Food & Drink

The Vegetarian's Guide to Malaysia

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Not merely another short-lived food trend, vegetarianism has a long history in Asia. Vegetarianism is practised in the religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, all of which have followers in Malaysia. It generally stems from a belief in the principles of purity and non-violence.

Theravada Buddhism, practised by Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan communities, encourages vegetarianism as an aspect of the observance of Uposatha (the Buddhist Sabbath, observed from two to six days in the lunar month). If you notice unusually full vegetarian restaurants on the day of a full moon, this is why.

Vegetarians in Malaysia may be surprised to be asked if they avoid garlic and onion – this also relates to Buddhist teachings. Strong acidic vegetables like onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks are thought to inflame the senses, so are avoided along with other stimulating substances such as alcohol and meat.

An estimated 8% of Malaysians practice Hinduism. Whilst not all Hindus are vegetarian, most vegetarian Hindus are lacto-vegetarians, meaning they consume dairy products but avoid eggs.

Malaysia’s small population of Jainists, who arrived here from India as early as the 15th or 16th century AD, practice strict vegetarianism.

Coming Out
In addition to the influences of religion and culture, vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular here with health-conscious and/or ethical consumers. This trend has been augmented by the “coming out” of several high-pro.le vegetarians, including Malaysian Health Minister Datuk Sri Liow Tiong Lai, who was honoured with a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Proggy Award in recognition of his work in promoting vegetarianism.

Thanks to a general shift in attitudes towards food consumption, and the advocacy of veggies like Datuk Sri Liow Tiong Lai, vegetarians are no longer forced to opt for the bland salads or typical tomato-based pasta dishes of meatier years gone by! .ere is an increasing number of vegetarian shops and restaurants to be found – these outlets often also cater to those looking for organic and ethically-sourced products. Several restaurants, even steakhouses and other restaurants known for their meat dishes, are also improving their vegetarian selection.

It is possible to find vegetarian food in most supermarkets. Visit the organic aisle for dehydrated soy mince; the freezer aisle for mock-meat options; and you may even be able to find exotic treats like mock abalone and duck amongst the canned goods.

Veggies Galore
A trip to Malaysia would be wasted without sampling the diverse local cuisines. Fortunately, Malaysia provides plenty of opportunity to experience local flavours without fear of becoming an accidental carnivore!

Indian Food
Vegetarians could live happily in Malaysia on just Indian food, provided they have a tolerance for spicy food and don’t mind the rather fattening ingredients! Most Indian restaurants have a good range of vegetarian options and will be understanding of your dietary needs. North Indian food is particularly vegetarian-friendly, with a wide range of dishes to suit vegetarians including spinach & mushroom kofta, several varieties of dahl, and so on. .ere are also several Indian restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian, especially in Kuala Lumpur’s Little India.


Chinese Food
Malaysia has several excellent Chinese vegetarian restaurants, serving everything from frogs’ legs to beef ribs, all made from soy and mushroom protein. In non-vegetarian restaurants, where most noodle and rice dishes are freshly prepared, it is easy to choose your ingredients. However, stocks and sauces are usually meat-based. Check this before ordering, and be sure to emphasise that you don’t want any seafood as there can be some confusion over what is considered vegetarian.

Malay Food
Of all the Malaysian cuisines, vegetarians may be disappointed to hear that Malay food is one of the least vegetarian-friendly options. For your .rst taste of Malay food opt for a higher-end outlet where staff communicate in English and the chefs will happily make you something to order. If you want to try street food and locally-run restaurants, you’ll require a little bit of Bahasa Malaysia, a lot of patience, and the willingness to overlook some not-sovegetarian ingredients, including fish and poultry stock, dried shrimp and many other meaty surprises.

Visit to find out more about these and more vegetarian restaurants in Malaysia, or contact [email protected] if you’re a newly-arrived or visiting vegetarian in need of support – remember, there’s always mock steak.

This article was written by Katrina Melvin
Source: The Expat June 2011
This article has been edited for
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