Finding vegetarian food in Malaysia can be a bit complicated. Most of Malaysian cuisine is meat heavy, and even some dishes which are considered “vegetarian” might actually contain fish sauce, oyster sauce, shrimp paste, and even shredded dried fish powder. In some cases, eggs might be considered vegetarian too. However, there is a significant Hindu population (7%) in the country and about 20% of Malaysia is Buddhist. So, there is some level of awareness about vegetarianism in the country. Malaysia is mainly made up of people of Indian, Chinese, and ethnic Malay descent. Vegetarian food is more commonly found among the Malay-Indian and Malay-Chinese communities. With some information and research beforehand, you can easily navigate the vegetarian food scene of Malaysia and enjoy local delicacies as well.
1) Learn to say I’m vegetarian in Malay
To say “I am a vegetarian” in Malay, you have to say “saya seorang vegetarian”.
You can then say “Saya tidak makan daging, ayam, haiwan ternakan, ikan, atau makanan laut” which means I do not eat meat, chicken, poultry, fish, or seafood.
2) Print the following image and show it to your server while ordering
* if you have trouble printing the image below directly, then you can copy paste the image onto a word document and then print*
Following are phrases that can be used to explain dietary restrictions, and what you can and cannot eat. Tick whatever is applicable. They are written in Malay. You can show this to your server while you order or ask the restaurant staff before you get seated. Many people in Malaysia understand English, but this sheet will be helpful when English isn’t spoken.
3) Indian food galore
Malaysia has a large population of Indian descent. People from the southern part of India (mainly Tamils) make up a large part of the Indo-Malay community. In addition, there are a good number of expats from India living and working in Malaysia as well. Hence, there are plenty of Indian food joints in all the major cities and towns of Malaysia. There are Indian “pure veg” restaurants, there are south Indian (dosa, idli) joints, you can get banana leaf thalis, and you can even find north Indian staples like dal, paneer, and naan. There are plenty of delicious vegetarian food options at Indian restaurants and cannot go wrong there.
4) Local must-try dishes with a vegetarian version
Malaysian cuisine is pretty diverse and colourful. It uses rice, coconut milk, spices, and sauces. When in Malaysia, you would definitely want to try out the following dishes:
Nasi Lemak – This is a rice dish and a staple throughout Malaysia. The rice is soaked in coconut milk before being steamed. It is wrapped in a pandan leaf and has a lovely fragrance. Though Nasi Lemak is often served with meat, egg, and anchovies (ikan bilis), the vegetarian version of Nasi Lemak will have fried peanuts, cucumber, spicy tomatoes, and chili sambal served with the rice. When you order Nasi Lemak, you can ask the server to leave out the egg and the ikan bilis to make it vegetarian.
Laksa – A staple of Peranakan cuisine, Laksa is an absolute must try when you visit Malaysia or Singapore. It is a noodle soup with spicy liquid curry and thick noodles. The liquid base is coconut milk and that makes Laksa taste creamy and flavourful. Laksa has shrimp paste and is mostly served with fish or meat. So, in order to enjoy vegetarian Laksa, you will have to go to a vegan restaurant or a vegetarian restaurant.
Curry Mee – This noodle dish is similar to Laksa. It consists of thin noodles or rice vermicelli along with a curry-flavoured soup-like liquid. The thin noodles are called mee -hoon and hence the name Curry Mee. Normally the dish is served with meat or seafood. But you can substitute those ingredients with tofu.
Nasi Goreng – A famous fried rice dish, Nasi Goreng is another one of Malaysia’s traditional dishes. It comes with cucumber on the side and the rice is cooked in either butter or oil. The traditional local version has shrimp paste and meat in it, but if you can find a vegetarian or vegan version, then it is well worth a try.
Nasi Ulam – Out of all the “Nasi” dishes, the Nasi Ulam is the most vegetarian. It is steamed rice mixed with spices, herbs, and vegetables. You might even find cashew shoots and onions in your Nasi Ulam, as Malaysians tend to include those two ingredients in the dish. Just make sure that there is no shredded fried or dried fish powder in your Nasi Ulam.
Cendol – A nice dessert to eat after your meal or simply to slurp at a street shop during the afternoon. Cendol is rice noodles flavored with pandan syrup, topped with shaved ice, rich coconut milk, and a special kind of brown sugar. There are sweet red beans in it, and the noodles have a jelly-like texture.
Dodol – Dodol is an interesting brown-coloured sweet made of coconut milk, jaggery, and rice flour. It is sticky and is cooked for around 9 hours to reduce the milk to half the amount. Dodol is quite popular among the Muslim community of Malaysia. Nowadays, you can get different flavours of dodol including durian.
5) Well-known local food joints
Blue Boy Vegetarian Food Center – If you want the hawker stall atmosphere with the added bonus of all-vegetarian cuisine, then Blue Boy Vegetarian Food Center is the place to go to. They have plenty of food stalls all serving vegetarian food.
Beyond Veggie – This restaurant in Kuala Lumpur (it has many outlets throughout Malaysia) offers a vegetarian “meatless dining” experience. They have local dishes like Curry Mee, Assam Laksa and Kuey Teow in a vegetarian format. Beyond Veggie also serves western food like sandwiches and pizzas. This is more of a family restaurant that has something for everybody.
Annalakshmi – This restaurant is perhaps the best place to get an authentic South Indian thali in all of Malaysia. Plenty of colourful and flavourful vegetarian food will be found here. You cannot be disappointed with a visit to Annalakshmi. Food is served on a banana leaf.
Nature’s Vegetarian – This restaurant is quite well-known for its Chinese influenced vegetarian food. It uses plenty of mock meat in its dishes. Whether you want to eat beancurd or try something like a fried prawn dish, you can do so here and it will be completely vegetarian.
Cameleon – This restaurant is another Chinese-Malay vegetarian food joint. It has vegetarian Chinese dishes but you can also try the Indian Curry Mee. If you like beancurd and tofu, then Cameleon will be a good choice.
Sarvana Bhavan – Sarvana Bhavan is perhaps the largest South Indian restaurant chain in the world. Their food is freshly cooked and delicious. They have 5 outlets in Kuala Lumpur and one in Selangor.
Penang (vegetarian heaven of Malaysia)
Luk Yea Yan – Penang in Malaysia is the best place to experiment and try out local Malay food that is vegetarian. Penang Island has a good number of high-quality vegetarian food joints. The best place to get an Assam Laksa not just in Penang, but perhaps in all of Malaysia, is Luk Yea Yan. The Laksa dishes here are so popular that even non-vegetarians travel long distances to enjoy the Malay delicacy here.
Idealite – Idealite is a chain of restaurants with multiple locations in Penang Island. They have plenty of vegetarian food and the restaurant specializes in health-conscious food. The menu and the food is very similar to Whole Earth in Singapore. Keep an eye out for eggs as many of the dishes here have eggs. But you will definitely find plenty of Malay dishes that are vegetarian.
Seelva Pure Vegetarian Cafe – For amazing Indo-Malay fusion food, head over the Seelva in Penang. This cafe claims to prepare its food without onion and garlic. Try the Nasi Lemak and the Pasembur dishes over here. The Nasi Lemak is offered in a self-serve buffet style where you pick as much rice and veggies as you want and then the cost is calculated accordingly. The Pasembur is a dish similar to Rojak Mamak. It has beansprouts, cucumber, tofu, and potatoes in a sweet and spicy sauce.
The Fat Frog – If you want western or international cuisine that is also vegetarian, then head over to The Fat Frog. You can find choose from Mexican and Italian dishes or go for a Falafel salad. This restaurant also served non-vegetarian food, but you can find vegetarian options suitable for your dietary needs.
Langkawi Vegetarian Restaurant – Located in Kuah town, the Langkawi vegetarian restaurant is run by a local vegetarian society. All the food is vegetarian and some of the dishes may use mock meat. Apparently, you have to pay by donation and everyone has to wash their own plates after finishing the meal.
Hotel Malaysia Restaurant – If you want banana-leaf South Indian thali, then head over to the restaurant at Hotel Malaysia in Pokok Asam. It is one of the best places for Indian food in Langkawi. Prices are reasonable too.
6 ) Fall-back options
Coffee Shops/Cafes – A sandwich, a cake, or muffins can often be found in cafes of small shops in Malaysia. You might even be tempted to try out local tea and coffee flavours.
Italian Restaurants/Pizza Places – A simple pasta, a spaghetti, or a cheese/veggie pizza is a safe bet anywhere in the world, and Malaysia is no different. Just make sure the pasta sauce has no meat and the white sauce has no eggs (if you do not eat eggs). Also, watch out for any non-vegetarian toppings on your pizza.
Other international cuisines – Major hotels and famous restaurants in a city will serve international cuisine. Whether it is a falafel, Chinese, burgers, or anything else, you will probably find one or two vegetarian options in such restaurants.
7) Eat fresh local fruits
Malaysia is a tropical country and it grows some amazing fruits. You can get rose apple, guava, papaya, watermelon, mango, pineapple, and many other commonly known fruits. Some unique local fruits that you should try are the durian, langsat, rambutan, and mangosteen.
Durian is known as the king of fruit in Malaysia. It weighs about 1kg and has a very strong smell. In fact, the smell is so strong that almost all hotels and malls do not allow guests to bring the fruit indoors. If you can get past the overwhelming smell, then what you will eat is a rich and creamy fruit unlike any other fruit.
Mangosteen, on the other hand, is known as the queen of fruits in Malaysia. It has a smooth red outer skin. But underneath is a white moist sweet-and-sour flesh that is worth trying.
Rambutan looks like a hairy coral piece but is white and juicy on the inside.
Lastly, Langsat is a luscious fruit the size of a golf ball. It has a sticky texture, almost gel-like, and is sweet in taste. Be careful with the seeds as they are bitter.
8) Some things to remember
– Egg is often considered vegetarian and is added to salads and other dishes. Clarify before ordering food that you do not eat meat, seafood, or eggs (if that is the case). Watch out for the “Telur” label as that means the food contains egg.
– Snacks like chips, fried foods, and even chocolates in Malaysia might have meat flavouring. Hence, always read the package and be aware of all the ingredients that are used to make the food that you are holding. Such foods that we may take for granted in our home country may not be suitable to eat if you are a vegetarian or a vegan.
– Gado Gado or Pecal is an Indo-Malay dish of vegetables and peanut sauce, but it may contain prawn crackers and shrimp paste (belacan).
– Rojak (Pasembur) may contain prawn fritters.
– Soups may have fish stock, so it is better to clarify before you order.
– Noodles may be made using eggs.
– Roti Prata and Roti Canai may be made using eggs.
– Cooking oil made of lard is used in Chinese-Malay and other local cooking methods. Chinese restaurants which are certified as halal will not use such lard oil.
9) Plan for a few options beforehand
While you cannot always expect to know exactly where and when you will eat, try to keep a list of few vegetarian restaurants in the area that you are going to visit. To create a list, use the following websites:
- https://www.zomato.com/kuala-lumpur/restaurants/vegetarian – Zomato’s list of top vegetarian restaurants in Kuala Lumpur
- A list of vegetarian friendly restaurants on Penang Island
- A tripadvisor forum discussion on best vegetarian food options in Langkawi