09 May 2023
For content creators veganising familiar favourites, going plant-based is a celebration of a more progressive facet of Malaysian cuisine.
While vegetarianism has existed in Asia for centuries, veganism as we know it today is still largely seen as a somewhat ‘Western’ concept in Malaysia, often relegated to vegan joints serving acai bowls and the like. However, the diverse food culture in Malaysia is long ripe for veganising, and a growing pool of content creators has taken on the challenge of veganising Malaysian food. Call it a sustainable lifestyle or call it a diet—but veganism has become a reality for many Malaysians, and a community of vegan creators have made it their crusade to devise delicious vegan Malaysian recipes for their readers to eat less meat.
For Texas-based Malaysian WoonHeng Chia, the journey to sow the seeds of veganism began as a request from her daughter who wanted to learn how to cook. She started an Instagram account to share her vegan recipes, and when the account gathered a huge community, it led to a blog and a YouTube channel to make it easier for others to follow along to attempt plant-based meals at home. WoonHeng says, “It makes me elated every time I successfully veganise a popular dish because this means people can now enjoy their favourite dish without hurting any animals. By putting more diverse and delicious plant-based options out there, I hope this will encourage people to try adopting a plant-based lifestyle, one meal at a time.”
Can Malaysian food be easily veganised? The answer is a resounding yes. Think about it: the building blocks of Malaysian flavour are often derived from aromatics and spices—these include shallots, ginger, turmeric, lime, and chillies. When you approach it from this angle, veganising Malaysian food becomes a fun challenge to replicate the nuances of meat-based flavours.
But what about belacan? Well, this requires an extra pinch of creativity. According to Langkawi-based content creator Elliz Azhar, veganised versions of fish sauce, belacan and ikan bilis are commercially available. These flavours can also be easily replicated at home with ingredients like seaweed and mushrooms.
“I’ve even made my own version of ikan bilis,” says Elliz. When she decided to go vegan in 2018, she couldn’t find many Malay plant-based recipes, so she had to develop her own. This eventually led to ‘The Kampung Vegan’, where she hopes to inspire others to try their hand at vegan Malay dishes.
Eighteen-year-old content creator Kristin Tan chimes in: “[Veganising Malaysian food] can be difficult, but not impossible. Let’s say I’m recreating a fish dish. I’ll try using ingredients that are similar in texture, or that have a fishy flavour like seaweed and kombu dashi. Obviously, tempe doesn’t taste like fish, so I need to marinate it in such a way as to infuse that sea-like flavour into it. It’s all about trial and error.”
WoonHeng agrees: “Personally, two of the most challenging dishes for me are seafood and creating a flavourful broth with a meaty flavour. Luckily, there are many ingredients that can be used. For a ‘meaty’ flavour in soups, nuts or herbs can be added.”
One of the reasons that many may be reluctant to try veganism is the perception of cost. Mention veganism, cue designer oat milk. But contrary to popular belief, maintaining a vegan diet can be cheap, nutritious, and tasty.
WoonHeng says, “If you do have time to visit the pasar pagi, it’s easy to source local ingredients to cook at home. Also, many sellers have homemade sauces that you can combine with other ingredients to make authentic Malaysian dishes with ease.”
Elliz adds: “Avoid processed products like commercial meat substitutes, especially from imported brands. Get local vegetables, tempe, and legumes. My tofu from a local kedai runcit here in Langkawi only costs RM0.50 cents apiece. Plus, it’s plastic-free.”
For content creators, however, it’s not always a walk in the park. Kristin says she often gets comments from netizens that sound like ‘Why do all you vegans try to make everything taste like meat? Just eat the meat’ or ‘You’ve ruined nasi lemak’.
“If it’s constructive criticism or a genuine question, I’m more than happy to discuss, but if it’s clear that people just want to say mean things, I don’t take them personally, and instead, I focus on other people online and in real life who actually support me,” she adds. “I’ve received so many DMs from people who have been inspired to go vegan, or have just changed their mindset of vegan food because of my content and that makes me really happy.”
Kristin’s main reason for going vegan is for the welfare of animals, and as a bonus, she grew to love the challenge of veganising her favourite foods.
“I know that animal-based foods produce more greenhouse emission gases than plant-based foods, so the more people opt for vegan options, the more this will help to fight climate change,” she says. “We hear of forest fires in Australia and icebergs melting in Antarctica, but climate change affects the whole world and Malaysia is not exempted. In terms of food security, plant-based foods take less energy and fewer resources to produce, so this makes it a more sustainable way to feed our growing population. It might not be as simple as it sounds, but it’s better than not taking any action at all.”
WoonHeng too wants to do her part for the climate: “It has been shown that veganism can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which in return is better for the climate. So, start with just one vegan meal a day.”
Rendang made with king oyster mushrooms, sweet and sour ku lou yok from soy protein, vegan kolo mee, or murtabak Maggi—these are just a few examples of recipes one can peruse from these content creators. The best part is they’re executed with so much creativity, style, and joy, which says a lot about our openness to embrace another facet of Malaysian cuisine.
Kristin sums it up best: “I love Malaysian food, and while this might sound surprising, going vegan has actually helped me to appreciate our culture even more. Food is an integral part of our identity, and I don’t expect people to give it all up. My hope for Malaysian food culture is for people to see that vegan food can be good food, and choosing the plant-based option doesn’t take anything away from us being Malaysian.”
Try Kristin Tan’s recipe for vegan salted egg yolk fish skin.
Based in Shah Alam, Joyce Koh is a sporadic writer and champion of Klang kopitiams.
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