SG50 Celebrating Hawker Food the Low Carb Way

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I love hawker food. Singapore’s street food culture is truly amazing and there are places one can find a great meal for less than USD$5. Any time of the day. Of course, the problem comes when trying to navigate food options when you are on a strict low carb diet. How low carb? Well, I try to aim for about 12 – 15 g of carb per meal. Just to put it into perspective, 1 bowl of rice contains approximately 44 g of carb. And this is the same whether you choose white rice, brown rice, unpolished rice or whatever healthy grain rice you think is part of your “healthy” diet.

I was reading this pretty awesome post on FB which listed 50 great local foods in Singapore with a comprehensive guide about where to find the best dish. Only Singaporeans would be so OCD to post such lists (and to keep them!). But as i read such lists I could hear a running commentary at the back of my head saying “nope, can’t eat that…or that…or that”. Usually if I let that background voice run on for too long I get miserable and start feeling deprived. I decided to write this post for the silent low carbers out there like me and the diabetics (amazing how many friends and friends’ relatives keep coming for advice) who OUGHT to be taking a healthier low carb diet. This is a run down on how to survive hawker centers in Singapore the low carb way. It’s all about CHOICES. Here is a list of top 10 hawker dishes that you can have when going to a hawker center,

1. Hainanese Chicken Rice
tian-tian-chicken-rice
From Tian Tian Chicken Rice

This is pretty much considered Singapore’s national dish (move over, chilli crab!). The truth is that it is everywhere and there is nothing as wonderful as the fragrance of the rice with the silky smooth chicken on top. It apparently sits as one of the world’s best foods (CNN 2011). Every element in this dish is absolutely essential, from the fluffy slightly oily grains of rice to the perfectly poached chicken to the chilli and ginger sauce.

Making this dish low carb is pretty easy. Just omit the rice. Lest I shock the chicken rice aficionados out there it is not as bad as it sounds. I usually order an extra portion of poached vegetables (most stalls have this option) and have this with the chicken. And most times the chicken also comes with sliced cucumbers, which are also a good low carb side.

2. Yong Tau Foo

This is a no brainer. Yong Tau Foo is a wonderful Hakka dish that has lots of tofu in a clear soup, usually served with noodles or rice. The trick to making this dish is to

1. Omit the noodle and rice

2. Avoid the sweet sauce and use the chilli sambal sauce for dipping instead

3. Watch which items you choose, a lot of the tofu pieces may be stuffed with surimi fish paste which is usually starch based. Try to choose items that are not stuffed or breaded.

4. Choose lots of vegetables for the dish. You’ll be surprised how filling and satisfying this dish can be.

3. Orh Luak/Orh Jian (Oyster Omelette)

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This is one of the ultimate yummy sinful dishes you can have in a hawker center. Originating in Taiwan, the Singapore version is somehow more flavourful and crispy. The problem is that the crispiness comes from potato starch that is added to the egg mixture. The easiest way to make this low carb is to tell the hawker uncle to omit the starch and make you an “orh jian” instead as this only has the egg and oysters. This may cost a little more as more eggs are needed for the non-starchy version.

4. BBQ Sambal Stingray

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BBQ Sambal Stingray is one of the best things for late night eating. It’s amazing how much food is available late at night in Singapore and also how many people (including kids) are out at night for supper! The stingray is smoky and barbecued and the sambal sauce is slathered over the top with a squeeze of lime. This is sublime and can easily stand on it’s own without any rice. The reason why this dish is served in hawker centres is because stingray was a cheap and not well favoured type of seafood. Not anymore. Because of the popularity of the dish, stingray has become more expensive in this part of the world.

5. Duck Rice (sans rice)

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Duck Rice in Singapore is usually comprised of either braised or roasted duck. Braised duck is usually served together with tofu as well as hard boiled egg that has been braised in the sauce from the duck. Rice can be simply omitted in this dish. Alternatively, you can have the duck together with cauliflower rice. Cauliflower “rice” is a brilliant low carb alternative that supports meat dishes or fish head curry and can simply prepared by fine chopping cauliflower and sauteing it with minced garlic and minced onion and a little soy sauce and pepper.

6. Double Boiled Soups

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Double boiled soups in Singapore are easy low carb options as the soup is steamed on its own and you can omit the option of rice. There are abundant choices, with ginseng chicken and watercress and pork rib soup being some of the hot (haha) favourites. There is something primal about hot soup for the Chinese tummy. Adding herbs to soup is a distinctive of Chinese soups and different kinds of soups are supposed to cover a span of common ailments and health issues. It’s also nice to have this as an eat-out option even though there are pre-packed herbal preparations now that you can use for making the soup at home.

7. Sliced Fish Soup

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Simple sliced fish soup from The Food Detective 

Yet another healthy dish that is easily accessible yet healthy and flavourful. Again drop the noodle and rice accompaniment to this dish. A variety of fish is usually used for this deceptively simple dish, such as snakeheads, garoupa, pomfret and batang fish. The sinful twist in some stalls is the option of adding fish roe. Some stalls also offer the option of adding milk to the soup but this may not be a good idea if you want to be strictly low carb as milk also contains lactose which is a kind of milk sugar. Some kind hawker uncle or auntie may also give you more vegetables if you ask for it, and definitely if you pay more for the additional vegetables!

8. Fish Head Curry

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Fish Head Curry from Banana Leaf Apollo (picture from http://www.makansutra.com)

This is a truly awesome dish where a red snapper fish head is stewed in curry with tomatoes, okra and brinjal. There is an Indian fish head curry version and a nonya (peranakan food) version, but my personal preference is the Indian curry version. This is usually served together with rice and vegetables on a banana leaf and papadum. Sticking to the fish and vegetables alone and avoiding the rice and papadum crackers makes this a reasonable low carb option. To be honest, every once a month or so, hubs and I will have a craving and we will gravitate to Banana Leaf Apollo where we often meet people that we know, which only goes to show that Singaporeans share the same cravings at the same time!

9. Zi Char Food 

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These stalls offer wok-fried dishes that are great to be shared when going out as a family or with a bunch of friends. These dishes are cooked over truly hot fire and have a slightly smoky fired flavour to them (“wok hei”). It is easy to choose more vegetable based dishes and just avoid the rice. Stay away from dishes that are fried with noodles. Choose low carb type options such as tofu, egg, green leafy vegetables and non-processed meat. Some zi char places specialise in seafood also.

10. Bak Kut Teh

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Bak Kut Teh from Food Republic, one of the many food courts in Singapore.

This, like the soups mentioned previously, is an easy option as one can take the meat soup only and omit the rice. The pork ribs are stewed in a complex soup of herbs and spices and often contains tofu, fried tofu puffs and mushrooms. Contrary to its name, Bak Kut Teh (or literally meat bone tea) does not contain any tea. The tea was probably a traditional accompaniment to wash down a relatively fatty and oily meal. Bak Kut Teh is often served with rice (or noodles) and you tiao (a kind of dough fritter), all of which should be avoided.

Apart from the options above, there are quite a few others which i have compiled below. The truth is that there are just a couple of simple options or rules of thumb that one needs to follow when eating hawker food:

1. Avoid rice and noodles (or anything made with flour). Luckily nowadays quite a few people do this and hawkers no longer look gob-smacked if you ask them to leave out the noodles.

2. Soups are a great option and a generally healthier

3. Add vegetables to your dish if you think you may be hungry without the bulk of rice or noodles

4. Share with friends – you get to pick off the low carb bits and yet get a wide variety of flavours

5. Be thick-skinned and ask. If you are truly craving for that bowl of noodles, bring your own pre-prepared shirataki noodles and ask the uncle to pop it into the laksa sauce. It helps to be persuasive, like, “Uncle, actually I cannot eat laksa but I LOVE your laksa so much. I brought my own special noodles so can you make with your laksa soup pretty pretty pretty please? It’s worked before 😀

I’m so glad I live in Singapore and that i don’t have a boring food vocabulary (like pizza and salad, sorry ang moh friends!).

Summary of Hawker Food Options

Food Avoid Modifiable Comments
Bak Chang 肉粽 X
Bak Chor Mee 肉脞面 X
Bak Kut Teh 肉骨茶 X Omit rice
Ban Mian 板面 X
BBQ Chicken Wings X
Beef Noodles X Omit noodles. Ask for the soup variety and not the dry gravy version as the sauce is usually thickened with cornstarch. Also limit the number of meatballs as these are starch based.
Biryani X Strictly modifiable if you take the meat only.
Char Kuay Teow 炒粿条 X
Char Siew/Roast Pork Rice X Ditch the Char Siew and keep the roast pork. Take with vegetables.
Cheng Tng X
Chicken Rice X Omit rice
Chilli Crab X Alternative great crab dish is black pepper. Chilli crab has a lot of sugar in the gravy
Chwee Kuay/Soon Kuay X
Claypot Rice X
Curry fish head X Awesome dish worth using cauliflower rice substitute for the rice
Curry Puffs X
Dim Sum X Slender pickings here – steamed pork ribs and fu pi juan (tofu skin wrapped shrimp and pork mince) are probably some of the few safe dim sum options.
Double Boiled Soup X Omit rice. Options like watercress and pork soup or ginseng chicken soup are filling and satisfying.
Duck Rice 鸭饭 X Omit rice, take the duck, bean curd and egg that usually comes with the dish.
Durian X
Fish Ball Noodles X
Fish Head Steamboat X Omit rice
Fish/pork porridge X
Fried Carrot Cake 菜头粿 X
Fried Ngoh Hiang X
Goreng Pisang X
Hokkien Mee X Will post a low carb shirataki version one day!
Ice Kachang X
Kaya Toast and eggs X Skip the toast and have the soft boiled eggs
Kway Chap 粿汁 X Omit noodles
Laksa X Substitute shirataki noodles
Lontong X Avoid the rice cakes in the soup
Lor Mai Kai X
Lor Mee X Modifiable if made from scratch (see blog on low carb lor mee)
Mee Goreng X
Mee Rebus X
Mee Siam X
Mee Soto X
Mian Jian Kuay 面煎粿 X
Murtabak X
Mutton Soup X Be careful as some stalls add sugar to the soup
Nasi Lemak X Probably the fried egg and cucumber is the only low carb item in this dish
Nonya Kuay X
Orh Luah (Oyster omelette) X Ask for “orh jian” or omelette without the starch paste in it.
Popiah 薄饼 X
Prawn Mee X Substitute shirataki noodles
Rojak X
Roti John X
Roti Prata X
Sambal Stingray X Eat without rice.
Satay X Sugar laden marinade and peanut sauce.
Satay Bee Hoon X
Sliced Fish Soup X Omit noodles/rice
Soy Bean Curd 豆花 X Ask for bean curd with no sugar syrup, then use sugar substitute for sweetening
Teo Chew Porridge X Omit porridge or rice.
Thosai X
Vegetarian Bee Hoon 斋米粉 X
Wonton Noodles X
Yong Tau Foo 酿豆腐 X Omit noodles and any items stuffed with fish paste
Zi Char/Cooked food dishes X Omit rice, noodle and potato side dishes
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