Past and present practices of the Malay food heritage and culture in Malaysia

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Past and present practices of the Malay food heritage and culture in Malaysia

Published on December, 2017 | by

Malay heritage varies from north to south; however, there are various similarities and differences. Essentially, Malay heritage food is influenced by a myriad of cultures, such as Arab, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Javanese, Minangkabau, and others. Different regions in Malaysia are known for their unique or signature dishes, such as beef rendanglaksanasi lemak, and tapai. Indeed, it is noted that Malay food is identical in terms of its spiciness. This can be seen from the prepreparation, methods of cooking, and availability and use of prominent ingredients, such as local aromatic herbs and spices. This article highlights the regional Malay food, past and present practices of Malay food culture, and characteristics of Malay food. In addition, this article also discusses the different occasions and table etiquette practices among Malay communities. The reported findings are expected to contribute to the literature on food culture, specifically in Malay heritage food.


Figures (10)

  1. Fig.1. Ayam percik
  2. Fig.2. Batu giling is used to grindspices
  3. Fig.3. Nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves
  4. Fig.4. Turi leaves cooked in water with carrot and sweet corn, a water-based…
  5. Fig.5. Galangal or blue ginger rhizome provides unique aroma and flavor to Malay food
  6. Fig.6. Pasar Siti Khadijah, Kota Bharu, Kelantan

Extras (1)

  1. mmc1
Journal of Ethnic Foods

Volume 4, Issue 4, December 2017, Pages 221-231
Journal of Ethnic Foods
Review Article

Past and present practices of the Malay food heritage and culture in Malaysia

Malay heritage varies from north to south; however, there are various similarities and differences. Essentially, Malay heritage food is influenced by a myriad of cultures, such as Arab, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Javanese, Minangkabau, and others. Different regions in Malaysia are known for their unique or signature dishes, such as beef rendanglaksanasi lemak, and tapai. Indeed, it is noted that Malay food is identical in terms of its spiciness. This can be seen from the prepreparation, methods of cooking, and availability and use of prominent ingredients, such as local aromatic herbs and spices. This article highlights the regional Malay food, past and present practices of Malay food culture, and characteristics of Malay food. In addition, this article also discusses the different occasions and table etiquette practices among Malay communities. The reported findings are expected to contribute to the literature on food culture, specifically in Malay heritage food.

1. Introduction

Being a multiracial country, Malaysia has been well positioned as a food paradise. The label is by no means a mere accident; however, it is due to the synergistic effect brought by the intermingling of the various ethnic groups. In addition, the country is further enriched by culinary heritage it shares with neighboring countries and regions. Amid rapid modernization, the country still manages to hold on to her proud heritage. As a result, Malaysia is one of the few places where one could find an amalgamation of flavors and varieties of heritage food, which stands a living proof of the famous motto Malaysia, Truly Asia.In 2016, Malaysia consisted of population of 31.7 million, and Bumiputera made up the majority of the population with 68.8%, followed by Chinese at 23.4%, Indians at 7%, and others at 1% [1]. The Bumiputeras in Peninsular Malaysia are essentially the Malays. Moreover, in the East Malaysian states of Sarawak, Sabah, and Labuan, the Bumiputera includes all the indigenous groups such as Malay, Melanau, Dayak (including Iban, Bidayuh, and Orang Ulu), Kadazan Dusun, Bajau, and other native ethnic groups as listed in Article 161A Federal Constitution [2].Malays are the dominant ethnic group in this country, representing more than half of the nation’s population. Typically, Malays are Muslims, speak the Malay language, and observe and practice the tradition of Malay culture [3]. Traditional cultural practices in the Malay communities can be observed through their food consumption. Traditionally, Malay food can be defined as varieties of food produced locally with a unique local identity within the Malay community. The present study concentrates mainly on the Malay food.

2. The culinary history of Malaysia

Malaysia is a country separated by the South China Sea into two regions: Peninsular Malaysia, which is also known as West Malaysia, and East Malaysia, which is located in Borneo Island. It shares land borders with Thailand and Indonesia, and Singapore is linked to its south by a causeway. Malaysia is situated right above the equator.In the early 15th century, a small fishing village of Melaka on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula began to grow into a significant port [4]. Melaka was strategically positioned as a harbor and boomed as a multicultural center. The local cooking was influenced by the arrival of new food from abroad, including spices such as cardamom, pepper, and clove and exotic vegetables. Arab traders who arrived in Malacca around this period brought with them the practices of Islam. In the middle of the 15th century, the Sultan of Melaka converted to Islam [5]; there was increased trade with other Muslim communities such as Indonesia and the Middle East, which had a lasting effect on Malay cuisine. In the 15th century, Europeans also started to venture to Southeast Asia in search of spices as well as to expand their kingdom. The Portuguese were the first to arrive, and they were later followed by the Dutch and English. The Europeans not only sought spices but also introduced many new ingredients such as peanut, pineapple, avocado, tomato, squash, and pumpkin to this region. The cultural landscape of the country changed in the 19th century. Later, when Malaysia and Singapore were under the British colonial rule, the British brought in large number of Indians and Chinese to work in the rubber estates and tin mines, respectively. The influx of Indian and Chinese workers had a strong influence on Malaysian culture, language, and food.In 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was formed and comprised the states of the peninsula combined with Sabah and Sarawak. Malaysian cuisine is as varied as its people. The growth of Malaysia into a central cultural melting pot is due to the contribution of multiracial groups to Malaysia’s great culinary heritage [6]. Historically, traditional Malaysian cuisine has been greatly influenced by traders from the neighboring countries, such as Indonesia, India, the Middle East, China, and Thailand. The Malaysian gastronomic products are a mix of various races, particularly Malays, Chinese, Indians, and other ethnic groups. Acculturation and assimilation among these ethnic groups in the early 1970s have added to the potpourri of local food and beverages and created a Malaysian cultural and gastronomical heritage [6].

3. The regional Malay food

Malay cuisine especially in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei is similar because it came from the same root. Malay cuisine is usually halal. Malay cooking is very unique; however, it has been assimilated to other influences such Arab, Indonesian, Thai, Portuguese, Chinese, and Indian. Ainuddin [5] defined Malay food by five characteristics: (1) rich in herbs and spices; (2) coconut milk is one of the main ingredients; (3) usually spicy; (4) meat is usually stewed with a thick gravy; and (5) fried fish and seafood are usually seasoned with turmeric powder.

According to Brissenden [7], Malay food emerged during the 13th century and continuously developed during the trading years, where it was greatly influenced by Thailand and Indonesia. It can be categorized based on the regions [8]. Given the history of Malaysia, it is understandable that in the northern states of Penang, Perlis, and Kedah (which are closer to Thailand), liking for fiery-hot spicy and sour flavors [9] is quite strong. In Penang, tamarind, sour carambola, and limes are used for tanginess, fragrance, and sourness and fiery-hot fresh bird’s eye chilies, so often present in Thai food, are also popular in the northern states [10]. Further east, the cuisine of the state of Kelantan, which borders Thailand, and Terengganu, which borders Kelantan, also shows distinct Thai influence [9]. The use of kaffir lime leaves, torch ginger, and mint leaves in rice dishes such as nasi kerabu, a popular Kelantan dish that bursts with green confetti of wild pepper leaves, basil, and daun kesum (Vietnamese coriander), is another influence from Thai dishes [10]. Traditionally, nasi kerabu is served with ayam percik (grilled chicken with a spicy coconut milk sauce) (Fig. 1). Sharif et al [11] state that Kelantan and Terengganu have some similarities in their traditional food; however, Kelantan food is sweeter than Terengganu food. Scholar remarked that traditional curries of both states use coconut milk, which gives a rich, thick, creamy consistency, whereas their traditional desserts are sweet and their savories are slightly spicy [6].

Fig. 1Ayam percik. Traditional Malay grilled chicken served with percik sauce originated from the east coast state of Kelantan. Its main ingredients are chicken, shallot, garlic, lemongrass, asam keping, coconut milk, turmeric powder, and shrimp paste.

Indonesian cuisine has influenced the kitchen throughout the Malaysian hinterland through migration, especially in the south and central regions of Malaysia. In the south, a large number of Javanese who settled there over the centuries influenced the Malay cuisine in the state of Johor. The influence of Javanese cuisine, which is sour, sweet, and spicy, can be clearly seen owing to the migration of the Javanese [9]. The influence by Minangkabau people from West Sumatra living in Negeri Sembilan is reflected in its food history [8]. Popular dishes such as rendang minang and masak lemak cili padi feature extensive use of thick coconut milk and spices [7]. Melaka offers a variety of dishes, especially the Malay cuisine in Melaka and the Malay-influenced Nyonya cuisine—a blend of Malay and Chinese cuisines. Besides, Melaka is also popular for its east–west fusion cooking from the combination of Malay and Portuguese cuisines [6]. A mix of the Malay and Indian cuisines created the Chitti food in Melaka, which is savored by the Chitti community. In Perak and Pahang Rahman [12] acknowledged gulai tempoyak and rendang as a few of signature traditional dishes commonly served either for daily meals or during festival celebrations.

4. Past and present practices of Malay food culture

The secret behind the uniqueness of authentic Malay food is the use of herbs and spices with special traditional equipment and cooking methods. In the past, ingredients were mainly harvested from the backyard and the woods, which made the Malay cooking such an interesting culinary experience. Forty years ago or around 1970s–1980s, the Malay community lived predominantly in rural area and involved in agricultural activities, with only a small portion involved in the modern economic sector [13]. This is in line with the study conducted by Yoshino [14], who argues that the majority of Malay people were based in kampung (village) and engaged in agriculture before they migrated to other places. All the related activities, employment, and culture started in the kampung and was shared by the family and the rest of the Malay communities. In the modern era (from the time of its independence in 1957), a large percentage of middle-class Malay people are being employed in the government sectors, mostly as teachers and civil servants, mixing together with other ethnic groups [14].Findings by Ismail et al [15] state that the development of Malay rural cultural gardens in the past reveals its important intrinsic and cognitive value through its functional characteristics such as provision of food, medicine, cosmetics, and shade. The basis of traditional Malay gardens in the villages is to sustain the community. Plants and fruit trees are essential in the Malay society to support economically by providing food for family consumption and for sharing with the community. Malay ancestors produced dishes and recipes using natural resources that grow in abundance around their houses. This is in accordance with Goffard [16] who explained in his book titled “The Language of East and Southeast Asia” that traditionally, the Malay are village people, relying on fishing, gardening, and rice cultivation. The availability of local resources in this country allows the creation of flavorful, delicious, unique, and authentic recipes [17].A study by Manderson [18] on the traditional food beliefs and life events, which focused on the practices of Malay villagers in a few states in Peninsular Malaysia, found that the Malay folks in the kampung still maintained the traditional beliefs and knowledge. This study was supported by Mohd Zahari [19] who studied Malay foodways in Malaysia. The traditional practices can be observed through the kenduri kahwin (matrimonial ceremonies), which involves preparation, cooking, serving, and the consumption of food and is considered as a communal affair in the village or kampung when the individuals of the community contributes their time and energy in helping the wedding host. However, the traditional foodways practice that has long been associated with the Malay society is hardly seen because of the spread of catering services, especially in urban areas. Currently, it is hard to see the table service style in the Malay weddings, which is replaced by the buffet service style [19]. In this modern era, many have forgotten the uniqueness of cooking techniques and practices in Malay cuisine that our ancestors have passed on to us. According to Nor et al [20], the young generations have ignored the practices of Malay traditional food, which is being replaced by convenience food products. The study also mentions that transition and unlimited information technology are believed to influence the changes in food intake and practices. Although modernization takes place in the foodways, the values associated with other Malay customs that have been practiced by the family and the rest of the Malay community remain until today.In the traditional Malay practices, the man is the head of the family, as well as the household, whereas the woman is a housewife who concentrates on daily chores such as cooking, washing, and taking care of children. The responsibilities of women are more likely to hold strong attachment to the common beliefs, knowledge, and practices of their customs in the Malay society. Previous studies have described the characteristics of a Malay family regarding household responsibilities of women and their families. Nor et al [20] revealed that women have very strong adherence to beliefs and good experience in transmission of food practice knowledge. Findings from Nor et al [20] suggest that mothers are believed to transmit Malay cooking knowledge, including the ingredients, preparation, method of cooking, and cooking equipment, to their daughters. The same study claimed that in modern days, some daughters admitted that transmission of cooking knowledge still occurs through telephone calls, especially in the early years of their marriage, and this knowledge was further strengthened when the daughters prepared food along with their mothers during festive occasions, family gathering, or when the mother visits them [20]. This study emphasized that the role of a mother significantly contributed to the preservation of family and cultural tradition in preparing Malay traditional food, which had to be continuous to encourage their children’s participation.

4.1. Traditional cooking equipment and tools

In the past, a typical Malay kitchen was equipped with lesung batu (a mortar and pestle) and batu giling (a hand grinder made of stone) for preparing food [10]. A big lesung batu made of stone and composed of two things, namely a mortar and pestle, is of particular value, as it is used for grinding spices, chilies, and shallots; pounding all the condiments and pastes; and for making kerisik (pounded or ground fried grated coconut). The big stone slab of batu giling where food is placed and ground is called the “mother” or ibu giling, and the rolling pin is called the “child” or anak batu giling, which is used to crush the ingredients [21] (Fig. 2). The use of lesung batu and batu giling is believed to provide a unique taste to the food, compared with the use of modern equipment such as blender and food processor. The blender, for example, is said to only grind the ingredients to a smooth texture, but it does not release the oils and flavors of the ingredients unlike the traditional stone mortar, which pounds the ingredients uniformly. In Malaysia, many people still prefer to use the stone mortar and pestle to pound wet and fresh ingredients such as shallots, onions, garlic, ginger, and chilies because the ingredients would be more delicious when mixed together, yet it still requires effort and more preparation time. The famous sambal belacan or shrimp paste sambal is claimed to taste better when made using the mortar and pestle instead of using a electric blender [5]. It all depends on how the individual perceives the originality of the Malay traditional dishes.

Fig. 2Batu giling is used to grind spices. This is a traditional grinder used by grandmas in the past. Spices ground using this tool produce a different taste and flavor, which cannot be achieved by other methods.

Santan or coconut milk is used extensively in Malay cooking. The classic way of obtaining coconut milk is by grating a mature coconut flesh. A little amount of water is added, and it is then squeezed to extract the milk. Kukur kelapa or the coconut grater is a hand grater with a spike-like metal fixed at the end of a low wooden stool [22]. To grate the coconut, one has to sit on the stool and hold one half of a coconut shell and grate the white coconut flesh against the metal spike in an up-and-down motion [5]Kukur kelapa is seldom found in Malaysian homes nowadays. However, the electric coconut grater can be found in most provision shops or the wet market. The head of an electric coconut grater is a round metal with sharp pine heads. It grates when the machine is on. To grate a coconut, the husk is removed and the hard shell is broken into 2 halves. The pulp of one half of the coconut is held against the meal head at a time and the coconut is grated. A basin is placed under the metal head to collect the grated coconut.Another important element in the traditional Malay kitchen design is dapur kongkong, which acts as a stove [23]Dapur kongkong or the charcoal burning stove is similar to a desk and is made of a mixture of clay and salt. It consists of two parts: a sabak (furnace) and two tungku (riser stone with a double horizontal iron rod). Usually, this type of a Malay kitchen has the smell of firewood and the haze from burning charcoal daily mingled with the aroma of pungent belacan, red chili, and garlic cooked together in massive heated woks. The kitchen area is cleaned and tidied up once the cooking is done, and tikar mengkuang or a Pandanus mat is laid while eating [23]. Leftover dishes are kept in the para or wooden cabinets with wire-mesh doors. Small tools are cleaned and kept in the para, whereas large equipment, such as a pan, pot, or kettle, is kept in a store room where they are mounted on the pemidang dinding (wall stud) and alang (truss) with nails. Ideally, the kitchen serves as a place where all family members, especially the mother and daughters have a talk, grind spices, stir pots, and observe cooking methods. However, nowadays in Malaysia, dapur kongkong or the charcoal burning stove is no longer used in the kitchens of most households and has been replaced by modern equipment such as gas stove and electric stove. The traditional equipment and tools are hard to be found in the urban area and may only be used in the rural area or villages, especially during Malay occasions such as matrimonial ceremonies and Hari Raya Aidilfitri (a celebration day for Muslims). Nevertheless, firewood is still being used in traditional cooking in parts of the country, especially in villages. The aroma of the food cooked using firewood is still in great demand and its very unique cooking methods are still being appreciated by certain age groups within the Malay community.

4.2. Cooking methods and techniques

Traditional cooking methods and techniques of Malay dishes require few culinary tools, and most of the authentic dishes are prepared from scratch. Martilla [24] argues that different cultures tend to have their own unique methods of cooking, and each of them has different terminology that often comes from historical necessities. According to Rahman [12] and Ainuddin [5], various terminologies of cooking methods are used in Malay cooking, which are divided into dry heat and moist heat method. Besides these two, there is also the combination method, which involves both dry and moist heat. Examples of Malay cooking terminology for dry heat methods are menumis (cooking paste, chili, or spices using oil or fat in the wok over relatively high heat before adding it to the main ingredients such as vegetable, fish, or meat), menyangai (dry fried spices, peanut, or grated coconut—frying without using oil or fat in a small pan or wok over low heat), menyalai (the drying process of meat, fish, or banana—smoked or grilled food on the fire), and melayur (pass something over the fire—to use banana leaves as a food wrapper, the banana leaves are run over the fire until it is dark green to soften them so that it does not break when folded) [25]. In the same study, Mohamad Abdullah et al [25] also listed the Malay cooking method terminology for moist heat methods, for example, menanak (cooking rice inside a pot), menjerang (boiling—put a kettle on to boil), mencelur (blanching or dipping foods, such as vegetables, for a short period into the hot water), and mereneh (simmering food). Meracik and memayang are categorized as methods of cutting and simply mean thinly sliced [26]. The Malay society has numerous, vast, and valuable cooking method terminologies, which is an aspect of the language that was created and used since olden days [11]. The use of terminologies should be shaped by cultural transmission over many generations.

5. Characteristics of the Malay food

5.1. Main dishes

Almost every Malay main meal is served with rice, which is also the staple food in many other Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, and Philippines. The state of Kedah is considered the rice bowl or jelapang padi of the country, accounting for about half of Malaysia’s total production of rice. The staple food is nonglutinous rice, which has amylopectin content. In contrast, in the Malay culture, glutinous rice is used almost exclusively for making sweets. The rice is cooked simply by adding equal amount of water (or more) to the rice (which also depends on the type of rice used—long grain, short grain, Jasmine, or Basmati) and cooked using an electric rice cooker at home or on a gas stove. Plain steamed white rice is normally served with various side dishes of protein and vegetables. A typical lunch includes one chicken or fish dish cooked with coconut or tamarind, fried fish, stir-fried vegetables, and sambal belacan. The most popular dish based on rice in Malay culture is nasi lemak (steamed rice with coconut milk and screwpine leaf). Nasi lemak is considered as the national dish and is usually served during breakfast, but can also be served all day. It becomes a daily food for many Malaysians (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3Nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves. It is the most popular heritage food in Malaysia and a complete meal by itself, consisting of rice, chili sambal, hard-boiled egg, fried anchovies, and sliced cucumbers.

Traditionally, nasi lemak is accompanied by anchovy sambal, boiled eggs, fried peanut, and a slice of cucumber. In the past, this dish was a staple of the Malay community when they went out to work in the paddy fields or estates. The rice is cooked in coconut milk, and the accompaniments offered the calories that they needed for physical work [27]Nasi lemak is often wrapped in banana leaves. When wrapping nasi lemak, a scoop or small bowl of rice is placed in the center of the banana leaf. Then, a slice or two of cucumber, half-boiled egg, fried anchovies, and anchovy sambal are placed on top of the rice before wrapping. This method is practical as the parcel looks neat and is not messy. Apart from being environmentally friendly, the banana leaf wrapping exudes a fragrant aroma that enhances the appetite. Today, nasi lemak is also served with many other dishes such as beef or chicken rendang, squid sambal, stir-fried morning glory, fried eggs, and fried chicken.During special occasions such as Eid al-Fitr (in Arabic) or Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the rice is prepared by sautéing onion, garlic, ginger, and other spices and then cooked with water to make nasi minyak or ghee rice. Besides nasi minyak, other popular rice-based dishes, such as nasi beriani (rice cooked with chicken/meat stock and special spices), nasi kunyit (glutinous rice soaked in turmeric and steamed with coconut milk), ketupat (rice or glutinous rice cooked in woven coconut leaves), and lemang (glutinous rice with coconut milk cooked in bamboo tubes), are served during this festival.

5.2. Protein

Rice is served with a variety of side dishes or lauk. These consist of protein-based foods, such as meat, fish, and eggs, including processed foods. The Malays being Muslims, the types of meat eaten are beef, buffalo, goat, lamb, and also poultry and fishes/seafood. Muslims consider that their flesh and blood are formed from the food that they consume; consequently, careful consideration is given to the food chosen for consumption [28]Halal food is permitted, and with the exception of pork and its by-products, most meat and vegetables are deemed as acceptable. Sometimes, halal foods appear the same as other food; they are differentiated by the nature, processing, ingredients, handling, and slaughtering technique [29]. Various meats could be made into gulai, a type of curry dish made by cooking various spice mixtures in coconut milk. This cooking method is influenced by the Indians and was adopted by Malay people since ancient times; it shows the assimilation of culture in the Malay cuisine. Generally, Malay curries are not very thick and are less pungent than Indian curries.Another meat-based and equally spicy dish is rendang (it is like a stew, but relatively dry, cooked in coconut milk with spices for several hours and can be stored for a long term); it was influenced by Indonesian cuisine and adapted to Malay taste and flavor. Rendang is served during special occasions such as weddings and Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Every state and village in Malaysia has its own version of rendang, and it is difficult to claim any particular right for rendangRendang is made from various types of meat, but it can also be prepared from seafood and various vegetable shoots. Two types of rendang that are most popular among Malay communities are rendang minang (it is usually very spicy with the use of bird’s eye chilies) and rendang tok (it is dark and sweet because of the use of more coconut milk besides the roasted coconut, and is usually cooked together with sliced coconut flesh).Sambal (hot sauce) is one of the popular side dishes among the Malay, typically made from dried chilies as the main ingredient which are combined with secondary ingredients such as onion, garlic, and other meat or seafood items, such as beef, chicken, shrimp, and squid. Traditionally, sambal is freshly made using traditional tools such as a pestle and mortar. Sambal can be served either raw or cooked. Basically, this food is influenced by the Indonesian cuisine of the Javanese, and some alterations were made to suite the local taste. Raw sambal types popular among Malay communities, such as sambal belacan (fresh chilies pounded together with toasted shrimp paste) and sambal tempoyak (fresh chilies pounded with fermented durian flesh), can be easily found in most Malay warung (hawker food stall) and restaurants. In contrast, cooked sambal is prepared by sautéing pounded ingredients (dry chili, shallot, and garlic) with oil until fragrant, and tamarind juice, sugar, and salt are used to reduce the spicy taste. Then, meat, seafood, and eggs can be added, which act as the main ingredient of the sambal.

5.3. Vegetables

Malaysia is a country rich with flora and fauna, which forms a perfect food chain for the local people since ancient times. In the Malay culture, natural resources are fully used in the preparation of healthy and well-balanced food. The creativity of the Malay community in diversifying the natural sources is evident in the assortment of interesting recipes, some of which are still passed down from one generation to another. Ulam is one of the famous traditional vegetables used by the Malay people in Malaysia. Traditionally, ulam is from a young tender shoot, called pucuk, and immature leaves of wild plants and is usually found growing wild in the countryside. According to Mansor [30], more than 120 ulam species can be found in Malaysia, representing various families, from shrubs to large trees. The leaves, shoots, or rhizomes of the vegetables are eaten fresh as salad or cooked.Ulam is consumed because of its taste, which adds variety and flavors to the diet, as well as for its nutritional benefits [31]. The taste of ulam is based on the type and variety, and some has bittersweet taste. Nutritional studies have indicated that many of these vegetables are rich in carbohydrates, protein, minerals, and vitamins [32]. Some ulam is also claimed and traditionally believed to have medical properties, such as blood cleansing, induction of uterine cleansing, induction of uterine contractions, and prevention or cure of ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, fever, and coughs. In addition, according to Abas et al [31], it is also believed that ulam plays an important role in reducing the incidence of cancer, as well as control of aging and age-related diseases. The most common ulam varieties consumed by Malay communities include daun pegaga, daun selom, ulam raja, pucuk gajus, pucuk ubi kayu, daun kaduk, daun putat, and pucuk gajus.

The Malay people also creatively incorporate fruits and vegetables into their dishes, for example, jantung pisang (banana blossom), nangka muda (young/green jackfruit), nanas muda (unripe pineapple), betik muda (unripe papaya), and pisang muda (young banana). Kerabu jantung pisang (types of salad or appetizer) is prepared by blanching jantung pisang (the best variety is from pisang awak) in boiling water for a few minutes and then mixing it with coconut milk, chili shrimp paste, shallot, dried prawn, and bird’s eye chili. Unripe fruits are cooked as vegetables in curries to enhance the flavor. Other famous traditional vegetables used by Malay people are petai (twisted cluster bean or stinky bean) and jering (black pods, including seeds), which are cut up or snapped off into a one-seeded portion and eaten raw with the shrimp paste sambal. In many rural areas or kampung, authentic vegetables such as rebung and umbut are commonly prepared as specialty foods in kenduri kahwin (matrimonial ceremonies). Rebung is young tender shoots of some species of bamboo, whereas umbut is the massive but sweet and tender tissue of the growing tip or the heart removed from a palm after it is cut and used as food. The common one is the umbut kelapa, derived from the coconut palm. Rebung and umbut are normally cooked in coconut milk, and are called as masak lemak among the Malay communities (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4Turi leaves cooked in water with carrot and sweet corn, a water-based vegetable dish. Chopped onions are sautéed in oil; some pounded anchovies and water are added and brought to a boil; carrot and sweet corn are added and simmered for a while before adding the green leaves, season to taste.

5.4. Special ingredients

The uniqueness of Malay heritage food is due to the ingredients, flavor, and aroma. Many aromatic ingredients, including spices, which are understood to be dried products, are used. However, in Malay traditional food, several of the ingredients are freshly gathered leaves, flowers, and fruits of local plants from the backyard or local market. All the special ingredients contribute in large parts to distinctive piquancy and delightful flavor of Malay heritage food. A prominent ingredient in Malay cuisine is chili, locally called cili or cabai, which can be used in both fresh and dried forms [5]. There are three types of chili commonly used in Malay culture, which is fresh chili, dried chili, and bird’s eye chili. This is the way Malay food is identical in terms of the characteristic of the food itself such as being hot and spicy by adding more chilies in their dishes. They also act as a food enhancer, flavoring agent, and a food garnish.

In addition, asam jawa (tamarind) is commonly used in curries by soaking and squeezing it with water to produce the sour extract. Nor et al [20] highlighted the wide use of different rhizomes, namely halia (ginger), kunyit (turmeric), lengkuas (galangal), and kecur (lesser galangal), and aromatic leaves such as daun kesum (Vietnamese coriander), daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves), daun ketumbar (coriander leaves), daun pandan (screwpine leaves), daun kari (curry leaves), daun kunyit (turmeric leaves), daun kaduk (wild pepper leaves) in the preparation of Malay dishes (Fig. 5). Fragrant plant stems such as serai (lemongrass), flower buds such as bunga kantan (torch ginger buds/wild ginger bud), fruits, nuts, and seeds, specifically asam keping (a thinly sliced dried sour fruit), buah belimbing buluh (sour finger carambola), limau nipis (limes), buah keras (candlenut), and biji ketumbar (coriander seeds) are commonly used. Malay cuisine also uses dried spices such as bunga cengkih (cloves), kulit kayu manis (cinnamon sticks), bunga lawang (star anise), buah pelaga (cardamom), jintan putih (cumin), jintan manis (fennel), and buah pala (nutmeg). In Malay cultures, rempah (a thick wet or dry paste) made from finely ground herbs and spices is commonly used in preparation of curries and rendang. The type of curry or rendang (chicken, mutton, beef, fish, or vegetables) determines which spices make up the mixture. Traditionally, the mixture of rempah is ground and crushed using a mortar and pestle. The special ingredients of Malay dishes can be easily found at local wet markets or pasar malam (the night market) (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Galangal or blue ginger rhizome provides unique aroma and flavor to Malay food. It is one of the essential ingredients in the rendang recipe. It gives additional flavor to various dishes.

Fig. 6Pasar Siti Khadijah, Kota Bharu, Kelantan. It is one of the most popular wet markets in Malaysia selling items such as fresh and dry herbs, spices, vegetables, fish, crackers, kitchen utensils, and textiles (silk and batik). Most of the traders in this market are Malay women. Most women in this state are known to be enterprising.

5.5. Traditional Malay desserts

The definition of traditional food varies according to the locality and the individual’s perception toward food. Traditional food has long been an identity to all races because of uniqueness and specialty. Starting from main dishes, appetizers to desserts, Malay traditional foods was across cultures and races in this country. There are many types of traditional food in Malaysia, such as dishes and desserts. Malay traditional desserts originate from two distinct places: West Malaysia and East Malaysia. There are many varieties of desserts that can be found in all states of Malaysia. One of the famous Malay traditional desserts comes from Kelantan and Terengganu.

Traditionally, Malay cake and desserts are usually consumed outside mealtime and special preparation, which are different from everyday fare and intended for festive and other special occasions. However, in the modern days, Malay desserts can be eaten at any time of the day, as light breakfast, afternoon snack, or dessert. Diversity is the attractiveness of Malay traditional desserts, and this is evident in all kinds of cakes and snacks known as kuih that are handed down from one generation to the next in the Malay community. These Malay delicacies, which are usually fried, but sometimes steamed, grilled, or baked, can be found at hawker stalls, night market or pasar malam, and restaurants. Malay kuih is divided into two categories: sweet and savory. The basic ingredients used to produce sweet kuih are sugar, coconut milk, brown sugar, and gula melaka (palm sugar). Gula melaka is extracted from the flower sap of a coconut palm and processed and sold in the form of hard cakes wrapped in dried brown coconut leaves [5]. Similar to normal sugar, they melt when boiled and taste bitter when burnt. Gula melaka is more natural and healthier and has long been used to make traditional Malay kuih. Examples of traditional sweet kuih are kuih baulutapai, dodol, kuih tepung talam, kuih seri muka, kuih lapis pelangi, kuih abuk-abuk sagu, kuih bingka, kuih cek mek molek, kuih lompang, kuih tepung pelita, kuih koci, kuih seri kaya, kuih bakar, and onde-onde. Sometimes, this sweet Malay local kuih is served with other accompaniments such as kuih lopes eaten with caramelized palm sugar and kuih apam beras eaten with kelapa parut muda (grated young coconut) (Fig. 7Fig. 8).

Fig. 7Kuih lapis pelangi. Normally, it is prepared with seven layers. It is a fusion between the Malay and Nyonya cuisines and one of the favorite kuih of Malaysians.

Fig. 8Kuih abuk-abuk sagu. It is a traditional Malay kuih made from sago pearl, gula melaka (palm sugar), and grated young coconut.

Other than sweet kuih, Malay people also consume hot and spicy varieties. Therefore, local kuih recipes have been reworked from time to time to diversify the types of savory kuih. Normally, herbs and spicy ingredients are added in the filling while preparing savory kuih. The basic ingredients used to prepare savory kuih are curry powder, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, mustard, coriander, cumin, black pepper, and chili. The combination of these ingredients produces a spicy flavor in the savory kuih. Some examples of popular savory kuih are kuih karipap, kuih cara berlauk, kuih cucur badak, kuih pulut panggang, kuih popia sambal, and so on.In Malaysia, tapai is a popular delicacy among the Malay and is normally consumed as dessert. There are two main types of tapai, namely tapai pulut (glutinous rice) and tapai ubi (tapioca) [33]Tapai is made from three ingredients: steamed glutinous rice or tapioca, sugar, and ragi (yeast). All the ingredients are mixed together, individually portioned, and wrapped in banana leaves or daun getah (rubber leaves). Nowadays, tapai is wrapped using plastic, paper, or a small plastic container. It is usually found in Peninsular Malaysia among the Malay community; it is served during special functions such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Malay weddings. Tapai tastes sweet, yet slightly alcoholic, with a pleasant aroma. The glutinous rice is soft and juicy, and some liquid is also produced because of the fermentation. According to Merican and Yeoh [33]tapai is a very perishable product because the fermentation continues even after the optimum stage of fermentation has been reached. Overfermentation results in a sour and more alcoholic taste, which is not acceptable for consumption. Generally, in the north Peninsular Malaysia, tapai ubi (tapioca tapai) is more popular and is also used to prepare other sweet delicacies.Another popular delicacy among local Malay communities is kuih bahulu. It is one of the many traditional Malay delicacies that is still popularly eaten and served as a snack food among locals, especially during festive occasions such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Nowadays, it can be found every day and is typically consumed as afternoon tea. The ingredients used in making bahulu are eggs, sugar, and flour. In the traditional recipe, the flour is sun dried to make it lighter and airy. Another important step to produce a soft texture in kuih bahulu is the method of beating eggs and sugar. Traditionally beating eggs and sugar by using a hand whisk produces a better quality kuih bahulu than the commercially prepared ones. Beating eggs and sugar with a hand whisk incorporates more air into the mixture. The traditional way of baking kuih bahulu is by using charcoal fire, where hot coals are placed on the top of and under the kuih bahulu mold. As such, it takes quite a while to cook in the traditional way, but the traditional method produces a wonderful aroma. Thus, many kuih bahulu makers nowadays have resorted to modern methods, for example, using the hot oven. Kuih bahulu comes in several different shapes due to the different bahulu molds used, and the famous ones are bahulu cermai (button) and bahulu ikan emas (goldfish) [34].

6. Malay occasions

6.1. Aqiqah and cukur/potong jambul

The definition of aqiqah in Islamic terminology is “slaughtering an animal on the occasion of child birth” [35]. It is usually performed on the seventh day of the baby’s birth, after naming the baby. However, some scholars have said that this can be postponed till the child has become mature, and aqiqah can be performed then. Performing aqiqah is highly encouraged among the Muslim people as thanksgiving for the birth of a newborn child. Apart from great blessing from the Creator, it is part of tradition for the family members, neighbors, and friends to celebrate the blessed occasion. Not to forget, poor families are also invited during these celebrations, and food and uncooked meat are offered to them.Per the Islamic practice for this event, to provide a community meal, the family slaughters one or two lambs [36]. Two equal lambs for a baby boy and one for a baby girl. Sheep, cows, or camels can also be used instead of lamb. Camels must be older than 6 years, cows must be older than 3 years, and sheep must be older than 2 years for slaughtering. The selection of the animal is very important in that they must be free from any handicap, such as being blind, unhealthy, and undernourished. After slaughtering, one-third of uncooked meat is given away to the poor family as charity, and the rest is cooked and served in a large community meal. Typically, guests are served with food and drinks. It is common to see traditional Malay dishes, such as pulut kuning (yellow glutinous rice) with beef rendangnasi briyani, nasi minyak, lamb soup, kurma daging, and ayam masak merah, served along with local fruits and assorted Malay kuih during these occasions.Aqiqah is usually performed on the same day as the cukur jambul. The meaning of cukur jambul or potong jambul from an Islamic perspective is the very first haircut of a newborn child [37]. It is usually practiced in accordance with the Islamic traditions. The closest family members are always invited to witness the event. Usually, prayers are recited, followed by a religious song known as marhaban or berzanji. Everything in-between these two depends largely on family tradition and regional customs. Another important element in the cukur jambul is the dulang or the ceremonial tray that holds the scissors, young coconut, and bunga rampai (a fragrant bouquet that usually includes screwpine leaves, jasmine, rose, and frangipani flowers).The newborn baby’s hair is preferably shaved on the seventh day of the baby’s birth. The new father or mother then carries the baby to each person to snip off a lock—usually grandparents, family or village elders, members of the marhaban or berzanji group, and religious leaders. It is customary (though not compulsory) for those who do the honors to present the baby with a little gift in cash or in kind. Then, the baby’s shaved hair is weighed. The value of silver or gold equivalent to the hair’s weight is calculated. This amount is then donated to the needy.Apart from shaving hair, at this same occasion in Malay custom, belah mulut is also performed by chewing dates and putting a little of the chewed date on the fingertips and then inserting and rubbing it into the baby’s mouth [21]. As the final part of cukur jambul, all the invited guests are presented with quintessentially traditional bunga telur (a hard-boiled egg attached to a flower on a bamboo stick) as a mark of appreciation for attending the ceremony. Aqiqah and cukur jambul are an important rite of passage for a Malay baby, and some families argue that it is very much an event for extended family to come together, renew bonds, and welcome the new baby into the clan.

6.2. Khatam Al-Quran and majlis berkhatan/bersunat

The Khatam Al-Quran can be defined as the moment one has completed his/her course in the reciting of the Holy Al-Quran [38]. Muslims believe that “the moment we are able to read, it is compulsory for us to begin with Al-Quran” [21]. The Malay community views Al-Quran as a guideline that rules all dimensions of human life whether at an individual or collective level. Therefore, teaching Al-Quran reciting and its essence is an obligation of the parents. In the early times, all Malay parents entrusted religious teachers, known as Ustaz (male) or Ustazah (female), with teaching their children both reciting of Al-Quran and Islamic knowledge and practices. But now, the situation has changed, and the parents neither send their children to Islamic schools in the afternoon after attending the normal school hours nor do they prefer to teach their children by themselves.There are 30 juzuk (chapters) in the Al-Quran (all in Arabic), and it takes quite a few months to complete reciting it depending on the speed of reading. The moment when one completes reciting the whole Al-Quran is called Khatam Al-Quran. This occasion is a highly encouraged thanksgiving event. The final verse of the Al-Quran, the 30th section, is read during this ceremony. After which, doa (prayer) is recited. On completion of the reciting, he or she first kisses the hand of the Quran teacher, then the parents, and finally the hands of each guest. Next, the guests take part in the feast, and the guests receive a traditional bunga telur. Malay traditional foods such as laksa johor, yellow glutinous rice accompanied by beef rendangroti jala with chicken curry, and Malay desserts are usually served during this occasion. It is also customary in the Malay society to organize a Khatam Al-Quran ceremony before a wedding, which is traditionally hosted by the bride’s family.A very important ceremony in a Malay boy’s life is berkhatan or circumcision, and it is usually performed when he is between 6 and 13 years old [21]. Although it could be done at birth, Malaysians prefer to have their boys circumcised before attaining adolescence or puberty. Circumcision is a process that every Muslim male has to undergo in their journey to manhood. Living in a town certainly takes out the fun of this exciting event. In the village, usually during school holidays, boys at the age of puberty prepare for circumcision in groups to eliminate the fear. They dress up in baju melayu and kain pelikat (traditional costumes) and have a feast [21]. A shower then follows in preparation of berkhatan, followed by a wait for the arrival of Tok Mudin—the expert to perform the circumcision [39]; however, nowadays, circumcision is performed in a clinic by a professional doctor. Then, all the kids line up to take turns for circumcision. In addition, majlis berkhatan has become a traditional ceremony with bunga manggar (a traditional Malay decorative item that is carried while accompanying important guests), music from the kompang (a traditional Malay musical instrument), a show of the silat (the Malay art of self-defense), and a kenduri (Malay feast) for the visitors. Normally, the kenduri is held for lunch or after the midday prayer.

6.3. Malay wedding ceremonies

Malay weddings are truly spectacular and elaborate. It is generally celebrated for a minimum of 3 days. It starts with akad nikah (solemnization), in which the bride and groom are considered officially married [19]. This occasion is normally small and is attended primarily by family members and close friends. The most planned-for event is called majlis bersanding or the wedding reception, where everyone from the bride’s families and friends is invited to introduce the new husband and wife. This is when the bride and groom wear the most beautiful matching attire and sit on the dais while the guests watch in awe (Fig. 9). The final occasion similar to the second event is called majlis bertandang. This is also a ceremony to introduce the bride and groom and is hosted by the groom’s side at their home or choice of location. During this entire event, there will be a main table where the bride and groom have their lunch or dinner with selected guests. On this table, the food is different and specially prepared and presented for the bride and groom, as they are the king and queen for the day.

Fig. 9Majlis bersanding. The bride and groom wearing traditional Malay costume for their reception (majlis bersanding). Typically, the reception is held from 11:30 am to 4 pm; guests will be there within the stated time and will be served buffet-style lunch consisting of pilaf rice, beef rendangacar (vegetable pickles), curry fried chicken, and a selection of desserts. The menu would depend on how much budget that the host wants to spend on food.

All Malay weddings must be accompanied by hantaran (gifts) at the time the vows are exchanged. These gifts are placed on a tray and beautifully decorated, showing respect. There are normally an odd number of trays as determined by the bride. The groom has to follow suit with a fewer odd-numbered trays. The hantaran trays normally are token of gifts to each other, traditionally consisting of clothing, shoes, watches, a set of jewelry, local fresh potpourri, and a few traditional sweet desserts such as halwa maskat, kek lapis, wajik pulut, kuih kacau labu, wajik ubi kayu, halwa lobak merah, and dodol.The Malay wedding is another testimony of the community’s collective identity. Marriages are often celebrated in an elaborate fashion, involving a large number of guests. The feast is on a huge scale, with at least 1,000 or more guests served with a selection of Malay traditional rice and curries. Preparations for the wedding are usually undertaken by family members and close friends within the community, in spirit of gotong-royong (cooperation).It is also acceptable to bring a gift or cash for the newlyweds. Typically, the cash is placed in an envelope and handed to either parents of the bride or the groom while leaving. The envelope is slipped discretely into the parent’s hands when the guest shakes them to congratulate them on their son’s or daughter’s marriage. As they depart, each guest is presented with a token of various gifts from chocolate to hard-boiled eggs to ensure fertility of the newlyweds.

6.4. Hari Raya Aidilfitri

Hari Raya literally means “celebration day,” and Hari Raya Aidilfitri is the day that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. For the Muslim community, Hari Raya Aidilfitri is one of the two most important celebrations, the other one being Hari Raya Aidiladha. Hari Raya Aidilfitri is one of the biggest holidays in Malaysia, and most Muslims and even non-Muslims take this opportunity to return to their hometown (balik kampung) to enjoy the celebration day together with their family.

Traditional clothes, such as baju melayu, songkok, and samping for the men and baju kurung or kebaya for the women, are worn during this festival. Most families choose clothes of similar color themes to show family bonds and ties. Another important part of this festive period is preparing traditional Hari Raya Aidilfitri special menus, including ketupatlemangrendangnasi minyak, and so on (Fig. 10). Traditional equipment and utensils such as the pestle and mortar, firewood, pots, and pans are used to maintain the aroma and unique taste of these special foods. All the dishes are prepared from scratch, and the ingredients normally can be bought from the wet market or harvested from the backyard or in the woods. Family members contribute their time and energy together to prepare these Hari Raya Aidilfitri menus.

Fig. 10Ketupat nasi—compressed rice wrapped in coconut leaves. An authentic Malay traditional dish made from rice. For the ketupat casing, only young coconut leaves are used. After filling up the ketupat casing with rice, it is boiled for 2–3 hours. It is usually eaten during festive seasons such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Hari Raya Haji and served with beef rendang or chicken floss (serunding).

The first day after the holy month of Ramadan is a busy one. A visit to the mosque and recitation of special prayers is a practice that Muslims observe on the morning of Hari Raya Aidilfitri to celebrate the end of the fasting month. Other practices include asking forgiveness from the seniors and visiting relatives and friends. Visits usually begin with the parents’ home as the first destination. It is a custom among many Muslims to ask forgiveness from their parents for any wrongdoing in the past year. Although it is not required for Muslims to visit the cemetery during Hari Raya Aidilfitri, many do so as a remembrance of those who have passed away. In Malaysia, children are given token sums of money called duit raya by their parents or elders.

7. Table etiquette

Traditionally, Malay dinner is laid on a pandanus mat; however, in the modern days, most Malay homes use the dining table. Kain seperah (a piece of cloth) laid on the mat and then food is served. Usually, female diners and children are served on a separate kain seperah. In Malay traditional customs, there are distinct differences between men and women in the manner of seating on the mat. Men should crisscross their feet in front of them—duduk bersila—and women should fold both their feet on one side—duduk bersimpuh (normally on their right side) [40].All dishes, including the rice, are served at the same time and not in the form of courses. Diners scoop the warm rice onto their plates and then help themselves to the dishes. Dishes with kuah (gravy) have a spoon to scoop the sauce, soup, or gravy, but for dry dishes, one simply tears a piece of the food by using their fingers. Dessert is the only course that is served on its own toward the end of the meal. Before starting the meal, doa makan (the prayer before meals) is recited to demonstrate thankfulness for the food to Allah, and it is polite for the diners to invite the more senior ones at the table to start eating first by saying jemput makan (please eat). In an occasion when two diners reach out for the same dish, it is also polite to allow the more senior person to help himself/herself first.Traditionally, the Malay eats using their right hand. The left hand is never used to handle food at any circumstance. Only the fingers are used, and the palm is kept clean. Diners wash the hands before eating as maintaining good hygiene is of utmost importance. In Malay social gatherings or restaurants, it is thus common to provide bowls with warm water or the kendi (a jug containing cleaning water accompanied by big bowl) for rinsing the hands. While eating, one should only touch the food on one’s plate and not the common dishes. It is considered impolite to overload one’s plate with food at the first serving. It is also rude to leave without eating and even more so to return half-eaten food to the common serving dishes.Even with the modernization, food etiquette of the Malay community continues to set standards for social behavior. For this community especially, meal times are opportunities for socializing, be it as families or as larger social networks. Food etiquette at the dining table thus not only promotes the community’s cultural heritage and value but also strengthens the community’s identity through the propagation of accepted behavior [41].

8. Conclusion

Malaysia is multicultural country with many religions, ethnicities, and languages. The Malays usually refer to the people who speak Malay, which is originally the native language of the people from Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia, and are generally Muslims. This language is currently spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia, Southern Thailand, southern Philippines, and Brunei. Because of the historical background, however, it is difficult to claim that the cuisine is truly Malay because the cooking methods and the ingredients have been influenced by many cultures. However, the Malays have improvised the recipes to suit the local tastes. The Malay cuisines, especially of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, vary, but still they share some similarities with one another. Every cooking technique and ingredient used in the Malay cuisine has a unique aroma, taste, and flavor based on the settlement area and the assimilation process that originated from the influence of colonialism. The availability of local ingredients also made Malay food distinct from food of other races. Sustaining the Malay cuisine is very crucial to impart this knowledge to future generations.

Conflicts of interest

All authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

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