Both Indonesia and Malaysia have a similarity in manners, especially for table manner. There was a huge emphasis on manners when I was observing people in their community. Manners are enforced cultural rules that are accepted among the community. However, others such Indonesian manners and Malaysian manners are quite similar in nature since our cultures both stem from the Malay culture. They are always lay on religious and cultural beliefs, in majority is Islam. We can find it generally, from Semenanjung Malaya until Sumatera, Kalimantan, and Java.
People, in general, should be sensitive towards the religious and cultural beliefs of other people. While we are not asking the foreigner to embrace the religious laws and cultural traditions of the country he/she finds himself/herself living in, the foreigner should, nevertheless, be aware of certain things. In Malaysia, food is one such thing. When a hostess plans her dinner menu, she must have her guest list within reach. If she has invited Malays, she must take care not to serve pork. It is useful for a hostess to remember that Malays are generally Muslims as well. As Muslims, religious obligations dictate they should only eat food which is balal (permissible according to Muslim laws'). This simply means that any meat consumed must be from animals that have been slaughtered as prescribed in the Holy quran, in much the same way those of the Jewish faith consider what is kosher. And it will be found as same as Indonesia in majority. This text was written as an cross cuture understanding, especially to understand the similarity between Malaysia and Indonesia, in order to be found better habits in table manner, It make us believe that we are brother and sister.
Nowadays, if you are eating a Malay meal, especially in a restaurant, you would normally find you do have a side plate, which is there for you to use as you will. However, if it is Northern Indian food you are eating too, the side plate may be used for bread (e.g. naan, paratha, puri). Even so, it is still perfectly acceptable to put the piece of inedible food on this side plate, or even on the dinner plate itself. However, out of deference to those sitting near you, it is suggested that you try and hide, or find some way to camouflage, whatever it is that didn't agree with you.
One of the things a Muslim is forbidden to eat by religious laws is pork - in any form or shape! While a Malay guest would not dream of imposing on his/her hostess and would probably sit very quietly through a dinner that included pork, it is felt that its totally unforgivable on the part of the hostess (especially if she already knows) to subject her Malay guest to such discomfort. But, it is different if you are inviting Indians, find out if they are Indian-Muslims. If they are not, they might be Hindus, which could very probably mean they are vegetarians. Non-vegetarian Hindus do not normally eat beef (the cow is a sacred animal in Hinduism). Some Chinese too may be vegetarians and many others may abstain from mutton and/or beef. How would a foreigner cater for all these different needs? In this case, it is advisable to leave out food that is forbidden by religious laws (e.g. pork and beef) and serve a variety of other food like lots of vegetables, chicken, and fish. This will please guests who are vegetarians as well as guests who do not eat mutton or beef.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, the need to provide different types of "acceptable" food at any one meal is probably the main reason why buffet lunches and dinners were more popular than formal, sit-down affairs. After all, when entertaining buffet-style, it is possible for the hostess to offer sufficient variety to satisfy even the most difficult of guests, wehereas sit-down lunches and dinners somewhat limit the options. Nonetheless, even though there are simple choices at buffets, it is again advisable that a conscientious hostess should take the trouble to inform her guests which foods may fall under the category of 'forbidden'. For Muslims, the term to use is baram. If it is a sit-down dinner a foreigner is organising. It is suggested inviting not more than a dozen people. In this way, a certain amount of control can be exercised when planning the menu.
The other thing that a foreigner has to be aware of is the serving of alcohol. This is a very sensitive issue - one that one would not even dare to begin to discuss! Suffice it for the foreigner to know that alcohol is considered baram (forbidden) to Muslims in general. Whether or not she (the hostess) wants to serve it to her non-Muslim guests is, however, left to her own discretion.
a. Eating with Fingers
Malays traditionally use the fingers of their right hand for eating. However, no one expects a foreigner invited to a local-style meal (no cutlery) to be an expert at eating with fingers! Nevertheless, below are some useful guidelines to follow when you find yourself in a situation where using your fingers is the only way to eat:
1. Always remember to wash your hands first. If you are invited to a Malay wedding (or any other celebration) you will find a water vessel (kendi) either at your table or being passed around.
2. Meals are always eaten with your right hand! Being left-handed is no excuse.
3. Even though you are eating with your fingers, you will find that serving spoons are provided for all the dishes being laid out. Since the fingers of your right hand will be soiled while eating, you are permitted to use your lft hand when using the serving spoons, although we always say 'excuse me' (minta maaf) first.
4. When it comes to dessert, you may well find that you still have to use your fingers. since dessert eaten with the fingers is usually dry, do wash your hands before starting your dessert. If it is some sort of pudding with a sauce or syrup, spoons will definitely be provided. You would wash your hands at the end of a meal using the kendi again. Since the kendi has to be passed round from person to person, the polite thing to do is to wash your hands using a minimum amount of water! Therefore, some of them always go out armed with a large supply of wet tissues (the ones packed for babies are ideal) which of course makes them the most popular people at the table when they begin to pass them around! The other thin a foreigner should be made aware of is that it is not considered impolite for a person to leave the table once he/she has finished his/her meal. In many of the larger households (the same can apply during meals at big functions), a person leaves the table as soon as he/she is done so that he/she can make way for the other people waiting to eat.
b. Eating nasi daun pisang
Traditionally, Malays eat off banana laves. A variety of food including curries, vegetables, and sauces are placed around a pile of rice. Dessert is usually served on the same banana leaf as used for the meal itself. To indicate that you have finished your meal, you fold your banana leaf in half. They say that if it is for a festive occasion (wedding) or if the food is very good, you fold the banana leaf towards you. If it is for a sombre occasion (funeral) or if the food is less than satisfactory, you fold the banana leaf away from you. This action may differ from clan to clan. Eating with your left hand or with cutlery is discouraged. The banana leaf is usually divided into three pieces. The honoured guest gets the end piece. When placed in front of the guest, the narrow side is placed on the left, the wider side on the right. The reason the banana leaf is placed in this manner is so that the right side (as you eat with your right hand) will have more food.
c. Eating with Fork and Spoon
Traditionally, the Malays in Indonesia and Malaysia would eat their food using their fingers. However, for a long time now, especially in public eating places (hotels and restaurants) Western cutlery had appeared in most Malaysia and Indonesia table settings. They, however, slightly adapted the actual cutlery settings and arrangements, as well as the use of certain kitchen utensils, to suit their needs.
The rice spoon is one such kitchen utensil that we have embraced as their own. although it was once only found in countries where rice is the staple food. For those who are not familiar with the rice spoon, it is about the size of a dessert/pudding spoon. It is not as large as a serving spoon nor is it round like a soup spoon. It is placed on the right side of your plate. You would eat the rice as you would your dessert, holding the spoon in yo9ur right hand and your fork in your left hand. As a concession to your being a foreigner, a fork and spoon may be provided for you but your glass would probably remain on the left. You will probably find two types of spoons already on the table. The first is a long silver spoon and the second is a short spoon which can be used to scoop up anything from soup to chili sauce. When in difficulty, a foreigner woiuld be excused if he/she used either one of these two spoons to help him/her along.
Writer : Mulyani, Delegate of Riau Island Province (24/01)