Thursday, May 13, 2010

A quest for vegetarian food...

There are some basic necessities of life. Air, Water, Food, Clothes, Internet. Okay, the last one is debatable, but you wouldn't be reading this without the Internet, right? Anyway, for a vegetarian like me, the necessities read thus - Air, Water, Vegetarian Food, Clothes etc. So, when I was going to land in a city like Kuala Lumpur, I thought, its not like I am going to Beijing. Its just KL which has a large population of Indians and Malay-Tamilians. Vegetarian food must be available everywhere. How wrong I was!

After eating some bad food on board Malaysian Airlines, I thought it would be best to make up for it with a heavy breakfast in the morning. Travel weary, sleepy, jet-lagged and time-zoned, I spent the entire day sleeping at the hotel. A growling tummy woke me up at 4pm. It was time to get out and explore the city. A roadside eatery near the hotel had Indian customers and Tamil speaking waiters. After washing down masala dosa with tasty coffee we headed out to get our first impression of KL. Bukit Bintang is a busy downtown area of the city, filled with small and large shopping malls, roadside shops, cafes and foot massage centers. To beat the humidity, we ended up spending the evening inside BB Plaza, Sungai Wang Plaza and the Pavilion. Some crazy shoe-shopping perked up our appetite, there began our quest for vegetarian food.

The food court had a variety of cuisines and some extremely weird looking food, but no vegetarian food on any of the menus, which were mostly unreadable anyway. A bolt of optimism struck me when I saw KFC and McDonalds hidden away in a far corner of the mall. They should have vegetarian burgers on their menu right? I checked the menu and didn't find any mentioned. Here's what happened next.

I walk up to the lady at the counter in McDonalds and ask her if they have vegetarian burgers.
She looks surprised, asks me to repeat my question.
I repeat my question, slowly.
Her eyes widen, almost popping out. She looks at me head to toe, probably to ensure that I am not an alien.
(P.S. I think she's trying to see if ET will peek out of my backpack.)
She asks me if I want to eat eggs.
I say no, I don't want eggs. I am looking for a burger without egg, without meat.
Her eyes will now fall out any moment.
She excuses herself and runs to a colleague in the next counter, who turns out to be the supervisor.
They discuss in hush-hush tones, occasionally pointing a finger at me.
(P.S. Thanks to her expressions, all on-lookers are now convinced that I asked her for her kidney.)
The supervisor then walks up to me and explains that they don't make vegetarian burgers. But, eureka! They have French Fries, which is vegetarian!
Would I like to order Fries and Coke?

This happened to me several times over the next 5 days. Every time I asked for vegetarian food, I was greeted with looks that varied from disbelief, shock, surprise, sympathy and occasionally all the way to disgust.

That night, we gave up on the hunt for food inside the mall. Walking around the streets of Bukit Bintang, we came across a 'restoran' called Srirekha. It was a simple Indian restaurant with some real tasty food. The masala dosa I ate there is one of the best I've ever eaten. No, I am not exaggerating when I say this. A plate of thair-sadam to go with it, followed by some ice-cream completed the dinner. Other memorable meals in Bintang were at a Pakistani restaurant and at Outback inside the Pavilion. Subway was a savior, thanks to their concept of food customization. Ironically, we discovered a restaurant that advertised South Indian style plantain leaf meals on the day we were supposed to return.

Stay at the hotel included breakfast, needless to say, it was eggs and sausages. The waitress and the cook didn't understand the concept of bread/toast. So, breakfast every morning was at the same eatery - dosa, coffee and/or Thai coconuts. Now, these Thai coconuts were huge, the water sugary sweet and the coconut pulp was creamy and soft. For the heat and humidity in KL, they made for a perfect post-breakfast drink. Since we would travel around the city all day, the same exercise of hunting for places with vegetarian food had to be repeated many times. Apart from the meal at Srirekha, vegetarian food was mostly mediocre and quite expensive. The non-vegetarians in the group had a great time trying out different Malayan dishes and some Chinese food. They had many stories of frog soup, octopus, squid and some other 'exotic' types of meat.

Here's a travel tip for all vegetarians making a visit to KL. Browse through travel websites and make a list of places that serve vegetarian food. Keep it with you while you travel around the city and look-up places as and when you need to eat. The locals are very helpful and friendly, so you can ask for directions.

Back in Bangalore, I was waiting to get back home and gorge on the hot rice and rasam mum had prepared. A huge hoarding with an advertisement for Taco Bell greeted me as soon as I drove out of the airport. My eyes and brain, seasoned to look for the keywords 'vegetarian food' on any hoarding in KL, scanned this board too. And then I realized I was back home.


  1. Nice post! I still can't understand why veggie food isn't readily available in spite of the whole trend of celebs and many people turning vegetarian (which I thought was in vogue now!). Strangely, concepts of vegetarian and non-vegetarian differ across the world. Someone I know told me that he was offered fish when he asked for vegetarian food abroad :-/

    PS. Came here through BlogAdda.

  2. I'm a bangalorean who's lived in KL for 5 years and being veggie I have the same problem. But what I've discovered is the unique concept of mock-meat in KL which essentially looks like meat, tastes like meat and feels like meat but is actually processed soya. Its strange the first time you hear the waiter offer you - vegetarian chicken or vegetarian mutton! But it works in a strange way over a period of time, though in the long term i suppose its terribly unhealthy!

  3. God! Even I dnt understand y its so diff. to get some veg food. In Indonesia, when we asked for veg food, she showed us an item on the menu reading 'Chicken fried rice with cabbage' or something like that. Her answer ws that it did hv a vegetable. God, hw much we struggled to explain we wanted only the rice and cabbage and nothing else :P

    I so wanna hv Masala Dosa @ that place when I visit KL ;)

  4. @Chinkurli - Thanks! I agree. Even I've been offered fish once. The person said, if you are vegetarian, why don't you eat fish? :|

    @Freespirit - Vegetarian mutton? Haha, sounds interesting :) I wasn't offered this one though!

    @Swaram - Yeah, vegetarianism is an unknown concept in those parts. Do eat the masala dosa there :)

  5. Good one Radz,

    were you on an office tour?

    I remember an incident of one of my veggie friends when in SE Asia. He was veggie by religion and did not even wish to share his table with an ovo-vegetarian.

    Unfortunately his Managers at office pit him as a probable candidate to Malayasia, Indonesia for Business reasons,

    Finally he returned back with strange traits of tasting only the bread in the Hamburger; or eating just rice in CFR and trash the chicken!! ;-)

    Aw good piece of articulation!!

  6. Hahaha! great post.. takes me back to every trip I've ever taken outside India :)

    In china suprisingly, touristy places in the interiors had the best veggie food.. and the missus is even more choosy than I am. At least I eat eggs!

    The only places where I've unknowingly bitten into piece of chicken has ironically, been at Indian restaurants, where the guy mislabels chicken masala as panneer masala. What to do

  7. I am surprised you had trouble finding vegetarian food in KL. One of the most popular dish that we used to find in Malaysian / Singapore restaurants in the US is called Roti Canai which is basically like roomali roti with a vegetable gravy.
    I am not a vegetarian, but when I want safe food in Indonesia, Singapore, I head to Italian restaurants. Veggie pasta and pizza is easy to find

  8. Oh and I second your advice to browse through the internet and find vegetarian restaurants. When we went to Spain with my veggie friends, we had excellent food everyday because they had a list of veg restaurants in every city we went!!

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