3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks

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.

3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks - Travel Lush
I got all this for under $3 USD – that’s a pretty good deal!

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.

3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks - Travel Lush

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.

3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks - Travel Lush

3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks - Travel Lush
Look at all that fake meat!

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

3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks - Travel Lush

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.

3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks - Travel Lush

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.

3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks - Travel Lush

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?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

25 thoughts on “3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually Rocks

    1. Seriously! I’ve never been to India but I seriously would travel there solely to eat. Indian food just never gets old to me. And as a vegetarian I never feel like I’m missing out because Indian food is so veg-friendly. I love it 🙂

  1. That’s awesome. China is definitely big on making tofu look and taste like meat. I’m not vegetarian (although, weirdly, people always assume I am) but I’ve travelled with some veggie-loving friends and it can definitely be frustrating when you can’t find things. I keep hearing good things about this island. I’ll have to keep it in mind when I’m travelling.
    Rebekah recently posted…Beauty, China and a Sad Feminist

    1. I am seriously obsessed with fake meat. Some of the most creative mock meats I’ve ever come across were in Malaysia. I’ve even had little fake drumsticks with fake bones! I would love to travel to China just to eat! Penang is a great place. You should totally keep it in mind during your travels!

    1. The food is so good in Penang (and everywhere in Malaysia) but that’s so cool to hear that even non-vegetarians love the veggie options as much as I do! Uh yeah, walking around wet markets can be really off putting. I will always remember walking around a market in Vietnam and watching a man clubbing live eels. It was kind of brutal! On a happier note, the Indian food in Penang is just ridiculously good. I love naan too 🙂

    1. I’ve never been to India so I can’t compare the Indian food in Penang to the real thing. But from my experience the food in Penang is seriously amazing. Actually the Indian food all around Malaysia was the best I’ve ever had. It was a really pleasant surprise!

    1. You’re going to love it there Christie! I’m super excited for you. As a non-vegetarian, I imagine you’re going to be overwhelmed by the food selection – in a good way, of course. Please sample some food from the hawker stalls for me. And if you’re heading to Little India you will not be disappointed! Enjoy 🙂

  2. Girl, ya had to let the street food be last (my favorite!!). I LOVE Indian food. I’m not a vegetarian, but I love veggies and often order vegetarian when I’m out because, well, I just like it more – haha. Those samosas look awesome!! I really miss SE Asia – the food!! 🙁
    Katie recently posted…Affordable Luxury in Bali at Alaya Ubud

    1. Street food was last on the list because I can’t eat most of it and I’m bitter! Although the things I could eat were awesome. Those samosas are something special! I feel you on the missing SE Asia food thing. The food in this part of the world is pretty awesome! I miss Mexican food though …

  3. Oh hey, was just wondering whether you are a strict vegetarian? You can ask for them to remove some items from the dish if you want to suit your tastes sometimes. I can think of one or two street food in Penang that I can identify. Maybe I can do a post on it..haha…:)
    sha recently posted…Wonderful Misadventures of October

    1. Yay, I welcome a post on it! Yes, I’m strictly vegetarian. It’s tough for me to communicate because of the language barrier, but I also find that most people don’t understand the concept of vegetarianism. I’m used to picking chunks of meat out of my food, but the one thing I really don’t like is any sort of fish sauce or shrimp paste. I can’t stand the flavor! And you never know if it’s in your food until you taste it! Malaysia is pretty much heaven for me. They have such great veg-friendly food!!

      1. Haha, if you like food in Malaysia, you should be fine if you visit Singapore. Our food is similar..Let me run through my memory in search of vegetarian friendly food, perhaps you can specify which ingredients to be avoided? I’ll take note to highlight if there are any fish or prawn paste in use (if I can remember the taste) haha! 🙂
        sha recently posted…Wonderful Misadventures of October

  4. Hey. Cool post. I was thinking of travelling to Malaysia, but the only thing that put me off was that they love their meats. I thought I’m gonna have all the fruit and the veg in the world, but you have to travel for miles to get to the market! Streets mostly sell meats here in Thailand.. How easy would you say it is to get a veggie meal in Penang? (no fake meat please!) 😀

    1. Thanks! I traveled to Malaysia from the Philippines (which is the most difficult SE Asian country for vegetarians) and I was in heaven in Malaysia! Malaysian food isn’t super veg friendly, but there are definitely options. Plus, because of the Buddhist and Indian populations there are tons of options for vegetarians. It’s really easy to get veggie food in Penang. You won’t have as many options at food stalls, but you can always get noodles and stuff on the street. Plus, people speak decent English so you can typically convey that you don’t eat meat. There are also quite a few all veggie Indian restaurants. If you like Indian food at all, you’ll be fine. The Chinese Buddhist restaurants typically serve fake meat but they have equally as many options that are just vegetarian (no mock meat). I guess that was the long way of saying it’s really easy 😉

  5. Nice post, thank you. I am a strict vegetarian, ie vegan, but also avoid salt, oil, and sugar (S.O.S.). Many of the Indian vegetarian foods are cooked with milk and/or butter, so I avoid those too. Also many vegetarian foods shown here are fried in oil or seasoned with salt. Yes, I eat mostly at home! Still, I think with a little help I would be able to find good food that meets my criteria in Malaysia. I grew up in California, spent 30 years in Hawaii and 11 in Japan – yeah, I’m a “Senior Citizen”. 😉 Looking forward to spending time in Malaysia now. Thanks again for this post.
    Pandabonium recently posted…Joining The One Percenters!

    1. I think you’ll do just fine in Malaysia…well in the touristy areas and cities! Plus, a lot of people speak English so you will likely be able to convey your dietary restrictions. Do you ever use Happycow.com? It’s my go-to website to find vegetarian/vegan-friendly restaurants when I travel. They also tend to list healthy eateries and it would be a great resource for you! Enjoy Malaysia 🙂

  6. Yum! These dishes look so delicious! I’m not vegetarian but like having a few meat free meals a week, especially when I’m travelling. I’ll keep these in mind for when I’m in Penang in coming months! Those samosas particularly! Thanks!!
    Jenn Flo Taylor recently posted…Quick Tokyo Guide

    1. Ah, Penang has such wonderful food for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. You’re going to be in heaven! Definitely go to Little India and eat some samosas from the street vendors there. They are so good!!

  7. stumbled upon your blog while i was researching on solo traveling in Penang! How did you feel about traveling alone in Penang? I’m slightly worried about safety for a girl, especially when i’ve had bad experiences while traveling in KL with a few gfs. However, i’ve always wanted to go to penang but i can’t seem to find a travel buddy this time so i’m thinking of going myself. Pls lmk what you think =D

    1. I actually wrote a post about traveling solo in Penang, if you do a search on my site. It’s the first place I traveled alone and I felt really safe. Good luck 🙂

    2. Penang is the first place I traveled solo and I was just fine. I wrote a whole post on my experience if you do a search. I think it’s actually a good place to go on your own…Good luck 😉

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