Dining Out and Eating In: Malaysia Style

Dining etiquette in Malaysia is similar to the rules of dining etiquette in the other Southeast Asian countries. During business entertainment, dining etiquette is very important. Doing the right thing at the right time and at the right place is very important  to ensure we do not offend our host or guests.


If invited into a Malaysian family home for dinner, it is customary to always bring a small gift for your host or hostess. Any food or beverages would be gratefully received, and a souvenir from your home country would also be met with much gratitude. Remember that you should offer your gift with your right hand – likewise any gifts that you receive should be taken with your right hand.


Make sure that you dress well, and greet your hosts with a handshake, followed by placing your right hand over your heart. When entering a Malaysian house, you should be aware that it might be expected that you remove your shoes. A swift glance at your host’s and other guest’s feet will reveal whether this is indeed the case! Another giveaway is if there are shoes already placed in the lobby or entrance to the house.


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Malaysian Chinese Dining Etiquette
In the Chinese dinner setting, the table is round and dishes are placed in the middle for everyone to share. The menu of the food usually will be picked by the host. However the host will ask the guests for any food preferences. When dinner is served, we should wait for the host or the most senior on the table to start taking the food first. He or she will start by pointing to the dish to signal the start of eating. Some might say “eat rice” and it is a sign for us to start eating. When taking food, do take the nearest from you or the top of the dish and never dig for the food that you want. Never put back the food that we do not want again to the dish plate as it is considered rude. Normally the host will pay the bills. Do thank them and pay for them when they are your guests in future.


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Malaysian Indian Dining Etiquette
Before sitting down at the dining table, do wash your hands first before someone shows you where to sit. When the meals are served, wait for the host to say something like “Let’s eat!”. Indians traditionally do not use cutlery for eating. Indian breads and curry – are best enjoyed when eating with the hand. They use right hand fingers to tear a bite-sized piece of roti canai (a type of Indian-influenced flatbread). Do give a compliment to the host about the food. The host will ask you to eat more by saying “Take little bit more” and “Don’t be shy!”. Eating the food at moderate speed is proper as eating too fast means rude and eating too slow means the food is not to your liking. Food on the plate must be completed as it is considered a respect for food.


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Malay Dining Etiquette
In Malay culture, all the dishes are presented at the same time. You need to clean your hand first before eating. The Malays use their right hand’s fingers to take food to their mouth. A Small bowl with water or “ketor” (a jug with cleaning water, together with a big bowl to catch the remaining water) will be on the dining table which you can use to clean your tip of your right fingers.


When dinner is served, do wait for the host to invite you to start eating. The host will say “Jemputlah Makan or Silalah Makan” (Please eat) to signal the start of eating. The main dish is rice. On top of that, they will also serve three or four side dishes that go with rice. When there are two guests reaching out for the same dish, the younger should allow the elder person to take first.


Should you eat with your fingers, chopsticks or fork and spoon?

Malaysians will often eat out at restaurants, and if you choose to join them, you should be mindful that eating with your left hand is very bad etiquette. This is because the left hand is reserved for more crude bathroom-related purposes, so to be seen eating with your left hand would be thought of as dirty and uncouth. In many restaurants it is perfectly acceptable to eat with your fingers, but you should take a quick cursory glance around you to see if your Malaysian counterparts are already doing this before you dive in.


When in Public
Malaysians by nature tend to be quite relaxed, calm and humble, and you should adopt this very attitude when in Malaysia. So when in a difficult and taxing situation, as privately and subtly as possible, you should firmly state what your grievances are. The likelihood is that your Malaysian counterpart will seek to resolve any quandaries if they are treated with this level of respect.

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