Bread: various styles exist, but most are flat breads and each
ethnic group tends to have their own preference
Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Rice: rice is cooked in numerous styles and accompanies most meals
Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
Mee Goreng/Nasi Goreng: fried noodles and fried
rice respectively, these dishes served with vegetables are regular items on most
Nasi Lemak: the national dish is rice cooked in coconut
milk served with anchovies, peanuts, eggs, and chili paste
Satay: simply grilled meats seasoned with local spices
As a primarily Muslim country, there are a few rules you must know and understand
prior to eating in Malaysia. However, the country is fairly
diverse as Hindus, primarily from India and Chinese Buddhists are also present in
large numbers, making the dining rules even more complex.
First, dress on the conservatively side (see our
Malaysia Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and
even some restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite
sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is very uncommon today
(especially on tourist islands and in cities), to some conservative Muslims this
is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead.
Lastly, some people don't eat pork or drink alcohol as so observe your present
company and follow their lead in this regard. If you are eating with Hindus, cattle
are sacred though so you should avoid eating beef. If in doubt, or just to be cautious,
order chicken, fish, or a vegetarian meal.
If meeting locals for a meal punctuality is something to keep in mind, but arriving
a few minutes late is common. Before entering a house or restaurant check to see
if others have left their shoes at the door; if so you should do the same then greet
everyone personally, elders first. If meeting Muslims, don't touch a person
of the opposite sex since some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women
should touch; wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite
sex. Few Malays take offense to a simple handshake, but very conservative Muslims
don't believe people of the opposite sex should make physical contact so again
follow the local's lead.
Let your local counterpart arrange the seating and many cases your local host will
order food for the entire table as well so you have multiple dishes to choose from.
Food is often served family style and accepting all food that is offered to you
is a must. Prior to eating you may notice a small bowl of water on your table; this
is for cleaning your fingers so follow the lead of others as you may be asked to
wash your hands before you begin eating. Once the host invites you to begin eating
you may notice numerous eating options. The Malays tend to eat with both a fork
and spoon; the spoon is held in the right hand and the fork is used to push food
onto the spoon. Other times the Malays, and usually the Indians as well will eat
with only their right hand and you should do the same. To make matters more confusing,
the Chinese tend to eat with chopsticks and mastering this
art may take time, patience, and numerous meals of getting little food in your mouth.
No matter what is present, only use your right hand to eat and only bring food to
your mouth with your right hand, even if using a spoon or chopsticks.
When you finish eating, leave a little food on your plate (but finish all of your
rice) then place your fork and spoon face down on the plate, with the spoon crossed
over top of the fork (or if eating with chopsticks, place your chopsticks back on
the chopstick rest on the side of your plate). After the meal you may be offered
a beverage (drinks are usually not served before or with meals); if so you again
must accept the drink, but receive it with both hands. If you are eating in a restaurant,
you will probably find that a 5% service charge has been added as has a 10% government
charge; no additional tip is expected or necessary.
Celebrations & Events
The festivals in Malaysia are numerous and fairly diverse
as the population consists of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists, many of
whom are ethnic Chinese, which also adds Chinese celebrations.
Most of the events in Malaysia are religious events although a couple have secular
In Malaysia, Eid al Fitr is commonly referred
to as Hari Raya Aidilfitri (or Hari Raya Puasa, which is a celebration
that occurs immediately after Ramadan; Ramadan is a religious holiday that requires
fasting for 30 days. Hari Raya Aidilfitri is celebrated with satays
(kebabs), ketupat (rice cakes), and numerous street foods, including cakes,
pastries, and fruits.
The second major religious food celebration is Eid al Adha, or better known
as Hari Raya Haji in Malaysia. This event is celebrated
after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able
Muslim to go to Mecca. This celebration is usually marked by the slaughter of a
goat or cow.
Christian holidays are also widely celebrated and first among these holidays is
Christmas. Like many countries throughout the world, this is an event that is typically
celebrated with family, but the foods served vary from house to house, although
traditional Malay foods are common, including satays.
Among the Hindu celebrations, the most important is probably Deepavali,
which is a festival of lights and cleansing. As many of the Hindus are ethnic Indians,
the foods served on this event in Malaysia are typically traditional
A final food celebration in Malaysia that does not involve
religion is Chinese New Year. This event is now celebrated by nearly everyone in
the country and involves numerous ethnic Chinese
Foods & Drinks.
Malaysia has all the international favorite drinks, but
they tend to sweeten them all to the point of nearly intolerable. This includes
everything from sugar in juices (including nutmeg juice) to their tea and coffee,
which are typically served with sweetened condensed milk. Soft drinks, milk, and
other drinks are also available and popular in Malaysia.
As a primarily Muslim country, Malaysia has a number of
people that refrain from drinking alcohol, but for most people this doesn't
seem to be an issue. As a multi-cultural country many people have no religious restriction
on drinking alcohol and even for many Muslims in the country, alcohol is tolerated,
if not consumed. However, some more conservative Muslims do refrain from drinking
so it is best to follow the lead of locals when deciding to drink alcohol. Some
areas have nightclubs and resorts where the consumption of alcohol is a way of life,
while in other areas it is uncommon and drinking may be somewhat odd.
The tap water is generally safe to drink in Malaysia, but
in many rural areas it is not safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely
avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as
ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check
with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that
area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting
to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system
is used to if you are not from the region.