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Let's go Makan!                                                                                                                                                  Version Française

When asked about what makes them  proud of their country : FOOD is by far the  first thing Malaysians mention. Food is truly the one thing that brings Malaysians of all ethnicities together. Ask any of your local friends or colleagues about a specific type of food and they will go on telling you where is the best place in town to try it , where the dish comes from and where to get the best ingredient for it.

Food is available at all times of the day and in great variety. Nasi lemak (the coconut flavored rice eaten with sambal and anchovies) is the typical Malay breakfast that you can eat for breakfast, … lunch or dinner!  In a city like Kuala Lumpur you can have the choice of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Sabahian, Sarawakian and foreign cuisine. The blog Most wanted food in Malaysia lists more than 3000 food outlets in Kuala Lumpur alone.

Corporate gifts often consist of food hampers,  on the big religious celebrations Malaysian organize Open house  and invite their friends to share food all day long. In Malaysia, food is more than about feeding oneself, it is an entire part of the social interactions. One still can be greeted in Malaysia by “SudahMakan ? Have you eaten yet?” rather than a simple “Hello”.

 

Why is that so?

The different communities of Malaysia have different relations to food , but they all share a passion for it.

If we look at the Malay community, food is directly linked to the value of hospitality. If a Malay host did not offer anything to eat and drink to a guest, even if the guest came without prior arrangement, that would be considered rude and a sign of bad education. 

Spending time preparing good and elaborate food for guests, is a sign of how much one cares for their visitors and how well one wants to look after them.

The notion of abundance is also very important: The more food is prepared, the more face one gives to guests … and in return, the more food is prepared, the harder it will be for a guest  to refuse to help a host who needs a favor: If one has gone into so much trouble to receive a guest  well, how can the guest  refuse to help when asked?

Abundance is also important for Chinese people, it is essential to offer enough food to guests and friends.  As with Malays, food has to be plentiful in order for the host not to lose face. One must prepare enough food, with enough variety, so the guests can enjoy themselves, and for the host to show how important the guests are to them.  In Chinese culture specific dishes will have a special meaning. One can almost speak of the language of food as the food will carry the message. On Chinese New Year every family needs to prepare the “niangao” or sticky glutinous rice cake. “Gao” is the same pronunciation as “high” in mandarin, hence symbolizing the rising of good fortune for the family in the New Year.

For Chinese people food is also closely related to health. One has to be very careful in how to mix the ingredients and when to eat them according to the nutrients and energy content. In that context food can also be considered a medicine.

 

How does that translate in every day life

Food cannot be dissociated from life.  Malaysian seldom intentionally skip a meal, on the contrary, they can go to great extend to get to the best place for a specific dish.

Exploring the food of Malaysia is also a great way to explore the many cultures of Malaysia. Any top 10 list of Malaysian Food features the Satay (Malay food),  RotiCanai (Indian mamak), Char Kueyteow ( Chinese), AsamLaksa ( Nynonya), Sarawak Lasksa (Sarawakian). Every Malaysian, regardless of their ethnicity will enjoy these dishes,  as they all take into account the dietary restrictions of all ethnic  communities.

Food is not only about what you eat, but also where you eat it.  The 2  favorites venues are the Kopitiam , often run by Malaysian of Chinese origin and theMamak stall, run be Malaysian of Indian Muslim origin.  These are the venues where people get together for quick good food and a nice chat.

Last, food is closely linked to special celebrations. Many families start preparing for the religious festivals at least a month ahead and part of this preparation envolvescooking special snacks and food, that are only available at that  timeof the year. The younger generations are not as diligent as their elders in preparing food, especially in urban areas, but they do enjoy sharing the food!

 

How to handle food at work?

A recent study by Harvard Business review shows that conducting negotiations over a good meal, brings better results than when food is not involved. Malaysian understood this concept a long time ago.

Spending time to share food is one of the best way to connect with your colleagues. During an informal meal,  the conversation will first focus on the food, but then it  will naturally move on to other topics, and people will feel more confortable sharing ideas and discussing sensitive topics.

Sharing food is  also a way to show that one cares:  on days when people have to work longer hours, providing food for the entire team will be appreciated and likewise not doing so will also be unpleasantly  noticed.

When organizing an early meeting, providing breakfast is a good incentive to get people to show up on time, and will also put people in good spirits before the meeting.

Conclusion

If in France food is an art,  in Malaysia food is a cultural value. One  should cherish opportunities to understand their Malaysian friends and colleagues through the food they eat. Discussing food is also a door to understand the culture behind the food.

Although flavours and the spicy food can be challenging  for the some, the diversity of cuisine on offer in Malaysia is so vast that there is something for every one.

So we go Makan ? 

First published in Le Petit Journal on 9 April 2013

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Let's go Makan! by Marie Christine Tseng is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.