When most travelers think of Penang, the first thing that comes to mind is street food. In fact, many travelers visit the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ solely to sample the island’s world-famous cuisine. But I have to admit, I was less than enthused about the prospect of being a vegetarian in Penang. I seriously questioned whether I’d be able to find good meat-free meals – even in a place as renowned for its food as Penang.
During my first day in the historic area of George Town I walked past what felt like hundreds of the city’s world-famous hawker stalls. I watched cooks sizzle heaps of noodles, stir steaming vats of soup, and grill meaty kebabs. And I felt unbelievably frustrated that I could eat absolutely none of it. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was buttered corn and nasi goreng – but seriously, how many people travel to the food capital of Malaysia to gorge themselves on glorified fried rice?
I felt like I was missing out. And, yes, I was just a little bitter.
But now that I’ve traveled to Penang twice, and spent a decent chunk of time on the island, I realized that being a vegetarian in Penang might just be the best thing ever. It’s true that as a vegetarian I had to skip out on most of the food stalls that line the island’s streets. And while I love street food as much as the next budget traveler, I was so busy stuffing my face in George Town’s amazing restaurants that I forgot all about those hawker stalls. It turns out that finding cheap and delicious vegetarian food in Penang is an absolute cinch. And being a vegetarian in Penang is actually pretty awesome. Here’s why:
1) An Authentic Taste of India
As I mentioned in a previous post, Little India is one of my favorite parts of George Town. While I love the unique color and chaos of its streets, the real reason I’m so drawn to this area is because of the food. Little India may only measure a few square blocks, but this small village packs a big punch when it comes to its restaurants.
I’m an Indian food fanatic, and one thing I’m particularly fond of is the fact that Indian food is super veg-friendly. Not only do most of George Town’s Indian restaurants have designated vegetarian and non-vegetarian options but there are quite a few pure-vegetarian eateries scattered around Little India. Walking around, I didn’t have to look hard to find them; there seemed to be at least one on every block.
Ros Mutiara is one of my go to’s in Penang. It’s located on the corner of Lebuh King and Lebuh Chulia. This place is cheap, it’s good, and it’s open 24 hours a day. The first meal I ever ate in Penang was at this restaurant. I’d just wrapped up a 10-hour train ride from Kuala Lumpur. It was midnight, I was starving, and I practically jumped for joy when I came across this low-key eatery. It’s not all vegetarian but it serves up great vegetarian set meals for 8.50 ringgit ($2.60 USD). It comes with a heaping pile of biryani and four delicious sides. They also have a selection of fruit juices and some seriously good creamy iced teas for less than $1 USD, which are especially refreshing if you’ve been walking around in the brutal heat of Penang.
I seriously have never had a bad Indian meal in George Town, and it really pays to just pick a restaurant at random and to give it a try. For a more detailed guide on the best all-vegetarian Indian restaurants in Penang check out this blog.
2) Sampling Mock Meats at Chinese Buddhist Buffets
I am a huge fan of fake meat. Back in California my freezer was always stocked with Morningstar buffalo wings, chicken patties, and corn dogs. In fact it’s one of the things I miss most about being stateside. A lot of non-vegetarians just can’t understand my love for mock meat. They feel like I’m a hypocrite. But for whatever reason I just can’t get enough of the stuff, which is why I was ecstatic to find out that the predominately Chinese island of Penang is home to an impressive amount of Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurants.
When it comes to imitation meat, Chinese Buddhists know what they’re doing. My personal favorite restaurant in George Town is Ee Beng on Lebuh Dickens. Every day the owners set out around 20-30 dishes. Some of my favorites are their sweet and sour chicken with pineapple chunks, green curried mutton, and spicy beef with braised green beans. I understand that a lot of vegetarians aren’t as enthusiastic about eating mock meat as I am. Fear not, there are plenty of savory tofu dishes and even more delicious veggie sides – from sauteed eggplant to steamed swish chard to chap chai (a vegetable stew).
These types of restaurants are buffet-style so just grab a plate and load it up. The cost depends on some sort of subjective algorithm which appears to be based on weight and number of items. But it’s always cheap and customers can expect to pay around 5-10 ringgit ($2-4 USD), which is a steal.
The stand outside prepares vegetarian variations of Malaysian soups. There’s even a fish head bihun, which is a noodle soup prepared with a milky broth and, you guessed it, chunks of fish head. While this sounds utterly disgusting to me, I often curse myself for being a vegetarian because I feel like I’m missing out on some interesting local foods. And though the stand has always been closed during my visits, it makes me happy to know that Ee Beng offers veggie versions of these national dishes. And I swear I will be eating fish head soup next time I’m in town.
3) Snacking on Cheap Street Food
If you’re seriously jonesing for some street food there are a few options that should not be missed. My all-time favorite is, of course, found in Little India. There is a stall on Jalan Penang that serves up piping hot deep-fried Indian snacks. I pretty much visit this vendor daily whenever I’m in Penang. While most of the offerings are meat-filled, there are a few vegetarian options like vegetable curry samosas and onion balls. The spice-infused samosas are seriously some of the best I’ve ever tasted and they only cost .50 ringgit apiece. Cruising around Little India there are a few chapati stands as well. Chapati is a flatbread, which resembles a thick tortilla, and is served with a savory sauce.
I also made it a point to visit one of the glorious fruit vendors that are scattered around George Town at least once a day. It’s possible to buy freshly cut fruit like pineapple, watermelon, mango, or papaya. Or even better, there is a selection of exotic fruit drinks, which are sweetened with large grains of sugar and then poured into a bag with ice. Seriously, after walking around and baking in the sun all day, I’ve never been so happy to drink an ice cold beverage out of a plastic bag. My personal favorite is the sweet and sour calamansi juice.
Just in case you’re looking for some food with a little meat in it, Nomadic Notes offers a good list of Penang food guides.
Have you been to Penang? What is the best food you sampled on the island?