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Food and Drink

Malaysia - Food and Drink

Over the course of history there have been many different influences on Malaysia’s culture. Today, the three most prevalent ethnic groups in the country have different backgrounds: Chinese, Indian, and of course Malaysian. Leftover colonial influences from Portugal, Britain, and the Netherlands can be seen as well. Because of these varying influences, Malaysian cuisine is a blend of cultures rather than strictly Malaysian.

An example of how different cultures have been so influential in Malaysia can be seen in the ingredients of its national dish, Nasi Lemak. Nasi Lemak is a special rice dish that can be eaten at breakfast, or with savory sides and condiments for any other meal. This rich rice dish is prepared by soaking the rice in coconut milk before steaming with pandan leaves or banana leaves. The coconut milk gives the rice a creamy, rich flavor and texture and the leaves add more to the flavor.

There are many variations of Nasi Lemak, with the traditional Malaysian version being served with peanuts, anchovies, and boiled egg. The Malaysian Indian take on the dish has it served with different kinds of curried chicken, lamb, or fish. Chinese Malaysians may serve Nasi Lemak with pork. Because the rice base of Nasi Lemak is so simple, there are really countless variations to the dish according to cultural influence and tastes.

A popular drink in Malaysia is Teh Tarik, which is a hot tea commonly served at breakfast. Teh Tarik is thought to have originated from Indians who immigrated to Malaysia after World War II. Translated as ‘pulled tea’, Teh Tarik is poured back and forth with condensed milk. This process mixes the drink and gives it a froth, like with a cappuccino. It is thought that the condensed milk was added to offset the bitter flavor of the Malaysian teas.

There is a performance factor to the serving of Teh Tarik - vendors like to ‘pull’ the tea high in the air with varying degrees of showmanship. There is a practical element to this as it cools the tea down, but a lot of servers like to have fun with the process as well.

Another traditional rice dish is congee. Congee is a simple rice porridge that is made with just rice and water. The preparation requires much more water than with the typical preparation of rice and cooks for much longer, as congee has a rather smooth consistency due to the breakdown of the rice. Congee is typically eaten for breakfast, and is considered ‘sick food’ since it is easily digested. It may have originated in times of famine, as the preparation requires relatively little rice. Congee can be eaten plain, or with different condiments, herbs, or protein added like eggs, chicken, or fish.

A popular food in Malaysia that has other cultural origins is banana leaf rice. This simple dish originated in India, and consists of white rice served on a banana leaf with vegetables, condiments, and sometimes meat. The banana leaf was not used to cook the rice, it is mainly used as a disposable plate. These meals are meant to be eaten by hand, so it can get quite messy.

With modernization and the increased availability of food outside the home, meal times have become more relaxed in Malaysia. In tourist-friendly cities there are many restaurants open late and it is said that the best food can be found at the roadside food stalls. Traditional Malaysian cuisine with all of its variations are sold by street vendors. In rural communities that have fewer conveniences, meals are typically eaten early, as agricultural work starts early in the day.

There are certain customs to observe when dining in Malaysia. For instance, it is customary that the host will order all dishes in a restaurant. Malaysians eat with their right hand - try to avoid using your left hand to eat or pass anything. Food waste is frowned upon, and it is considered rude to leave anything on your plate. Malaysians typically only drink after they have cleaned their plate. There are also restrictions, as it is forbidden for Muslims to eat pork, Hindus cannot eat beef, and some Buddhists do not eat meat at all.

It is important to be aware of local customs when it comes to drinking, as Malaysian Muslims are forbidden alcohol and in the states of Kelatan and Terengganu, alcohol is banned completely. Elsewhere in Malaysia, the legal drinking age has been recently raised from 18 to 21. Malaysia has the third highest tax on alcohol in the world, coming in at 15%. There are strict rules against driving while intoxicated, and an arrest can lead to heavy fines and several months in jail. Many restaurants owned by Muslims do not serve alcohol, so it is best to be aware of your surroundings and observe cultural etiquette in order to avoid offending anyone.

Most supermarkets and convenience stores in Malaysia sell beer, wine, and liquor (except in the states of Kelatan and Terengganu), especially in cities that attract tourists. In rural areas it may be a bit harder to find alcohol, as approximately 61% of the population is Muslim. In these areas, alcohol can be purchased from Malaysian Chinese owned restaurants and stores. It is best to be respectful in rural communities with regard to attitudes toward drinking alcohol, as these areas tend to be more traditional.

A traditional alcoholic beverage that is enjoyed by non-Muslim Malaysians is Tuak. This liquor is typically served on holidays or festivals, like Christmas or Gawai Dayak. Tuak is a fermented rice drink that can be sweetened with sugar, honey, or other flavors. It is available in different ‘strengths’, which vary depending on aging time. A mild version will have a low alcohol content with a short age, as little as one week. A stronger Tuak will have an alcohol content of around 20%, and will take at least two months to age.

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