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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Malaysia

Historic Diet

Malay Food - Soup
Soup

The archipelago and peninsula that make up Malaysia today has a number of indigenous foods common both domestically as well as abroad today. Bananas, oranges, and breadfruit are all native to the region, while numerous additional foods arrived to the island with the earliest people to the region.

Among the indigenous and early arriving fruits and vegetables were oranges, bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, durian, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and melons. Like the diverse plant life, animals were also present in large numbers and some of the most common meats that were historically consumed include chicken, duck, boar, and water buffalo. However, it was the sea life that made up the greatest part of the historic diet from a protein perspective. Mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab are all prevalent in the ocean while carp, catfish, and others are common freshwater fish.

Culinary Influences

Malay Food - Satay
Satay

Malaysia's cuisine today is the culmination of dozens of influences. The earliest introductions primarily arrived via Southeast Asia and the Malay Peninsula, but began their journeys in lands as far as India, China, and even the Middle East.

The Indians and their foods though didn't arrive in great numbers until about the 300s, which is when they brought with them many new spices and dishes. Curries arrived in great numbers and after numerous Indians converted to Islam, pork was reduced in the islands. This spread of Islam though didn't entirely take over the islands of Indonesia for years so pork was consumed by the majority for some time. The next great impact came with the Chinese, who brought numerous dishes to the region, but it was soy sauce that made the greatest impact as this makes an essential component to numerous dishes and sauces.

Malay Food - Chinese dim sum
Chinese dim sum

In the 1500s the Spanish and other Europeans arrived to Malaysia with new foods. Many of these foods came from the Americas via the Spanish, including maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. Foods were also brought in from Europe, primarily from the Portuguese and Dutch, who introduced cheeses, breads, pastries, cakes, and some dairy products, including butter. In addition to the foods the Europeans brought, Malaysia, and more specifically the Sultanate of Malacca, became a center of the spice trade going east and west. This led to the introduction or the increase in popularity of spices and foods from the Far East as well as from India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. This trade also created a mass immigration of people from everywhere to become traders in Malaysia. Among these immigrants, the Indians, Arabs, and Chinese settled in the greatest numbers.

In more recent times, Malaysia has continued to receive influences from all over the world as new technologies and food concepts have arrived and been accepted widely. Frozen foods and fast foods are growing in popularity, especially in the cities. However, these foods have yet to replace traditional foods, but rather only add to the diet. None-the-less, it is easy to find fast food, frozen foods, and even many "ethnic" restaurants in the large cities.

Staple Foods

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 menus
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

Dining Etiquette

Malay Food - Street food
Street food

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 origins.

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 Indian Foods.

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.

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.

This page was last updated: March, 2013