Guest article by Kerry Heyer
Top Contenders for the Best Vegan Restaurant in Penang
If you’re looking for a vegan restaurant in Penang, Malaysia, you’ll be spoilt for choice. There are currently around 20 fully vegan restaurants on the island of Penang and dozens more vegetarian restaurants.
Plus, local Penang food is already very vegan-friendly, so you’ll find lots of vegan options at mainstream restaurants and street food stalls in Penang as well.
In this article, I’ll tell you where to find the best food in Penang, including the best vegan and vegetarian restaurants as well as local specialty dishes to try.
But first, let’s delve a bit into Penang’s history and culture to find out why it’s one of the most vegan-friendly travel destinations in Southeast Asia.
Penang is a Malaysian state located on the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia. It’s also known by its Malay name, Pulau Pinang.
The state consists of two parts: Penang Island, where the capital city of Georgetown is located, and Seberang Perai, which is on the mainland of the Malay Peninsula.
Penang Island, and the Georgetown area in particular, has received worldwide recognition as an amazing food destination. And this is true for vegans too!
Due to the diverse ethnicities, cultures, and traditions found in this area, you’ll find a plethora of vegan options among authentic local dishes.
From street food to fancier sit-down restaurants, plant-based eaters have a whole culinary world to explore. Penang really is an ideal vegan travel destination!
History of Penang
Georgetown is a true melting pot, thanks to its rich history and diverse population. Ever since its days as a historically significant trading route post between Europe, the Middle East, China, and India, people from all over the world have been drawn to Penang.
Today, Penang is home to significant populations of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian descent, among others. George town was founded as the first British settlement in Southeast Asia.
Penang as a whole was part of a British crown colony from 1867 until 1946, except for a brief time during World War II, when Japan bombed and then occupied Penang before the British retook the territory.
The Island was later merged with the Federation of Malaya (which is now Malaysia) and gained independence from the British in 1957.
As you travel around Penang today, you will see historic buildings, ancient temples, and modern high rises. It’s a beautiful combination of old-world charm and modern conveniences.
Culture in Penang
Modern Penang is a place where four main religions co-exist harmoniously: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity.
A section of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keiling in Penang is known as the “street of harmony”. Here, an Anglican church, a Hindu temple, a Taoist temple, and a Muslim mosque all neighbor each other.
There is a culture of acceptance of differences in Penang, which contributes to the vibrancy and welcoming atmosphere.
Beautiful street art can be found throughout the historic neighborhoods in Georgetown. Art, food, and music are prominently featured in the many festivals and traditions celebrated by Penang's population.
Best Places to Eat in Penang
Vegan Restaurants Penang
There are a number of excellent vegan restaurants in Penang. Below are a few that I have visited and can personally recommend.
All but one of these restaurants are centrally located in Penang’s capital, Georgetown. There are some great vegan restaurants in other areas of Penang, such as Wholey Wonder Vegan Café and Yoga Studio, but they are further away from the places of interest to most tourists.
Pinxin Vegan is a 100% vegan restaurant on Lebuh Tye Sin in Georgetown with a focus on healthy plant-based cuisine. It’s certainly a contender for the best vegan restaurant in Penang. Their menu includes noodle, rice, and Western fusion dishes.
Pinxin uses homemade noodles and all-natural ingredients to prepare cruelty-free, nutritious food. Their motto is “food made with love”, and the wholesome dishes such as the Buddhaful Passion Bowl and the Hericium Satay Rice are beautifully presented.
In their restaurant space, they also sell eco-friendly products such as wood toothbrushes, reusable food bags, reusable water bottles, and metal straws. The owners truly are making an effort to make the world a better place, one meal at a time. They serve lunch and dinner daily.
Blue Vegan Restaurant
Another fully vegan Georgetown restaurant, Blue is conveniently located directly across the street from Pinxin Vegan. It used to be called Cloud Dreaming and was located out in Sungai Ara, a very local neighborhood in Penang that is not often frequented by tourists.
However, they have since rebranded as Blue and moved to a much more central location, so there’s no excuse not to visit!
Their 100% vegan menu features soups and salads, pasta dishes, burgers, desserts, and even nonalcoholic vegan wine. We did not sample the wine, but it is an interesting offering.
The Black Magic Energy Mushroom Burger and the Authentic Panggang Style Tempeh Burger are both delicious. All burgers come with baked potato wedges and a small serving of coleslaw.
Mushroom lovers will especially enjoy this restaurant, as many of their dishes feature various mushroom varieties.
Five ingredients that you won’t find here are onion, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives. These are known in some Buddhist sects as “the five pungent spices” and are forbidden because they are believed to lead to anger if eaten raw and passion if eaten cooked.
Blue did not have any of these five ingredients on their menu, and we found that to be the case at a number of vegetarian eateries in Penang. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner every day except Thursdays.
Sushi Kitchen actually has several restaurant locations in Penang, which you can view here. Their location in historic Georgetown looks rather unassuming from the outside. On the inside, however, is a dining space with a pleasant ambiance and artistically prepared vegan sushi.
Their menu is presented as a large book with photos, and it can be a little overwhelming at first when trying to decide what to order. The Golden Age sushi made with Chokanan mango is one absolutely delicious option.
Most of the dishes are on the small side, which is reflected in the price. So don’t be afraid to order a few different things, as the portions are perfect for sharing.
In addition to sushi, this vegan Penang restaurant also serves soups, salads, noodle dishes, porridges, and desserts. They are serious about providing healthy food in a healthy environment and even share details about their vegetable washing practices and how they filter all their cooking water.
If you are concerned about restaurant hygiene, you can relax and enjoy everything without worry at Sushi Kitchen. If you want a different vibe with the same menu, their Gurney Plaza location is inside an upscale shopping mall. Both locations are open for lunch and dinner.
Kek Lok Si Vegetarian Restaurant
Kek Lok Si Vegetarian Restaurant is special and unique because of its location right next to the Kek Lok Si Temple, which I’ll describe in more detail below. Food establishments next to tourist attractions are not always the most authentic, but that is not the case here.
The restaurant offers set menus of Buddhist-style Chinese vegetarian food based on the number of people in your party, with two people being the minimum. Despite the word “vegetarian” in the name, this is actually another completely vegan restaurant in Penang.
The set lunch we had included soup, sauteed greens, a mock fish dish, and ma po tofu. It was simple but satisfying and wholesome food.
After exploring the temple, it’s lovely to be able to enjoy a pleasant meal in the air conditioning. Note that this restaurant is open only from 10 am until 6:30 pm daily.
To better communicate with staff of the temple and other Chinese-run establishments in Malaysia, use this handy list of Chinese basic words and phrases.
Vegetarian Restaurants Penang
Evergreen Vegetarian House
Evergreen Vegetarian House is a vegetarian buffet in the Pulau Tikus neighborhood and features mostly Chinese-style cuisine. It’s a self-serve buffet with around 30 dishes to choose from.
In addition to the main buffet, they also have a case of hot steamed buns with different fillings and usually a few varieties of soup. We did not see many, if any, dishes that were not vegan, but the staff can clarify if you are unsure about anything.
You can pile as much food as you like on your plate, then take it to the cash register where it will be weighed. In my experience, the price was always quite reasonable (under 10 RM) for the quantity of food.
This restaurant always seems to be busy and popular with locals, which is a good sign. They are usually open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the food offered seems to be about the same no matter what time of day it is.
Idealite is a wholesome vegetarian fusion restaurant inside the modern and splashy Gurney Plaza shopping mall. While the location is somewhat lacking in ambiance, their food more than makes up for it.
The menu is quite vegan-friendly, as items that contain non-vegan ingredients (mainly egg) are clearly labeled. This is helpful, because in Malaysia I often found egg lurking in many dishes where I did not expect it.
Their menu is health-focused and lists the health benefits of the ingredients in each dish. They have rice bowls, vegetarian sushi, power bowls, and bento boxes.
Two recommended dishes that are both big bowls of plant-powered goodness are the Crispy Oatmeal Power Bowl and the Herbal Rice dish. The latter is actually more of a noodle soup served with a side of rice.
If you are looking for whole-food, plant-based cuisine, Idealite has you covered. They actually have a few other locations in Penang as well, but we only visited the one in Gurney Plaza.
The Leaf Healthy House Café
The Leaf Healthy House Café sits right in the heart of Georgetown and is probably the best cafe in Penang for enjoying healthy and natural vegetarian cuisine. Inside this small Penang cafe, the atmosphere is casual, light and bright.
Their miso soup is soul-warming, and they have some interesting pasta dishes such as green curry spaghetti that are vegan. They are open for lunch and dinner daily.
Luk Yea Yan Vegetarian Restaurant
This is another popular buffet-style vegetarian restaurant in Penang. It’s a great place to sample many different vegetarian versions of local dishes. Luk Yea Yan is located on Lorong Madras in Georgetown and is usually open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Vegan Penang Street Food
Since the street food scene in Penang is world famous, it would be an absolute shame to come to Penang and not try some of it.
We enlisted the assistance of a guide from Food Tour Penang to make sure we could find and sample as much of the vegan friendly local cuisine as possible.
Food Tour Penang will gladly provide tours that cater to any dietary preferences, including 100% vegan. Below is a summary of the Penang street food, also known as hawker food, that we enjoyed on our vegan food tour.
Vegan Snack Food in Penang
Cempedak is a fruit in the same family as jackfruit. It can be coated with flour and fried to create a bite-sized snack called cempedak goreng. By the way, the word goreng means “fried” in Bahasa Malaysia, so anytime you see this word you’ll know it’s describing a fried dish.
You can buy small containers of cempedak goreng for just a few ringgit on the streets of Georgetown.
Here’s another one for fried food lovers! These deep-fried banana fritters are widely available and make a great snack that’s crunchy on the outside and sweet on the inside.
Fried mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and corn fritters are also commonly sold by street food vendors in Penang. In some cases, the oil they are fried in may have also been used to cook non-vegan foods, so check with the vendor if that’s something that bothers you.
Also known as baozi (包子 in Chinese), steamed buns are very popular and widely available, not just in Penang but also in Kuala Lumpur and other Malaysian cities. There are many common varieties that are vegan, including those stuffed with red beans and lotus.
I recommend breaking them open before eating them just to make sure you received the one you ordered, since they all look virtually the same on the outside. These are great as a snack or for breakfast or lunch.
Popiah are spring rolls made up of wheat pancakes that are rolled up and filled with soybean curd, Chinese lettuce and jicama or other veggies inside. They are served with sweet sauce, chili sauce, or black sauce for dipping.
Popiah can sometimes be made with egg in the filling, so be sure to specify no egg when ordering. Since they are made fresh on the spot as street food, you can often specify the fillings to your liking.
Vegan Main Dishes in Penang Street Food
This is a popular spicy noodle soup dish in Malaysia. In order to make it vegan, it does need to be modified from the original recipe, which usually contains shrimp paste.
The vegan version is full of flavor and often contains tofu puffs in the broth. It’s best to look for strictly vegetarian vendors selling this dish, since there are so many versions that have meat or fish in them.
These many different variations can be categorized into two main types: laksa with coconut milk and laksa without coconut milk. The type without coconut milk is sometimes called assam laksa or Penang laksa, while the version with coconut milk is known as curry laksa or curry mee.
There’s that word “goreng” again! Mee goreng means “fried noodles” and is made of thin yellow noodles that are fried with garlic, onions, and shallots. It also usually contains chili and Chinese cabbage.
We asked for the meat and egg to be omitted to make this dish vegan-friendly. If you see a vegetarian vendor selling this dish, go ahead and take the opportunity to try it.
This is always easier than asking a nonvegetarian vendor to modify the dish, although they’re usually happy to do so.
Roti canai is a round flatbread common in Malaysian Indian cuisine. It’s often served with several types of dahl or other curry on the side and makes a pleasant breakfast or a light meal or snack.
Not to be confused with the roti eaten in India, this flatbread is oily, flaky bread is much different than the typically wholemeal roti. It’s closer to the parotta eaten in southern India, but it’s a distinctive bread that you will not find anywhere on the subcontinent.
You will, however, find roti canai offered at many street food stalls and Indian restaurants in Penang. Be sure to check whether it’s cooked in ghee (clarified butter) or oil. Check out this about how to avoid ghee in India, much of which also applies in Indian restaurants in Malaysia.
These are large, thin Indian pancakes that can have different fillings, such as curry or vegetables. Alternatively, dosas can be served without fillings in a cone shape.
They usually come with dhal and sambal on the side. We tried a cone dosa at the end of our food tour at Sri Ananda Bahwan restaurant, and it was quite tasty.
Vegan Sweets in Penang
This sweet icy dessert is very popular in Malaysia. It’s made from coconut milk, pandan-flavored green jelly noodles made from rice flour, small sweetened kidney beans, and brown sugar poured over shaved ice.
It’s a cold dessert and is so tasty and refreshing on a typical hot and humid day in Penang. The most famous place to find it is Penang Road Famous Chendul on Jalan Penang. There is also a cart outside that sells the sweet treats on the same street.
These sweet pancakes are bright green due to natural coloring from pandan leaves. The pancakes are stuffed with palm sugar and coconut and folded up into a handheld treat. They are delicious.
These bite-size treats are glutinous rice flour dumplings with a filling of dark palm sugar. They are boiled in water then rolled in fresh coconut.
Typically, onde onde are sold in little bags or papers in sets of four for less than one US dollar. They are chewy on the outside and filled with warm, gooey palm sugar on the inside. The flavors are heavenly, and it is a perfect small sweet treat.
Where to Find Vegan Street Food in Penang
Below is a list of places where we found all the street food described above.
Macallum Street Night Market
This street food market takes place only two times a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, from about 6:30 pm until about 11:00 pm. It’s a popular place to get food to go in Penang.
Look for the two tall, white apartment buildings next to the market, as these are the most identifiable nearby landmarks.
There are many other night markets in Penang, and you will always find at least one of them open on any given day of the week.
Penang Clan Jetties
Of these six jetties home to various Chinese clans, the Tan Jetty in particular has many food stalls nearby. They offer a variety of dishes, but breaded and fried foods such as bananas, mushrooms, and sweet potato fritters are especially popular snacks offered in this area.
Lorong Baru and nearby streets have plenty of Penang street food options
Located in Chinatown, this entire area features tons of great street food options, as do the nearby streets of Jalan Penang, Lorong Baru, and Jalan Burma.
The Little Indian area does not have a lot of actual street food but is home to many vegetarian restaurants that are mostly vegan, including several buffet-style restaurants. We visited the Sri Ananda Bahwan restaurant on our food tour.
Vegetarian Penang Events and Experiences Not to Miss
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival
Also known as Kew Ong Yeah, this is a nine-day Taoist celebration held from the first day to the ninth day of the lunar month. Devotees observe a strict vegetarian diet during the festival to cleanse their body and soul.
It’s a great time for vegans and vegetarians in Penang, as food vendors set up stalls selling only vegetarian food during the festival. Restaurants and street vendors also prepare special dishes that are usually vegan.
The festival is celebrated beginning on the eve of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which fell on September 28 in 2019. This festival is also widely celebrated among ethnic Chinese communities in Thailand and Singapore.
Kek Lok Si Temple
The largest and most celebrated Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si Temple is perched on a hill offering lovely views. Within its grounds are exquisite gardens that are a pleasure to explore.
There is a unique seven-tier pagoda with an octagonal base that houses many buddhas. Many Buddhists come here to pray and make offerings, but people of all faiths (or none) are welcome to visit. There is a nice vegetarian restaurant on-site as well, as mentioned above.