People I meet traveling tend to visibly wince when I tell them I’m a vegetarian. I don’t think that’s because it makes me a hassle to hang out or travel with (at least as far as I know), but because my new friends immediately imagine themselves living the life of a vegetarian on the road. Omnivores tend to picture a life of deprivation; a constant string of hypothetical “no thank yous” falling out of their mouths when presented with new foods; a feeling of never being quite happy with everything life, and travel, have to offer in the absence of meat.
“I wish I had the self-control to be a vegetarian,” I’ll often get, as though this were not a lifestyle I’ve enjoyed for 16 years but rather an ascetic choice that must pain me each and every day.
Or – and I swear I have heard this one on multiple occasions – “I was a vegetarian for a while. But then I went on vacation to France for a week. And, you know, it’s basically impossible to be a vegetarian in France.” (While living and traveling in France, I have politely turned down enough bouillabaisse, foie gras, and boeuf bourguignon to give Gerard Depardieu another heart attack).
The thing is, I like being a vegetarian. It doesn’t control my life or my adventures, it just means I live them on my own terms. And with a little extra work, a willingness to ask questions even if you feel silly doing it, and a very open mind, I’ve found it’s not just entirely possible but often enjoyable to be a vegetarian abroad.
In fact, I have eaten so much amazing food that just happens to be vegetarian since I started traveling, I thought I’d start writing about it on a regular basis. And there’s no better place to start with vegetarian food than in Malaysia.
Even before arriving in Asia, I’d had a feeling I’d be eating well here. After all, this continent is the home of stir-fried veggies, the world’s greatest worshipper of tofu, epicenter of at least two major world religions that eschew meat. What I didn’t realize was just how spoiled for choice I’d be, even when visiting the most basic of food-hawking street stalls, particularly in Malaysia.
My first night in Kuala Lumpur, I noticed a crowd of locals swarming around a card table full of tupperware containers. Behind the table, a tiny woman doled scoops of white rice out onto plastic plates, and hungry customers dipped into the spicy-smelling contents of each plastic container to dress their meal up as they liked. Then they handed over paltry sums to the woman in charge, wandered off to a cluster of rickety plastic stools, and sat happily devouring heaping plates of food. A sight like this is the kind of obvious endorsement that needs no translation. So I nosed my way into the crowd to inspect the choices on offer, doing an initial scan, as always, for anything without visible chunks of meat.
“You need help?” a very friendly, very recently female local edged up next to me and asked.
“Um… vegetarian stuff? Sayur-sayur?” (I’m finding it sometimes helps to learn how to say “vegetables only” in the language of any country I visit, even though I probably say it incomprehensibly).
“Oh yes, lot of stuff,” she quickly replied, grabbing a plate of rice for herself and piling food on top from each little bin. “That over there? Coconut balls. This: tofu. This: also tofu. Cabbage. Vegetables. Chili sauce. All no meat.” I followed her lead and ended up with this, still the best meal I’ve had in Asia thusfar:
Other dirt-cheap, middle-of-the-street vegetarian finds in Kuala Lumpur: Paper cups of sweet corn kernels doused in honey; bite-sized pineapple-blueberry tarts from a stand proudly proclaiming its pastry dough’s status as pork- and beef-free (probably meant to cater to the city’s mixed Muslim and Hindu population, but a stroke of good luck for vegetarians to boot); 10-cent plastic baggies full of fresh-cut pineapple and mango and green papaya; and a fluffy cake tinted green with pandan leaves, then baked inside bamboo stalks and rolled in sweetened coconut.
By the time I left KL for Penang, I was already feeling the comatose after-effects of a proper two-day food bender. I wasn’t sure how well my good luck would hold up, though, once I’d left the capital. Any big city was bound to have vegetarian food somewhere, I knew, but Pulau Penang was Malaysia’s hard-core, eat-from-the-street food capital. In a word, it sounded… meaty. On the 4-hour ride to Penang, I mentally prepared myself for 24 hours of plain rice and fresh fruit.
That Penang proved me wrong not only instantly but overwhelmingly is a testament to just how broad Malaysia’s food culture is. I was lucky enough, in Penang, to find my way to the world’s friendliest hostel, which is run by two locals with an outsized passion for making new friends and showing off their island’s edible heritage. The night I arrived, they offered to take guests on an impromptu “food-hawker crawl” on the outskirts of town.
The guys from my hostel were kind enough to act as my personal food sherpas, leading me down the street and stopping at each and every cart with vegetarian options. I didn’t ask what anything was, just gave my standard “No meat? No chicken? No fish? I’ll try it!” line at each little restaurant on wheels. Eventually, I had to tell my new friends to stop the tour before I ran out of both stomach space and ringgit.
Here’s what I ended up with:
I’m still not really sure exactly what poh peah is. I know my food-sherpa got really, really excited when he realized that it qualified as vegetarian and that, thus, I could eat it. My best shot at describing it would be that it’s sort of like a soft spring roll wrapped in a galette, with spiced tofu (I think?) and lettuce inside and a spicy sauce. Sometimes being a vegetarian on the road means putting your faith in those who know best and just taking a bite of whatever they’ve put in front of you. If you’re lucky, it turns out to taste half as nice as poh peah.
I’d read about rojak, a Penang specialty, in my trusty guide book, and had excitedly earmarked it as vege-friendly. So I was actually prepared with an answer when asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to try from the food stalls. When the rojak arrived at my table I started munching on it immediately, only to be told with a laugh, halfway through the container, that it’s typically a dessert eaten after the main meal.
“Yes, but it’s here, so I’m eating it now,” was my matter-of-fact reply — hey, I’m new here — and I kept chomping on it until my real dinner arrived. Rojak, for the record, is fruit and vegetables soaked and fried to the point of caramelization in some sort of sticky, sweet, and very spicy sauce (imagine a BBQ sauce you might pour on top of ice cream), then dusted with peanuts. I cannot tell you exactly what kinds of fruits and vegetables are in rojak, because they are crisped and slathered brown beyond recognition. Maybe apples. Potentially pineapple. Definitely some long Chinese vegetable that looks like a cross between a zucchini and a caterpillar that I tried, frankly, to avoid eating as I crunched my way happily through the rest of the pile.
Indonesian Fried Noodles
Hold the prawns. Double down on the tofu. Medium-spicy, squeeze of lime juice. Very easy to veg-ify, and very, very tasty.
Lord Knows What These Are
Tiny little green pancakes wrapped around coconut soaked in sugar syrup. Our host ordered them for the table. I ate about seven while no one was looking. And then I went for a second dessert…
Malaysian Banana Split
What? I’m still an American girl at heart.