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Shiyam Sundar

This really has given an new dimension of how Politics also plays a vital role in food history. 'Religion is a way of life' and food and culture will maintain their fine line of tolerance in such ancient societies. (During Muslim and Buddhist festivities people who work together respect the other culture)


As a Malaysian, I'm glad you wrote this piece of observation. How true; it will not happen in this current Malaysia.


It was interesting when you said a few days ago that no Malays would ever work in a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia because of the presence of pork, even though restaurants are desperate for workers. In China, the situation is reversed. Although Chinese Muslims have no problems with carrying plates w/ pork, recommending pork specialties to customers, or walking around in a kitchen with pork, restauranteurs will use it as an excuse to hire only Han Chinese.

The Muslim population doesn't seem too offended by the presence of pork in markets either. It may be because they're a minority in a pork-loving country, or it may be because they don't see the presence of pig flesh as harmful to their identity (gov policies, on the other hand...)

Here's a recent blog entry from James Fallows of the Atlantic that may be interesting:
(There was another entry that included a letter from a Uighur validating the pork sentiment, but I can't seem to retrieve it.)


Shiyam - politics ... or the lack of politics. The politicization of religion is certainly not confined to our era but in this case...

AudMraz - good to hear. Thanks for reading.

Diana - I think that is true across the board in Malaysia.
Thanks for the link. Interesting.


Interesting article and something which is probably not that apparent to the casual observer..... but on a recent visit to Malacca I was surprised to see this butcher at work right next door to the mosque: http://www.shimmerimages.co.uk/gallery/8959058_iwtB2#595226982_PGuBw


Jonny - When I read your comment I pictured a pork stall out in the open right next to a mosque and thought 'Whoa...' Thanks for the link. Nice photos!


Great article, very informative and well written, i really enjoyed it.

Eurasian Sensation

There are a great many Muslims who may not eat pork, but care not a jot whether someone else nearby is doing it. And why should they care, really? It doesn't affect them.

Likewise there are plenty of Muslims in Malaysia and elsewhere who drink alcohol or have pre-marital sex. Like anyone of religious faith, Muslims make varying degrees of compromise between the demands of faith and the reality of day-to-day modern life. We all pick and choose which religious practices we are going to adopt and reject, and getting worked up over what someone else is eating is not high on the agenda for many people.


thanks for this article.
this issue has been bugging us for quite some time, even more and more.

i'm working in an office with multi-racial colleagues.

various uneasy situations were observed from time to time, yet we moved along rather fine. sometimes its kinda sad they commented that theyre having problems backpacking to other countries, even Indonesia/Thailand, for without a guide, its near impossible to seek halal food for every meal, and find a mosque.



I come from a small town in Pahang. When I was a kid, there were many non-Malay (and hence, non-halal) coffee shops there where Muslims and non-Muslims operated food stalls next to each other. We ate and drank together without any awkwardness. Now that's conspicuously gone.

On another point, I was in Dubai last year and I noticed that a five-star hotel there served pork dishes openly in its buffet line. The dish is labelled adequately so that Muslims can skip it.

I think we pay too much attention to this issue and we have allowed it to segregate us.


Christelle - Thanks.

Eurasian Sensation - I totally agree (your first graph). I guess what I am trying to get at with this post is - why is it a bigger issue in Malaysia? I would point to politics.

J2kfm - not sure how to respond here. I certainly wouldn't have had a problem finding halal food in Indonesia. Thailand might be another issue, if your colleagues are not in the south.

Bayi - thanks for your comment, and for sharing those observations. That's what I'm trying to get at.


In east malaysia, you will find muslims sitting at a chinese kopitiam table with a non muslim together. The non-muslim usually digging into a pork dish unperturbed by his neighbour. Although the muslim may not indulge the non halal food, he or she might have toast and eggs. They both might share a great conversation in between mouthfuls and also might just be sharing a large cold beer. A chinese kopitiam sight that i would like to see in the peninsular more often.

An unusual event did happen for last year (unusual for me anyway). I joined a group of young professionals for lunch at a non halal fish head shack in Sungai Besi. It wouldnt have been odd except 2 of the 5 persons were muslim. We had a tofu pork dish and a fish head dish. The muslims didnt touch the tofu dish but enjoyed the fish. Not a single complaint and no one at the shack even seemed bothered by it. Everyone enjoyed the meal! Now that's a sign of the times!

Kevin Leong

There are good business reasons for the segregation of the stalls. If you run an eating establishment and you want to attract all races in Malaysia, you probably want to take into account the things that offended any one race. Over the years, people adapted to various practices. There are many Chinese-owned coffee shops (not designated as halal) frequent by Muslims. Chong Kok Kopitiam in Klang is on such coffee shop.


Robyn, There are a multitude of reasons why I love your blog. Your (well, Dave's!) slurpalicious photos, your erudite and observant writing skills, your eye for detail and most of all; your honesty. I believe I need to add bravery to the list, as I for one would hesitate to publish such an article if I were based in Malaysia like you are. PS A close Malay friend (here in Sydney)at my birthday dinner asked me to flick off an 'offending' piece of prosciutto clinging onto his goat's cheese ice-cream and then nonchalantly devoured the icecream, declaring it superfabulous! Which it was.


Thanks for this thoughtful and sensitive post. I look forward to seeing the results of your project! Your comments reminded me of Madhur Jaffrey's recently published memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, which talks about her childhood prior to Partition (separating Pakistan and Bangladesh from India), when Muslims and non-Muslims mixed freely in schools, sharing food and culture and languages, and she writes eloquently about the richness that was lost as a result of Partition.


I think Glodok has its own special history. Other parts of Jakarta might be a bit more segregated and for sure, some other cities around east Java, South Sumatra and Aceh might have a different scene.


It's sad that Malaysia is decades behind (or ahead, depending on your perspective) in how Malays and Non-Malays (I have to admit that I've never seen the dichotomy in Malaysia as Muslim/Non-Muslim, but Malay/Non-Malay) interact with each other due to the actions of those at the reins in an effort to consolidate their power for decades to come.

I have hope that those who grew up in the 80s and 90s will have the wisdom to see otherwise though.


As an ex-Msian and going back for visits, I feel the differences that have been pointed out. It almost appears some people are paranoid and insecure, and hence such a heightened level of religious consciousness. I live in a country of immigrants now and appreciate cultural and religious differences...they are to be celebrated and not viewed as threats. Remember the days of "Berjaya" and "Muhibbah"?? Are they just empty words now??

Nic (KHKL)

I have the same thought as I dine in foodcourts. Being a Malaysian working in Singapore, I observe that foodcourts in Singapore generally serve both halal and non-halal food. This applies to public places like shopping malls and one can see that everyone's happy chomping down their favourite dishes, regardless of race and religion. As much as I enjoy the atmosphere and some delicious local food in major foodcourts in KL, I hope that one day, we can learn a thing or two (foodcourts included) from across the causeway. After 50 over years of nation building, I think the people should be mature enough to understand that what we eat shouldn't divide us. In fact, the diversity in our cuisines is something that we should celebrate!


I think Glodok has less segregation due to its role almost of a "Chinatown" of Jakarta. Mostly in other towns (or mine in West Borneo) it is tucked away from the main market but not necessary hidden or in "corrugated metal walls" . If anything, it is due to respect for the differences. But I do observed for the longest time that Malaysia's government role in segregating everything is in fact encouraging alienation in the community. In Indonesia, I grew up with people eating side by side all the time regardless of religions. If you are a Muslim, you just don't eat anything with pork in it, much the same with another non-Muslim who doesn't like fish or specific type of food. There's a difference in appreciating each cultural differences and blatant rejection of the differences. Food is basic and for the longest time it played a big role in the region. It is no wonder in Indonesia, we have so many food that are the product of this interactions (e.g. Lumpia (eggroll), Bak-so (national dish-meatball), tahu (toufu), Bakmi (meat noodle dish), Kecap (soy sauce), Siomay (dumplings) e.t.c.)


cumi - is this still true? Bec I understand that Kelantan, at least, passed a regulation that Muslims could not eat at establishments that serve liquor - which would, of course, include many Chinese coffeeshops. But yes, good point - I remember such from when were there 3.5 years ago. Which is counter-intuitive, given that the east is a bit more conservative.

Your experience is a good, hopeful one; pple left to their devices will usually ignore the noise from 'above'. But there is more official regulation of Muslim behavior here than in Thailand and Indo and I think that is reflected in the society at large.

Kevin - Sorry, I don't quite buy that. What are the 'good business reasons' for segregating the stalls? That a Muslim (ie Malay) would never step foot in a wet market if they could see pork? That may well be (and I'm not passing judgment on that), but if that's the case, WHY is that the case here in Malaysia and not in southern Thailand? That's what I am really getting at.

"Over the years people adapted to various practices." I am not sure exactly what you're referring to here. What practices, introduced by who, and adapted to by who?

And yes, some Malaysian Muslims frequent Chinese-owned coffee shops. But it's not common, at least not in KL. One guy yesterday at Yut Kee during a busy lunch hour (I was there for two hours) does not common practice make.

Not trying to hammer you on this, just trying to get beyond the 'because that's the way it is' answer to my question of why the differences betw Malaysa, Thailand (and Indo).

Thanks for your comment.

gobsmack'd - Thanks. It's a post I've wanted to write for a while. But one hesitates to draw attention to oneself.

Goat cheese ice cream? I wanna be at one of your dinner parties!!

Hailyn - You're welcome. And thanks for reminding me of that book, which has been sitting on my shelf for too long.

Butet - thanks. Yes I know about Glodok but would like to know more. I find the place fascinating.

Of course Aceh and east Java will be entirely different. There is a teeny tiny Chinatown in Padang, did you know? Wild boar for sale there.

Hi Nick - Good point. Yes of course, here it's Malay/non-Maly bec (1) as I noted, in Malaysia being Malay means being Muslim by law) and (2) it's been a useful political tool. One wouldn't necessarily think of Malay Muslims and Indian Muslims sharing common interest.

Chris - Thanks for sharing your experience as an overseas Malaysian. Changes in our home countries can seem so much starker when we return after a long absence.

Nic - exactly! Situation in Singapore (politically and ethnic and religious make-up of population) entirely different of course, which I would argue counts for alot.

Sputnik - Let's say that I agree with you and leave it at that.
One thing I've just remembered .... those tiny neighborhood markets that snake through back alleys in Jakarta, the very narrow alleys ... I could swear there were a couple pork sellers there, in a much more close proximity to Muslim vendors than at Glodok.

Mr Burns

How does one politely say to one's host that they are wearing no clothes?

The leaders of current day Malaysia would like you to think that they built a modern society based on their traditional values, melding the best together. In actuality, it's the worst of all worlds, defying the progress that the rest of the world has made in desegregating society.

As one born in Malacca, and who has grown up in Australia and now is living in Canada, I can't help but wonder what kind of society their leaders are trying to build.

Food is crucial to the soul and being of all Malaysians. Yet the government has deliberately and callously prevented its people from being united in the one thing that they share - their fusion and styles of food. I'm not asking for Muslims to eat something that their religious belief system bans, I'm asking for some sanity and respect for others.

Your blog is an excellent vehicle for this commentary - the segregation of food is as good a metaphor as any for their segregation society.


Oo one more thing, what's kafe booran you talked about? Sounds intriguing!

Andrea Nguyen

Robyn, Asians excel at being masters of the "Don't ask don't tell" code of living. That is, you can do what you want but I don't want to see it out in the open. One can apply that to many things, not just animal protein preferences.

But we live in an era now where we can have online discussions like this to push awareness. Call me ignorant but up until a few years ago, I didn't know that there were Indian Catholics, ergo some people in India eat beef! Your observations are important, especially because you're an outside observer who's not overly removed. I imagine you're stating thing that a number of Malays are thinking!


enjoying your article and the discussion here, robyn.

one thing, the pudu market is different though yea? but i guess that's because the area is predominantly chinese. there are quite a few malays who make their way there anyway from what i've seen.

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