The Cultures of Malaysia

Malaysian culture is a mixture of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and various indigenous tribes dating back to more than fifteen hundred years ago from a Malay kingdom in Lembah Bujang with traders from China and India.

The first Chinese to settle in the straits, primarily in and around Malacca, gradually adopted elements of Malaysian culture and intermarried with the Malaysian community and with this, a new ethnic group called babas (male) and nonyas (female) emerged. Babas and nonyas as a group are know as Peranakan. They produced a synthetic set of practices, beliefs, and arts, combining Malay and Chinese traditions in such a way as to create a new culture.

Malaysia National Flower is Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa sinensis) also known in Malay as Bunga Raya.

The People

Malay are Malaysia's largest ethnic group, accounting for over half the population and the national language. By definition of the Malaysian constitution, all Malays are Muslims. Traditional Malay culture can still be found in the village. Malays in different areas of the country speak their own unique dialects that can sometimes be unintelligible to most of their fellow countrymen.

The Chinese have been settling in Malaysia for a long time, as seen in the emergence of the peranakan culture, but the exodus peaked during the 19th century through trading and tin-mining. When they first arrived, the Chinese often worked the most grueling jobs like tin mining and railway construction. Later, some of them owned businesses that become large conglomerates in today's Malaysia. Most Chinese are Tao Buddhist and retain strong ties to their ancestral homeland. They form the second largest ethnic group.

Indians had been visiting Malaysia for over 2000 years, but did not settle en masse until the 19th century. Most came from South India, fleeing a poor economy or by an organised emigration administrated by the British authorities. Arriving in Malaysia, many worked as rubber tappers, while others built the infrastructure or worked as administrators and small businessmen. The Indians form the third largest ethnic group of Malaysia.

The indigenous tribes are the oldest inhabitants of Malaysia. They account for about 5 percent of the total population, and represent a majority in East Malaysia of Sabah and Sarawak. In Sabah, the largest official ethnic group is Kadazan, thought many unofficially recognized subgroups exist. The same can be said of other ethnic groups, with as many as a hundred racial groups forming the state's population. However due to the fact that many subgroups possess only minor differences, they are not always differentiated.

In Sarawak, the dominant tribal groups are the Dayak, who typically live in longhouses if in the rural areas and are either Iban or Bidayuh.

Malaysian traditional music is heavily influenced by Chinese and Islamic forms. The music is based largely around the gendang (drum), but includes other percussion instruments (some made of shells); the rebab, a bowed string instrument; the serunai, a double-reed oboe-like instrument; flutes, and trumpets. The country has a strong tradition of dance and dance dramas, some of Thai, Indian and Portuguese origin. Other artistic forms include wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre), silat (a stylised martial art) and crafts such as batik, weaving, and silver and brasswork.

Cuisines of Malaysia

The cuisine of a country is generally a microcosm of the nation and Malaysian cuisine reflects the multi racial aspects of Malaysia. Various ethnic groups in Malaysia have their dishes but many dishes in Malaysia are derived from multiple ethnic influences.

Food types:

Malay food

Malay food is best characterized by its extensive use of chilli and/or coconut milk and frying method. Basically, having a Malay meal consists of a one-time serving of rice and various types of dishes served in bowls and plates (as opposed to course-by-course meal favoured by Western and formal Chinese dining). In traditional Malay meal, usually one can find a few servings of meat and/or fish dishes (cooked in varying methods), accompanied by a few servings of vegetables, and not forgetting, a serving of 'ulam', consisting of raw or steamed vegetables or leaves (most of which are highly beneficial for health) which are usually dipped into 'sambal belacan'-made up of belacan (shrimp paste) blended with fresh chillies (the hotter the better), and/or with some anchovies and tamarind juice. Methods for preparing 'sambal belacan' may differ from one household to another, but when asked, most Malays would say that having 'ulam' and 'sambal belacan' is a must if they were to have an authentic Malay meal. Malay food is best eaten at roadside stalls, hawker centres or at home.

Examples of Malay food include:

  • Satay is grilled meat on skewers served with slightly spicy peanut sauce

  • Nasi lemak (literally rice with fat) is perhaps the unofficial national dish of Malaysia.

  • Asam fish is fish cooked in a sauce of the asam (tamarind) fruit.

Indian food

The cuisine of the ethnic Indians in Malaysia differ quite a bit from its roots in mother India but remains essentially Indian.

  • The majority of Indian cuisine in Malaysia is Southern Indian in origin.

Mamak food

Mamak (Indian Muslims) dishes have developed a distinctly Malaysian style.

  • Roti canai is a thin bread with a flaky crust, fried on a skillet and served with condiments.

  • Mamak rojak is a variant of rojak consisting of substantial ingredients like boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs.Also known as 'pasembur'.

  • Teh Tarik literally meaning 'pulled tea', is a well-loved drink amongst Malaysians. Tea is sweetened using condensed milk, and is prepared using out-stretched hands to pour piping hot tea from a mug into a waiting glass, repetitively. The higher the 'pull', the thicker the froth. The 'pulling' of tea also has the effect of cooling down the tea. Teh tarik is a form of art in itself and watching the tea streaming back and forth into the containers can be quite captivating.

Chinese food

Chinese food in Malaysia is derived from mainland Chinese cuisine but has been influenced by local ingredients and dishes from other cultures though it remains distinctly Chinese.

  • Hokkien Fried Mee (Chinese : 福建炒). A dish of thick yellow noodles fried in thick black soy sauce and pork lard which has been fried until it is crispy. This dish is served only in Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Klang and Kuantan.

  • Penang Laksa (Chinese : 槟城叻沙). A bowl of thick white rice noodles served in a soup made of fish meat, tamarind, pineapple and cucumber in slices.

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice (Chinese : 海南鸡饭). steamed chicken served with rice cooked in margarine or chicken fat & chicken stock and chicken soup. The rice is usually served in a bowl or a plate but in Malacca (a historical town), the rice is served in the form of rice balls.

Nyonya food

Nyonya food was invented by the Peranakan people of Malaysia and Singapore. It uses mainly Chinese ingredients but blends them with South-East Asian spices such as coconut milk, lemon grass, turmeric, screwpine leaves, chillies and sambal. It can be considered as a blend of Chinese and Malay cooking.

Examples of Nyonya dishes include:

  • Laksa lemak is a type of laksa served in a rich coconut gravy.

  • Otak-otak is a fish cake grilled in a banana leaf wrapping. The town of Muar is famous for it.

Cross cultural influence

Being a multicultural country, Malaysians have over the years adapted each other's dishes to suit the tastebuds of their own race. For instance, Malaysians of Chinese descent have adapted the Indian curry, and made it more dilute and less spicy to suit their taste.

Chinese noodles have been crossed with Indian and Malay tastes and thus Malay fried noodles and Indian fried noodles were born.

Ramly burger is a favourite among those who love burgers the Malaysian way!

Other foods

Thai food also features strongly in Malaysian cuisine and localised versions of Thai favourites like tom yam are widely available. Smaller pockets of migrants such as Filipinos and Indonesians also have set up shop locally, catering mostly to their exclusive clientèle. In Kuala Lumpur and other major towns, one can find more restaurants serving Japanese, Korean, Italian, American and other international cuisines.

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