This question is just about Malay culture and food. I know Indian and Chinese Malaysian food culture and etiquette probably varies, and I have more experience with those, so trying to keep this question focused.

I know muslims do not eat with their left hand and I know Malays sometimes eat with their fingers. I'm not sure if that even includes using cutlery/silverware with your left hand. I'm not sure if they actually take offence at non-Muslims or foreigners using both hands in Malay eateries.

Some things I've read or seen on the internet make it seem like even cutlery in the left hand is out but I've seen Malays use fork in one hand and spoon in the other.

Two extremely popular Malay foods are ayam (chicken) and ikan bakar (grilled fish). Always served on the bone in my experience. Nothing I can find online covers eating these, which to me are less amenable to eating with cutlery.

Nasi lemak with chicken Nasi lemak (coconut rice) seems to come with a fried chicken drumstick as the default option.

Nasi lemak with ikan bakar A fancier nasi lemak, this time with ikan bakar (grilled fish).

I assume Malays are not into wasting food so would get the very most from their chicken and fish. I can imagine how people could become skilled at stripping the flesh from the bones on fish. I've always been terrible at it so I'm a very messy eater of fish. It's harder to imagine being able to get everything from chicken with just fork and spoon. Do Malays pick up their chicken in their right hand? I hate watching people eat but tried to observe and didn't notice anyone doing this.

In short:

  • Do Malays eat fried/grilled chicken and fish only with cutlery or also with right hand fingers?
  • Is it rude for outsiders to eat with both hands when Malay Muslims are around?
  • Do Malays manage to get all the protein from fish and chicken using cutlery or is it OK to waste what's hard to get off?
  • Does the rule about not eating with your left hand only mean directly or also using cutlery in your left hand?
  • 2
    Muslims do not eat with their left hand????? Heaven forbid you use your left hand if you're left handed - sorry man but WTH.
    – JonH
    Jun 17, 2022 at 3:10
  • 6
    From what I understand, in many South East Asian countries the left hand is considered dirty/impolite (used to "wash your bottom"), so I personally avoid even handing money with it. In some countries money is handed and received with both hands though.
    – fregante
    Jun 17, 2022 at 5:38
  • @fregante It's more about muslim cultures the way I understand it. I don't believe it applies to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam which are mostly non-muslim. But I could be remembering wrong. I think we have questions on this topic under the hygiene tag. Jun 17, 2022 at 6:04
  • 5
    I don’t think it's necessarily a muslim thing, it definitely applies to the Philippines, Thailand and India
    – fregante
    Jun 17, 2022 at 6:15
  • @fregante Interesting! I knew about India but had no idea it was true for Thailand despite having spent time there several times. Jun 17, 2022 at 13:02

4 Answers 4


You’re clearly a thoughtful person to ask these kinds of questions. Based on plenty of time in Malaysia — and even working with Malay clients — it tends to be a pretty easy going place. Foreigners often are given a great deal of leeway compared to local expectations, as well.

Traditionally, you should eat with your right hand. At a hotel wedding or other formal occasion, there probably will be cutlery, but you might conventionally also be provided with a small bowl to wash your hand between bites. You should serve older people first. Pass dishes with your right hand or both hands if they are heavy. If you’re invited to a formal dinner, ask your host if you are unsure of anything.

At a local restaurant that serves Malay dishes on waxed paper like those you have pictured, you are unlikely to offend anyone — or even attract much notice — regardless of your specific table manners. Just don’t show up with alcohol and you should be fine.

In practice, locals eat with their right hand; the fork and spoon can be used with both hands at the same time if needed. At a wedding, more decorum may be in order, but at a local restaurant, you need not worry about picking up a chicken drumstick or piece of fish and chewing on it.

Enjoy your time in Malaysia!

  • 1
    I forgot to also mention that surprisingly many of the cheap places I prefer don't seem to have anywhere for me to wash my hands and usually no napkins/serviettes. The place in the top picture does but not the place in the bottom picture, which is a fancier place. Do Malays carry around tissues or baby wipes? Is it rude to lick your fingers? I'll add to the question. Thanks for your helpful answer! Jun 16, 2022 at 10:12
  • 13
    Do Malays carry around tissues or baby wipes? yes! It's pretty universal in SE asia to carry tissues for this purpose. You should also be able to find plenty of vendors selling them in food centres. As you've probably found it's not typical for napkins to be provided except in restaurants (who may still charge a fee for them).
    – MJeffryes
    Jun 16, 2022 at 10:52
  • You got that catering-client-marketing vibe in the answer, I am not complaining it tho. Jun 16, 2022 at 15:29
  • 1
    My wife & her relatives (Chinese Malaysians) always carry packs of tissues with them. One of my nieces will go so far as to buy scent coordinated tissues for when we go on trips together. We still have a few packs left from a trip to Cambodia over 4 years ago and they're still usable.
    – delliottg
    Jun 16, 2022 at 19:23
  • 7
    @FluidCode This is too long to answer in a comment. However, traditionally, there essentially aren't "practicing" left-handed Malays. As a left-handed person myself, this tends to be noticed and come up in a business conversation or lunch, etc. As once was common many places, parents in Asian countries routinely forced left-handed children to switch to preferring their right hand. This is changing and you are more likely to meet a left-handed person in Asia if they were born in the 1990s or 2000s. In general, Gen Z grew up on the same Internet and is not interested in old fashioned rules.
    – travelgasm
    Jun 18, 2022 at 2:01

You’re not likely to offend anyone. Even Malaysians may ‘wield’ the food with 2 hands, meaning that even if they bring the food to their mouth with the right hand, they’ll often enough still hold a chicken wing with the left hand for example. Holding cutlery with the left hand is definitely not a problem. (Just been to Malaysia for a few weeks, but been in Indonesia for 7 years and it’s close enough in these regards)

I suggest bringing alcohol disinfectant spray/gel too for those places with few hand washing options.


It's easy to find Malays eating food on Youtube, try a search such as 'makan nasi kandar'

If you watch this mukbang video from a Malaysian with 16 million (!) subscribers


you can see his right hand gets rather dirty, but he also uses his left hand whenever it is necessary. No doubt he is Muslim and practised from early childhood; if you are eating yourself, nobody will care if you use your left hand entirely, the only time IME to avoid using the left hand as a foreigner who has no prior exposure to such concerns is when paying for food, passing things to others, etc. - make an effort to pay using your right hand, and otherwise pass things using your right hand. Obviously this is within the bounds of practicality - when I have passed 40kg sacks of cement, you use both hands, but for small items you try to use the right hand.


I have been to Malaysia many times and ate food from local restaurants. I can assure you that even Malay people will be eating just like you said. You can pick up fish or meat to eat with your hands, no problems at all.

However, there may not be option to wash hands in smaller establishments, and they won't give you tissues for free. So, keep a small pack of tissues to wipe your hands and mouth after eating.

Also, Malay people, especially in KL are very friendly and accommodating to practices from outsiders. So, no need to worry.

  • Thanks Anish. I've also been to Malaysia half a dozen times before. But this time I've been spending time in a mostly Malay area of JB whereas in the past I seemed to mostly be in more Chinese areas in KL and Penang. Jun 17, 2022 at 4:51
  • 1
    @hippietrail This is applicable in JB also. Jun 17, 2022 at 5:30

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