Singapore Food Series: Vegetarian
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This week, we are looking at dietary restrictions in our Singapore food. Depending on your dietary restriction, it likely doesn’t pose too big a problem when eating in Singapore. Vegetarian food, especially, is readily available. Even if the restaurant isn’t fully vegetarian, there will usually be vegetarian options available. So what’s available for the various types of vegetarians in Singapore?
Seeing as how Singapore is predominantly Chinese, naturally it’s pretty easy to get your hands (or spoon, fork or chopsticks) on Chinese vegetarian food. Just look out for this word at coffeeshops: 素 Pronounced “su”, it’s one of the biggest indicators of vegetarian food at a coffeeshop. Do note, however, that these stalls may be lacto-ovo-vegetarian or ovo-vegetarian. There isn’t much dairy traditionally in Asian cuisine, but with the rise in popularity of food items such as cheese tofu, some vegetarian stalls may have dishes with dairy. Eggs are commonly used in some dishes too, but they’re easy to avoid if you want to. The only “hidden” presence of eggs you should be aware of is in egg tofu. Ask the stall what type of tofu they use; if the tofu pieces are round, it’s a pretty good bet that it’s egg tofu. Non-egg tofu usually comes in squares.
Sometimes, you’ll see this word instead: 斋 It also refers to vegetarian food, but it’s a specific Buddhist form of vegetarianism which doesn’t use certain vegetables considered fetid, such as garlic, shallots, onions and coriander.
There are a few stalwart dishes of Chinese vegetarian food at coffeeshops. Vegetarian bee hoon, for one, is a dish of rice noodles fried with an assortment of vegetables such as cabbage and carrots that is very common and popular. Various mock meats and vegetable dishes are available too, of course, but the one dish you should not miss is the zai er, or vegetarian mock goose. Despite its name, it looks nothing like mock goose meat. It’s just deep fried beancurd skin and its fragrance, combined with its crispy texture, makes it a hot favourite.
There is a long, long history of vegetarianism in India, so it’s no surprise at all that Indian vegetarian food is widely available in Singapore. In fact, Indian vegetarian food doesn’t even require a marker like Chinese vegetarian food – just go up to any Indian stall at a coffeeshop and they’ll have vegetarian options for you. Dhal (lentils), of course, is commonly available, as is cabbage masala (spiced cabbage). Papadum, the popular spiced crispy disc is also widely eaten. Stir-fried spinach, lady’s finger, bittergourd… the list of vegetables goes on and on. Sambar (lentil-based curry) and rasam (pepper soup) are also not to be missed! Various potato dishes are also commonly served, just ask what’s available.
There are also vegetarian versions of traditionally meat-accompanied dishes such as briyani. Instead of mutton or chicken, vegetarian briyani can be served with dhal, raita (cucumber with yoghurt) and an assortment of other vegetables.
One thing to take note of if you do not take eggs is that some places might use egg in the prata dough. To be safe, ask before ordering or get the thosai (sometimes spelt dosa) instead.
And these are just South Indian dishes! If you want to sample North Indian food, you’ll have to head to a restaurant instead of a coffeeshop. There, you’ll find a range of dishes suitable for vegetarians including paneer (Indian cottage cheese), tandoori, naan and more.
Malay vegetarian food is where it gets a bit tricky. There really isn’t much of a history of vegetarianism in Malay culture, so while vegetable dishes are present, they very likely do not fit within vegetarian parameters. Pescatarians will find more options with Malay cuisine, as belachan (spicy shrimp paste), sambal (chilli with shrimp paste, fish sauce and other ingredients) and rempah (a basic spice mix) are very, very commonly used. Sayur lodeh (a type of curried vegetable), for example, contains shrimp, as will most of the veggie dishes as they are usually stir fried with sambal.
Which isn’t to say you’re totally out of luck. Tempeh is a fantastically healthy protein source made from fermented soya beans, and is suitable for vegans, not just vegetarians. Apart from protein, this superfood also has plenty of calcium and iron. What’s more, because of the fermentation process soya beans undergo while being made into tempeh, oligosaccharides that can cause gas and indigestion are broken down – no more gassiness after a vegetarian meal!
Here are some recommendations for vegetarian food in Singapore:
Kwan Inn Vegetarian Restaurant
338 Tanjong Katong, Singapore 437110
Block 134 Geylang East Avenue 1 #01-229 Singapore 380134
Block 126 Lorong 1 Toa Payoh, #01-577 (Stall 8) Singapore 310126
Block 5 Banda Street, #01-52 (Stall 4B) Singapore 050005
Block 269 Queen Street, #01-236 (Stall 12) Singapore 180269
Block 221 Boon Lay Shopping Centre, #01-170 Singapore 640221
101 Upper Cross Street, People’s Park Centre #B1-13 (Stall 07) Singapore 058357
The Kwan Inn Vegetarian Restaurant at Tanjong Katong is a relatively upscale restaurant with particularly delicious mock meats. The other branches are food stalls rather than restaurants, and so serve slightly different fare but are nonetheless delicious and make for satisfying meals.
20 Havelock Road, Central Square #01-04, Singapore 059765
104 Amoy Street, Singapore 069924
Annalakshmi dishes up delicious, wholesome, home-cooked style North Indian cuisine, with a unique point – there is no set price for eating there. Customers are free to pay whatever amount they can.
Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, 18 Marina Gardens Drive, Singapore 018953
Pollen is not a vegetarian restaurant, but they do offer fantastic vegetarian Mediterranean dishes. And why not, when they’ve got a private Mediterranean herb and vegetable garden to themselves?
Whole Earth Vegetarian
76 Peck Seah Street, Singapore 079331
Just a hop and skip away from Tanjong Pagar MRT station (take exit A), Whole Earth serves Peranakan-Thai food. No mean feat when Peranakan cuisine is so heavily meat based! Must-tries include the Penang rendang, olive rice and oatmeal tofu.
44 Jalan Eunos, Singapore 419502
Admittedly, VeganBurg is a bit out of the way for most, but they do online orders and delivery so why not take advantage of that? If you want to sink your teeth into a vegan-suitable burger, this is the place to patronise.