Forget meatless burgers. These vegetarian dishes from Malaysia make for a local plant-based feast.
In most familiar scenarios, after the initial shock of discovering the liberal but insidious use of belacan2 et al. in most traditional Malay dishes, a patron of strictly plant-based dishes might wonder if there is even such a thing as a vegetarian-friendly Malay dish.
Truth be told, even in a setting as gastronomically diverse as Malaysia, vegetarian alternatives have only gained slow popularity in recent years. These of course are your usual Western offerings. One might even ask: is there such a thing as a tasty ethnic veg dish?
Well, the good news is: YES! So, tuck in and get ready to hear us out.
Don’t resist the tempeh temptation
Long touted as a superfood, tempeh is a nutrient-dense fermented soy product with a high amount of protein, as well as various vitamins and minerals. A natural culturing and controlled fermentation process binds the soybeans into a cake-like form that, nutrients aside, makes for a tasty plate of vegetarian-friendly eats.
So, why not start a meal with a sizzling platter of spicy sambal tempeh (sans ikan bilis3 and hold the shrimp paste, of course) to get your appetite going? Both the crunch and chilli kick will wake up your appetite for a feast. Here’s an insider pro-tip: be sure to ask for the addition of fluffy fried potatoes to up the comfort-food or carbo-loading quotient (it is really your call, just saying).
Not about that spice life? No worries. Simply switch gears and place an order for tempeh goreng kicap manis instead to enjoy crispy deep-fried tempeh bathed in a sweet, sticky caramel soy sauce.
Need it now? The Hungry Tapir’s Spicy Tempeh Fingers are your best bet. Get them delivered with just a few taps on foodpanda.
Tackling the tasty tauhu sumbat
Another super exciting appetizer for your green-conscious feast is the humble but very versatile stuffed tofu. Deck your table with mounds of these fluffy soy pillows and your vegetarian friends will thank you for it.
Traditionally, square bean curds are cut diagonally into triangles that are often grilled over hot charcoal before being slit open and then chocked full of fresh cucumber, jicama and carrot slivers.
Pssst….Before you pop one into your mouth, remember to skip the dark fermented shrimp dip (infinitely delicious but extremely dubious for any vegetarian worth his/her kale) and enjoy it with lashings of sweet chili sauce instead, or the trusty sambal kicap made from thick sweet soy sauce plus a substantial amount of bird’s eye chillies to tip the scoville scale, for sure.
There are some really creative variations out there that deviate slightly in the choice of veggie stuffings and sauces. So, do try as many of them as you can to find your absolute favourite combination.
Always in the mood for nasi ulam
As with many of its culinary neighbours, traditional Malay food often goes best with a side of native herbs and raw greens (foraged if you are lucky). Known locally as ulam, this green collection of fragrant edible plants adds immense textures and a much-needed vegetal freshness to counter the often-greasy fare of savoury curries as well as rich fried treats.
In the curious culinary case of nasi ulam, the herbs become the legitimate star of the dish. Imagine this: finely chopped herbs and greens blend with warm steamed rice along with a healthy helping of toasted coconut, peanuts and more. The word “divine” doesn’t come close to describing the balance of flavours in this labour intensive dish.
Enjoy it with a slew of other tasty side dishes from the likes of boiled salted duck eggs (if you are so inclined), grilled succulent and smoky eggplants, blanched young okra, spicy fern kerabu salad, more ulam and other local vegetarian stir-fry or even veggie curries for an extra flavour boost.
An acquired taste, a full-blown ulam dish may deter even the most adventurous eater. For those just beginning to dabble in local herbs and greens, Rawsome’s Vegan Pucuk Paku is the perfect introduction to the infamous nasi ulam.
The perfect pajeri for you and me
There is an old Malay saying that roughly translates to: where there is rice, gravy will always follow. This totally rings true, as nothing pairs better with rice – the staple of nearly all Malaysian mealtimes – than delicious gravy of all kinds.
Our list would never be complete without a significant vegetarian curry dish. Not just any curry dish but the thick, unctuous and aromatic pineapple curry known to the discerning foodie as pajeri nanas.
Simply stew big chunks of juicy ripe pineapple in a blend of spices, coconut milk and kerisik4, then pair with any type of rice you choose. For a true vegetarian experience, don’t forget to double check if dried shrimp is part of the recipe. Omit accordingly and you’re good to go!
Get groovy at dessert time with bubur cha cha
No dessert time beats dessert time with the iconic bubur cha cha – a mind-bending medley of sweet potatoes, taro, beans and sago pearls stewed in an equally creamy coconut soup.
Yup, this formidable sweet treat is so hearty and velvety rich that it constitutes a veritable meal on its own, so savvy Malay eaters never forget to leave tummy space for this sweet stew. Better still, add a splash of salted coconut cream to top if off and you are good to go!
Served piping hot straight from the stove or with crushed ice on a hot breezeless day, this veggie dessert is a must-try for those keen on discovering the culinary amalgamation of the Malays and the Straits Chinese. A group more intimately known as the Baba Nyonyas.
A sensible, sweet and sticky sojourn
Ending on a sweet note is definitely a must (and a very, very good idea) when it comes to Malay food culture in Malaysia. Sweet treats served with hot tea or coffee are a sign of great hospitality and symbolise the parting of ways on a bright note – with only good words to say about the host.
Malay cakes or kuih (as locals call them) are widely known to be vegetarian-friendly, but for those who say no to eggs and other dairy, look no further than the yummy kuih sagu ros.
This deceivingly simple dessert packs sticky sago pearls and sweet rose syrup, coated in a fuzzy flurry of fresh coconut shavings. Its texture and fragrance are a subtle but substantial sensorial flourish to a great meal or, in this instance, a great Malay vegetarian meal.
If you find yourself in rustic Penang, Kuih Culture has one of the best Malay dessert tasting platters in town. Order in a sweet treat to share while you’re there.
Discover even more deal-iciousness near you
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1Traditional Malay cooking 2Shrimp paste 3Dried anchovies 4A special coconut paste