Sunday, July 5, 2009

The guide to ordering food in Malaysia

Yes, I'm back in my "second motherland", Malaysia again. And I've been thinking about the intricacies of ordering food and the nature of service in Malaysia's many brilliant eateries. It may seem like a relatively simple process - after all, this is an English-speaking country right? Yet there are many differences to ordering in a Western-style restaurant.

So this is not about what to order; it's my impressions of how to order. And I'm not referring to the fancy fine-dining places either, but your average roadside stalls, kopitiams, mamaks, banana-leaf joints or hawker centres that are the soul of Malaysian cuisine.

STEP 1: Arrive at the restaurant and take your seat. So far, so good.

STEP 2: Notice that one of the waiting staff is standing right next to you to take your order. This is well before you have had any chance to think about what you are going to order. Yet he stands there nonetheless! (This is particularly at mamaks and banana-leaf eateries.)

STEP 3: Ponder what you are going to order, while trying not to feel uncomfortable with the waiter standing there looking at you. You have three options - make your choice hastily and possibly regret it later, tell him kindly that you need a few more minutes, or ignore the waiter while you take your time deciding (he'll soon wander off if you take too long... or not). The fourth option is to already know exactly what you are going to eat before you arrive at the place - this is very common Malaysian behaviour, made possible because most mamaks have the same sort of food, and most hawker centres have mostly the same sort of food.

STEP 4: Assess the waiter's level of English competency, as this will affect how you order - should I speak proper English, broken simplified English, or Malay if I know it (or Chinese or Tamil as the case may be)? At this point the waiter may not have said anything to you (in most mamaks they just walk up and look at you expectantly), so you are going to need to base your assessment on judging their social class and ethnicity - more on that here.

STEP 5: Order your food, generally in the simplest terms possible. Be prepared to repeat the key words twice or three times. If you are speaking English, don't automatically assume that the waiter will understand anything at all that you have said. If you have special dietary needs, or wish to make alterations to the dish (for example, "can you make that vegetarian?" or "that one but with no pork"), good luck to you. They can probably oblige, but whether the message gets through to the kitchen is all down to fate and your persistent communication.

STEP 6: Wait for your food. Start to fret slightly over whether the waiter took your order properly. Confer with your dining companions.
"Do you think they'll still put pork in my food?"
"He understood when I said vegetarian, right?"

"He knows I want Kopi O, right? I bet he's gonna put sugar in it."

STEP 7: Enjoy your food when it arrives. Most likely, its absolutely delicious.

If it's not what you ordered, start again from Step 2.

1 comment:

  1. this is sooo funny because I can totally relate! hahaha!