The Vegetarian Culture of Malaysia


September 7, 2008


The South East Asian nation of Malaysia is also a haven for vegetarian delicacies. Its 21 million inhabitants, who spread over 329,725 square kilometres through the island chain of the South China Sea, have been waving the vegetarian flag for centuries now.

 The history of Malaysian cuisine reveals the diversity of its influence. The Malay, Chinese, Indian and European people, have all contributed to this nation’s diet for many centuries.

In the 3rd and 4th century, Malaysia and Indonesia were part of the Hindu Javanese Empire, connecting the Subcontinent’s Hindu and Muslim religious diets. The Hindu Vedic laws and Islamic taboos against meat still influence today’s population.

Westerners with their omnivorous appetites first came from Portugal, Holland and England 500 years ago. This immigration explains why most Malays have a sweet tooth for European desserts.


During the 15th century, the Chinese Ming dynasty sent diplomatic missions to the port city of Malacca, 160 kilometres southeast of Kuala Lumpur, in an effort to develop political  and economic ties. The marriage of Melaka Sultan Mamsur Shah of Malaysia, and Ming Princess Hang Li Po of China, opened up trade in spices and other foods. The Chinese merchants integrated their delicacies into the Malay and Euro cultures, and helped to create a community known as the Baba Nonya (derived from the Malay bapak [grandfather] and Portuguese nona [grandmother]).

The Baba Nonya created a partly vegetarian cooking style known simply as Nonya, which introduced tofu, soy sauce, local spices, Indian curries and Chinese noodles to their stir-fries, desserts and condiments.

In keeping with the country’s Chinese past, many stuck with the old Confucian saying: “Avoid fish that is not sound, meat that is high [and] anything overcooked or undercooked.”

Among other Malaysians, meat is not eaten by Buddhists on feast days, nor by the Hindus on Friday, their day of worship. Many of the religious and cultural festivals, from the Chinese New Year to Ramadan, feature vegetarian fare.

The standard daily diet of most Malaysians consists of curries, vegetable stir-fries and soup with rice. When travelling, visitors will have no trouble finding vegetarian fare, despite the abundance of poultry and seafood. Although English is widely spoken, you may wish to learn the phrase, “Saya hanya makan sayuram” (I eat only vegetarian foods). If you’re vegan, try “Saya tidak makanan yang di perbuat dari susu atan daging (I don’t eat any dairy or meat).

For vegetarian restaurants see HappyCow’s extensive list.

Try these well-known recipes from Malaysia that are sure to please.

Eggplant Tofu

Serves 2-3
A classic Nonya favourite.

5-6 Asian eggplants, peeled
6 green onions
1/3 cup oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
7 oz. silken tofu, extra firm
3-5 Tbsp vegetarian oyster sauce
Dash of plum sauce, to taste
2 red chilies, slit, seeded and diced

Cut eggplant into 1-1/2 inch slices. Cut green onions vertically and place in a bowl of cold water until they open up like flowers. Heat oil on high in a wok or large skillet and fry eggplant until brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels and keep warm. Repeat with the garlic. Cut silken tofu gently in the palm of your hand and lower into the heated, oiled wok/skillet. Gently fry for 3-5 minutes until tofu chunks have a crispy outer skin. Toss eggplant and garlic back into wok/skillet with tofu and stir gently, but well. Add vegetarian oyster and plum sauces, green onions and chilies and stir until heated through. Serve with rice or noodles.

Curried Cauliflower Stir-fry

Serves 3-4
A mild, slightly rich-tasting dish.

1 medium or large cauliflower
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp oil
1 Tbsp whole mustard seeds
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Piece of ginger, 5” long, peeled and shredded
2 sprigs curry leaves or 2 Tbsp curry powder
1 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp cumin seeds
1 Tbsp tumeric (omit if using curry powder)
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp tamarind puree from 1” of tamarind
1 can coconut milk
1/2 cup coconut cream
Juice of 1/2 lime

Cut cauliflower into small florets and soak in cold water with salt for 10 minutes. Heat oil in wok or medium saucepan and cook mustard seeds covered until they stop popping. Add onion, garlic and ginger to wok/saucepan and sauté well. Add curry leaves or powder, chili powder, cumin seeds and tumeric and stir. Cook for 1 minute, then add water and tamarind puree and simmer for 3 minutes. Add cauliflower and coconut milk and cook until cauliflower is tender. Add cream, stir and remove from heat. Add lime juice and serve with rice.

Rainbow Fried Rice

Serves 5-6
This recipe is plentiful as a main or side dish.

1 Tbsp oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 medium-sized carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 red, yellow and green pepper, seeded and diced
3 cups cooked rice, cooled
5-6 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp sesame oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup pinenuts or toasted slivered almonds

Sauté onion in a oiled wok or large pot. Add carrots, celery, and peppers and stir-fry until vegetables are partly done, not over-cooked. Add rice to vegetables and stir well. Add soy sauce and sesame oil to the mix, then salt and pepper. Continue stirring for 3 minutes, then toss in nuts. Serve.

From the September / October 1998 issue of Lifelines.

Filed under: Community Eat Veg Uncategorised Vegan & Vegetarian Recipes