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Festival & Feasts

By Tabinda Shah

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Malaysia may rank number 17 for the world’s worst roads, but when you’re living in a country that also ranks #7 for having the most public holidays, it’s hard to stay bitter. Couple the holidays with their respective festive food, and you’ve got unparalleled paradise for the cultural connoisseur.

Hari Raya

In the spirit of “want not, waste not”, open houses provide a plethora of authentic Malaysian cuisines that fill the bottomless stomachs of any post-Ramadhan Muslim during Hari Raya. Ketupat, a packed delicacy of rice grains boiled in coconut palm leaves, is normally consumed with rendang or satay. Sometimes even Serunding, which is the second most significant dish open houses will have. Made of spices and beef or chicken floss, it is cooked until dry and then served with either Ketupat or Lemang. These two dishes fittingly start and complete a religious festival that celebrates the feat of fasting for a month. Nonetheless, the food given will usually complement the ethnicity of the host, and you may find diversity resting on your plate and sitting around you.

Ghost Festival

But diversity takes another turn on the 15th night of the 7th moon, when the realms of Heaven and Hell open themselves unto the realm of the living - and the dead visit us. Known as the Ghost Festival (or Yu Lan 盂蘭), it is celebrated with a ‘Koh-Tai’ in Malaysia and Singapore, which is a concert-like performance given to appease and entertain the ghosts who sit on reserved red seats (we can tell you that no such reservation has been made through KReserve, although you can check the website to see what eateries will readily serve humans). But beware, food set up outside of houses are for the ghosts, as is paper food that is burned as offerings. However, there is no divine force stopping you from visiting Penang for the grilled satay jellyfish on stick, grilled cuttlefish, si koh th’ng and ice cream, when George Town bustles with hawker stalls that sell fusions of Malaysian and Chinese food.


Hold on, those hawker stalls are missing a culture in melting-pot Malaysia...Indian! And what resonates Indian culture better than the Deepavali festival, where cavity-inducing sweetmeats are an immediate attribute to the name. Sweetmeats (or “mithai”) like ladoos, barfis, halwas, jalebis, sohan papdi are the crux of Diwali, the Festival of Lights. A more savoury indulgence can consist of pakoras, ghughra and karanji: the list really is endless. But Indian meals steal the spotlight during this five-day festival, where each day is symbolic through its food. The first day celebrates longevity with a curry of yard-long beans which are normally mixed in with lapsi (a wheat sautéed in ghee and sugar); the second day fulfils its purpose of eliminating evil spirits through Anarasa; on the fourth day, namely Bestu Varush or New Year’s Day for the Hindus, “puris” (deep-fried rotis) are eaten together with shrikhand; temples also offer 56 different foods as “prasad” to the poor.

Gawai Dayak

Another celebration that enjoys New Years on a different date is the Gawai Dayak festival, a festival that originally formed to thank the Gods for a bountiful harvest in Sarawak. The most significant tradition that pays homage to Gawai’s ancient ways is the free-flowing Tuak, an alcoholic drink made of fermented rice, yeast and sugar. Its effects on one’s lucidity is said to be “radical”, so newbies might be better off with just trying it - but be careful not to outright reject it. Tuak is normally consumed with Ayam Pansuh (chicken in bamboo), bbq pork and lemang (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo). Guests will always be greeted with traditional (albeit rarely seen) Kek Lapis and Honeycomb cakes in the longhouses, which are the places to be in during this festival due to the substantial maintenance of cultural heritage in them.

In the immersion of culture, one can get lost in the overwhelming pleasure food brings - but do remember that many of these celebrations find their roots in the youth of aeon-cultivated cultures, and that respect is therefore not a demand but a necessity.

History of food   Traditional dishes   Festival

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