You Can Eat Healthy in Penang

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The easy availability of healthy dining options in Penang makes one feel less guilty for indulging in that extra plate of char koay teow.

Penang is deservedly famous for its street food, but street food is not especially famous for being healthy. As obesity and diabetes become more prevalent in the country, an increasing number of Penangites are looking to dine out healthily – at least some of the time.

But aiming to eat healthily sometimes seems a daunting task, not only because of the everpresent temptations of char koay teow and curry mee, but also because the definition of what “healthy eating” exactly means has evolved over time – and keeps evolving. American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism Michael Pollan defines it as such: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Vegan Treats

For those who prefer not to eat meat at all, Penang has long had plenty of options, with a thriving restaurant scene that caters to those who are vegetarian for religious reasons. Among them, Annalakshmi at the Temple of Fine Arts and the cafeteria at Penang Adventist Hospital promote themselves as vegetarian for health reasons as well.

In recent years, a new generation of vegetarian and vegan restaurants has opened in Penang, specifically focusing on delivering healthy meat-free food. Jing, one of the founders of Sushi Kitchen, a pioneer in this trend, believes veganism is growing rapidly in Penang because of increasing environmental pollution, harsh factory life, too much fast food and too many chemicals in people’s diets. “When a natural meal enters our body, we feel the comfort immediately,” says Jing.

Sushi Kitchen is a chain of restaurants catering to vegans who, like vegetarians, eschew fish and meat, but also avoid animal products such as eggs and milk. Founders Samm and Jing were both vegetarians working in corporate jobs in Singapore and KL who decided to quit their jobs and retreat to Penang, where Samm was born, to promote green living and animal welfare.

As both of them also love Japanese food, they came up with the concept of Sushi Kitchen, and in 2009 the restaurant opened in Sungai Ara. It has since grown through a franchise model, with the first franchise opening in George Town in 2013 on Gat Lebuh Aceh. All the franchise owners are former employees from the Sungai Ara branch who want to spread the “Sushi Kitchen Spirit”, which is to “love what we do, do what we love,” as Jing puts it, and “to spread good living and healthy food and provide a place for people to chill, relax and get healthy food at the same time.”

In Penang, the organic trend is enjoying a mini-boom. A handful of organic farms, mainly in Balik Pulau, supply produce to an increasing number of markets, shops and restaurants.

Wholey Wonder, another vegan restaurant, aims to be a one-stop haven for a healthy body and mind – they also operate a yoga studio upstairs of its cafe within the trendy Hin Bus Depot contemporary art complex.

The three founders, none of whom had prior experience running a restaurant, opened in Penang in 2016 to test the water and learn the business. The rental cost and competition in Penang were lower than in KL, although as the founders freely admit, the vegan-healthy-eating concept, with its higher price tag, is a harder sell in Penang, where cheap and cheerful is the usual order of the day. “When people see the price on the menu, without understanding the reason behind it they walk away and never return,” says Tammy, one of the founders. “They are comparing us to a plate of char koay teow, which costs only RM4, but the ingredients we are using are at least double or triple the cost of regular ingredients.”

Luckily, Wholey Wonder is already firmly placed on the tourist map and benefits from a constant stream of overseas customers to supplement the local market.

Healthy Options

Organic food avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. While the jury is still out on whether organic fruit and vegetables are actually significantly more nutritious than conventional food, organically raised animals are treated more humanely compared to traditional livestock production, and the use of antibiotics is avoided.

Here in Penang, the organic trend is enjoying a mini-boom. A handful of organic farms, mainly in Balik Pulau, supply produce to an increasing number of markets, shops and restaurants.

PokeBowl at Wholey Wonder.

BMS Nasi Lemak.

Greek Salad at That Little Wine Bar.

BMS Organics is one of the largest of these. It was founded in KL in 1997 and opened its first shop in Penang – its 33rd overall – in Gurney Paragon in 2013. More recently, it opened a cafe and shop in Pulau Tikus – an area that is fast becoming the organic-food heart of Penang. “(We want) to encourage people to eat clean and adopt a healthy lifestyle,” says Sally Yip, Senior Marketing Executive at BMS Organics. Thus on their menu you can even find healthy, organic versions of nasi lemak and hokkien mee.

Typically, hawkers source their ingredients from wet markets, where the vegetables are grown locally, and where the chickens were probably still alive that same morning – the kind of locally sourced, “low food miles” and fresh produce that people in some Western countries can only dream of.

Penang loves its hawker food, and it doesn’t always have to be greasy and fattening. Yong tau foo (assorted vegetables and tofu items stuffed with fish paste or ground meat, ideally boiled rather than fried) is one such healthy option. Thosai is much lower in fat than roti canai, and is delicious when served with vegetable or meat curry side-dishes and chutney. Wan tan mee is low in fat and cholesterol, and surprisingly may be healthier when eaten “dry” rather than in the soup as the broth often contains a lot of salt. Even the flavourful thick noodle soup, loh mee, which looks so fattening, is actually made from a clear stock thickened with corn starch, spices and eggs, and since the eggs and meat are usually braised, it is a much lower calorie dish than it appears to be at first glance.

Likewise, assam laksa is a high-protein, low-fat choice, though the salt content is high. And don’t forget the ubiquitous economy rice stalls, where if you ask for a half portion of rice and go heavy on the vegetable and steamed fish options, it is remarkably easy to eat a well-balanced meal at a decidedly reasonable price.

Typically, hawkers source their ingredients from wet markets, where the vegetables are grown locally, and where the chickens were probably still alive that same morning – the kind of locally sourced, “low food miles” and fresh produce that people in some Western countries can only dream of.

The surge of other non-local restaurant openings in Penang in the past decade has expanded the non-vegetarian healthy eating options significantly, too. The abundance of Japanese restaurants whose menus are replete with the freshest of raw seafood and vegetables, and the fish, salads and grilled meat options at European restaurants – some of which take great care to source high-quality ingredients – all contribute to the wide selection of healthy dining options in Penang.

Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.



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