A Guide to Eating Vegan at Indian Restaurants in Malaysia

A common concern among vegans in Malaysia is what is vegan in Indian restaurants. So we set out to answer this concern by doing some research. Most of the information gathered here was through consultation with a long-established Indian restaurant in Seremban known as Nuri Indah Curry House, which has been in existence for 20 years. Chef Tulsi who has her own youtube channel called Tulsi's Vegan Kitchen has also contributed towards this article.


Malaysian Indian Restaurants are mainly South Indian because the majority of the Indian ethnic origin population are Tamils. Most of the food served at these South Indian restaurants are adaptations of authentic food from India.


This article is confined to South Indian (Hindu) eateries. Indian Muslim eateries (mamaks) have specifically been excluded because it is safer to assume that mamaks are not vegan-friendly and should be avoided. A separate paragraph has been included to point out the risks of eating at mamaks. Also note that since this is a vegan guide, only vegan items are accompanied by images.


Indian Definition of Pure Vegetarian

Among the Indians, pure vegetarian generally means vegetarian food with no addition of onion and garlic. Eggs are not allowed but milk products are consumed. So please take note that when the term pure vegetarian is used by Indian restaurants, they almost never mean vegan.



Specific Food Review

Let's delve in-depth into some food items that are available at Indian eateries and see what can be safely consumed by vegans and what should be avoided like the plague!



Roti Canai

Roti Canai
Vegan Roti Canai at Nuri Indah Curry House

The main ingredient here is all purpose wheat flour (white flour or maida as referred to in India). Margarine, eggs, milk and sugar may be added to the dough, depending on the particular restaurant's recipe. Planta margarine is not vegan as it contains additives of animal origin but Pelangi margarine seems to be acceptable going by the list of ingredients stated on its label. Most Indian restaurants will avoid adding eggs since they cater to a large number of vegetarians who usually avoid eggs. So they may use evaporated milk such as Ideal Milk to substitute for the eggs. To be safe, we have to ask the waiter what ingredients are used in the preparation of the dough.


Verdict: Usually unsafe


Note: Good news for those living in Seremban. After our discussion with Nuri Indah Curry House, the owners decided they could still make great roti canai without any animal products. So be sure to visit them if you want to try truly vegan roti canai served with delicious dhall and vegetable curry!



Thosai/ Dosa

thosai
Thosai

Generally vegan. It is a protein rich food as the ingredients consist of black lentils and rice. The dough is fermented and therefore has added health benefits. However, do avoid variations such as ghee thosai, which obviously has ghee added to it. Ghee, by the way, is derived from dairy milk, just like butter. Masala thosai, another variation, is usually safe for vegans as a potato masala is used as a filling in the rolled-up thosai.


Verdict: Safe



Rava Thosai

Rava_thosai
Rava Thosai at Nuri Indah Curry House

Usually vegan, this crepe is made from semolina, rice flour and all purpose wheat flour (maida). The exception may be outlets which use eggs in the mixture, so enquiries need to be made.


Verdict: Usually safe



Chapati

capati
Chapati by Tulsi's Vegan Kitchen

The main ingredient is wholewheat flour or atta flour. It is most likely not vegan due to margarine being added to the dough in most eateries. North Indian restaurants may use ghee.


Verdict: Usually unsafe


Note: A small number of restaurants may not use margarine or ghee. This is true in the case of Nuri Indah Curry House. Hence it is suitable for vegans.



Naan

This flatbread is cooked in a tandoor oven. The main ingredient is all purpose wheat flour and traditionally, yoghurt is added to the dough. However, some eateries may use yeast instead of yoghurt as yeast is much cheaper. It is necessary to enquire into this matter with the particular eatery.


Verdict: Usually unsafe



Idli

idli
Idli at Nuri Indah Curry House

Definitely vegan and a very healthy choice because it is high in protein from lentils. And it is one of a rare kind of food in Indian restaurants that is steamed!


Verdict: Go for it!



Puttu

puttu
Puttu by Tulsi's Vegan Kitchen

Another type of Indian food that is steamed in cylindrical pots. Several variations are available, including rice flour, ragi and atta flour. Shredded coconut and brown sugar may be added.


Verdict: Go for it!



Pal-appam / Hoppers

pal appam
Pal Appam

Definitely vegan, this rice-based pancake has creamy coconut milk added to it. Additional sweetened coconut milk is given as a dip to eat the appam.


Verdict: Go for it!



Nasi Goreng/Mee Goreng/ Mee hun/ Bihun

nasi_goreng
Nasi Goreng at Nuri Indah Curry House

These ala carte items are usually non-vegan because shrimp paste (belachan) or dried prawns may have been added to the sambal/ chilli paste. This is usually the case at mamaks. However, Indian restaurants may prepare separate vegetarian chili paste for their vegetarian customers. Vegans are advised to ask whether the particular eatery has a separate vegetarian chilli paste. Otherwise, request for a Chinese style dish, without any chilli paste. Another concern is the yellow noodles used for Mee Goreng. Does it have eggs? Some manufacturers may not use eggs to cut costs and probably to cater to Chinese vegetarians.


Verdict: Usually safe



Vadai

Vadai
Vadai at Nuri Indah Curry House

Definitely vegan. Made of lentils and fried in vegetable oil, it usually has chopped onions, chillies and curry leaves to spice it up.


Verdict: Safe



Vegetable Side Dishes

Most of the vegetable side dishes are vegetarian and vegan in Indian eateries, since Indians are vegetarians on certain days of the week, so the eateries will avoid adding any non-vegetarian flavours to the vegetable dishes.


Verdict: Safe



Raita

A notable exception to the above statement is raita, a vegetable salad with shredded cucumber and carrot, or simply sliced onion and chillies, which almost always has yoghurt added to it.


Verdict: Not Vegan



Uppuma

Uppuma is a popular breakfast item made from semolina. There are usually some vegetables such as carrots or peas added to it. The main concern for vegans is the addition of ghee during the cooking process. However, most eateries are unlikely to use ghee since it is very expensive. Vegan diners may need to enquire whether ghee has been added.


Verdict: Usually safe



Puri/ Poori

Puri is made from all purpose wheat flour (maida) and semolina. The flattened pieces are then fried in oil. Some outlets use vegetable oil for frying while some may add ghee for the lovely aroma. Again, enquiries need to be made whether ghee has been used.


Verdict: Usually safe



Nasi Lemak

nasi_lemak
Vegan Nasi Lemak at Nuri Indah Curry House

This is another dish that is synonymous with Malaysian food. It is made of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with several accompaniments such as boiled/ fried eggs, fried anchovies and fried peanuts. Unfortunately, most nasi lemak served at South Indian restaurants are generally not suitable for vegans. This is because the options available at non-vegetarian restaurants may have shrimp paste (belachan) in the chilli paste (sambal).


Verdict: Unsafe


Note: A small number of eateries such as Nuri Indah Curry House may make special vegetarian nasi lemak at the request of customers.



Curry Puff

curry_puff
Curry Puff at Nuri Indah Curry House

This is a popular snack at restaurants and stalls. Meat may be used in the filling of these snacks. Many eateries may have vegetarian curry puffs but they may use margarine in the making of the pastry. However, they are likely to use Pelangi margarine which is cheaper than Planta margarine. As such, vegetarian curry puffs may usually be suitable for vegans.


Verdict: Usually safe



Kesari

This is a snack made from semolina, sugar and ghee as the main ingredients. Definitely not vegan, unless ghee has been substituted with vanaspathi or vegetarian ghee.


Verdict: Unsafe



Idiyappam/ String Hoppers

Definitely vegan. Known by the local name of putu mayam, string hoppers are made of rice flour and all purpose wheat flour (maida). They are usually served with shredded coconut and brown sugar, but can be eaten with curries.


Verdict: Go for it!



Kolkattai

Kolkata
Kolkata

Definitely vegan. This is a type of snack that is shaped like a curry puff but has a white outer dough that is made of rice flour and is steamed. The filling is made of lentils, shredded coconut and brown sugar. It is a delicious snack that is usually available for breakfast or afternoon tea.


Verdict: Go for it!



Rasam

Rasam is a herbal-spiced soup that is very good for digestion. It is usually consumed after main meals.


Verdict: Safe



Tairu & Mooru

Tairu refers to yoghurt made of dairy milk while mooru is the diluted version of it which is flavoured with onions, chillies and curry leaves.


Verdict: Not vegan



Lentil Stew/ Dhall/ Sambar

Different types of lentils are used to make versions of dhall/ sambar / keerai curry. Vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, etc may be added to the lentils. This is a staple and main source of proteins for vegetarians.


Verdict: Safe



Toasted Bread

Toasted bread is usually served with a spread of margarine and an coconut-egg spread, locally known as kaya (coconut- egg spread).


Verdict: Not vegan



Payasam

Payasam is a dessert served after a vegetarian meal. It is made of sago, coconut milk, sugar and evaporated milk as the main ingredients.


Verdict: Not vegan



Milo

One of the popular drinks in Malaysia, this cocoa-based beverage has added milk as one of the ingredients.


Verdict: Not vegan



Tea/ Coffee/ Nescafe

All these drinks are non-vegan if milk/cream has been added. So choose the 'teh-o, kopi-o, or nescafe-o'.


Verdict: Safe without milk



Mamak Eateries

Mamaks refer to stalls or restaurants run by Indian Muslim proprietors. They are the most prolific eateries in Malaysia. The cuisine available at these mamaks are typically an assimilation of Indian and Malay cooking. Some of the dishes available in a typical Indian restaurant may also be available at these mamak restaurants, for example chapati, roti canai, dosa, etc. The main difference in these two categories of outlets may be the availability of beef in mamaks while Indian restaurants shun the consumption of beef as the owners are typically Hindus. It is to be noted that even the lentil stew or dhall may not be vegetarian at mamaks since bones or meat may have been added. Another example is the vegetable side dishes, where the vegetables may have anchovies, dried prawns, eggs or prawn paste added. In the case of the all time favorite roti canai, eggs and milk may usually be added to the dough. Thus dining at mamaks is a little tricky for vegans: what may usually be assumed to be vegan/ vegetarian may not be after all. It is incumbent on the vegan to ask the waiter if the dhall has any meat or bones in it or the vegetables have any non-vegetarian additions.



Conclusion

There are many choices available which are suitable for vegans at Indian restaurants. This article is not exhaustive but we have tried to include most of the common finds in Malaysian Indian restaurants. Feel free to ask us about other Indian food which we have not covered and also let us know of other vegan finds you make in Indian restaurants.



Disclaimer

Every restaurant may have its own ingredient list for the preparation of menus. The above article is a general discussion based on common practices at Indian restaurants. To be certain whether any particular item is vegan, do check with the management of the restaurants you visit. We have no intention to discredit mamaks or any business concerns, but only wish to point out the possible risks to vegans. All opinions, conclusions and other information in this article are intended as guidelines only, and we are not responsible for any error, loss or damage arising from this article.



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