Getting to Know the Table Manners of the Malays – Dining Etiquette #3


Living in the era of globalization and experiencing the explosion of knowledge, as of today we can no longer choose to be ignorant and going around strutting arrogantly like a peacock holding the ‘superiority card’ of any particular race and turning our blind eyes about who are our neighbours. As a stepping stone, we will explore the fascination of other cultures through the understanding of their table manners.

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Malays are an ethnic group of Austronesian people predominantly inhabiting the ‘Alam Melayu‘ in which today, these locations are part of the modern nations of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Burma and Thailand. Due to hundreds of years of immigration and assimilation of various regional ethnicity and tribes within Maritime Southeast Asia, they absorbed numerous cultural features of other local ethnic groups, such as those of Minang, Acehnese, and to some degree Javanese culture; however Malay culture differs by being more overtly Islamic than the multi-religious Javanese culture.[1]”

Manners Matter

Their dining etiquette is said to be quite elaborate and being invariably Muslims, it’s understood that pork or other non halal meat and beverage are “no-no” in their homes. There are rules and taboos to observe while dining in their homes and below are the compilations from a few sources.

– For any invitation to their homes, it is required to greet the host with a ‘salam’ (a handshake ritual) and presenting gifts as a gesture of appreciation to the host with your right hand only while receiving of gifts should be with both hands.

– Traditionally Malay feast is laid on the floor, however in the modern day most Malay homes use dining sets. If you are dining on the floor, you will be are seated within a square piece of clothes called ‘saprah’ (similar to a tablecloth but laid on the floor).

– It’s normal for female guests and children to be served in separate location from men, unless there’s are an exception if the couple in question is honoured guests or it is a small private affair.

– There are distinct differences in the manner of seating on the floor between men and women. Men ‘bersila’ (means, criss-crossing their feet in front of them) while women ‘bersimpuh’ (means, fold both their feet on one side, normally towards their right side). For those who are not used to this manner of sitting, it can be quite uncomfortable.

When the Food is Served

– When all guests are seated, the food will be brought in. Food is served all at once, not in courses.

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– The meal should be eaten with your right hand while the left hand should never be used to handle food at any circumstances as it is reserved for’ bathroom-related purposes. Therefore using left hand is considered dirty for them.

– Traditionally to start of a meal, you need to have a quick rinse of the right hand by dipping the tip of the finger into a bowl of water provided or pouring out water from the ‘ketor’ (a jug with cleaning water, together with a big bowl to catch the remaining water as per the image below).


– Next, is to wait for the host to formally welcomes you to dine, the cue is normally ‘Silalah Makan’ or ‘Jemputlah Makan’ which means ‘you may proceed with the meal’.

– Rice is the main dish served with three to four side dishes. Dishes with sauce, soup or gravy will have a spoon for you to scoop. For dry dishes, you simply tear a piece of the food with your right hand from a communal dish.

– Use your right hand’s fingers to put food into your mouth. The right hand’s fingers should move towards your mouth horizontally and not vertically and take your time to enjoy your meal.

– In the Malay culture, every grain of rice is deemed as sacred, therefore it is advisable to scoop enough rice for your consumption to avoid wastages. You may refill the rice upon finishing the earlier portion. Do not take big amount of rice when taking your rice with your right hand. Take each morsel in small bites and do not swallow in big bites as it is considered rude.

– Do not chew and talk at the same time during the meal time as it is deemed as impolite.

– If there are two guests reaching out for the same dish, the elder should be given the honour to go first.

– If you tasted something and did not like it, do not place it back in the communal dish. Instead put it one side of your plate.

– Bones, shells and inedible residue may be placed on a special platter provided, otherwise you should put it at one side of your plate.

– Even though the drinks are offered simultaneously or you are thirsty, it is better to drink after you have completed your meal.

– Burping or belching is alright for men (you must close your mouth while doing so) but for women, it is not advisable.

– Food cannot be placed on its own on the floor as a sign of respect for the provision of god. Also, you must never point at the food (or anyone) using your foot.

During the Tea Break

– ‘Ketor’ or a bowl of water is provided for the cleaning of fingers.

– If there is a sauce to go with a finger food dish, you may dip only ONCE in the communal sauce dish and to eat it right away.

– If there are several pieces left in the plate, do not grab all the pieces for yourself but rather leaving the last two for others.

– Tissue paper or serviette usually is prepared for you to wipe your mouth and fingers.

– If your food is stuck between your teeth, you may use toothpick to take it out but you must cover your mouth with both hands while doing it.

During Breaking of Fast (Buka Puasa)

– If you’re non-Malay who is invited for a ‘buka puasa’ feast, be sure to arrive earlier between fifteen to thirty minutes ahead of time.

– Some hosts will be happy if you bring an extra dish as a contribution to the feast (like a potluck party) but be sure that the food you bring is halal.

– As soon as the time arrives, everyone will start the meal with a few pieces of dates. This is to prepare the stomach which has been empty for the last twelve hours or so.

– Then, you may sip a little water and to resume eating as normal.

The Modern Day Malays in Malaysia

In many ways, the Malay community in Malaysia has evolved and much of the practices of the culture are gradually dying as the community are adopting Islamic practices above their cultural background. Consequently the tourism sector of Malaysia is suffering the backlash of such trend.

At the surface, it’s common for many modern Malays to eat out nowadays. They often go to restaurants to have their meals. We have many people who eat in the restaurants using their hands. However as a guest, you are required to respect your host by observing the conduct of your host. There are some Malays who practice western ways of dining. It is very common to find a pair of fork and spoon but no dining knives on the dining table.

However in Malaysia, the term ‘Malay’ race is rather complicated as it is defined and governed by the Malaysian constitution – “In the Article 160, ‘Malay’ means a person who satisfies two sets of criteria: the person must be one who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, and adheres to Malay customs.

As being a Muslim is one of the components of the definition, Malay citizens who convert out of Islam are no longer considered Malay under the Constitution. Hence, the Bumiputra privileges afforded to Malays under Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia are forfeited for such converts.

Likewise, when a non-Malay embraces Islam, he is said to ‘masuk Melayu’ (become a Malay). That person is automatically assumed to be fluent in the Malay language and to be living like a Malay as a result of his close association with the Malays” [2].

The fascination of the Malay culture does not stop here, read more from these sites, and


1. “Ethnic Malays“, Wikipedia.

2. “Article 160 – Constitutional definition of Malay“, Wikipedia.

3. “Malay Table Manners“,

4. “Malaysian Dining Etiquette – What You Need to Know“,, May 16, 2012.

5. “The Malaysian Dining Etiquette Advantage in International Business“,, November 26, 2011.

Related Post – Dining Etiquette
Observing Table Manners of the Chinese – Dining Etiquette #2
American vs. European Styles (Part 1 of 3) – Dining Etiquette #1
American vs. European Styles (Part 2 of 3) – Dining Etiquette #1
American vs. European Styles (Part 3 of 3) – Dining Etiquette #1


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  2. Tu charrie Marc, franchement. Qu'est ce que tu attends ? La fin de la première tournée américaine ? En attendant, Nadal sera dans la partie de Murray et Federer, dans celle de Djokovic. On peut dire que c'est bien parce que c'est varié. A l'Australian, on a eu du Federer/Nadal en demi, rebelotte à Indian Wells, un petit changement à Miami, plutôt cool.

  3. You are lovely! I’m, very slowly, making the same effort. I invested in a new sundress yesterday. (and a desperately needed new bra)Earrings are next on the list, same ones everyday here too.

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