KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - The air is thick with smoke from the hot grills of food stalls that have sprung up in the capital city during the holy month of Ramadan, but traders complain that business is the thinnest it's been in years.
Malaysian Muslims are halfway through the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting but while crowds still throng to the stalls and bazaars to buy food and shop, a slowing economy and concerns over the H1N1 flu virus have dampened their appetite.
"We've been selling at this Ramadan bazaar for 14 years. Sales are down this year from last year. In fact, it's the worst year ever," said Zulmajdi Omar, a trader at a popular market bazaar in central Kuala Lumpur.
Zulmajdi, 29, helps his father to sell "serunding," a dry spicy meat floss made from shredded beef or chicken that is often eaten with rice or bread.
The meat floss, which requires long hours of cooking, keeps well without refrigeration and is a popular delicacy during the Eid-al Fitr celebrations which will mark the end of Ramadan.
Zulmajdi said the higher cost of ingredients has also eaten into profits.
In the next alley, two young Malay men await customers at their stall which offers a vast array of dates and cookies.
"We were still doing alright last year but this year, our sales are down about 40 percent. I think people are scared to go out because of H1N1 and they are also spending less because of the economy," said 23-year old Mohamad Tarmizi Ahmad.
Several vendors of decorative festive items and clothes also reported slower sales ranging from declines of 10 percent to 50 percent from last year.
Malaysia last month announced its economy in the second quarter contracted 3.9 percent from a year ago, after a decline of 6.2 percent in the first quarter.
The Southeast Asian country is still hurting from the global economic downturn with its electronics and commodity exports slumping this year.
Not all Ramadan traders are doing badly. Those selling food to Muslims breaking fast after a long day of abstaining from eating and drinking fare better than most.
At a bazaar in suburban Kuala Lumpur, traders were bustling about serving customers making their way home after work, with little time to prepare for the sunset meal.
Shah Che Ismail runs a stall selling 50 different types of colorful local cakes and pastries.
"Business has been okay. We sell about 3,000 pieces a day. The weekends are quieter as people have time to cook at home," the 33-year old trader said.
Iela Ruslan, a 30-year old bank executive, said she rushes from her work place every evening to help her mother Azizah to sell "popiah basah," soft rice flour rolls filled with vegetables.
"The whole family helps. We sell popiah only during Ramadan. It's my mum's recipe," Iela said.
Iela expects the stall to earn about 12,000 ringgit ($3,414) after expenses during this period, up from 10,000 ringgit last year.
Malaysia, where 55 percent of the 27 million strong population are Muslim Malays, will set the Eid al-Fitr holiday dates according to the sighting of the new moon which is expected to be around September 20.
($1=3.515 Malaysian Ringgit)
Editing by Miral Fahmy