Monday, April 19, 2010

Being vegetarian in Malaysia

I was chatting to a Malaysian girl on the plane on my last trip there, about airline food, and on how AirAsia's vegetarian nasi lemak was surprisingly tasty, compared to what I had expected. This led to a discussion on me being vegetarian, and this question I often get from Malaysians: "how on earth do you survive in Malaysia being vegetarian?"

Yes, I've been asked that question plenty of times, based on the perception of Malaysian food being principally meat-based. Which it is of course, like most cultures. When Malaysians think of the signature Malaysian dishes - char kway teow, laksa, Hainan chicken rice, prawn mee, satay, rendang, bak kut teh - all of them are fairly meaty.

But Malaysia is actually a brilliant place to be for a vegetarian, seriously. Sure, you are going to have to order more than your fair share of char kway teow or mee goreng, tanpa daging (without meat), but that's far more pleasurable than having to eat salad sandwiches everyday. In many respects, a vegetarian in Malaysia will eat far better than in most other countries, including Australia.

Of course, that statement comes with some caveats.

Firstly, while some areas (particularly Greater Kuala Lumpur) abound with vegetarian options, there are some other regions which are definitely a struggle. Of the 3 main cuisines in Malaysia (Malay, Chinese and Indian), Malay food tends to be based more around meat and seafood, with even the vegetable dishes containing bits of dried prawn and the like. Thus, the regions that are predominantly Malay will be a struggle for the vegetarian.

That said, the vegetarian who eats seafood will find it comparatively easy. The cuisines of Malay strongholds like Terengganu and Kelantan are very strongly based around fish. And if your definition of vegetarianism is broad enough to include chicken then you'll have no problem anywhere in Malaysia. Of course I find the idea of vegetarians eating chicken and/or seafood kind of strange, but I'm not one to judge.

Because it certainly helps if you are willing to turn a blind eye to certain ingredients which frequently pop up in superficially meatless dishes (shrimp paste, chicken stock, lard). Personally, I'm happy enough to do this; it's a don't ask, don't tell sort of thing. As long as I don't see actual meat in the food, I'm okay with it. And the hassle, social discomfort, and communication difficulties involved in trying to ensure there is absolutely no meat products in a dish mean that I just can't be bothered beyond a certain point. Sure, some of you might say "Well, that's not really being vegetarian then, is it?" but I need to live my life, and we all have our own individual points at which we decide to compromise. But that's just me; obviously, plenty of vegetarians aren't going to want to take the chance that there is chicken stock or dried prawny bits in their food, and that's fair enough. They will still find themselves with a broad range of options.

So what can a vegetarian eat in Malaysia? Fortunately, there is a strong trend towards vegetarianism in Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. Thus there are numerous restaurants that cater specifically for these religious adherents.

The Chinese community does not have a whole lot of vegetarians. But there are a few, and many more who do not observe vegetarianism full-time, but will adopt it for certain periods in their life. For example, some Chinese abstain from meat temporarily as a way of purifying oneself and finding some kind of karmic balance. This may be related to an event such as the death of a family member or days of religious significance, or simply as a way of seeking a sense of spiritual peace.

Thus there are numerous Chinese vegetarian restaurants around Malaysia. These range from the most basic establishments, to rather more upscale restaurants. In the latter category, Nature's Vegetarian Cafe in Petaling Jaya and Yishensu at One Utama stand out as probably the best examples of Chinese vegetarian cuisine that I have sampled. Chinese vegetarian food is based largely around "mock meats", a concept that not all vegetarians are keen on, and that many non-vegetarians think is a bit of a joke. Nonetheless, if the food is tasty, which it so often is, then the other details are less important.

What about at the Chinese establishments that are not purely vegetarian? Well, it depends. There are a number of varieties of Malaysian-Chinese eatery.

Perhaps the most frequent places to encounter Chinese food is at hawker stalls. These may exist independently on the roadside, or inside an establishment like a coffee shop or hawker centre. Hawker centres will usually provide reasonable pickings, since there will be a variety of stalls, so while most of them will be fishy or porky, you'd expect at least one to have something vegetarian, even if it is only fried rice or noodles with the meat omitted.

In a restaurant, you'll probably do fine. I went to a Chinese restaurant that was best-known for seafood and had no written menu. After explaining to the waitress that we wanted some vegetarian dishes, she rattled off a variety of options which would put most Australian-Chinese restaurants to shame. Chinese restaurant chefs tend to be flexible and can produce a wide range of dishes by varying the basic ingredients and flavourings.

Also common is the "mixed-rice" or "economy-rice" eatery, in which you are given a plate of rice and allowed to select from a variety of Chinese dishes. These places are very popular because their food is usually cheap, and because it is one of the healthier eating options available in Malaysia. You will have little trouble getting at least a couple of vegetarian selections in these places. Nothing fancy here, but usually quite tasty.
Dishes to try: "Fried Carrot Cake" - not a sweet cake at all but a steamed cake of rice flour and daikon radish, which is then fried with soya sauce, egg and spring onion (and occasionally dried shrimp). Quite commonly found in hawker centres. Also known as chai tow kway or lo bak gow.
Popiah - shredded fresh and cooked vegetables with a spicy-sweet sauce, wrapped in a flour pancake, burrito-style. Sometimes contains dried shrimp or other meaty things, so best to check. A staple of hawker centres and pasar malam (night markets).

Vegetarians will always find themselves well-served by South Indian restaurants. Nowhere on earth has more vegetarians than India, and the cuisines of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, from whence most of Malaysian Indians ultimately derive, are particularly vegetarian-friendly. Purely vegetarian Indian restaurants are not too hard to find, but the average South Indian joint (often advertised as "banana leaf" or "Chettinad cuisine") will always have a decent selection. While it's hard to go wrong with the banana leaf platter (with its multitude of curries, pickles, condiments and fried tidbits served over rice), don't forget the other staples of South Indian cuisine - thosai and iddli (described below).

North Indian food is not as common in Malaysia as South Indian, and tends to be more expensive. While certain North Indian dishes, such as naan and tandoori chicken, can be found very commonly at mamaks, specialist North Indian restaurants are rarer. The best I have tried is Sagar, in Bangsar - startlingly pricy by Malaysian standards, but exceptionally good - its range of dishes featuring paneer (Indian cottage cheese) is impressive, and they also do vegetarian versions of chicken tikka and butter chicken, using mock meats. At the other end of the price scale is Chat Masala in Brickfields, a vegetarian eatery with a comparatively no-frills approach to North and South Indian food, but which nonetheless is extremely delicious. I was instantly a fan of their paneer butter masala and vegetarian version of chicken 65.

Dishes to try: the selection of dishes available at your typical South Indian eatery does vary a little, but you'll see the same sort of things in most places.

Thosai and Iddli - Common dishes for breakfast, but obtainable at any time of day, these are found at virtually every South Indian eating spot. Both are usually made from combinations of urid dal and rice, soaked and allowed to ferment slightly, then pureed to a batter. But the results are very different. The iddli is a plump, steamed white cake while the thosai (also written as dosai or dosa) is a crispy pancake. Both are typically served with coconut chutney and sambar (a tangy, soupy dal). There are myriad variations on the thosai, such as uttapam (a pancake topped with onions, tomatoes or other vegetables) and masala thosai (the thosai folded over mashed potato curry).
My favourite haunts for thosai and uttapam are Bakti Woodlands in KL (near Masjid Jamek), and Saravana Bavan in Bangsar. Iddli are commonly available but my sources tell me the best ones are in Klang.

Crisp-fried bitter gourd - I'm not the biggest fan of bitter gourd (or bitter melon as it is often called), but the way it is often prepared in banana-leaf places is delicious. Heavily spiced, pleasantly salty and fried until crispy, most of the bitterness is removed.
Moru (buttermilk) - this thin yoghurty drink, flavoured with mustard seeds, sliced shallot and green chilies, sound strange but is deliciously cooling accompaniment to be sipped alongside your meal.

The mamak-style restaurant tradition stems from Indian-Muslim and Malay cultures. In contrast to the Buddhist and Hindu culinary traditions, there is more focus on meat-based dishes. That said, it's not hard at all to get a decent vegetarian option at a mamak. Indeed, the quintessential mamak staple is roti canai served with dal. If you avoid the curry sauce it is also served with (usually made with chicken or sardine), it is purely vegetarian and purely delicious. And while roti canai is really the only bread you ever really need in Malaysia, many mamaks will serve thosai, chapati and naan as well, accompanied by dal, curry sauce and occasionally coconut chutney.

Nasi kandar denotes the mamak version of mixed-rice; a selection of curries and other preparations served over rice. The rice will either be plain white rice or delicious biryani, rich with ghee. Check whether the biryani is vegetarian though, as it is quite often prepared with chicken or mutton. Regarding the side dishes, most of them are meat-based, but there will be a few vegetarian options, none of them especially impressive on their own but very satisfying in combination. The vegetable might be spicy cabbage or beans, as well as some kind of dal, and probably sambal egg or tofu.

Dishes to try:
Roti canai - delicious in its basic form, but try some of its variations, such as roti telur bawang (roti filled with egg and onion).
Sambal egg - a simple concept - a boiled egg covered with chili sambal, usually containing lots of onions - but tasty. A very common dish. Be careful though - the sauce can frequently contain belachan (shrimp paste), so either ask first, or pretend it's not there.

Given that Malays are the dominant ethnic group in the country named after them, it might come across as a surprise that "proper" Malay restaurants are a little hard to come by in Malaysia. Yet in one sense, Malay food is everywhere, as many dishes have been absorbed by other ethnic groups, to the point where they are seen as "Malaysian" rather than specifically Malay. Many dishes thought of as Malay also bear the stamp of Chinese, Indian or Arabic influence, or are even claimed by Indonesians as their own, making the whole concept of Malay cuisine a nebulous one. You can get nasi goreng and its variations almost anywhere. Nasi lemak, the national dish of coconut rice and accompaniments, is also easy to come by, as is rojak, the fruit-and-vegetable salad smothered in a tangy sauce. But if you want to delve deeper and get a real experience of Malay cuisine, you need to go where the Malays are - either out into the regions (like Terengganu), or to suburbs like Kampung Baru in KL.
Malay food is all about spicy sambals and coconut curries, and has its share of interesting vegetable preparations like kerabu salad. But here's the catch - even the vegetable dishes tend to have some kind of meat product, usually shrimp paste. Malay cuisine may be delicious but it does not have any tradition of vegetarianism such as occurs in Chinese and Indian culture. So unless you are happy to ignore the presence of shrimp paste, seeking out a Malay vegetarian experience can have its problems.

Dishes to try:
Nasi lemak - if you can get a vegetarian version, that is. Chain restaurant Papa Rich has one, which is not amazing but not bad either. Since nasi lemak is THE quintessentially Malaysian dish, it's worth trying.
Nasi goreng - not necessarily the most exciting thing you will eat in Malaysia, but easily obtainable, tasty, and easily converted to a vegetarian dish. Has a number of variations worth trying - nasi goreng kerabu is my pick, if you can find it (I tried it in Terengganu).


I was going to include something about what vegans can eat in Malaysia, but thought it better to actually ask one, rather than assume. So I'm helped out here by Stephiepenguin, a Chinese-Malaysian-Australian who blogs at Vegan About Town and on her own social justice-focused blog here. Over to you Steph:

Overall, eating vegan in Malaysia is not that much more complicated than eating vegetarian. All the rules that apply to eating vegetarian apply to eating vegan; fortunately accidental dairy is infrequent if you're eating Chinese food, and egg is pretty easy to avoid everywhere.

In Malaysia I describe myself as a 'strict vegetarian.' Most people will interpret this as no meat (including fish) and no eggs. Some people will also take this to mean no dairy, or will at least pause to check if dairy is included. A lot of places will follow this up with a query as to whether I can take garlic and onion.

Some dishes will have hidden things in them, especially if you're frequenting the hawker stalls. Stir-fried hawker dishes such as char kuay teow may include lard. The stocks in hawker stall soups are often made of chicken or whatever is going. Even if you're ordering something fried, the vegetables may be blanched first in stock, so it's important to pay attention. It's important to specify what sort of noodles you want, otherwise you're likely to get a mouth full of egg noodles (and that's not what they're called in BM, either).

As you're probably used to, if you're hanging at the Indian stalls you need to check for ghee, though cream isn't super common.

Things you can almost certainly order vegan from a hawker stall (and that I love and eat as often as possible):

Indian: masala dosai, roti pisang (a banana roti), lots of curries.

Chinese: you tiao / yao chao guai (check what the oil is), chee cheong fun (if you can get it). Order char kuay teow if you can be sure there's no lard (as well as ordering no meat).

Malay: Is a bit harder - if you order something like a nasi goreng, make sure to specify no eggs, same with mee goreng (and order with maifun).
A lot of sweet foods are going to be okay, but it's still best to try and check. If a dish's English name is 'pancake' it might still be okay - there are many things that translate to pancake that are in fact nothing of the sort, and very egg free. There are a few things to be cautious of. As delicious as it looks and smells, vegans can't eat kaya - it's described as a coconut jam, but in reality it's coconut and egg jam. A lot of biscuits (especially Nyonya Chinese New Year biscuits) are brushed with an egg wash.

If I'm looking for a place to eat and I'm not sure where I can get something totally vegan, I'll frequent the vegetarian restaurants attached to buddhist temples. There I can get a good, cheap noodle soup that's totally vegan.

Otherwise, stick to the vegetarian restaurants. And don't eat anything labelled 'telur.' It's a trap.

Some of my favourite places to go to get a good vegan feed (restricted to Penang, because that's where I hang):

Evergreen Vegetarian (on Jalan Cantonment)

Luk Yea Yan (Jalan Macalister)

Lily's Vegetarian Kitchen

So there you have it. If you have any of your own tips about certain foods or restaurants, suggest away!

Related posts:

Being vegetarian in Indonesia
The Malaysian-Indian food experience
What dishes truly define Malaysian cuisine?
Penang, street food capital of Asia
The guide to ordering food in Malaysia
Addicted to kuih
A Malaysian Tamil "31st Day" funeral ceremony


  1. Great post, and timely as I've just been having a conversation with my mother (again) about vegetarianism and what that means in practice. She's of the old 'if you can't see meat, it's vegetarian' school. I had to list off sauces/pastes (fish, oyster, shrimp), and veto things like the little dried prawns ('even powdered?', she asked). It's funny - I don't intend to make fun of my mother as it is a question of generational and social nous, but we've had this conversation quite a few times. I can't help feeling that she has a resistance to the idea of being vego.

  2. @ Tseen: Thanks. I can relate - my grandmother (on my Aussie side) has always been resistant to the idea of vegetarianism, particularly because my uncle (who lived with and looked after her) became vegan. She decided that things like lentils, chickpeas and tofu were symbolic of vegetarianism and therefore worthy of contempt. I couldn't convince her that they were common foods all over the world and beloved by many meat eaters as well.

  3. Hi there. I really enjoyed this post, it aptly explains the "vegetarian food" scenario in Malaysia. I came across your blog whilst doing research before starting my own blog about being a vegetarian in Malaysia.

    Hope you don't mind, but in today's post of mine I added a link to this write-up of yours, encouraging visitors to my blog to read it.


  4. ^ I don't mind at all, happy to be of benefit. Your blog sounds like a good idea.

  5. Be careful in choosing Vegetarian Outlets In Malaysia. Many Vegetarian food providers claim providing Vegetarian / Vegan food. For advertising, it might be there. In real many outlets are contaminated practice, just for commercial reason. They are NOT providing the REAL Vegetarian / Vegan Food. The oil could be reuse after fried the meat / fish and so on. Usage of MOCK Meat is So much...Same Non Veg & veg containers are used. PappaRich outlets claim Vegetarian, but in their write state word Vegan, so confusing, but the vegetarian pictures got egg......PappaRich Business people so Blur on Vegetarian / Vegan. Which one in practice? Confusing................

  6. great tips , correct me if i'm wrong , i though vegetarian not only cant eat animal but vegetarian also cannot eat anything that based on animal , such as egg , cheese . if i'm not mistaken in roti canai based they put eggs , btw , i'm,18 malay girl , ive tried to be a vegetarian , its feel so good and awesome ! when i was a vegetarian usually i will cook at home or eat at restaurant , eg : nasi gorang without eggs , meat , any seafood , only fried rice with a lot of vegetable .. but unfortunately , one day i was hanging out with my friend and i'm so damn hungry , i've tried to find any restaurant that provide vegetarian food but i cant find one . and then suddenly i'm attracted with chicken chop . so since that day i've stopped from being a vegetarian . :( .. now , again i;m trying to be a vegetarian . good news , last month i went to supermarket and i found vegetarian oyster sauce ! yes ! something that i can cook to add flavour into vegetable . :)

    1. Most vegetarians eat eggs and dairy. I personally think that having a diet without them is so difficult that its not sustainable for most people.
      Roti canai does not normally use eggs, unless you get roti telur, obviously.

    2. just went to supermarket and buy some vegetables for me to cook tomorrow :D i'll try my best to be a vegetarian . :) dough of roti canai is made of , water , salt , flour , eggs . btw ,thanks , ur blog remind me how easy to be a vegetarian , its only depends whether we wan it or not . :D

    3. Use of egg in roti canai dough is not standard. Some might use it, but my understanding is that most recipes do not use egg in the dough.

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  8. Tried the madras thali at Bakti Woodlands after seeing you mention it on here. Absolutely amazing

  9. We are Indians. Hence, the food in little India wasnt what we were looking for ..but we loved it none the less.
    Our favourite was the tissue paratha....did you have it?

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  11. The post is written in very a good manner and it entails many useful information for who always looking vegetarian food in Malaysia.

  12. Hi there. I really enjoyed this post, it apply explains the vegetarian food in Malaysia, thanx for sharing

  13. We have a new healthy and delicious vege bistro right in Malacca - Seeds Garden. Check out

    Try the popular nasi kerabu

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.