(Jia Xiang Wei Vegetarian from Circuit Road food centre. Thanks Bernard for the photo!)
Eating is a national pastime and hawker centres are the backbone of Singapore’s food scene. These down-to-earth, bustling places reflect various facets of the common person’s daily life – using 4 languages and dialects to order, kiasuness exhibited with tissue paper and an immense love for value and quality shown by willingly queuing for hours. This post is a continuation from the previous on how to eat out specifically in hawker centres and food courts as a vegan.
The selling points of these places are the food and value, not service. Asking or requesting a lot can get the poor aunties/uncles impatient, which is totally understandable as hawker work is very demanding. Thus one needs to be acquainted with the local food culture for a rich hawker experience while avoiding hidden surprises! Foreign friends will find names of dishes and ingredients mentioned here unfamiliar so I have linked them to photos or articles for more information. Click on the names to see how they look like! If you meet Chinese servers who can’t speak English, this English-Chinese language guide may help.
(Braised vegan duck rice, chicken rice, kway chap and economic bee hoon from 216 Bedok North. Each dish is under $5!)
The mock meats culture
Most of Singapore’s vegetarian hawker food stalls are usually run by Chinese religious vegetarians. Since ancient times when these religions existed, followers believe in the karmic benefits of promoting a vegetarian lifestyle – some even dedicating their whole life to this goal. One of their approaches is to encourage omnivores to eat more vegetarian food by trying to replicate the dishes they are used to. Since not all followers are born into a religious family and many converted after some years of non-belief, mock meats are used to make transitioning into a vegetarian diet easier for them. Current older generations of vegetarians are still firm believers of mock meats as a main food group, which has good and bad implications on vegan food in general.
Before mock meats, tofu and minimally processed seitan (aka 面筋 ) together with “ meaty” plants like mushrooms and bamboo shoots played this role. The widespread use of mock meats in East Asian meatless cuisines started in modern times due to more advanced food manufacturing methods, as a way to create convenient and easy to use meat alternatives. Thus, they became ingrained and are now a staple in East Asian vegetarian cuisines. I believe criticisms about mock meats being unnecessary and ironic in veg*n food shows the lack of awareness of the religious and practical roles behind it in an Asian context.
From a nutritional standpoint, most mock meats are unhealthy and should not be a main source of protein. Cheap mock meats often taste bad and might have dairy and/or egg ingredients as a low-cost binding agents. The ones that tastes good are pricey. Legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, tofu and tempeh have higher protein and are packed with much more nutrients. Plenty of plants like mushrooms, green jackfruit, bamboo shoots, etc can be cooked to juicy, umami and meaty flavours. In recent years, I’ve noticed a shift in the veg*n community to prefer more plant-based forms of protein and meaty flavours. I hope vegetarian stalls can pick up this trend and offer more wholefood options instead of highly processed soy or gluten. Still, quality mock meats are a great transition food for new veg*ns and also can be a tasty convenience food.
Ordering at vegetarian hawker stalls
There’s one in most hawker centres/food courts due to the prevalence of religious vegetarians here. They usually have a selection of economic rice dishes (cai fan) and cooked-on-the-spot dishes (daily specials and/or zi char). Eggs and dairy are sometimes used and the level of healthiness of food from different stalls can range from colourful to 50 shades of brown (heavy on mock meat and deep-fried foods).
If you are allergic to MSG, best to enquire if they use MSG. Often, no allium roots (onion, garlic) can be used due to religious reasons, so many hawkers use MSG as the quickest and cheapest way to give flavour with less ingredients.
Economic rice (cai fan/杂菜饭), like the name implies, is a meal with most value in a hawker centre. It usually consists of choosing a carbohydrate (rice/brown rice/fried rice or noodles) and your preferred sides from an array of pre-cooked dishes which are kept warm.
Take note when ordering vegan food from vegetarian cai fan stalls (click on the names to see how the items look like):
- Ask what milk is used for their curries. Traditionally it’s coconut, but some sellers use low quality cow’s milk to save costs. Needless to say, it won’t taste authentic.
- Avoid egg-based dishes in the form of scrambled egg bits in a veggie dish, steamed egg custards and egg tofu. If you’re sensitive like me, I’d even avoid the dark soy sauce braised tau kwa/tau pok if the stall sells braised egg as they may have cooked together in the same stock.
- If possible, avoid soy-based textured mock meats (mock mutton, fish slices, chicken nugget, pork cubes) and konjac-based mock seafoods (mock prawn, fishball, crab stick, kidney, squid). For Chinese-speakers, ask for no 斋料 or 素肉. Foreigners can use this language guide. lAs mentioned earlier, hawkers likely use cheap ones that might have small amounts of dairy and/or eggs. Some manufacturers don’t list them in the ingredients so sellers also have no idea if it’s vegan. Gluten-based (mock duck, char siu, pig innards in kway chap) and beancurd skin based (mock chicken drumstick, chicken slices in chicken rice) – based mock meats are safest and less processed.
- To be really safe (and healthy), choose the veggie, tofu, tempeh, tau kwa (firm tofu) and tau kee (beancurd strips) dishes.
Zi Char (煮炒) refers to cooked-on-the-spot dishes. Most vegetarian stalls will offer a few to many such dishes ranging from soup noodles to stir-fries. Often pricier than cai fan with longer waiting times, but your meal is freshly made and piping hot.
Take note when ordering vegan from vegetarian zi char:
- Again, for laksa and curries, ask “Auntie/uncle did you use coconut milk or cow’s milk?”
- Also, ask to replace mock meats that are likely to have egg/dairy with tofu or tempeh whenever possible.
- Fish head bee hoon is the only dish where cow’s milk is always used in the soup, ask for no milk for that.
- For laksa, fried rice and fried noodles, some (not all) stalls add egg by default. To be safe always say “no egg” beforehand no matter what you’re ordering.
- Flat thin yellow noodle dishes like crispy noodle (sheng mian), mee pok, mee kia and wanton mee might be egg noodles. Ask the seller before ordering. Thick yellow noodles like those in claypot noodles and hokkien mee are safe, they are wheat noodles coloured yellow.
If you can’t find vegetarian stall..
First, post in the local vegan whatsapp group or facebook groups: “Hey I’m at (location) any eats nearby?” and our lovely community will reply fast! But in cases where there really isn’t any, here’s what you can do:
If you’re okay with food from non-veg stalls:
- Take veggie and tofu dishes from Chinese economic rice. Check for minced meat, meat
stocks and oyster sauce.
- At yong tau foo stalls, get plants and tofu that are NOT STUFFED and ask for dry noodles (soup likely made from animal bones) without sambal chilli.
- Thai stalls might have veggie pad thai (ask for no egg & fish sauce).
- Western stalls might have a plant-based pasta. You can opt out of cheese.
- Many Indian stalls will have a vegetarian set meal (ask for no ghee/yoghurt/paneer)
or at least biryani rice (check for no ghee), bread items (plain chapati, roti, idli and thosai are vegan) and veggie based curries.
Note that cross-contamination might occur since these stalls use the same utensils, cook in the same oil, stock or pan with non-vegan foods. If you’re uncomfortable, feel free to avoid. For Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Malay food, fish sauce/stock and shrimp paste (belacan) are in almost everything savoury. Don’t say “vegan” as these aunties/uncles might have never heard of that – be specific and always ask if unsure.
(Veggie pad thai from Thai stall and aglio olio from Western stall in Amoy food centre. Thanks Jessica for the photos!)
If you’re not comfortable buying from stalls that sell ALOT OF meat..
Hakka thunder tea rice (lei cha) is the most easily veganised and healthiest dish in local hawker fare. Veggies, tofu, peanuts, dried radish and long beans are topped onto brown or white rice and paired with a soup of ground nuts and herbs. Sometimes have dried shrimp – ask to remove that. My ideal meal – good carbs with lots of vitamins and a good variety of protein amino acids. Although it’s an acquired taste, I believe vegans can’t be too picky in certain situations. If there’s a stall selling it, simply request for vegetarian and seller will leave out the dried shrimps (hae bi).
(This dish is tricky to make – poorly made ones can taste like mint toothpaste! Favourite so far is from Thunder Tree @ Smith Street.)
A medium to large-sized hawker centre will have other vegan options other than vegetarian stall in the form of sides, desserts and kuehs (local term for snack). Dairy is not used in our traditional snacks like chee cheong fun, huat kueh etc. Mix and match and you can get a complete meal of carbs, protein and vitamins. Generally, look out for these Chinese characters that mean vegetarian displayed at stalls.
Common vegan-friendly food items:
- Pulut hitam (black sticky rice porridge with coconut milk)
- Tau hwa (soy beancurd pudding – vegan if made in-house, factory made ones may have creamers)
- Tau suan (split green bean porridge with dough fritters)
- Orh nee (yam paste with gingko nuts. Note that a few stalls still cook it the traditional way with lard.)
- Red or green bean soup
- Ah balling (peanut soup with tang yuan)
- Bubur chacha (sweet potato and taro in coconut milk)
- Bubur terigu (wheat coconut porridge)
- Cheng tng (clear soup of mainly red date, barley and white fungus, can be cold.)
The white milk in some is coconut milk and dairy is not used.
- Grass jelly
- Agar agar
- Fruit plates/bowls
- Ice kachang (usually drizzled with condensed milk (request for none).
Pre-made puddings may have cow’s milk or dairy creamers.
- Soymilk (very common!)
- Teh-O (tea without condensed milk.)
- Juices like sugar cane or fruit juice (note that fruit smoothies are cow’s milk based unless from a soymilk stall.)
- Non-milky sweet drinks like barley, chrysanthemum tea, sour plum, grass jelly etc (local drinks don’t have honey unless stated like honey lemon tea or honey lemongrass).
- Kopi-O (coffee beans might be roasted in butter, best to avoid all if you’re highly allergic to dairy.)
Steamed snacks (Best eaten from stalls with vegetarian sign. Sambal chilli sauces from non-veg stalls usually have belacan.)
- Teochew kuehs (Some savoury ones like soon kueh might have shrimp/eggs. Request for vegetarian with no egg if buying from non-veg stall.)
- Malay kuehs / Nyonya kuehs (Some like kueh salat & kueh dadar have eggs, some savoury ones like pulut panggang have shrimp. Request for vegetarian with no egg if buying from non-veg stall.)
- Chee cheong fun (Unless stated otherwise, default comes with sweet black sauce and sesame seeds. For savoury, you can request for soy sauce and sesame oil.)
- Red bean/yam/lotus seed paste buns
- Bai tang gao
- Vegetarian char siu bun (Uses gluten mock meat. Not sure if honey is used in the filling, quite unlikely in hawkers as maltose is cheaper. Check if unsure.)
- Vegetarian fan choy (uses gluten mock meat but check for egg).
- Steamed lotus rice, siew mai and similar dim sum from veg stalls (likely use cheap mock meats that may have small amounts of milk/eggs. Hence it’s up to your discretion.)
- Yellow tapioca cake (check for eggs)
- Green tapioca cake (check for margarine)
- Chwee kueh (The rice cake is vegan, check for lard in topping and belacan in chilli sauce although that’s not common.)
- Turnip cake (check if lard is used to fry it, and if there’s meat or shrimp inside the cake).
- Spring roll (best to buy from vegetarian stall as it’s commonly stuffed with meat)
(Typical selections at fritters stall. Here they didn’t have much fried buns and are more of a breakfast place thus the steamed red rice cake, ang ku kueh.)
- Tutu kueh/Putu piring (not really a hawker food but common in pasar malams).
- Muah chee
- Cup corn (ask for no planta margarine)
- Putu mayam
- For stir-fried carrot cakes, popiah and rojak, only eat from stalls with vegetarian sign or request for “vegetarian with no egg and belacan”.
- Mee chiang kueh (mostly vegan but check for eggs and margarine)
Best vegan versions of local comfort foods
There are many vegetarian hawker stalls that are famous for vegan versions of local hawker favourites. I haven’t tried all of them so I can’t say which is best. The following are those I’ve eaten, greatly enjoyed and can highly recommend!
- Laksa: Kwan In Zhai
- Ban mian: Xuan Miao
- Chinese rojak: Vegetarian Nasi Padang stall beside Kwan Inn Zhai at Geylang.
- Nasi Padang (Peranakan style): Vegetarian Nasi Padang stall beside Kwan Inn Zhai at Geylang.
- Lei cha: Thunder Tree
- Petai fried rice: Yi Xin Vegetarian
- Idli: Murugan Idli
- Vegetarian bee hoon: Ruyi Vegetarian
- Double-boiled soups (pictured) : San De Vegetarian (they also have the best cai fan I’ve eaten)
- Fried hor fun: Lin Lin Vegetarian
- Chwee kueh, yam cake and chee cheong fun: Bishan cafeteria vegetarian stall
(Green papaya double-boiled soup from San De made with mushroom stems, goji berries and red dates. Flavours change daily.)
For more accurate recommendations, visit the most comprehensive vegetarian food review blog Hungry Ang Mo. Start exploring our vegetarian hawker scene from his Top 10 Vegetarian Breakfasts and Best Places to Experience Zi Char Cuisine in Singapore. Directories of more stalls can be found at Little Green Wok and Happy Cow.