Feb 05 2013
A vegetarian friend recently asked for a meat- and fish-free char kuay teow at one of Penang’s hawker stalls. Minus the prawns, cockles, pork fat, prawn paste and Chinese sausage, the result was an uninspiring mess of noodles and a few beansprouts in a bland brown sauce. Perhaps the experiment was ill-advised, but there is good news for vegetarians, and it comes in the form of Ko Chai Lai restaurant on Lebuh Bishop.
There is no need to miss out on any of Penang’s famous dishes over the small matter of vegetarianism. Ko Chai Lai – meaning ‘come again’ in Hokkien – offers so-called ‘mock’ versions of all the island’s favourites. And without even a hint of meat or fish.
During the yearly festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, which normally falls in October, many devotees observe a strict vegetarian diet and there is therefore a strong tradition of meat-free cooking in Penang. Ko Chai Lai is very busy at this time, although it has a strong following throughout the rest of the year, too.
Their chefs use tofu and soya protein to rustle up a range of incredibly authentic-tasting dishes, including hokkien mee, asam laksa, char kuay teow and even salted fish fried rice, all for around four ringgit. The dishes can also be tailored for vegan diets, by request, and if you prefer your food without MSG, either avoid the noodle options in the middle column of the menu, or else ask the chef to leave it out.
It is true that the textures are not the same as the original meat dishes, but the recreation of the flavours is astonishingly accurate. The lunchtime buffet is particularly popular, and you can pile your plate high with healthy brown rice, sweet and sour ‘pork’, massaman curry, stir-fried vegetables and even ‘prawns’ – soya protein ‘bodies’ and fried beansprouts to look like legs – for between four and five ringgit, depending on how greedy you are feeling.
The attractive carved wooden shophouse facade is not quite matched inside, where the lighting is stark and the tables and chairs are plastic. You will soon discover this is completely normal in Penang. However, the upstairs air-con seating area is a definite plus. Lunchtime can get very busy, and the microphone that the cashier uses to communicate with the other staff can be a bit annoying, but it all adds to the atmosphere.
A sign at the front of the restaurant proudly proclaims: ‘BE VEG – GO GREEN – SAVE THE PLANET’. While perhaps it’s not quite true to say that eating at Ko Chai Lai will solve the world’s problems, it will more than satisfactorily solve your hunger pangs, for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
For other nearby vegetarian options, try Sri Ananda Pure Vegetarian around the corner at 66 Lebuh Penang (not to be confused with Jalan Penang) for delicious thali, roti paratha and dhosa. Ko Chai Lai is a good starting point for exploring the old British quarter around Fort Cornwallis to the east, or Little India to the south.
Ko Chai Lai
77 Lebuh Bishop, Georgetown
T: (016) 423 9937
Open Mon-Sat, 07:00-21:00
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