Food is an important part of travel. Whether your looking to try new things or just power yourself through the day, it plays a big role in any trip. However if you are a vegetarian planning to travel it can seem quite daunting. You are presented with new things and have the challenge of working out what you can and can’t eat. Fortunately Malaysia is a country that is fairly vegetarian friendly, if you know where to look! You can find a wealth of great flavours and styles to enjoy in Malaysia Vegetarian food. This guide will hopefully help you try some new food and enjoy visiting the country.
A particularly notable thing about Malaysia is that it has a great variety of tasty dishes owing to its ethnic and cultural mix. The 3 main groups here are the Malay, Indians and Chinese who all have their own traditional food styles. This Malaysia Vegetarian Food Guide is designed to help you navigate them and find food that you can enjoy. It also gives you some ideas of recommended restaurants and eateries to visit in some in Malaysia’s main travel spots.
Explaining this guide
I’ve written this post based on my personal experiences of visiting the country. I don’t claim to be an expert, I certainly won’t know as much as local vegetarians! This post is more about how I found it there, as a vegetarian travelling around the country. Hopefully it will help you out with your own visit. I think Malaysian food is fantastic so I’m keen to showcase it to others enjoy it as much as I do. As well as talking about restaurants you will see me referring to ‘hawkers’. This is a local terms for those running street food stalls.
I will name and describe some of the most popular vegetarian Malaysian dishes, but this guide is not meant simply as a list. What I want to do is show you what kind of things to look for so you can then tailor to your own tastes. I want to help you make your own choices when presented with a menu.
It should be noted this Malaysia Vegetarian Food Guide is based on my visits to Peninsular Malaysia. I have yet to visit Borneo, though I hope to in future.
Watch out for stock and paste
Just because something looks like it might be vegetarian doesn’t mean it is. Fishstock and shrimp paste is often used as flavouring in Malay food. Meat stock and pork fat are frequently used too, even if you wouldn’t normally expect it. If your buying something pre-made be sure to check the ingredients. And at a restaurants or hawker stands be sure to specify vegetarian versions when ordering.
Communicating with the locals
Many Malaysians speak English, especially those working in restaurants and as hawkers. And if not then there are normally menu’s with English translations available. Therefore it should be relatively simple to figure out what is and isn’t vegetarian (the English menu’s will normally say if there is a vegetarian option). This doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy though, as only certain places will cater for vegetarians. Especially outside of the big cities, where you may find your choices quite limited. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve written this Malaysia Vegetarian Food Guide, so you know where to look to find the places catering to vegetarians.
Personally I am a vegetarian however much of the Malaysian Vegetarian food is suitable for vegans as well. Generally the only thing to look out for is egg in the Malay and Chinese food. That’s usually pretty easy to spot and you can ask for it not be included. However with the Indian food dairy might be used, so you will need to ask at each individual restaurant.
Vegetarian Malay Food
Rice and Noodles
Across Malaysia you will see 3 dishes everywhere, Nasi Lemak, Nasi Goreng and Mee Goreng.
Nasi Lemak is considered the country’s national dish. Its made from rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves. It will normally be served with anchovies and as well as meat and egg.
Nasi Goreng is fried rice and Mee Goreng is spicy fired noodles. Both of them usually come with fried egg too. They originate from Indonesia but are well established as part of Malay food.
Most of the time in tourist spots a vegetarian versions of these will be offered. If not on the menu then hawkers are normally happy to make a vegetarian versions of them. Always make sure you explain that you are vegetarian before you order, and specify if you don’t want egg. This is important because otherwise there is a strong likelihood they will be made with meat or seafood, even if it’s just in the flavouring.
Another rice dish to look out for is Nasi Campur. It’s a mixed rice dish where you choose your food buffet style. Therefore you can choose the vege options and leave the rest.
Finding more – including curry and Peranakan cuisine
Outside of the cities the dishes above are going to be the most widely available options. To try other Malay dishes you will need normally to search out vegetarian restaurants. In this case it’s wise to use a internet search engine to see if there are any nearby. In the big cities like Kuala Lumpur and George Town there are some options but outside of them they are rare.
If you can find one (and I will recommend a few later in this post) then a good dish to try is Laksa, a spicy curry soup. Usually it includes a lot of coconut milk and chillies as well as other fresh ingredients.
Laksa is a great example of Peranakan cuisine, also known as Nyonya cuisine. The Peranakan community are descendants of early Chinese immigrants, particularly merchants, to the Straits Settlements. They inter-marred with local populations and developed their own Chinese-Malay culture. You can find their communities in Penang and Melaka.
Malay curry’s are good to try too. They tend to be very spicy and have a very full flavour to them. Vegetarian versions substitute meat out, normally for tofu but sometimes tempeh or another soy product. A great example is a ‘fish head curry’ with huge chunks of soy being used instead of actual fish.
A vegetarian version of Rendang curry is one I recommend looking out for in particular. Rendang itself is a meat dish so obviously make sure you only order it in a vegetarian restaurant. Its originally from nearby Sumatra but is now popular in Malaysia.
Vegetarian Chinese Food
After the Malay, the Chinese are the largest ethnic group in Malaysia. Many of them adhere to Buddhism, though this doesn’t necessarily mean they are vegetarian. Only some Buddhists follow a vegetarian diet all the time, but others will adopt a vegetarian diet in times such as festivals or religious holidays. In Chinese areas of Malaysia you can find Buddhist vegetarian restaurants that serve this community, and they are a fantastic place to try out many different dishes.
In these restaurants you will find menu’s often adopt a ‘mock meat’ style. They will name dishes after their meat/fish counterparts, but use soy, gluten, seitan or similar instead. Often (but not always) they will be in a buffet style where you can chose what you want.
These restaurants are honestly amazing and they are normally great value too. I really recommend eating at them whenever you find one, its a great way to try many different Chinese styles. Personally I always pile my plate high when I get a chance to eat in one of these places.
Look out too for dishes from various Chinese provinces. Many Chinese people in Malaysia maintain their roots to the areas they moved from and this is reflected in their food. China is a huge country and there is great diversity in its regional dishes.
Vegetarian Indian Food
The 3rd largest population in Malaysia, Indians make up around 7% of it’s total. Of this a large majority come from South India, including many Tamil’s who follow Hinduism. Whilst not all of them are vegetarian, a large number are. Therefore the Indian community is a fantastic place to find vegetarian food in Malaysia. The parts of cities where this community are focused are called ‘Little India’. This is where you you will find many of the countries Indian restaurants.
Not all of these South Indian restaurants will be exclusively vegetarian. But even those that aren’t should have a large vegetarian menu. Remember that many of the local people will eat with their hands (after washing them first!).
Personally I love the vegetarian Thali’s that you can often find in Little India’s restaurants. Its a round platter and an excellent way to try out several different flavours. You normally get a range of Indian cuisine including a desert. Often you will have the choice of style, for example a Rice Thali or a Dosa Thali.
I also enjoyed trying Dosa’s.
And I tried this in Kuala Lumpur. I think its a version of Roti (as they called it) but i’m not entirely sure.
There are also Indians in Malaysia following other religions, such as Islam or Sihkism. Mamak Stalls are particularly associated with the former. They are open air food stalls serving Indian Muslim food. They have also been influenced by local Malay cuisine. These stalls serve meat and aren’t as vegetarian friendly as the Hindu ones, so don’t confuse the two.
Outside of the 3 ethnic groups listed above you can various international foods available across Malaysia. The most popular is pizza and you will see it around often. Its usually of a good standard too, or at least a decent one. Due to the large following of Islam in the Malay population you can find some middle eastern style food too. Hummus and bread often features in this, meaning there are normally some vegetarian options.
In the big cities you will find shopping malls and usually these will have international food outlets. A good example is the South African chain Nando’s, which has stores across the country. In Kuala Lumpur and George Town there is a large amount of choice, but this is less so in the rest of the country.
In this section I recommend a few places to try whilst visiting Malaysia.
Malaysia’s capital city is huge and there are many options here. One street I recommend checking out is Leboh Ampang. Its near to the Masjid Jamek Mosque and LRT (Metro) stop. There are several restaurants here serving great vegetarian Indian food. Some of them are vegetarian only, and the others have large vegetarian menu’s.
Around the corner from here you can find Water Lily Vegetarian Restaurant. Its on the street Jalan Tun H S Lee and serves great mock meat versions of Chinese, Singaporean and Malay food.
Another great placer to try is the vegetarian stand in the KL Sentral Mall. Find it in the food court. It serves Malay and other Asian dishes in a vegetarian style.
If you visit the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur I really recommend eating at their restaurant. Its great value food and tasty too.
I’ve written a whole post dedicated to vegetarian food in Penang. Click here to check it out. As you will see in that posts George Town, somewhere especially great for food. There are some really amazing vegetarian options here. Thali-NR Sweets Cafe for South Indian Thaili’s and Ee Beng for Chinese Buddhist buffet are especially noteworthy.
I mentioned Laksa and Rendang curry earlier in this post as good Malay vegetarian dishes to try. Yun Shui Ge Vegetarian House is a great place to get these. You find it on Armenian Street. It specialises in Nyonya food.
As a popular tourist destination you can find plenty of places to eat in Melaka. One I really recommend is Shui Xian Su Shi Yuan Vegetarian. It does great vegetarian versions of Malay and other Asian food.
A particularly popular place with tourists in Geographer cafe. It does a variety of dishes in including some decent vegetarian options. There is also a Little India here that has a few restaurants doing vegetarian food.
When visiting the Taman Negara national park its recommended to stay in Kuala Tahan. Its a small village opposite the main park entrance. There are several restaurant boats here, floating on the river. Whilst there isn’t much vegetarian food on the menu, it’s your best option. You can get vegetarian versions of Nasi Lemak, Nasi Goreng and Mee Goreng. As well as sides like vege spring rolls and chips. If your doing a trek in the jungle make sure you tell the trekking company you are vegetarian (or vegan). Do this when you book the trek, as they will normally provide you with meals.
The main town here which has the bulk of accommodation is Tanah Rata. Its really set up for visitors and there are loads of different restaurant options. Rather than name anywhere specific I just recommend walking up and down the main street and looking at the menu’s. Or you could try the hawker stalls in the food market. There are some which offer South Indian food buffet style. Honestly there are loads of options here so just look around for what takes your fancy.
In Johor Baruh I recommend the Chinese Vegetarian restaurant opposite the Old Chinese Temple. Its in the centre of the city and offers an array of mock meat and vegetables, buffet style.
Thanks for reading this Malaysia Vegetarian Food Guide. I hope it helps you plan for your trip to the country. If you have any tips yourself please feel to leave a comment below. You can also connect with me on me Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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Banana leaf is definitely a boon for vegetarians. Malaysia also has so many tasty varieties of fruits to choose from.
I wouldn’t say Nasi Goreng originated from Indonesia as there are a lot of Nasi Goreng version from different countries in this region.
Laksa – usually no coconut milk is added to this dish. It’s ‘soupy’ but I’m not sure about vegetarian laksa. But in Rendang, yes, we use a lot of coconut milk which makes the texture very thick, like paste.
Do come and visit Malaysia again and try other dishes too (especially during festivities) 😉.
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Dave Does The Travel Thing
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If you’re into Malaysian food, there’s quite a number of Youtube channels run by Malaysian Chinese complete with English subtitles – these are usually the local’s “hidden gems”, different from the ones obvious to tourists 🙂