Behaving at Buffets

Buffet spreads are popular during Ramadan but there’s also the need to rein in the hasty Malaysian, writes Elena Koshy.

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IT was George Bernard Shaw who so aptly said: “There is no sincerer love than the love of food”. I realise this to be true every time I get on the weighing scale. Food has dominated a huge part of my life and it’s one of those lifelong love affairs that you can never quite let go off. This, despite the expanding waistline and the threat of an early heart attack looming like an invisible axe. If you’re Malaysian, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

We find every excuse on earth to eat. We eat at weddings, funerals, birthdays, every religious holidays, gatherings, discussions, meetings… you get what I mean. There is always a reason to makan no matter the time of day. In fact, we don’t need a reason at all. Scores of restaurants, 24-hour mamak joints and bistros that open till the wee hours of the morning are proof that we take our food seriously.

It is unsurprising then that buffets have been assimilated into the Malaysian food culture, and there are spreads both local and international cuisine guaranteed to draw throngs of hungry Malaysians. What better way to get to know Malaysians than to see them behave in a buffet line? Manners go out the window, a glaze settles in our eyes and we are now unwitting participants in the Malaysian version of the movie, Lord Of The Flies.

A recent study by Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp) identified buffets as one of the biggest contributors of Malaysia’s food waste, seeing some 3,000 metric tonnes of edible and untouched food being thrown out daily. A sobering fact to think about, with Ramadan soon upon us and buka puasa buffet spreads springing up all over the city.

Perhaps it’s time to wake up, smell the ketupat and realise that some sense of decorum needs to be practised, at least to uphold good manners and our inherent polite culture while aiming to prevent unnecessary food wastage in the process.

Here are four tips to guarantee your trip to the buffet counter will be a worthwhile endeavour.

Tip No. 1: DO RECONNAISSANCE Yes you heard me right. Be clinical about it. If you’re anything like me, chances are you’ll end up with plate in hand, vacant expression in your eyes, trying to decide between chicken and fish while holding up hordes of annoyed hungry people behind you with plates they long to crash on your indecisive head. It’s always good to have a plan. Quite similar to a covert army operation, scouting the periphery of the buffet layout, having a decisive attack plan and following through normally bodes well for any buffet master.

Note to hotels: I wish that hotels would put up a food trail guide around the area, giving suggestions on what to try first. It gives me enough reason to start eating correctly from the beginning and not make my way to the dessert table first. It will also greatly help indecisive people make the right choices. I don’t need a plan. I need a kind hotel to make important decisions for me, such as what to eat first and how to wade through the maze of mouthwatering foods on display without being led all over the place by my very determined stomach.

Tip No. 2: YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT EVERYTHING You are not a ravenous famine victim who has chanced upon an oasis of food in a dessert. There really isn’t a point of piling the food on and pretending the extras tumbling off your plate belong to your husband/wife/friend. Take only what you need, not what you hope you can eat!

Note to hotels: Have signs suggesting portion servings. Or better still, get the waiter to dole out the right quantity. The familiar sight of waiters removing plates with piles of uneaten food from tables gives a message that we can be ridiculously wasteful.


Tip No. 3: NO TOUCHING THE FOOD Ever seen a curious eater pick up a tart to take a whiff at it, before putting it down again? Or some well-heeled woman grabbing an egg roll with her hands and eating it, while loading up her plate? There are serving utensils provided, so use them. Note to hotels: It helps to have servers. Smiling pleasant ones, if possible. Available utensils and well-informed servers standing around to answer questions about the food displayed are extremely helpful. This will deter future lickers, sniffers and nibblers.

Tips No. 4 : DON’T CUT QUEUE We are notorious for queue jumping at toll gates but let’s leave our bad driving etiquette aside. Buffets are social gatherings or at least I’d like to think it’s that. Wait in line. The food isn’t going to go anywhere. If it’s finished before you reach it, chances are it will be replenished. If it isn’t, just take it as fate or that it was probably bad for you anyway.

Note to hotels: Have waiters or servers at hand to check on the queue. Help the pausers, direct the queue-busters and if the food is taking too long to be prepared, take down their orders and free them to scour the other areas of the buffet spread. They deserve to be freed. They are hungry.


So that’s pretty much the basic 1-2-3-4 of buffet eating. Understanding the appropriate etiquette can help us enjoy the experience of eating. So in the words of American Chef and food writer Ruth Reichl: “Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious!”

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