Malaysia is a country of foodies where we ask friends "Have you eaten?" as a form of greeting and often plan trips not based on places we want to see, but places where we want to eat.
But did you know that more than 64 per cent of Malaysians eat at least one meal per day outside of home? And of the remaining 36 per cent who eat at home, 12.5 per cent have at least one meal that comes from outside.
So says the Malaysian Food Barometer (MFB), a recent study conducted by Taylor's University to observe the eating habits and food cultures of the Malaysian population.
"Malaysia has a very high frequency of (people) eating out. If you go to Kuala Lumpur or the countryside, you can always find people eating out," said head researcher Prof Dr Jean-Pierre Poulain, who is also the co-director of Taylor's Toulouse University Centre and the head of its Chair of Food Studies: Food, Cultures and Health.
He said that for many years, nutritional surveys had been capturing the changes in food consumption but there was no comprehensive study focusing on the socio-cultural determinants of eating habits at the national level.
The MFB aims to fill this gap and analyse the effects of social status, education level, ethnicity, gender, generation, size of the household and urbanisation on eating habits.
Prof Poulain said Malaysia is experiencing rapid urbanisation and modernisation, and the traditional ways of life and eating habits of the different ethnic communities are changing.
"I've been coming to Malaysia for more than 28 years and the gap between then and now is huge. Malaysia has achieved in one generation what Europe and North America did in five in terms of urbanisation, economic development and the emergence of the middle class.
"All of these factors have strongly changed the Malaysian food lifestyle and during this time, the country faced the development of non-communicable diseases (NCD), mainly diabetes and obesity," he said.
The MFB survey was conducted between January and May 2013 with a random sampling of over 2,000 people across the country. The participants, aged 15 and above, were asked 60 questions in 40-minute interviews in either Bahasa Malaysia, English or Mandarin.
"It was a big task but the quality of the data comes from interviewing them face to face," said the professor, adding that their goal was to create a recurrent survey that can be conducted every two years.
The MFB found that almost one out of every two meals is eaten out, which is close to the practice in the United States.
In comparison, about one out of every three meals is eaten out in the United Kingdom, one out of four in Italy, one out of five in Spain and in his native country France, and one out of seven in Germany.
"When you cook less, there are more parts of your food that you do not control. You give other people that responsibility and that's why the front-line stakeholders in fighting obesity have become the restaurants," he said.
For those eating out, diners either share several dishes with others or have individual meals.
"A total 61.5 per cent of participants said they believe eating collective meals (meals where diners share several dishes) should be the norm. However, only 18.3 per cent actually practised it.
"What is interesting in Malaysia is that although there is high individualisation (where each diner has his own meal), there is also high socialisation as 72 per cent of meals are eaten with somebody else," he said.
The MFB also asked participants what food meant to them and found that the perception of food varied depending on living conditions.
"People from areas with low modernisation define food as more of a need but people from highly modern areas call it a pleasure. We go from a basic need to fill your stomach to the expression of a social position need," he said.
Of the different ethnic groups surveyed, Indians displayed the highest average body mass index at 24.68, followed by Malays with 23.9, non-Malay bumiputras with 23.2 and the Chinese with 22.87.