Singapore is vegan food heaven – the Lion City has been named by PETA as the 2nd most vegan-friendly country in Asia! However, to enjoy this, you must understand the local food culture. If not, be prepared face inconvenience, heftier price tags, and very confused servers.
Types of diets
The concept of ‘vegan’ has not taken root in our mainstream society yet, but there are several types of vegetarians in Asia due to a history of religious influence in the region. In Singapore, you’ll meet these common types:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian (奶蛋素): People who avoid meat (including seafood) but take eggs and dairy.
- Lacto-vegetarian (奶素): People who avoid meat (including seafood) and eggs but take dairy.
- Buddhist vegetarian (斋): People who avoid meat (including seafood) and five pungent herbs – onions, chives, leeks, shallots and garlic. Most take dairy and some take eggs.
- Chuyi Shiwu vegetarian (初一十五斋/素）: Religious people (usually Buddhists) who avoid meat (including seafood) and possibly alliums and eggs only on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar calendar.
- Indian vegetarian: There are many Indian religions that advocate avoiding meat (including seafood) and possibly eggs and/or the five pungent herbs. Takes dairy.
- Non-religious vegetarians: People who are usually not religious and avoid meat (including seafood) and possibly eggs for other reasons (food preference, health, ethics and/or the environment).
Locals usually confuse veganism as a type of vegetarianism and think we probably take eggs and/or dairy and don’t take onion/garlic. Don’t be offended if you’re served something you don’t take. Always be politely specific when placing orders to avoid misunderstandings. There are a surprising number of people that don’t know the definition of dairy.
I’ve found the best way to put the point across to Singaporean servers is “I eat vegetarian without honey, eggs and dairy.”
In case you meet servers who aren’t fluent in English (not common but they exist), I’ve made these language cards for you to show them. They are also applicable in Chinese-speaking countries. For Singapore, Malaysia and mainland China, use the simplified Chinese versions. For Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan, use the traditional Chinese versions. Download them here.
Types of Eating Spaces
The typology of Singapore’s public eating spaces is diverse. Here are the two main types of eateries and the pros and cons of eating vegan there. It’s best to avoid soy and konjac based mock meats as they may contain eggs and milk as binders. Gluten-based ones are safest.
Hawker centres and food courts are the heart of Singapore’s food scene and daily life. The non air-conditioned hawker centres were the first sanitary eating spaces in Singapore to offer a variety of cooked local food. Most have been replaced by air-conditioned food courts in shopping malls with similar stall setups and the inclusion of international cuisine.
Pros – The majority of locals eat their daily meals here, since it is very affordable, usually costing below $5 for a meal. Vegetarian food is common, dedicated vegetarian stalls specialise mainly in Chinese food.
Cons – Might not be the healthiest. Some can be heavy on mock meats and fried food with some egg dishes. MSG may be prevailant as a cheap and easy flavouring, as these stalls usually do not use allium plants due to religious beliefs. If you are sensitive to MSG, best to check with the stalls before eating. Not all servers can speak good English.
(Typical selections from vegetarian stalls. Such stalls will display Chinese characters 斋 or 素, meaning vegetarian.)
Eateries, restaurants and cafés are the result of gentrification, rising affluence and increasing demand for more international variety and upscale dining experiences.
Pros – They have better service, and thus it easier to make requests. Many places have vegetarian or vegan options labelled. These places also feature bigger selections of cuisines and are often much healthier than hawker centres.
Cons – Prices can range from $5 at a family-friendly fast food joint like Komalas, to $50 for a meal at fine dining places like Sufood. Any meal more than $5 is considered too pricey to be eaten on a daily basis for lower-middle class Singaporeans. They either have to eat less healthy options at hawker centres or cook at home.
(Vegan burger place nomVnom. Thanks Wai Lek for the photo!)
Thanks to racial diversity, a global city status, prevalent vegetarianism and a food-centric culture, vegans can be spoilt for choice here. Within ten minutes by foot of the HDB block I stay at, there are three vegetarian food stalls, one vegetarian grocery and a vegan ice cream spot! Choices have increased especially in recent years. Here are some yummy dishes I had in recent months.
(Kwan Inn Zhai’s famous laksa, kimchi fried rice at Boneless kitchen, yam cake, chee cheong fun and shwee kueh from Bishan bus interchange cafeteria veg stall, fried hor fun from Lin Lin, capsicum pesto pasta from Sautè and pita & falafel platter from Fill-a-Pita.)
SG Veg*n eateries’ directories
- Happy Cow is a global directory of vegan, vegetarian, veg-friendly eateries and health stores. The Singapore directory is well-maintained by a local representative and volunteers. They have a great location-based app too. A must – have during travels!
- Hungry Ang Mo is Singapore’s number one veg food review blog.Has excellent reviews covering most vegetarian/vegan eateries. You can filter eateries by region and proximity to an MRT station.
- Little Green Wok has a list of vegetarian eateries by area withdetailed information regarding whether they sell dishes with onion/garlic, operating hours and contact information.
Because the local F&B scene is highly competitive, eateries can come and go. Some places with veg*n options may also have stopped offering them. That’s why it’s best to call before visiting a place you’ve not gone to.
Eating with non-vegans:
- Animal Allies Singapore has tips on what to eat at popular establishments like MacDonald’s, Starbucks, Soup Spoon, Cedele etc, that are NOT salads and fries.
- Why not take this as an opportunity to show how good plant-based eats can taste? Many veg*n places do excellent comfort foods that make many omnivores go “I never knew vegan can taste so good!!”. My go-to food outlets in Singapore that elicit this reaction are: Miaoyi (Cantonese vegetarian), Real Food (fushion healthy food), Brownice (pizza & ice cream), NomvNom (local flavoured burgers & awesome earl grey muffins), Veganburg (Western flavoured burgers), Kwan Yin Zhai (best $3 laksa), Well Dressed Salad Bar (awesome sweets), Gokul (vegan murtabak!).
- Vegan choices in non-veg restaurants – a database compiled by volunteers. Many non-veg places in Singapore have veg*n options often labelled.
- If you are eating with a group of non-vegans, find out what the eatery has to offer beforehand. Look up their online menu or call them before visiting. If the vegan options are poor, suggest alternative eating places beforehand to your friends. This is to avoid awkward situations.
- Informing the host / organiser of the gathering/event beforehand will help reduce inconveniences too. Since religious vegetarianism is ingrained here and Singaporeans are brought up to respect others’ beliefs, people are usually accommodating.
- Be flexible, specific and polite. If there is no vegan option, choose the dish that has the least animal ingredients and request the dish to be prepared without them. Be patient with servers if you’ve been served with non-veg food. Everyone makes mistakes, especially during peak eating hours.
Good friends will always consider your needs and respect your preferences. Likewise, I will not force a hardcore carnivore to go to a vegan eatery. That never needed to happen anyway as my non-vegan friends always asked me to suggest places when going out. (Thank you everyone!) And I personally don’t know any hardcore carnivores – I guess the saying “like attract like” is right! If people are sincere about wanting to spend time with you, they’ll find ways to include you.
The average local will understand religious vegetarianism. But ‘coming out’ as vegan who, on your own free will, relinquished food that society deems the most tasty will attract lots of curiosity with a polite “why ah?” and, “but chicken rice!” Once you get used to that, it’s not difficult to be a social vegan here. We have ‘normal’ friends and family members too, whom we endearingly call omnies!
Going to home reunions/parties
Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali, Christmas and similar festivals are when we gather with our non-vegan families and friends. Vegans can face challenges not limited to food. Unfortunately most Asian cultures place importance on obeying the older generation, not rejecting food and not being too outspoken or disagreeing. Here are some tips from my vegan friends of various ethnicities on how to survive the holidays and not be put on anyone’s blacklist!
- Chinese food can be easily veganised as soy and gluten have been used since ancient times in China as plant proteins. Dairy isn’t in most dishes too. All it takes is a polite call to your host! I’m considered lucky as there are many vegetarians in my extended family. Other than the need to endure body-shaming and single-shaming remarks, my Chinese New Years are made enjoyable with, hotpots, water dumplings and various home-cooked veggie and soy dishes.
- As Malay food is often meat-heavy, I asked Izam, my Muslim vegan friend, to share how he visits during Eid. He made a video to show you how they look like! Savoury foods can include rice cakes like ketupat or lemming with peanut satay sauce, serundeng, sambal goreng and lontong without meat. For kueh/snacks there are sticky rice based kuehs (e.g. kueh lopes, rainbow kueh), cracker snacks like banana chips, tapioca chips and nut-based snacks like peanut candies and belinjau crackers.
- My friend Harsha shares that Indian food is easily veganised thanks to prevalence of vegetarianism in India. Simply request the host to leave out the ghee, yogurt and paneer in vegetarian Indian food. Desserts can be made with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk too.
- A fellow vegan who had a Eurasian extended family followed the advice above – telling them in advance so they separated vegan food from non-vegan food and bringing a veganised dish to share. If any Eurasians have tips to contribute please email me, as I don’t know any traditional Eurasian families.
Tips to make eating vegan at non-vegans’ places pleasant for everyone:
- Inform: Telling the host in advance to make one portion for you is the most important. Be very specific as not every person’s understanding of veganism is the same.
- Give: Make or buy something to share. It can be a veganised version of a traditional dish or something simple like drinks or fruits. The host will greatly appreciate some preparation stress taken off him/her. A great chance to share nice eats with non-vegans!
- Enjoy: Though it’s common to face an onslaught of sometimes not very nice questions and comments from relatives and friends, we shouldn’t let such comments dampen the mood. Being asked such questions is a great opportunity to share the benefits of this lifestyle, but with everyone in a festive mood, barely anyone will want to hear about negativities no matter how true they are. Rather, explain briefly about how you benefitted from a lifestyle change and then just enjoy the company. After all, a happy vegan is more convincing than an angry one.
Going to barbeques
BBQs are a common Singaporean way of socializing. Lots of things can be grilled besides meat! Starches like sweet potatoes and potatoes, proteins like tempeh and tofu, and firm plants like mushrooms, green/red peppers, eggplant and okra can be made delicious over the grill with a marinade or a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Quality mock meats like veggie patties and sausages from Cold Storage often can impress omnivores with their meaty flavours. Thanks Cloud for providing the photo!
Going to formal events
For weddings, networking events, company functions and D&Ds, always inform the host or HR department beforehand. Caterers will often have vegetarian options. You have to specify vegetarian with no dairy and eggs as by default some veg options, especially Western and Indian foods, have dairy. As a request can be lost in logistical processes of big companies, putting forward that you are “vegetarian and allergic to dairy and eggs” will guarantee your request being taken more seriously and followed through.
Facing remarks and judgement?
The hardest part of being vegan at gatherings is not the food; it’s talking to the people who suddenly become nutritionists after you decline their offer of salmon. I won’t talk facts first. That can come off as preachy; people’s carnist reflexes will cause defensiveness and might close their minds to a positive lifestyle. Only if someone asks (I don’t bring up veganism to everyone), I always share how this lifestyle benefited me and leave it up to individuals to decide.
As a vegetarian since I was 3, I’ve received every remark from “having not enough protein” to “what if you’re on a desert island?” and the downright rude body shamers. I barely bat an eyelid to such remarks now (partially thanks to architecture school for the thick skin). Living as a minority of society teaches one a lot about humans’ psychological defence mechanisms. Using anger and criticism to divert vulnerable feelings of guilt and sensitivity is a normal part of human nature.
(From Vegan Sidekick facebook. The struggle is real.)
Lots of vegan friends tell stories about people who are irrationally disturbed by their choice of food. Just keep doing what you believe is best. If you don’t behave like an offensive militant vegan, it’s not your fault when people attack you for choosing not to eat chicken. Don’t feel bad! Likewise, don’t criticise non-vegans as we were meat- and/or dairy-loving once. Positivity and compassion (for Homo sapiens too!) matter greatly. It’s the confidence that you show in your chosen way of life that people can respect and be inspired by.