The small nifty Lily’s Vegetarian Cafe is an offshoot of the well-established Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen on Madras Lane, a small thoroughfare linking two of George Town’s main arterial motorways: Burmah Road and MacAlister Road. Madras Lane is filled with vegetarian restaurants due to its proximity to Kuan Yin See, a major Taoist temple in Penang dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, and also the epicentre of the annual Nine Emperor Gods’ vegetarian festival. The founder of this temple, built back in 1922, was Ben Zhong, the second Abbot of Penang’s Kek Lok Si Temple, or the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas:
Kuan Yin See was also the former home of another monk, Fa Kong, who once owned a small zoo in Ayer Itam suburb, giving rise to the name Zoo Road which still exists today (the zoo itself closed down just before the Japanese occupation of Penang during World War II).
Lily’s Vegetarian Cafe is just 5 minutes’ walk from Kuan Yin See, and is typical of Penang’s new generation of eateries today: serving a polyglot of dishes spanning East and West, to cater to the younger, more adventurous diners.
We had lunch there today and decided to sample the cafe’s offerings from both their Penang-Nyonya section, and also the Western section of the menu.
Perut Ikan - a very typical Penang-Nyonya fish-vegetable-herbs stew utilising salted/fermented fish innards, vegetables like long beans & aubergines, local herbs like fresh turmeric leaves, galangal, cekur (Kaempferia galanga), daun kesom (Vietnamese coriander/rau răm), daun kadok (Piper sarmentosum/wild betel leaves), kaffir lime leaves, bunga kantan (pink torch ginger flower), and pineapple. There are two types of perut ikan: the sour or “assam” version, and the sour-and-coconutty or “lemak” version. The one here is the “lemak” version. But since it’s vegetarian, the key ingredient of fermented fish innards were dispensed with, and one only “gets” the flavours from the mix of herbs and vegetables. Pretty good rendition at that.
Tu Kah Chor - this is a vegetarian take on the classic Chinese-Hokkien pig’s trotters stewed in black vinegar, ginger and brown sugar. Mushrooms, wood-ear fungus and “mock meat” made from wheat gluten. I miss the real pig trotter’s here - its gelatinous pig-skin, but the sourish-gingery flavours are there to remind one of the dish’s trademark taste.
Nyonya fish - this is possibly the best entree we had: an impossibly realistic-looking fish steak fashioned out of wheat gluten (the “fish-skin” was seaweed) cooked in a rich coconut milk-lemongrass-chili gravy. It’s pretty flavoursome and went well with the standard rice plate (which consisted of steamed rice, sauteed vegetables, a vegetarian “sambal hae bee” or chilied “shrimps”, and finely-chopped slaw) which accompanied every entree order.
Pesto spaghetti - the Western part of the menu yielded a tasty pasta dish sans any dairy produce, so it’s also suitable for vegans. I do miss my Parmigiano-Reggiano, though - I have this habit of adding it in copious amounts to just about any pasta dish I have.
Hawaiian pizza - more a mini-pizza (it’s about 6-inches in diameter) but packed quite a flavour with the tomato paste and pineapple.
French toast - this is simply the best-tasting item we had at lunch. Served as a dessert, moist squares of eggy-milky toasts were crisp on the outside and slightly sticky-caramelly. Served with maple syrup, a cherry compote and whipped cream (the faux Japanese sort that comes out of a spray can), this was simply delicious. We later learnt that the chef, Michael Tan, was ex-Miam Miam, a Franco-Japanese chain which originated in Singapore about 4 years ago, and which was all the rage for its take on the French toast and souffle. Its Penang branch went defunct early this year and I’d been missing their French toast. Glad to know I can find that at Lily’s now.
Truth be told, I’m not a vegetarian sort of person, but Lily’s a good place to go to if I do want to have a meal with vegetarian or vegan friends. Its sister-outlet, Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen, a couple of doors away serves a more traditonal range of Penang hawker/noodle dishes.
Lily’s Vegetarian Cafe
104 Noble House
Lorong Madras (Madras Lane)
10400 Penang Malaysia
Opening hours: 11am-8pm, Tue-Sun. Closed on Mondays.