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A Malaysian Vegetarian

Not as dull as it sounds

Right off the bat, you know the writer isn’t one, a vegetarian I mean. But I decided to look into it, as it is appropriate to Malaysia’s cultural landscape and the nature of the business this article is being published by.

Malaysia is known for its diverse culture, attractive nature resorts, shopping, and of course food. But if there is one thing our food is known for, it’s that our they quite a lot of them are not the best choices for a healthy lifestyle. You know what they are, all meaty, juicy, and greasy, and they are everywhere and all so affordable!. Arguably we are one of the masters of savoury dishes in South East Asia because of our plethora of dishes inspired by our rich culture and racial diversity. Knowing that you probably wouldn’t be surprised that without argument Malaysia is officially the fattest country in Asia. We have the most number of obesity cases per capita in the whole of Asia.

So every now and again you will come across restaurants that promotes healthy eating. They are more healthily prepared versions of dishes we are familiar with and some of them are healthy renditions of our favorites. But a low fat chicken curry would be quite a challenge against the full-blown version. Most importantly however is that the meals are portioned for a healthier calorie and nutritional intake, and for some they are surprisingly small. Then we have vegetarian restaurants starting to crop up. Many of these restaurants advertise their establishments as places of healthy eating rather than expressly catering for people with an alternative lifestyle.

Malaysia pretty much has a well established ‘meat-eating’ culture, so finding a restaurant that is advertised as vegetarian friendly feels strangely out of place. Chicken and beef, rendang, curry, and soups are just a tiny portion of our most commonly ordered dishes. Fried chicken would arguably be the most popular side dish in the entire nation. Kambing Golek (literally translated as lamb ‘roll’, but no bread of any kind is involved) is another popular meal in a Malay feast. Grills and barbecues are also quite common — to the point of being “mandatory” — in markets and bazaars visited by people of all cultures and religions.

But maybe that’s just the blatant advertising. Vegetarian restaurants shouldn’t be a strange idea since we have a considerable number of them among us. Buddhism is Malaysia’s second largest religion right after Islam, and its followers adhere to a vegetarian diet. Hinduism has the fourth largest followers in Malaysia and devout Hindus also adhere to a no-meat diet. If we do the math this country potentially has 6-7 million vegetarians. Malaysia is also quite open to Western ideologies so occasionally you do find people who are vegetarians by their own choice free from any religious influence or obligations. The majority of them seem to practice it for health reasons and may not strictly adhere to this diet. They may have their cheat days. But a few do it for the moral value, closely resembling the beliefs in Hinduism and Buddhism. So because of our diverse religious beliefs and large population of Buddhists and Hindus, despite our strong meat-eating culture we are also one of the top vegetarian friendly nation in the world according to Oliver’s Travels.

So if one were to take up on this diet, either occasionally or as a complete lifestyle change, would it be as dull as people suggest? Well the simple answer is, a Malaysian vegetarian would do quite alright. Let me tell you straight off that Malaysian vegetarian dishes — well the whole of Asia to be honest— are pretty interesting and flavorful. If you are a non-vegetarian reading this, take a closer look at our vegetarian menus and you’ll realize the amazing flavors and variety available.

Malay foods are known to be strongly flavoured, aromatic, and spicy, and their vegetarian-friendly recipes are no exception. The dishes are usually derived from other cultures such as Chinese and Indonesian. Some of them are rojak, pechal, laksa, tempe, and ulam (a Malaysian raw salad usually eaten with sauces and condiments). Then we have vegetarian Indian dishes.They are famous for their varieties of flat breads (roti), which are eaten with a variety of condiments. The condiments are the best part of a roti dish, and Indians are know to be the master of condiments. They also have a variety of vegetarian curries. Chinese vegetable dishes are most known for their steamed vegetables and stir-fries. Compared to the Malay/Indonesian dishes they are more mildly flavoured with emphasis on being savoury and sweet.

Our vegetarian meals are not limited to main courses. We also have a delectable and wide selection of vegetarian desserts and snacks. One of my favorites is the Cendol. In its more traditional form it is a shaved ice dessert garnished with red beans, the green rice flour jelly that is the cendol, and bathed in palm sugar and coconut milk. In a kopitiam, Kaya toast is a popular morning and evening snack.

There are plenty more dishes worth mentioning, but listing them out would make this a food article. But the takeaway message here is that Malaysia is probably one of the best places on Earth to take up a vegetarian diet. Our supermarkets too are littered with fruits, vegetables, and vegetarian ingredients from all over the world. We’re not lacking on fresh farm produce either. Our farmers markets are densely packed with fresh and clean produce from small local farms, and most of them are put up for sale in less than 24 hours of their harvest. You wouldn’t have trouble cooking at home or eating out being a vegetarian in Malaysia. You just have to put up with all the teasing.