Malay food is, unfortunately, a tough nut to crack for vegetarians, as meat and seafood are well integrated into the cuisine. Among the standard savoury dishes, veggies can only really handle sayur lodeh (a rich mixed-vegetable curry made with coconut milk), tauhu goreng (deep-fried tofu with a peanut dressing similar to satay sauce), and acar (pickles). Eating places run by the Chinese and Indian communities are the best bets, as these groups have some familiarity with vegetarianism thanks to the cultural influence of Buddhism and Hinduism. Chinese restaurants can always whip up veg stir fries to order, and many places now feature Chinese vegetarian cuisine, using textured veg protein and gluten mock meats – often uncannily like the real thing, and delicious when done right.
Strict vegetarians will want to avoid seafood derivatives commonly used in cooking. This means eschewing dishes like rojak (containing fermented prawn paste) and the chilli dip called sambal belacan (containing belacan, the Malay answer to prawn paste) – though for some visitors, vegetarian or not, the pungency of prawn paste is enough of a deterrent. Oyster sauce, used in Chinese stir fries, is omitted for vegetarian purposes in favour of soy sauce or just salt. Note also that the delicious gravy that accompanies roti canai generally comes from a meat curry, though some places offer a lentil version, too.
If you need to explain in Malay that you’re vegetarian, try saya hanya makan sayuran (“I only eat vegetables”). Even if the person taking your order speaks English, it can be useful to list the things you don’t eat; in Malay you’d say, for example, saya tak mahu ayam dan ikan dan udang for “I don’t want chicken or fish or prawn”. Expect a few misunderstandings; the cook may leave out one thing on your proscribed list, only to substitute another.
Halal fare doesn’t just feature at Malay and mamak restaurants and stalls. The catering at mid-range and top-tier Malaysian hotels is in fact mostly halal, or at least “pork-free”, and even the Chinese dishes served at top hotel restaurants have their pork content replaced with something else. Of course, the pork-free billing doesn’t equate to being halal, but many local Muslims are prepared to overlook this grey area, or get round it by ordering seafood.
In areas where the great majority of the population is Muslim, such as Kelantan and Terengganu, halal or pork-free food is the norm, even at Chinese and Indian restaurants.