A great deal of Malaysian food comes from the ocean – prawns, squid, fish, and crabs and so on. Malaysians also favor meaty broths and chicken and egg noodles and a host of other non-vegetarian foods. So, you can understand the quandary that faces a vegetarian traveling to Malaysia. Here’s a vegetarian’s guide to Malaysia – what to eat and how to survive in a predominantly non-vegetarian region.
Food in Malaysia
Food in Malaysia comprises of three main cuisines – Malay, Chinese and Indian. There’s also Mamak food, a mix of Indian Muslim and Malay cuisines. In Malay food, even the vegetarian dishes tend to have bits of meat or fish floating around in them. Fortunately for vegetarians, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism tend strongly towards vegetarianism. So, you’ll be able to find restaurants that cater specifically to people that belong to these religions.
Veg Chinese Food
There’s not much truly vegetarian in Chinese cuisine, but there are a few basic vegetarian Chinese restaurants aimed at religious Chinese who abstain from meat temporarily. Chinese vegetarian food uses ‘mock meat’ made of soy bean. Chinese hawker stalls mostly use meat, but if you’re in a hurry, ask them for plain fried noodles with fried tofu. Chinese chefs at good hotels usually provide a few vegetarian options by using vegetables and veg flavorings instead of meat in their regular dishes. You can try the mixed rice option at some Chinese eateries, where you get a bowl of rice and are allowed to choose from a variety of side dishes. These places are usually very cheap and you’ll get at least a couple of vegetarian selections.
Veg Indian Food
Head for any South Indian restaurant and you’re bound to find that most of the dishes are vegetarian. The cuisines of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are very veg-friendly. Referred to as the ‘banana leaf’ or ‘Chettinad cuisine’, meals are served on a banana leaf platter. You can enjoy an array of curries, pickles, condiments and fried tidbits served over rice in these places. Of course, there’s always the very vegetarian breakfast options of idli (plump steamed rice dumpling) and dosa (pancake made of rice and lentils) that are tasty and filling. Malaysia has more South Indian restaurants than North Indian, but you can find veg food among North Indian restaurants as well. Hotel Sagar in Bangsar offers a range of dishes using mock soy meats to replace chicken in their veg offerings. The Indian cottage cheese, paneer, is especially good to eat. You’ll also find spicy Chaat hawker outlets in several areas, and these are vegetarian.
Veg Malay Food
Malays are the dominant ethnic group in Malaysia, but surprisingly you won’t find many ‘proper’ Malay restaurants in the country. Most Malay dishes bear the stamp of Indian, Chinese or Arabian influences. Malay food is spicy – the sambals and coconut curries that you eat with rice can try your tastebuds. However, even the so-called veg dishes will have something non-veg in them. Malay cuisine does not have the tradition of vegetarianism as you can find in Indian and Chinese cuisine. Nasi Lemak is rice eaten with an array of side dishes, veg and meat mixed.
Veg Mamak Food
Mamak-style food is a mix of Indian-Muslim and Malay food, with the main focus on meat. It’s hard to find a vegetarian option in a Mamak restaurant. You can, however, get a roti Canai (dry flat bread) served with dal (lentil soup). Avoid the curry sauce as it usually has meat or fish. You can also get dosa and idli served with coconut chutney, and chapathi (flat bread with oil) and naan with veg dal in Mamak restaurants. Nasi Kandar in Mamak restaurants is a version of the Nasi Lemak tradition of Malay cuisine. It’s basically mixed-rice eaten with a selection of curries. Always check if any of the side dishes is vegetarian before you start eating.
Veg Dishes to Try While In Malaysia
Ask for these dishes wherever you eat and you’ll be able to enjoy tasty vegetarian options in a predominantly meat-based culture.
- Roti Canai: Delicious dry flat bread that you can eat with just butter if no veg curry is available. Try the roti filled with onion and other vegetables. Roti Pisang is roti filled with banana.
- Masala Dosa: A flat savory pancake filled with spicy potato curry served with coconut chutney.
- Nasi Goreng: Crisp fried rice with golden fried onions, and raw cucumber and tomato on the side. Be sure to specify no eggs.
- Nasi Lemak: Rice soaked in coconut milk before cooking, served with a variety of dishes.
- Nasi Campur: Mixed rice served with a variety of side dishes usually in buffet form.
- Laksa: A spicy noodle soup with ‘tofu puffs’ floating around.
- Tahu Sumbat: Tofu fried and stuffed with sliced cucumber and bean sprouts and drizzled with spicy chili sauce.
What to Watch Out For
- Several dishes translate to ‘pancake’, so it’s best to avoid them if you’re not sure.
- Avoid kaya even though it’s described as coconut jam; it’s actually coconut and egg jam.
- Biscuits, especially Nyonya Chinese New Year biscuits are brushed with egg wash, so watch out for them if you don’t eat egg.
- Stir-fried dishes at hawker’s stalls might include lard, which is pig fat.
- Soup stocks are usually made of beef or chicken, so be sure to check.
- Fried veggies are sometimes blanched in hot chicken stock before frying
- Be sure to specify veg noodles or you’ll be slapped with a bowl of egg noodles by default.
Where to Find Veg Food
- If you find a Buddhist temple, you can always get a good vegetarian meal at the attached temple restaurant.
- Evergreen Vegetarian (on Jalan Cantonment), Luk Yea Yan (Jalan Macalister) and Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen are great vegetarian places in Penang.
- Yummy Garden in Kuala Lumpur offers great veg food.
- Restoran Syed Ali hotel in Mersing offers a selection of great vegan food.
- Great dosas are available in the veg Woodlands Restaurant (Georgetown), Selvam Restoran (Melaka) and Saravanaa Bhavan (Kuala Lemur).
As long as you specify your needs clearly, you can get away with being a vegetarian in Malaysia. Every time you order something, be sure to ask specific questions about the stock that’s used, and let the hotel management know your vegetarianism is religious. That works at times.