Ramadan just started last week, right smack in the middle of Malaysia’s durian season. Between sunrise and sunset, Muslims are abstaining from both food and water. In the evenings they gather at large markets or buffets set up just for the month-long celebration.
The Islamic year is a full 10 days shorter than the 365 day calendar, meaning
that each Ramadan occurs slightly earlier than the year before. For the next few years, Ramadan will
interrupt the durian season. With a good portion of the population fasting all day, I was curious how durian sales would be affected. It’s not as if Muslims don’t eat at all – they just don’t eat during daylight hours. Since most people prefer to eat durian at night anyway; could durian sales go up?
|The mosque behind Tina’s stall|
Rob and I were lucky enough to be in Gua Musang for the start of Ramadan. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and
about 60% of the population is Muslim. In Kelantan, where Gua Musang is
located, Islam accounts for 95% of the population. Islam is so part and
parcel of Malay culture that Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution
defines its ethnic Malay citizens by whether or not they are Muslim. This means
that a Malay who converts to another religion is no longer legally identified as part of the Malay ethnic group.
I was first made aware of the connection between durian and Ramadan in Penang, where I was told that the durians would become much cheaper during Ramadan because fasting Muslims don’t go for durian. My source, a government personal assistant that I met while visiting the Ministry of Tourism, said that because Muslims also don’t drink all day they are too thirsty to eat durian in the evenings. He then invited me out for a beer. “I thought Muslims don’t drink alcohol,” I said. “I am a modern Muslim,” he replied proudly.
I wondered if it could be possible that Malays would give up their precious durian for nearly half of its season. Multiple people have told me that Malays, more than their Chinese-Malaysian or Indian-Malaysian compatriots, are really crazy about the fruit. “If not eat durian a Malay will die,” a taxi driver pronounced. Someone else explained. “They will sell even the sarong to eat durian,” meaning that they would sell the clothes off their back for their favorite food.
The Pasar Ramadan (Ramadan Market) was just across the street from Tina’s durian stall in Gua Musang. The place was abandoned for most of the day, a spooky fairgrounds of empty stalls full of coconuts, piles of cempadak, and mounds of sugar cane pulp. It was as if the people simply had been vaporized.
|A table of beverages to slake faster’s thirst|
By 4 p.m. the market had sprung to life. Greasy smoke from large clay pots full of charcoal and roasting chicken wafted through the air. The loud whirr of engines was deafening as sugarcane juice vendors ran the long stalks through their gas powered machines, filling plastic bags full of green-brown liquid for the thirsty fasters. In between pots of bubbling curry and tables full of bright colored sweets I spotted a single durian vendor. His stall alone was neglected.
While most people seem to prefer the more traditional Ramadan fare, some people evidently do eat durian. Ramadan buffets are
popular events usually offered by hotels and upscale restaurants. This year numerous
hotels around Malaysia are adding durian to the menu. Marriott Hotel in Putrajaya, Hotel Impiana in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur, and Junction Bistro, also in KL,
are just a few of the locations where fasters can break with a creamy bite of durian. The durian will be served in a special tent outside,
so as not to disturb those who don’t care for the smell.
|Durian takes a backseat during Ramadan|
The increasingly trendy all-you-can-eat durian buffets may also get a bump from the summer Ramadans. According to some bloggers, durian buffets offered for as little as 9 RM per person may entice those who enjoy the fruit and don’t want to pay the typically much more expensive price of a Ramadan buffet. But when Rob and I returned to KL after our adventures in Raub, it didn’t seem like the durian business was booming. In fact, when we swung by Chow Kit to get our last taste of Malaysian durian in Malaysia (we would be encountering Malaysian imports in Singapore), we noticed that the durian stalls were conspicously missing. The six or seven durian stalls had been replaced by tables selling traditional Ramadan sweets and satay. After some searching, we spotted two sad little durian displays, set back behind the Ramadan tables.
When we were in Gua Musang I asked Tina how Ramadan affects her sales. She acknowledged that during
Ramadan her local sales go down, but said it didn’t matter. Most of her durians go to Singapore anyway. It seems that unless the durian buffet really takes off, it will be the Malaysian durian vendors, not the farmers, who will have to accept lower sales in the coming years.