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 Indian food in Georgetown and that this Little India is a vegan paradise in its truest form!
South Vegan Indian Food vs. North Vegan 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 vegan 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 vegan Indian food dishes in Georgetown!
Dosas - Our Favorite Vegan Indian Food in Penang and Beyond
Dosas, and especially masala dosas, are our undisputed favorite when it comes to vegan 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.
One of the best parts about eating vegan Indian food in Georgetown is that a lot of the food is freshly prepared right in front of you. This is a good example of a chef cooking up masala dosas at a Penang vegetarian restaurant.
And by the way, this guy worked every day from before the restaurant opened until hours after it closed and he always had a smile on his face.
Uttapam - A Savory Vegan Pancake
This pancake-like vegan Indian dish is similar to a dosa, but the batter is slightly different. It is cooked much thicker and is not as crispy as a dosa. We fell in love with uttapams two years ago in Kochi, and they became one of our biggest Indian food obsessions.
There is just something about this thick bundle of goodness that makes it so good. Uttapams are 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 pancake at any Penang vegetarian restaurants.
Poori - Deep Fried Bread Served with Vegan Curry
Poori is every glutton's dream. It's a big piece of deep-fried flatbread 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 vegan 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 Vegan Indian Dish at Penang Vegetarian Restaurants
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 types of Indian bread.
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 vegetarian restaurants in Penang, and there is always a wide variety of vegan dishes available.
Idli - A Spongy Vegan Indian Dish 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, idlis have a spongy texture and are steamed instead of fried. Idlis are one of the few vegan Indian food items that are 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 vegetarian 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 donut 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 which is the case with a lot of vegan 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 - Malaysian Version of Indian Food in Penang
Roti canai is not a pure vegan 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, vegan 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. Georgetown, Penang is a great place to indulge in all of these local vegan Indian dishes 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 always happy to help you identify which dishes are vegan. The biggest bonus for us is that we always know we are in for a feast, ordering dish after dish after dish...