I’m writing this post on Friday, the 3rd of August. As I type, I can’t help but momentarily stop the frantic keypushing and raise my fingers up to my nose for a sniff. Aaaah…they smell so intoxicatingly good…they smell of…beef rendang.
My soap-washed, yet rendang-aroma’ed post-Iftar fingers are back on the keyboard. They’re so excited to blurt out what they touched, what they tore, what they traced their curry-loving tips through over dinner, that they’re tripping across the keys like giddy giggling schoolgirls. One more fumbling typo and I’m going to have rap my own knuckles to discipline these frisky fingers of mine.
These fingers have been quivering with anticipation from the moment I read Manjeet Dhillon's private message to me over facebook last Wednesday. I've never met this Malay foodie samaritan, or even virtually connected with her, but such is the power of social media. She reached out over my food tours Facebook page with critical foodie intel: homemade Malaysian treats at a private Iftar Bazaar that happens every Friday of Ramadan. The bazaar is a "community effort for us Malaysians to feel the spirit of Ramadhan like how we enjoy it back home." And there's no better way to bring a community together than by reigniting the cultural flavours of the traditional Ramadan bazaars back in Malaysia, even if on a much smaller scale.
Thank goodness the bazaar was a Malaysian replica on a much smaller scale, because when I got there, they went wild, these frivolous fingers of mine, dipping themselves into my wallet every few seconds to fish out tens and twenties and fling them like worthless paper in exchange for treasure: mee goreng, and then beef rendang, and ayam panggang, yes, all three types!, and mutton curry, and a spoonful of some shredded fish mixture, and oh! a pair of leaf-bound, shrimp stuffed rolls that might have been pulut udang, and both types of nasi, a yellow one and a brown one...
...and GOTTA have some of that milky pandan drink that was bagged up in plastic, just like they do in Malaysia!
Yep, we totally overdid it, my fingers and I. But you the only way that I could have strolled through eight tables stacked up with fried, curried, steamed and roasted Malay goodies, and walked out empty-handed...was if I had managed to seal my eyes and walk around with plugs in my nose. Which I don't typically do, even on an uninspiring day.
Homecooked Malaysian food at the Ramadan Bazaar HAS to be the best kept secret in town. Honestly it does. Except for the Malaysians of course, who come in on Ramadan Fridays and walk out with tubs of nasi lemak (‘fatty rice,’ simmered in creamy coconut milk) and rolls of roti jala (thin nets of flour batter), bags of different spicy karis (curries) that Malaysian mommies and grandmommies sell to the public. And with the pau, stuffed steamed buns that always seem to run out before I can get to them—even when I was in Malaysia earlier this year. I give up Pau, I give up. I don’t want you anymore.
But I do, I do I do. I secretly want you but you’re never there.
Why yes, it’s outrageously pathetic that I’m pleading with you, you bunch of inanimate but so darn yummy stuffed buns.
But even though the Pau were sold out, I overdid it on everything else that was still there. I had to come home and sneakily repack everything I bought into mom’s Tupperware, hoping she’d confuse last night’s leftovers with all the new things I dragged home from the Malay market today.
Word of advice—never invest in the extra effort to hide. Mommie will ALWAYS catch you.
But it was worth it. I knew from the first summery sip of the icy cool drink flavoured with aromatic, herby pandan leaves. Can I tell you how good it feels, after a day of fasting, when your insides are hollow to the core, and when that sweet, silky drink trickles across your tongue and through your parched throat and drips down onto one little dehydrated spot of your tummy lining, rippling out into a wave of refreshing coolness across your insides? It’s like someone just blasted the air conditioner inside you.
Iftar was a spread of little snacky treats I’d picked up from the bazaar: veggie popiah, chicken karipaps (curry puffs) and cucur badak. The popiah were in tatters by the time they reached home, but the original intention was neat papery parcels stuffed with sweet pickled carrots, potentially some shredded cabbage, peanuts and a tamarind paste that pounded with a loud, pungent smell, the kind you'd get from a base of shrimp balacanor an overgenerous splash of fish sauce.
The spherical cucur badak was fried music in my mouth. Little balls with an ingenious sweet potato pastry, stuffed with shredded toasted coconut, sugar, and some blend of spices—was it cumin? was it star anise? was it cinnamon? I really do need a peak into one of those Malay momma kitchens.
In the little interval between iftar and dinner, I snuck in a bite of this glazed piece of perfectly roasted chicken thigh. Sticky, salty, sweet molasses marinade…this was made to ring the bell on every one of the hungry taste buds of a fasting...and not-fasting person.
By dinner time, I knew I was going to attack that beef rendang like a savage. I remember distinctly holding the bowl of hot rendang near my face, inhaling its heady, spicy, deep aroma. I kept passing it back and forth under my nostrils, like a connoisseur with a glass of full-bodied wine. Except that my wine is curry, and beef rendang, one of the most complex, multi-layered curries across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, has the ability to intoxicate me if the chef has really nurtured the flavours of the coconut and the ginger and the lemongrass and the tamarind and the souk of spices that go into a traditional rendang. And indeed, the homegrown rendang chef at the bazaar had sold me the Bordeaux of beef rendangs.
Sitting down to dinner today was like diving into a waterfall of South-East Asian flavours. I had two foil tubs filled with spiced rice and my choice of curries and roast chicken all mushed up together, because that’s the style in which you compose your own nasi berlauk. The flavours were deeply earthy, slight sweet, slightly spicy, slightly lemony, and a 100% prone to overeating. Lemongrass, coconut, galangal, tamarind, that addictive combination of spices—shooting in the dark here, but there must have been clove, star anise, cinnamon and cardamom—and of course, the evasive magic dust of home-cooking, all of those were omnipresent across the dishes.
If it isn’t obvious, I was INCREDIBLY stuffed by the end of the meal. The prawns wrapped in a banana leaf and the shredded fish pack were left untouched, little gifts to myself reserved for the next day.
Manjeet and the lovely organizer A., thanks for making it possible for me to immerse myself in some authentic Malay culinary tradition. I feel privileged to have had my gluttonous fill of some of the best eats the Malaysian homes in Dubai have to offer, and enough leftovers to keep me going another day or so...but I have a strong suspicion that come this following Thursday, that Rendang will be calling out to me again.
If you're free this Friday the 10th, between 4pm and 7pm, I think it'd be sadistic to feed yourself anywhere else. It's the last bazaar of the season, and sadly, a few of the vendors said they wouldn't be there. But here's to hoping that the rendang mommie is! Here's the location:
Malaysian Consul General's Office, Bur Dubai - Map