No matter the religion, food plays an integral part in the beliefs as well as ceremonies and rituals – and should be considered when travelling in SE Asia. Here we cover the main religions of the area, as well as those practiced in smaller communities and amongst expats.
Since Eve handed Adam the apple and doomed the human race for eternity, food has played a strong role in religious beliefs. Some of us are more religious than others – some follow strict orthodox practices determined by their religion, and others loosely observe the ‘rules’ dictated by the religion that they were born into. For many, dietary habits are derived from religious laws, and all over the world many people choose to eat or avoid certain foods according to their religious beliefs. When a country’s people are predominantly from one religion, it can be difficult to eat a food frowned upon by that following – for example, it might not be so easy to get a big juicy beef steak in India, where the main religion is Hinduism, and the cow is considered sacred. Likewise, a bacon sandwich in Jerusalem might not be so easy to find…
Most religions involve practices of both fasting and feasting – with fasting showing restraint and feasting being a time of celebration, thanksgiving and coming together as a community. While some practices involving food may seem obscure to those not of the faith (such as consuming wine and communion wafers representing the blood and body of Jesus), with a little research, you’ll find a reason for the practice, often going back millennia. Food choice is due to different reasons, with religion being one of the strongest principles on which diets are based. Sacred places such as altars and shrines and sacred times such as feast and fasting days, as well as symbolism and myth (what foods represent or the stories they recall) are all part of religious rituals linked to food.
So let’s look at the basic principles involving food and the most common religions, starting with Buddhism, the prevailing religion of Thailand and Cambodia. Many believe that all Buddhists are vegetarian, but strictly speaking, that’s not true – just think of all the pork consumed in Thailand! Buddha was not a vegetarian, and he didn’t prohibit eating meat. Roughly speaking amongst the two major Buddhist traditions, the Mahayanists are vegetarian and the Theravadins (the form practiced in Thailand and Cambodia) are not. Buddhism considers living beings to be sacred; a belief that has translated into widely practiced vegetarianism and veganism.
Violence towards animals is considered to translate into human aggression; hence most Buddhists will keep to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence or harmlessness) and avoid all foods related to processes where harm was done. Hence, some Buddhists avoid meat and dairy products while others avoid only meat. Monks of this religion fast in the afternoon and rely on ‘alms’ or donations of food as they, along with Buddhist nuns, are not allowed to cultivate, store or cook their own food. The birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha are the three most commonly recognised festivals for feasting, resting from work, or fasting. Buddhist monks fast completely on certain days of the moon, and they routinely avoid eating any solid foods after the noon hour.
You’ll see spirit houses throughout SE Asia, and strictly speaking, they have nothing to do with Buddhism. Animism, or spirit worship, is probably the oldest form of religion in the world, and when Buddhism arrived in South East Asia, it developed alongside the ancient spirit worship. Today many of the beliefs are knitted with Buddhism and form part of everyday life for Thai people, and you’ll often see locals keeping the spirits happy with food offerings placed at the spirit houses. Fresh fruit, rice, chicken or duck, beer, water and cold drink, keep the spirits' hunger and thirst at bay.
Christianity is the religion predominant in Western cultures, and food regulations differ from one Christian denomination or group to another, with some groups not observing any restrictions at all. Catholics and orthodox Christians fast on certain religious days such as Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) or during Lent (the 40 days before Jesus arose from the dead). In earlier centuries, meat and dairy products were avoided during a substantial portion of the year, but today it often just means eating fish instead of meat on a Friday. The ritual of consuming bread and wine (Holy Communion or the Eucharist) is regularly celebrated but its symbolic or actual meaning in relation to the body and blood of Jesus Christ depends on the denomination. While most Western children happily enjoy their chocolate Easter eggs, few realise that the egg represents new lift – symbolic of Jesus rising from the dead and allowing Christians to be born again, free of their sins.
Hinduism (the main religion of Bali) is one of the most ancient religions in the world and, although meat was not originally prohibited, many Hindus today regard vegetarianism as a way to maintain the respect observed for life. Hinduism is characterised by the avoidance of the killing of any animal, the cleansing of those involved in food preparation, which is a reflection on previously existing caste-restricted practices, and the symbolism of certain foods. The cow is sacred to Hindus, and therefore no beef is consumed. Other products from the cow, however, such as milk, yoghurt, and butter are considered innately pure and are thought to promote purity of the mind, spirit, and body. Many devout Hindus fast on the eighteen major Hindu holidays, as well as on numerous personal days, such as birthdays, and anniversaries of deaths and marriages. They also fast on Sundays and on days associated with various positions of the moon and the planets.
Islam is the faith practiced by some of Thailand’s neighbouring countries, including Malaysia, so you’ll find small Muslim communities within Thailand. It’s also the main religion of Indonesia – aside from Bali. The main food practices in Islam involve specific ritual slaughtering procedures for animals of consumption (haram practices), fasting during the month of Ramadan, the avoidance of pork and of intoxicating liquor. Foods are categorised as halal (those that may be eaten) and haram (those that should be avoided), as are other aspects of life. Most foods are halal while the list of haram foods includes pork, alcohol and any products that may contain emulsifiers made from animal fats (such as gelatines and margarines). Bread and bread products fermented by yeast may contain traces of alcohol and in some cases may be considered haram. Moderation in all things, including eating and dietary habits, are an integral part of Islam. Fasting on these religious occasions includes abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset. In Turkey and other predominantly-Muslim countries, iftar – the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast – has gone from being a humble affair based around dates, soup and some freshly baked bread to something much more elaborate (at least for those who can afford it).
Another of the more well known faiths is Judaism, and in this religion foods are divided into kosher (allowed) or trefa (forbidden). Characteristics of kosher foods include animals that have a completely split hoof and chew cud (such as cows, goats and sheep), while kosher fish must have fins and scales. In general, all plant foods are considered kosher, and a specific slaughtering process must be followed for meat to be considered kosher. Animals such as pigs and rabbits as well as creatures of the sea, such as lobster, shrimp, and clams, may not be eaten. Meat and dairy products must not be prepared, stored or eaten together and certain fasting days are observed (especially Yom Kippur). During the celebration of Passover, food helps to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
There seems to be a growing Rastafarian movement in SE Asia – some just following for the great Reggae music, and others taking the religious aspect into practice too. Most Rastafarians are vegetarian or vegan. Foods that may be consumed by people practicing this religion are called ital, with these foods being characterised by having no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, so are considered pure or natural. Rastafarians also avoid the consumption of alcohol and in some cases also tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks as it’s considered that these foods confuse the soul.
With a diverse community of locals and expats in SE Asia, it’s good to know the basic principles regarding religions and their food rules, so as not to offend at a social gathering. And there’s no harm in joining in with religious feasts of friends of other religions, such as at Christmas time, or the breaking of the Ramadan fast, when food is plentiful. And we’ll forgive you for tucking into that delicious Easter egg – even if you don’t celebrate Easter.