Being Vegetarian in Singapore & Malaysia
Let's get right down to it: if you're here, you're probably a vegetarian wondering what the food scene will be like in Singapore or Malaysia (or both). In Singapore, finding veggie-friendly choices was not too difficult. Outside of the larger cities in Malaysia, however, being a vegetarian can be a bit challenging. This post is a summary of the vegetarian food I encountered in each country, as well as a guide to what's available to eat in meat-heavy Malaysia.
Letting Waitstaff Know You're a Vegetarian:
English is the most widely spoken language in Singapore and also the first language of 32% of the population. Difficulty requesting a meal with "no meat" is basically zero. (Yay!)
Types of Food to Expect:
Emmett and I admittedly only spent a few days in Singapore, but we tried our best to have a variety of affordable vegetarian food during our visit. Here's what we ate and enjoyed. (Spolier alert: everywhere we ate was worth a recommendation).
The Classic Singapore Brekkie
The classic Singapore breakfast consists of kaya toast with tea and soft-boiled eggs. We had two variations of the breakfast, one from Ya Kun Kaya Toast seen on the left (a Singaporean breakfast institution since the 1940s) and another from Koufu Food Court. At this point, you're probably thinking 'what the heck is kaya toast??' Kaya toast is, well, toast featuring butter and kaya, a jam made from coconut. Kaya is quite sugary but is usually spread thin enough not to cause a toothache.
The Ya Kun kaya toast was on very thin slices of toast and the kaya toast at Koufu was on a toasted french bread. At Ya Kun, we paired it with their heavily promoted little breaded "cheese balls" which were more sweet than savory. (Like a danish pastry type of cream cheese). At Koufu, we had it with it's more traditional accompaniment: runny soft-boiled eggs. The eggs were unsettling to eat alone, but pretty tasty when treated as a dip for the french toast.
Cheap Eats in Little India
Little India has a plethora of options for vegetarian travelers. There are numerous Indian restaurants with vegetarian meals available as well as restaurants whose menus are entirely vegetarian. After eating some samosas & sweets picked up from a tiny stall (lower left photo), we were hungry enough to decide to patronize one of these enticing all-veg restaurants. We spotted Ananda Bhavan, which was full of locals (always a good sign) and turned out to be the oldest Indian vegetarian restaurant in all of Singapore!
Once inside, there were almost too many options to choose from. Eventually, we figured why not go with the Special of the Day (as seen in the first photo). It was a roti (flatbread) and rice with six very zesty dipping sauces and one gulab jamun (donut in syrup). It was a bit too spicy by my very sensitive standards but very filling. We began to regret the fact that we also ordered a HUGE South Indian Cheese Pratha which arrived soon after the Special. It was delicious - India's answer to a cheese quesadilla. But too much food, so we bagged it for later.
Singapore technically doesn't have street food. All of it's would-be street vendors have been relocated to it's famous Hawker Centers. That being said, there are still nameless hole-in-the-wall places on occasion as well as the odd street vendor. For instance, we bought those literal ice cream sandwiches from a man with an actual wheeled cart just near the Helix Bridge in bayfront Singapore (see above). We decided to get durian ice cream blocks in our white-bread sandwiches. I was somewhat hesitant about anything durian flavored. I'd tried the "King of Fruits" in China back in 2014 and the smell/taste/texture combo made me gag and spit it out. However, durian ice cream has a custardy, floral taste that did not make me gag at all. I would have it again.
The photo on the top right is of a few rice dumplings we picked up at an aforementioned nameless hole-in-the-wall. They were very sticky and very sweet, filled with a sugared red bean paste.
According to Happy Cow's Singapore page, there are tons of veg-friendly chains around the city. We were delighted to find that one such chain had a location just around the corner from our hotel in Novena. The restaurant was called Real Food, and had a mostly-vegetarian menu of Southeast Asian and Western cuisine. Emmett and I decided to get takeout to enjoy the great views from our hotel room: I got Thai-inspired tom yam noodles and he got a cheesy rice bake. Each delicious but a tad overpriced as whole food, organic types of places can be.
Letting Waitstaff Know You're a Vegetarian:
The majority of places we visited had either a server who spoke English or a menu with English translations. That being said, it's handy to know how to express your meat-free lifestyle choice to waitstaff in Malay. The best way to do so, according to Wikivoyage, is to say "Saya tidak makan daging" (SAH-yuh TEE-dah' MAH-kahn DAH-gin) which literally translates to "I don't eat meat." It may also help to be more explicit, as definitions of what qualifies as "meat" can vary on a personal basis. You can expand upon it with "I don't eat meat, chicken, or seafood" or "Saya tidak makan daging, ayam atau makanan laut" (SAH-yuh TEE-dah' MAH-kahn DAH-ging, AH-yahm ah-tahw mah-KAH-nahn LOUT).
Types of Food to Expect:
We had a lot of repeats of the same types of food while in Malaysia, so I'll include a few categories with photo-examples of each, so you guys get an idea of the options.
Like Singapore, Malaysia has a large Indian immigrant population. Therefore, it seems like some towns have an Indian restaurant on every corner or Indian-inspired menus at every eatery. No complaints here, as Indian cuisine is one of our favorite types of food to grab while dining out back home. We helped ourselves to old familiar friends like veggie curries, spinach paneer, and naan. We also discovered the thosai (also spelled dosai or dosa), which is a huge flatbread made from pounded lentils either served as a side to curry or filled with curried rice and veg. It is very hearty and filling and always an enormous portion.
Roti canai is the quintessential Malaysian snack/dessert/appetizer. Thanks again to the Indian diaspora, you can't go anywhere in Malaysia without encountering this flatbread pocket and it's array of potential fillings. We had so many versions of roti canai in Malaysia: cheese, banana, fried egg, garlic, tomato and onion, fried egg & cheese, pineapple & cheese, cheese & onion, cheese & banana... It doesn't always come with cheese but we may or may not be cheeseacholics. It does however, always come with a dipping sauce. Whether you got a savory or sweet filling, your roti will be plated with either a curry dip or a dal (lentil soup) dip. I preferred dal of the two dips.
Don't miss out on roti canai while you're in Malaysia. It's a very cheap, (and generally tasty) quick eat.
Traditional Malaysian Food Without Meat (Rare!)
We did our fair share of eating over our 2 week trip to Malaysia, but one of the rarest items to find was a traditional Malaysian dish that did not include pork fat, or meat of any kind. Once at the food court at the top of Penang Hill, we grabbed a vegetarian mee goreng which was just... some tasty, well-fried-in-soy-sauce noodles and veg. Then in Kuala Lumpur, we visited a Malaysian restaurant with no English translations and pointed at a picture of something that looked innocent enough. It turned out to be nasi lemak telur mata. Nasi lemak is considered the national dish of Malaysia. It's pretty simple: cocount milk and pandan boiled rice, served with curry paste and, in our case, telur mata or with egg. Oh yeah, and tiny anchovies. We picked those off and left them for some cats near the closest metro stop.
Chinese Buddhist Vegetarian Food
Nearly 25% of the Malaysian population is Chinese or of Chinese descent. Chinese Buddhists living in Malaysia have established all-vegetarian restaurants that are host to extensive menus featuring mock meats made from soy. This is where you can really go nuts with the variety. We tried the best (and most affordable) array of mock meats at Ee Beng Vegetarian Buffet in Georgetown, Penang - see large photo above. Equally tasty but a bit more pricey was Nature's Vegetarian Restaurant in the Bangsar neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur.
Desserts & Sweet Drinks
Malaysians seem to LOVE sweet food - but perhaps not as much as they love sweet drinks. Whether it's a coconut shake, bandung, or teh tarik, Malaysians must be rotting their teeth out. I know that's how we felt by the end of our trip! Here's a summary of popular sweet dishes and drinks to be found in Malaysia:
- Ais kacang. Also known as "ABC," ais kacang literally translates to "bean ice." It's a strange sundae of sorts featuring sweetly flavored shaved ice garnished with syrup-soaked corn, red beans, fresh cut fruit, and jelly noodles all topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's very yum. All of it, that is, except for the syrupy corn. I don't like that.
- Coconut shakes. Just coconut milkshakes, plain and simple. They taste less like artificial coconut and more like coconut water straight from the nut. Pefect hot afternoon refreshment.
- Bandung. Bandung is a thick milkshake made with sweetened condensed milk and a rose-flavored cordial.
- Kaya. See my section on Classic Singapore Brekkie. Kaya can be found for cheap in every supermarket or 7-11.
- Teh Tarik / Kopi Tarik. Tea tarik and coffee tarik are simply tea and coffee Malaysian-style: sugared up by sweetened condensed milk. The teh tarik I tried at a few locations was always too sickly sweet for me. Emmett enjoyed the kopi tarik, which he said tasted like hot melted coffee ice cream.
Aaaand that's a wrap! Have you visited either of these countries as a vegetarian? Did I miss out on anything? Let me know your experiences and ask any questions you may have in the comments below!