Kuala Lumpur – gritty, frenetic, intoxicating – becomes quiet and contemplative during the Holy Month, except after sundown. This is the time for iftar, or berbuka puasa as it’s known locally, when fast is broken and families and friends gather over traditional bubur lambuk. A moreish, creamed-rice porridge, the dish is enriched with meat, coconut milk, and condiments, and given free to practicing Muslims from many of the city’s mosques. Should you be tempted to try it, be warned: the porridge is often so popular that queues start forming around 4pm, hours before sunset. In-the-know locals head to Kampung Baru, one of the city’s most sacred sites, which ladles out around 20 gigantic pots of the generations-old speciality every evening.
Vermicelli is a world apart when served during Ramadan in the subcontinent. The noodley Italian pasta is used as the chief ingredient for sheer khurma – ‘milk with dates’ – a sweet pudding made with milk, sugar and dried dates. It’s sought-after with good reason during breakfasts and on the morning of Eid al-Fitr after prayer. It’s first fried in clarified butter, then topped with pistachios, almonds, or raisins, then loaded with rose water, saffron or cardamom.
One of the most beguiling traditions anywhere is Sepak Bola Api, or ‘flaming football’. Mostly played in Yogyakarta, Bogor, Tasikmalaya and Papua, it’s a little different from regular football. While there are still two teams of 11 players on each side, it’s primed with one fiery twist: instead of using a traditional stitched leather football, players kick one made from bound coconut shells, first soaked in kerosene, then set aflame. To see it at its most competitive, hotfoot it to Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural capital, already home to a vast spectrum of distractions.
As the end of Ramadan approaches in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, henna artists set up pop-up shops and showcase many designs that are used to decorate women’s hands, arms, legs, feet and fingernails. To begin with, artists use henna-producing leaves and bark from the flowering Lawsonia inermis. Next, they grind the ingredients to produce a mustard-yellow powder that forms the basis for the dye. The henna only lasts for a month, leaving behind a delicate perfume, but each ornate and intricate design carries its own spiritual message.
If you know your stews, you’ll know haleem, the slow-cooked casserole of wheat, barley, lentils and any cut of aged mutton or beef hanging at the local butcher shop. Known for its thick, paste-like sauce, it’s justifiably popular in the Middle East and Central Asia. Perhaps nowhere more so than in Pakistan, where the meat is pounded, then spiced with saffron and bathed in liberal amounts of dried fruit and ghee. While it’s eaten throughout the year, Pakistanis notch things up a gear during Ramadan, creating vast feasts of the stuff, before sharing it out to neighbours with freshly leavened bread and chutneys.
The fanous, or Ramadan lantern, is a symbol of the Holy Month around the world, and yet its meaning is amplified in Cairo’s historic downtown core. The lamps were first used to light the path of Caliph Moezz Eddin Allah in AD969 while he journeyed to Mokattam mountain to see the full Moon signal the end of the Holy Month. Now, however, it has grown to the extent that multi-coloured lanterns litter the city. You’ll see souks lit up, shopfronts adorned with chain-dangling Ali Baba lamps, and alleyways bathed in the diffused red and gold light of twinkling garlands. And, yes, it’s as impressive as it sounds.