Traditional Malay eating practices are influenced by Islamic dietary standards. Malays refrain from alcohol and pork, and eat halal food. Consider this when bringing food to a Malay household or having dinner with Muslim colleagues. At the dinner table, use your right hand only if you eat with your hands, because the left hand is reserved for washroom purposes. Dinner guests in the home are usually seated to the left of the eldest family member. During the fasting month of Ramadan, your Malay friends and co-workers will abstain from food and drinks from dawn to dusk, after which you’ll usually see Ramadan bazaars selling a beautiful spread of Malay street food.
Chinese cuisine is usually eaten with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon rather than conventional fork and spoon utensils. Chopsticks have their own set of rules: don’t use them to eat rice unless you’re eating it from a bowl, in which instance you should bring it to your mouth and use the chopsticks as a shovel. Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in the rice bowl: this arrangement typically signifies sticks of incense used in offerings to the dead. You definitely should not cross your chopsticks, use them to beat your bowl or plate, or pierce food with the chopstick points as you would with a fork as all this is considered disrespectful. Place your chopsticks outside of your bowl when you’re finished, and you’ll get through your meal unscathed.
Indian cuisine in Malaysia is most associated with banana leaf ‘plates’ on which rice, curries and vegetables are served. After your meal, don’t leave your banana leaf as it is – fold it top down to signify that the meal is over. Indians who practice the Hindu religion consider the cow a sacred animal, so they will abstain from eating beef. Similar to Malay dining culture, if eating with your hands, use only the right hand and the tips of your fingers to pick up the food. Eating too slow or fast sends a bad message, so eat at a moderate pace in between conversation. If you finish early, wait for the eldest person at the table to finish first before excusing yourself.
There are many common threads connecting different religion and cultures when it comes to food practices. Respect for elders at the dinner table is one example, as the ethnic groups above and several other sub-cultures in Malaysia prioritise the needs of the elderly before that of others. Sharing rice and dishes in the centre of the table is a common practice among families, more so than dishes served to each individual. Religion determines many people’s dining preferences; yet, years of living together have made each group innately sensitive to the eating needs of others.
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