Everything You Need to Know about South Indian Food in Georgetown, Penang
One of the most fascinating aspects of Georgetown, Penang is the bustling and colorful Little India. It covers the area of about 4 X 4 streets and is packed full of shops selling beautiful sarees, Bollywood movies, Indian pastries, and jewelry. Georgetown is also home to quite a few very authentic Indian restaurants.
Thanks to the influence from Southern India, and in particular Tamil Nadu, there are several pure vegetarian restaurants in Penang. This means that there is plenty of vegan food in Georgetown and that this Little India is a vegan paradise in its truest form!
South Indian Food vs. North Indian Food
We are avid lovers of all types of South Asian food, especially the food that's eaten in the southern parts of the subcontinent which is also what most Indian restaurants in Penang serve. They have a few special dishes that you rarely find in the northern parts of India.
South Indian food differs quite a lot from North Indian food in part because less meat and dairy products are used, making the southern region much more vegan-friendly. Also, the curries are in general lighter and not as thick as a typical North Indian curry.
Throughout our many years of traveling, we have eaten South Indian food in both India and Sri Lanka. And, we have to admit that the Indian food in Georgetown, Penang is on par with the pure vegetarian restaurants in Kochi and Colombo.
Since the menus can be quite overwhelming and the items can seem alien to anyone who's not familiar with them, we've dedicated this guide to covering some must-try South Indian food in Penang.
Dosas - Our Favorite Indian Food in Penang and Beyond
Dosas, and especially masala dosas, are our undisputed favorite when it comes to South Indian food. Dosas can best be described as a huge Indian pancake or crepe that’s folded or rolled and served on a metal tray or banana leaf with *dhal, *sambal, and pickles.
The dosa itself is made from fermented rice and black lentils and is seasoned with classical Indian spices like fenugreek, turmeric, mustard seeds, and cumin. Dosas can be stuffed with different fillings such as onions, veggies, and curries. The most popular version of the dosa is the masala dosa which is stuffed with a savory potato curry.
Dosas are mainly served as a breakfast item but can often be ordered at night as well. You will in general not be able to order dosas for lunch.
*Dhal - The classic lentil curry that's served with pretty much any Indian meal or dish.
*Sambal - Side dips that differ from region to region. In South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine, these are normally coconut based and all vegan.
Uttapam - A Savory Vegan Pancake
This pancake like dish is served similar to a dosa but the batter is slightly different. It is cooked much thicker and is not as crispy as a dosa. Uttapam is one of our biggest Indian food obsessions that we fell in love with two years ago in Kochi.
There is just something about this thick bundle of goodness. It is never ordered plain and always comes with the toppings cooked into the batter itself. Popular toppings include tomatoes, peppers, chili, onions, and cabbage. You can find this savory vegan pancake at any Indian restaurant in Penang.
Poori - Deep Fried Bread Served with Vegan Curry
Poori is every glutton's dream. It's a big piece of deep-fried flat bread typically served under the name "Poori Bhaji" with a side of potato curry. It is probably the unhealthiest item on the list but nevertheless one of our absolute favorite Indian foods in Penang. And let's be honest, who can say no to deep fried bread covered in mouthwatering vegan curry?
Thali - A Staple at Indian Vegetarian Restaurants in Penang
A thali is the Indian version of a set meal and a great way to try a little bit of everything. It normally consists of several curries served with rice, pickles, chapati, papadams, naan or other Indian type breads. A thali is typically served for lunch and dinner and it can be ordered as a pre-made set or after your own liking. We've eaten thalis at most Indian restaurants in Penang and there are always a wide variety of vegan dishes available.
Idli - A Spongy Delight Enjoyed for Breakfast
Idli is a classic and super popular breakfast item all over South India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. The batter is once again very similar to dosas and uttapams and consists of fermented rice and lentils.
However, there are some things that make idlis quite unique. First off they have a spongy texture and are steamed instead of fried. Idlis are usually not seasoned but rather served plain with a subtle lentil flavor. These spongy treats are always accompanied with different curries and sambals based on personal taste.
Medu Vada - A Doughnut Shaped Indian Fritter
Medu vada (vada, vadai) is an extremely popular South Indian and Sri Lankan snack that is also served in abundance at most Indian restaurants in Penang. It can be made from any kind of legume and the recipes differ depending on the cooks origin. Medu vadas are almost always served in a crispy dount shape with a soft filling and if you're lucky you get them served steaming hot. They are typically eaten as a side dish or a snack together with a cup of chai.
Restaurants normally prepare a certain amount in the morning and then serve them until they run out, as it is with a lot of Indian food in Penang. You might be able to find a few remaining vadas later in the day but we recommend that you try them for breakfast when they are fresh and hot.
Roti Canai - The Malaysian Version of Indian Food in Penang
Roti canai is not a pure a Indian dish but rather a Malaysian/Indian fusion and a must try vegan food in Penang. Rotis are served at both Malaysian and Indian restaurants in Penang, as well as the rest of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and to some extent by the Muslim community in southern Thailand. Some restaurants refer to rotis as paratha, although it's not really the same thing as an Indian paratha. A handful of roti with a side of dhal (lentil curry) is perfect as a vegan snack or part of a bigger meal.
Why South Indian Food is One of Our Favorite Cuisines
Few other cuisines excite us as much as the Indian cuisine. Thanks to their wide use of spices, Indian food is always packed full of a diverse range of tastes and flavors. The creativity and complexity of the dishes amazes us every time. Not to mention the pleasing aromas that permeate the air before you even bite into the food.
Indian food is the type of cuisine that no matter how hard you try you could never replicate it the way the locals make it. Perhaps this is also part of the magic of the South Asian cuisine as well.
Going to an authentic Indian restaurant is about more than just eating. It's a complete experience with everything from the smell of spices and incense in the air, to the sounds of the kitchen, and the shrines on the walls. Penang is a great place to indulge in all of these local vegan delights and get the whole experience.
NR Sweets is one of our favorite pure vegetarian restaurants in Penang. They offer a huge range of vegan options and the staff are also happy to help you identify vegan dishes. The biggest bonus for us is that we always know we are in for a feast, ordering dish after dish after dish...