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Meaning Behind What We’re Eating: Festive Foods of Malaysia

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07 Feb 2024

5 Min Read

Liew Yen Rou (Student Writer)

IN THIS ARTICLE

Savour the flavourful meanings of Malaysian festive foods, 'tasting' the symbolism and significance they bring to their cultural traditions.

What images do festive seasons paint in your head? 

 

You might visualise fireworks shooting up into the dark skies when the clock strikes twelve. Perhaps you may think about the vibrant decorations around the house and in shopping malls or picture yourself surrounded by your friends and family, all dressed up for the occasion. However, there's one essential element missing from the list — the mouthwatering festive food that keeps the holiday season joyful. 

 

Without festive foods, the holidays will become dull, but their importance stretches beyond the purposes of indulgence and keeping us energised throughout the day.

Keeping the Tradition Alive

Festive foods have been passed down for many generations, each with a story to tell. In many cultures, even the ingredients used in festive dishes are deeply rooted in their history and tradition. What makes festive foods even more special is that every family has its own version of the dishes. As the festivities approach, we make an effort to come home to indulge in our family's home-cooked food, where every bite will take us back to the taste of childhood and our hometown. 

 

Whether you're learning to make festive foods or simply enjoying them, they serve as an appreciation towards all cultures as you attempt to learn more about them. That is why food is always the main feature of cultural exchange opportunities because you get to taste unique flavours from different cultures while gaining knowledge about their origins. Honouring festive foods is also an act of preserving a culture for many generations to come. If the foods are not eaten, they will eventually be forgotten by future generations.

Hidden Meanings

As you're about to take a bite from your mandarin orange, ketupat, or gulab jamun, think about why people often associate these foods with their respective festive seasons. These delicacies are symbolistic foods that convey specific messages, representing the values and beliefs of different cultures in Malaysia.

Dumplings

CHINESE CULTURE

 

Food served at reunion dinners during Chinese New Year and other celebrations throughout the year consists of meanings from word plays:

  • Dumplings (饺子 jiǎo zi): Dumplings are associated with wealth as people tend to wrap and shape the dumplings to resemble the look of a tael, which was a currency used during Imperial China. The dumplings are then put to boil, and the food preparation method symbolises 'wealth rolling in' (财源滚滚来 cái yuán gǔn gǔn lái) since both boil and roll share the same character, 滚.
  • Sunflower seeds (瓜子 guā zǐ): The act of breaking the shell of sunflower seeds symbolises the ability to 'break free from poverty' (摆脱贫困 bǎi tuō pín kùn).
  • Dried beancurd (腐竹 fǔ zhú): Dried beancurd or tofu skin symbolises wealth and abundance (富足 fù zú) since both words are homonyms.
  • Fishball (鱼圆 yú yuán): Fishball symbolises 'family will always gather together' (团团圆圆 tuán tuán yuán yuán) since the shape of the fishball, which is round, and the word reunion shares the same character, 圆.
  • Longevity noodles (长寿面 cháng shòu miàn): These noodles are usually eaten during birthdays since the long noodles mean 'good health and long life' (健康长寿 jiàn kāng cháng shòu).

In Chinese culture, people value family the most. Therefore, many blessings to young couples or newlyweds are often associated with conceiving a child to carry on the family lineage:

  • Red dates (红枣 hóng zǎo): Red dates symbolise 'sweetness in a relationship' (甜甜蜜蜜 tián tián mì mì) as they are naturally sweet.
  • Lotus seeds (莲子 lián zǐ): Lotus seeds symbolise the blessing of 'the birth of a baby soon' (早生贵子 zǎo shēng guì zǐ) because the word lotus seeds contains the same character, 子 as the word child (孩子 hái zi).
Ketupat

MALAY CULTURE

 

The foods, their colours, and also their preparation methods have hidden meanings during Hari Raya and other important celebrations:

  • Ketupat: The weaving of ketupat symbolises human sins and faults, while the white glutinous rice wrapped inside represents the purity of heart in pleading for forgiveness.
  • Pulut kuning: Yellow glutinous rice symbolises strong family bonds since pulut, or glutinous rice, has a sticky texture, meaning families will 'stick' together. The colour yellow also symbolises royalty during weddings.
  • Bunga telur: Egg flowers are a common gift in Malay weddings, and they are a symbol of fertility.
Murukku

INDIAN CULTURE

 

In Indian culture, the festival of lights — Deepavali is full of symbolism, a celebration which values good over evil. From the festival's decorations to food, pay attention to the details to uncover what they symbolise:

  • MurukkuThis deep-fried snack made from rice flour symbolises the cyclical nature of life and the constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, given its spiral or circular shape. With its crispy and crunchy texture, murukku also symbolises the breaking of negative energies and the welcoming of positive energy and prosperity.
  • Mithai: A variety of sweets, or mithai, are prepared during Deepavali celebrations to symbolise sweet relationships between friends and family.

Food Brings People Together

Whether it's a festive celebration, party, or a casual gathering, we often share joy and happiness with everyone through food. People would often strike up conversations over food as it's the best time to connect since everyone feels contented with a mouthful of delicious food. While it's important to appreciate food from your culture during the festivities, trying food outside your own is an eye-opening experience. The beauty of a multicultural nation like Malaysia has allowed us to bond through shared recipes, become knowledgeable about different cultures, and indulge in an extensive variety of flavours, textures, colours, and cuisines.

 

Festive foods craft the identity of an individual and learning about their symbolism and significance is not only a form of respect or appreciation towards a culture, but it also draws you closer to your own and the culture of others. So, let's come together this festive season (and the seasons after) to celebrate the diversity of our festive foods!

 

新年快乐 xīn nián kuài lè!

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Liew Yen Rou is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Mass Communication (Honours) at Taylor's University. She is an aspiring journalist who pens her thoughts on current issues to while away the time.

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