When I was new in Malaysia, I was shocked to hear people asking each other out for a drink, even in the morning. “Jom, I belanja you minum!” (Come, I’ll buy you a drink!) It’s quite common to go into an office at 10 am or so and find that person nowhere to be found. If you ask his officemates, they’d nonchalantly tell you, “Oh, dia pergi minum” (Oh, he went out for a drink).
Why the shock, you might ask? You see, the Filipino word for ‘to drink’ is ‘inom’. However, the same word can be used to mean something else — “nag-inuman sila” (they went out for a drink), “malakas siyang uminom” (he drinks a lot) — and by drink there, it doesn’t refer to just any other drink, but it very specifically refers to alcohol.
Given that most Malaysians are Muslims, they do not drink alcohol because it is forbidden in Islam, hence my confusion on their nonchalant use of the word ‘minum‘.
Eventually, I got to understand that they do mean ‘have a drink’ when they say ‘pergi minum‘ but they’re referring to the usual drinks that one gets from any restaurant and hawker centre in Malaysia, not alcohol. My bad!
The proper word in Malay for ‘drink’ is minuman. However, the word air, which means ‘water’, is commonly accepted in daily usage. So don’t be confused when a Malaysian asks you “What water would you like to drink?”. He/she simply means “What drink would you like to have?”. It’s just a very literal translation of the question ‘Nak minum air apa?’.
When you are placing your orders in a restaurant or mamak shop or roadside stall, it’s quite normal for the person taking your orders to ask you ‘Nak minum air apa?’ or simply ‘Air?’.
Image from Wendy’s Little Corner
Malaysia is, of course, well known for its teh tarik [teh tah-rî], literally meaning ‘pulled tea.’ It’s hot tea with condensed milk which is poured from one glass to another several times to cool it a bit before serving. The ‘pulling’ motion while pouring the tea back and forth has given the drink its moniker; it also makes the tea nice and frothy. Teh tarik probably had its origins in the Indian chai, introduced to Malaysia by the Indian workers who were brought by the British to then Malaya as ‘bonded labourers‘.
In addition to teh tarik, the standard drinks menu in any food outlet usually includes kopi (hot local coffee with milk), Nescafé (hot Nescafé with milk), Milo (hot Milo with milk) and Horlicks (hot Horlicks with milk). By milk, I mean condensed milk, so if you don’t fancy the stuff, ask for the drinks with ‘O’ after the name, such as teh o, which is hot tea without milk.
And if you want your drink cold, just add the word ais (pronounced the same way as the English word ‘ice’) after your drink, such as Milo Ais. Expect to pay a bit more for the addition of ice, anywhere between 20 to 50 sen.
Craving for iced lemon tea? No problem, just ask for teh o ais limau — tea without milk, with ice and a squeeze of lemon (the round, green-coloured local variety, known as calamansi in the Philippines). Sometimes you get lucky and they use limau nipis (lime), which I personally prefer because of its unique delicate scent.
Fresh fruit juice can also be had in most eating outlets, even in most roadside stalls, with fresh oren (freshly squeezed orange juice diluted with water and mixed with sugar) being the most common. Other juices can also be had all-year round, such as tembikai (watermelon), epal (apple), belimbing (star fruit) and fresh carrot juice with or without milk. In some places, you can also order laici (lychee, pronounced the same way), mangga (mango) and durian Belanda (soursop) drink. A quick word of caution for the mangga and durian Belanda drinks — better clarify from the waiter first if it’s fresh or not, otherwise, you might end up disappointed with the juice-from-concentrate variety.
If you want plain water, just ask for air kosong, which some people also refer to as ‘sky juice’ (juice from the sky – get it?). And you better specify if you want your water cold, otherwise they’ll give you warm water a.k.a. air suam [ayh su-wam]. When I was new in Malaysia, I found this rather strange because warm water is not an item that people order in Philippine restaurants or food outlets. But it’s very, very common in Malaysia, believe me. In most places, air suam can be had for free but if you do get charged for it, it’s usually very minimal — something like 20 sen per glass.
My favourite drink? Air kelapa muda (chilled young coconut a.k.a. buko in the Philippines). You can usually order it in tom yam restaurants, your local kedai mamak (Indian eateries who serve roti canai, or paratha, 24 hours a day) and the more upscale restaurants. You can also buy them from the chilled fruits and vegetables section at a nearby hypermarket. Current market price per coconut is RM2.30 per piece in Tesco Hypermarkets and from RM4.00 onwards at hawker centres and restaurants.