It’s 2020… and it seems that everyone I meet is on the spectrum.
That is the plant-based spectrum.
For the last 6 months, every friend I’ve made in a hostel bar seems to fit somewhere between vague-flexitarian to fundamentalist-tofu-zealot.
Just to be clear I have no qualms here.
I fully agree that, irrespective of personal justification, eating less meat can only be a good thing for the environment. Without getting too preachy I think it’s difficult to argue that this isn’t critically and immediately urgent.
Interestingly it is clear that the environmental concerns, rather than any animal rights issues are what’s driving the increase participation. Data from the US actually suggests that vegetarian/vegan numbers were static in the US since the 60s – a period where animal welfare was the only argument for this lifestyle
I also, despite being truly omnivorous, recognise that amongst a certain type of “proud meat-eater” there seems to be a fairly strong negative correlation between their zeal to “promote sausage” and their contentedness with their own…
Nope. It’s 2020, we should probably all make an effort to get on board.
The difficulty, however, is that while friends will undoubtedly be interested in accompanying me on my important “research” sometimes Malaysian food isn’t always the most accommodating.
The first strategy that helps is one of flexibility.
There seems to be a school of thought amongst some “serious” traveller-eaters (including the late-great Bourdain) that to reject any food is bordering on disrespectful to the local populace. Akin to questioning their worth as a host.
I can’t help but think this a bit over-blown. The sign of a great host, which most Malaysians definitely are, is wanting to make their guest happy. Serving food they actually want to eat is obviously pretty key. Let's also consider that most of the world has different religions, coexisting peacefully (for the most part) with their specific but separate dietary stipulations. It's almost certainly not the first time they've had to cater for a different diet.
From my experience the most common reaction when we explain one of the party is vegetarian/vegan is one of mild amusement: “haha doesn’t eat meat, silly mat salleh/farang/white-boy/white-girl/westerner…”
That said. If you are going to try adhere to a strict vegan diet here you are guaranteed to miss a huge section of the culture. With a little bit of flexibility a lot will open up.
Almost every restaurant will have a vegetable or soy option that is delicious (not to mention cheap), however there is a reason that the food here is so bloody tasty. That is glutamic acid...
Whist western food seasons with salt, in South-East Asia the most common seasonings will be fermented products such as dried anchovy, Vietnamese fish sauce, Thai shrimp paste or Malaysian belacan (fermented krill). These add salt as well as glutamic acid, the molecule that causes the rich and deep savouriness we now recognise as umami.
Malays in particular probably won’t even recognise these as a meat product. Fortunately, many of my vegetarian companions have operated on an “ask no questions, hear no lies” basis, though I think it was a shock when my friend found a whole dried anchovy in her supposedly vegetarian plate of Nasi Campur (a Malay mixed rice buffet).
If you can be flexible enough to allow this, the world of Malaysian cooking will open right up!
From an environmental perspective this is minimally damaging. It’s so strong you only need a pinch, the carbon footprint is going to be relatively minuscule. I get the animal welfare perspective, however let’s face it... a krill's sentience is hardly comparable to say, a piglet.
This of course is pointless if the other person doesn’t understand you…
Although the majority of Malaysians (particularly in cities) will speak English, if it’s really important to you it’s worth brushing up on a bit of Bahasa Malaysia.
Saya tidak makan daging (I don’t eat meat), tidak ikan (no fish), tidak udang (no prawns), tidak ikan bilis (no anchovies) and tidak belacan (no belacan) will all work.
Saya sayang sayuran (I love vegetables) will also do the trick… and undoubtedly amuse your server even more.
You’re ready to explore!
In terms of options there are a few.
A good Malay restaurant will have a huge number of vegetable dishes (sometimes with hidden belacan or anchovies) as well as tempeh, a fermented soy bean block, which is deliciously satisfying. Many will be light and refreshing, such as green-bean salads, stir-fried greens and ulam (herbs). However, impressively loads of these dishes will also be really hearty, such as coconutty pumpkin and banana flower-heart curries.
As always, I recommend trying out Nasi Campur (mixed rice buffet) at Sambal Hijau in KL. It’s a little far out of town but worth every second/ringgit spend on the cab!
Chinese food becomes much more difficult as much of the street-food is hawkers selling a specific dish that they specialise in. It seems the vast majority of these have some sort of pork product in. Absolutely delicious, but perhaps a much bigger stretch than some hidden shrimp paste.
That said, many restaurants such as Water Lily in KL and Tofu Village in Penang do fantastic tofu dishes and stir-fries. They just can have a tendency to be a little more expensive as come in larger plates with an aim to being shared with the family.
The undefeated heavyweight champion of the vegetarian world in KL, nay the world… is Indian food.
With so many Hindus being vegetarian, I suppose it’s inevitable. The opportunities are endless, and hidden meat is never an issue.
There is roti canai (similarly to a paratha) served with dahl, thosai malasa (dosa and potato curry) and any number of deep-fried goodies like samosas and pakora. However, in KL there is only one king – banana leaf rice.
My absolute favourite being Bala's in Bangsar.
Served for lunch or dinner (but make sure it’s a busy restaurant for dinner as it will have been cooked at lunch otherwise) this is essentially what it sounds like. A banana leaf plate, topped with rice at the table. Then the fun starts.
The waiter begins to dole out between 4 and 6 different piles of vegetarian curries. Often a potato curry, perhaps beetroot, a cucumber pickle and deep-fried bitter gourd. You then get the choice of a sauce for the rice, there are meat options but also always dahl and perhaps onion curry for those that way inclined. As if this isn't enough, you also get poppadoms for crunch, lime pickle for acidity and salted-dried chilli for a smoky-spicy boost.
Meat dishes are ordered as extra, however there are also many good paneer and egg options. A fair number even do mock-meat options for something more substantial – either tofu based or gluten-based seitan.
The flavours are very similar to southern Indian food, unsurprising as most Indians came from the Tamil Nadu region about 100 years ago. Bought to what was then British Malaya to build the railways. That said, they tend to be a little less spicy than much or the southern Indian food I’ve had and include a lot of star anise – possibly a influence of the local Malay/Chinese cuisines.
The most important part of banana leaf rice, in my humble opinion: EAT WITH YOUR HANDS.
Spoons and forks are readily available, but somehow it just makes everything taste better!
It's probably the childish part of my brain, happily triggered by the notion of doing something that would get me a clip round the ear as a child.
It's definitely also very efficient, which is key. Speedily shovel down the imposing tower of food. Quick. Before your stomach realises it’s full…