Despite having a predominantly Malay and Chinese population Penang has a remarkably culturally diverse when it comes to food. Mamak stalls are just as popular as kopitiams and warungs.
Vegetarian restaurants also seem to be thriving on the island and mainland. An internet search for vegetarian restaurants in Penang will bring up over a dozen markers on Google Maps, and blogs that list the top 20. Penangites really like their vegetables.
Penang’s wet markets and vegetable suppliers must have first hand knowledge of some of the most sought after vegetables in this tiny state. Pasembur, wanton noodles, and popiah (a.k.a spring rolls) are some of the most popular vegetable-rich dishes that can come up as recommendations and specialties in many of Penang’s eateries. Here is our take on some of Penang’s favorite vegetables. Some of these “vegetables” however are technically fruit.
More specifically the Mexican turnip, a.k.a “sengkuang”. They are native to Mexico but was brought over to South East Asia via Phillipines centuries ago and have been cultivated here since.
The Mexican turnip on its own does not have a very noteworthy flavor but have a bit of sweetness. They are one of the main ingredients in pasembur and spring rolls. They have a nice crunchy texture, and their subtle flavor means they take up seasoning very well and can complement the flavors of other ingredients in the dish as well as giving it added crunch.
Safe to say Penangites will eat a lot of these. If you are opening a restaurant and have any of the dishes mentioned in your menu, then you are going to have your vegetable supplier deliver a lot of it.
You will need these in the kilos if you are opening a restaurant in Penang. It is one of the main ingredients in many Chinese and Malay dishes, either as a complementary ingredient to add texture, or as the main component and stir-fried.
Bean sprouts are crunchy and slightly sweet. As the name suggests they are simply the sprouts of beans that have been harvested early in its growing stage. The most common bean to grow bean sprouts with is the mung bean (a.k.a “kacang hijau”).
Bean sprouts take just three to five days to grow but require a lot of attention and water. If you run a micro restaurant or want to grow them at home for your weekly supply you can try and grow them yourself as the beans can be had for cheap. Since you harvest them before they have the chance to develop new seeds however, you will have to restock on the beans so it is not a sustainable venture. If you want a large amount you can save yourself the hassle and buy them from vegetable wholesalers instead.
Malaysians also know them as “sawi”. Mustard seeds are used to make the famous Western condiment the Yellow Mustard but that is a fairly uncommon condiment in Malaysia. Such low is the demand that the ones you can find in supermarkets are almost always imported and never locally made.
The leafy green plant on the other hand is one of the most popular vegetable in Malaysia. They are mostly found in Chinese and Malay dishes. They have a crunchy texture with a slightly bitter taste. The level of bitterness depends on the growing conditions. Some local farms also grow them hydroponically and can be done so economically as they are fast growing plants.
Bok Choy looks quite similar to the mustard plant and are common in Chinese cuisine. While it may have some resemblance to the mustard green, it is in fact a type of Chinese cabbage.
Unlike the mustard green the Bok Choy is far less bitter. But like it, it is also commonly stir fried.
Technically a fruit, cucumbers can be found in many Asian dishes. They have a hint of sweetness, high water content, and especially with the skin included they also have a crunchy texture.
On its own cucumbers are quite bland and can sometimes be a little bitter especially just under the skin and near the stem. Cucumbers can be peeled to get rid of the bitterness, but slicing them with skin on is common to get the full crunchy texture. They can be found in Nasi Lemak as a side to help combat the spiciness, or because they taste great when eaten with the sambal sauce. They are also one of the main ingredients in Penang Acar. A Nyonya dish with a sweet, sour, and spicy flavor that is commonly served together as a side dish with Nasi Lemak.
Last but definitely not least we have the chili. Chilies are also technically fruit. Malaysians love their spice and Penangites are no exception. There are many types of chilies and they are used in a plethora of ways in Malaysian dishes. Chilies can also be found in the form of paste (sometimes known as “cili boh” as a base for sambal), or dried.
The common red chili pepper is usually sliced and cooked in the dish to add spice and colour. The common large red chili pepper is actually not notorious for its spiciness. While it does have a certain level of hotness to some it is almost pleasant. They are in the Capsicum family, and like the bell pepper it is related to the large chili pepper has some sweetness to it especially after it has been cooked or grilled. Most of its spiciness comes from the seeds and most are usually discarded when cooking. Some people even eat them raw and whole. The large green chili pepper is even less spicy and also commonly used in pickles or eaten as is.
There are other variations that some only dare to use sparingly. The “cili padi” is a small but highly spicy variety that is commonly used - in moderation - in sauces and pastes. In some Malay noodle soup dishes people also like to crush at least one into a tablespoon of soy sauce to add a bit of heat.
While far from being a definitive guide it is an interesting insight into the palates of Malaysians, or Penangites specifically. If you are planning on opening a restaurant in Penang you might want to find a local vegetable wholesaler with these in stock.If your interested, check out : Fresh Harvest