By Amanda L. Dale
Yong tao fu
If you’re anything like me, as an American expat, you miss a lot of the comforts of home – and many of those comforts revolve around food. Sure, I miss a good In-N-Out burger every now and then, and most weekends I’d kill for a Denny’s Grand Slam, but on a day-to-day basis, what I miss most about living in California is the cheap, convenient and constant access to clean, whole, healthy foods.
Anyone who’s ever paid $4 for a bruised apple at Cold Storage or struggled to find ground turkey breast on this island can relate. Some of the easy, healthy options available even at a chain grocery, such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods – think pre-cut veggies, fresh and diverse salad bars, or a frozen cauliflower pizza crust – are nearly unheard of here, and even if they can be found, they’re usually at a price point far beyond what most of us would prefer to spend.
That said, there really are plenty of healthy food choices in Singapore, if you know where to look.
I have the privilege of living with a Singaporean, so with his guidance I have been able to decipher and taste-test some of the healthier local options, available for $5-10 a pop, all over the island at food centers and hawker stalls. I know what you’re thinking: healthy hawkers? Though it is true that much of the street-style food in Singapore is ridden with oil, salt and fat, there are a few tricks to make healthier choices no matter where you are eating.
Consider trying yong tau foo, a Hakka specialty dish consisting of you-pick-em fresh veggies, meats and tofu products. You can load up on whatever vegetables you like (leafy greens and cruciferous veg are your best bet) and have them cooked in a clear, broth-based soup with little to no added oil. Try to avoid the deep-fried, processed meat and oily noodle or rice add-ons for the cleanest version.
Another healthy mainstay from the Hakka stalls is lei cha, also known as Thunder Tea Rice. This mysterious-looking bright green herbal soup packs a powerful flavor punch from its mix of basil, mint, green tea, and other herbaceous ingredients. The soup is served over rice (ask for brown; they’ll almost always have it) with spinach, cabbage, leeks, peanuts, finely chopped tofu, and some ikan bilis (anchovies) for a balanced, filling meal.
A super low-calorie hawker center option is popiah, which looks like a mini burrito. It’s actually a veggie mixture consisting of jicama, turnip, bean sprouts and peanuts, spread with a little sweet soy sauce (ask for light sauce!) and chilis and wrapped inside a wafer-thin, nonfried wheat-based wrap. The entire thing has fewer than 200 calories and is great for an on-the-go healthy snack. Of course, there is life outside the hawker centers – several chains have hopped on the “make your own salad” bandwagon alongside well-known brands like SaladStop!, The Daily Cut, Grain Traders and Sumo Salad. CBD is a hotbed for “healthy bowl” style eating with spots like The Autobus (OUE Downtown Gallery), SunMoon (Telok Ayer), and both WHEAT Baumkuchen and Workspace Espresso (various locations) offering buildable choices of protein, vegetables and whole grains.
The crucial thing to remember when building your own meal is that not all toppings are created equal – most spots tend to under-portion the protein (don’t be afraid to ask for a double serving!) and douse on the dressing (ask for yours on the side). Toppings such as nuts, seeds, beans, and cheese can add more calories than you’d expect, and some of the common salad bar offerings are actually deep fried (croutons, garlic, tofu and anchovies being some of the culprits here). It’s best to fill your bowl with as many green vegetables and lean meats/fish as possible, and choose one healthy fat, such as an egg, avocado, or a scoop of hummus for satiety and taste. As I tell my clients, if you stick to “protein and plants” at the salad bar you are usually making a healthy choice.
If you’ve got no time to head out to a restaurant for healthy food, I recommend planning healthy meals for the entire week using meal delivery services. These services provide calorie and macro-controlled, appropriately portioned, fresh meals to your doorstep for competitive prices – and you can freeze the meals to reheat when hunger hits.
I like Lean Bento because you can order and receive your food same-day, Squeaky Clean Café because you can pick your own portions by weight (plus they do delicious low-carb, high-protein breads and muffins), FIT THREE because the menus are constantly changing from week to week, and Nutrition Kitchen because you can customize your meals to match specific goals (such as “I want to lose weight” or “I want to build muscle”). This is also a great option for folks that are always traveling as you can bring the pre-packaged meals onto the airplane and avoid the often unhealthy in-flight options.
Finally, while Singapore still has a lot to learn about how to offer healthy grocery shopping at affordable prices, there are some fantastic local grocers doing great things for healthy home cooks. The newly opened Scoop Wholefoods (Tanglin Mall) allows you to buy whole grains, custom ground nut butters and even fresh kombucha, all sold by weight in your own containers to cut down on plastic waste. Sasha’s Fine Foods delivers a wide range of responsibly sourced meats, fish, ready-to-eat meals and snacks with a friendly, personalized service experience and plenty of local choices, such as healthier beef rendang, preservative-free meat pies, and vegan curries. Habitat by Honestbee Hypermarket is one of the most diverse grocery and dine-in offerings on the island, with everything from fresh-pressed juices, to limited edition balsamic vinegars, to traditional and local Chinese herbal soups.
When it comes to eating clean in any Asian county, it pays to be curious with your palate, judicious with your pocketbook, and eagerly willing to try new ways of preparation and eating to maximize the healthy options available in this diverse region. Our adopted home’s mix of fresh grocery, healthy hawkers, clean-eating restaurants, and creative meal delivery services means the diet-conscious foodie’s appetite can always be whetted.