It’s just past 7 pm on the eve of Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid ul fitr) and I’m convinced all of Singapore has converged on Geylang Serai. This month-long Ramzan bazaar in the city’s once traditional Malay quarter opened me up to another side of Singapore, a city many of us are quick to dismiss as predictable. I’ve never seen so many Singaporeans cram themselves into one street.
In many ways Gaylang Serai is a microcosm of Singapore’s multi-ethnic culture, a veritable melting pot of sorts. Malays might make up just over 13% of the population – but there’s no bigger show than the month long Ramzan bazaar and of course, everybody’s invited.
The concept of a Pasar Malam (night market) – the word Pasar is derived from bazaar – is common in Malaysia and Indonesia where traders come together once or twice a week at a specific location with temporary stalls. Singapore’s very own version features at least a few hundred stalls that spring up during the month of Ramzan.
Everything from fine clothes to iPhone accessories is in the mix – yes this is Singapore after all. But if there’s one reason why most Singaporeans make the trek to Gaylang Serai, it’s the food.
The Delights on Offer at ‘Ramzan Market’
Very few people queue up the way Singaporeans do for a good meal; almost everyone I know here is a foodie. Like Jane – my local guide, and Ana – whose family runs Tong Heng, one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese pastry establishments (their egg tarts are now a local legend) – who helped me wade through this high-energy market.
The Ramzan market doesn’t just feature halal food and Malaysian staples but is also an occasion for budding food entrepreneurs to showcase their newest innovations. The bazaar almost becomes a platform for ‘pop up’ food concepts; some that might fade away and others that eventually blend into the local food scene. Case in point – the Roti John, a local fried baguette that was originally crafted for a hungry Western tourist in the late 1970s, or the scrumptious Ramley Burger where the patty is wrapped in an omelette.
We dropped out of the line (two hours seemed an unreasonable wait!) for one of this year’s biggest draws – the Watermelon Volcano. This was watermelon finely blended with ice, served in a scooped watermelon with a straw and spoon.
I got lucky at the next two popular stalls for the year. The first, a clever spin on a frozen yoghurt with a drizzle of the spicy Korean Yangnyeom sauce. (Something even the Koreans didn’t dream of.) The other local Instagram sensation is the seriously insane gelato served in a cotton candy nest. I needed wet tissues to clean up after it though.
Why Singapore is a Melting Pot of Cultures
Singapore’s earliest inhabitants were of Malay origin and their contribution to the city’s food culture is invaluable. From flavoursome Laksas to fiery curries, many of the community’s traditional cuisine is a big draw at the market. It was comforting to see the city’s ethnic Tamil population display their innovative streak too. Crab vadai, anyone? This is something I’m unlikely to ever sample in Chennai – tiny cubes of crab blended into the conventional vadai!
The crowds at the market were a complete contrast to my visit to the Singapore’s most imposing mosque – Masjid Sultan, earlier in the evening.
This is a mosque designed by a British firm (Swan and Mc Laren – the same firm that designed Singapore’s landmark Raffles Hotel), funded by Malays and Indians and flanked by Arab Street and Kandahar Street! Under the imposing golden dome is a black strip made up of old bottles donated by the area’s less affluent Muslims. Almost a reminder that everyone’s contribution counts.
Many Indian politicians speak at length about Singapore’s Model and the country’s phenomenal economic success story. But beneath all that success lies a strong multi-religious, ethnic fabric that binds this country.
Food and the sheer energy of a night market may be the reasons why Geylang Serai becomes a magnet for the whole city during Ramzan but this is also a celebration of Singapore’s diverse society. Few Ramzan markets anywhere in the world can match the sheer diversity of cuisine at Geylang Serai.
I can’t wait to be back.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)