days ago, and we are now in Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan, a declared Muslim province. It is a city of 500,000 people, 95% of whom are Malay Muslims. All Malaysian restaurants and other restaurants displaying the Halal (think "Kosher" in Arabic) certification are closed during the day. Even McDonald's and KFC are not open.

In the window at KFC

This means that we pretty much have one option: Chinese. Kota Bharu has a small Chinese community and just by luck our guesthouse happens to be in the Chinese area. One block away is the Chinese restaurant street. All the places are busy with only Chinese customers. After just three days of breakfast and lunch in the same spots we know many of the hawker stand and restaurant owners. Whether they reciprocate or not, we already feel like a part of the Kota Bharu Chinese community.

Having a late lunch at a Chinese place

Around 5 PM the Malay Muslims start buying their food for dinner that evening. There is a special Ramadan Bazaar from 3 - 7 PM selling all types of food for people to take home. The next night we go to the city's night market. This is not a special market for Ramadan, but what is special now is that everyone has to wait to start eating. We arrive at 6 PM. It is already somewhat busy with numerous hawker stalls selling different appetizers, entrees, side dishes and desserts. Some people get food and go home. Others sit at tables with their food in plastic bags just waiting for the magic hour to arrive. These people look particularly hungry.

I cannot say that I feel particularly guilty eating while others around me are presumably hungry and thirsty by their own choice. Also, I really do not think that anyone would be particularly offended if we are eating or drinking during the day because we are obviously non-Muslims (though maybe a little bit jealous?). But Ramadan has definitely made us more conscious of our eating habits.

For example, at the Ramadan Bazaar it was terribly hot out. Mika naturally wanted to buy a cold drink. Before doing so she asks if it is okay to drink it right then -- something one would normally never ask. The vendor suggests that she hides around the corner to have her beverage.

While at the night market the next evening we have our food and plan to sit at a table to wait with everyone else to break the fast. One man shoos us away only saying, "Muslim, Muslim". With language difficulties on both sides I am not quite sure what is his problem. I do not, however, think xenophobia. My guess is that he was just afraid we would start eating too soon and might offend his customers. Another woman shoos us away saying, "booking, booking" - no big problem there either, all her tables were reserved.
Two days later we do sit at a table in the night market and wait with everyone else until the clock struck 7:26 PM to drink our teas. Food and drinks are already served and people are just waiting. The young women next to us keep checking the time on their cellphones and fiddling with the food. Only 35 more days of Ramadan to go.

Shopping at the Night Market

Is it 7:26 yet?
So my first Ramadan in a Muslim country has really been quite interesting, but we are ready to head to Thailand, a Buddhist and afternoon eating country.

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