Singapore Food Series: Eating Dairy-free
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Lactose intolerant? Eating a dairy-free diet? You’re in luck – you have an amazing array of cuisines and dishes awaiting your delectation in Singapore.
According to various studies, up to 90% of adults of East Asian descent have lactose intolerance, compared to about 5% of people of North European descent. As you can imagine, the traditional foods eaten by East Asians thus typically contain little to no dairy, making them ideal for anyone who requires dairy-free food. So what types of cuisines can you try, and what specific dishes? Read on to find out what you can eat without worries, and what needs a bit more care.
Lots of choices here! Almost everything, bar some new-fangled fusion dishes, will be dairy and lactose-free. At restaurants, you can try fresh steamed fish cooked Teochew or Cantonese style. Teochew style fish is steamed with salted vegetables, tomatoes and sour plum, resulting in a tangy, flavourful clear broth that should be generously drizzled over the fish before digging in. Cantonese style, on the other hand, has lots of soya sauce mixed with other ingredients such as sugar and fish sauce for an umami-laden experience. Veggies, seafood, meat, soup – chances are, none of these contain dairy.
The only section of the menu where you’d have to be a little wary of dairy in a Chinese restaurant is when it comes to dessert. Traditional Chinese desserts such as gui ling gao (herbal jelly) and gui hua gao (osmanthus jelly) are dairy fee, but mango pomelo sago uses evaporated milk. Pulut hitam (sweet black glutinous rice “porridge”) is also pretty commonly served in Chinese restaurants in Singapore despite it originating from Indonesia. While it’s usually served with coconut milk, which is dairy-free, some restaurants might use coconut ice cream instead, which is not, so do check with the restaurant staff.
At coffeeshops and hawker centres, it’s even easier to eat dairy-free as curries are made with coconut milk instead of cow milk, and there’s almost no cheese or cream used. There might be cheese tofu available at an economic rice stall, so ask if you’re not sure. An easily available dessert is dou hua, or soya bean curd, which is dairy-free as well. Alternatively, get a warm or cold cup of dou jiang or soya bean milk and pair it with you tiao (vegetarian fried Chinese crullers)!
South-East Asian Cuisines
Apart from Chinese food, there’s plenty else to explore! Thai and Vietnamese food, for example, are very popular in Singapore and readily available. The curries use coconut milk instead of cow milk, and hence are also dairy-free. Can’t handle spicy foods? No worries! There are plenty of choices for you still. Fried olive rice, for example, has Chinese salted black olives (not the same thing you get on pizza or in salads!) added to the fried rice, imparting a slight purple tinge and a full-bodied flavour to an otherwise simple dish. Served with minced chicken or pork, cashews, a wedge of lime and some cut chilli padi on the side, it’s easy enough to avoid the spiciness if you can’t handle the heat. Pad Thai – flat rice noodles with veggies, fish sauce, tofu, egg and a choice of meat – is another great choice.
The prevalence of coconut milk in South-East Asian cuisine means desserts are refreshingly dairy-free too! Try red ruby, which has tiny pieces of water chestnut encased in glistening, clear jelly made from tapioca flour in coconut milk. The jelly is tinted red, which is where this dessert gets its name from.
Dairy-free Indian food is a little trickier as ghee, or clarified butter, is commonly used. Yoghurt and yoghurt-based sauces and dips are also regularly served, and paneer (Indian cottage cheese) is a staple of North Indian cuisines. Be sure to ask if ordering Indian food in Singapore.
Nihon Ryouri and Han Shik
Both Japanese and Korean food are crazy popular in Singapore – and available everywhere from food courts to exclusive omakase restaurants. Go wild with your choices, just keep in mind that Japanese food from Hokkaido may contain butter as the island is famed not only for its delicious seafood, but also its dairy production. Hokkaido ramen, for example, comes with a pat of butter unlike ramen from other parts of Japan. It’s also been trendy for a couple of years now to eat Korean ramyun with a slice of cheese on it, but as the cheese is in plain view you don’t have to worry about hidden dairy mucking up your digestive system.
With the wide range of dairy-free food available in Singapore, making specific recommendations poses a bit of difficulty. Just go forth and explore what Singapore’s food scene has to offer! Read the rest of our Singapore Food Series articles and recommendations here.