If you are on a low-carbohydrate diet, chances are you will be avoiding Singapore’s hawker dishes. Not only are hawker cuisines highly starchy, they often come dressed in dressed in grease, like char kway teow, or served in soup, like kway chap.
But if you have to drown your sorrows in cold-pressed vegetable juice at every meal, life would be miserable.
You shouldn’t have to go hungry either. According to online newsletter Healthline, an average-sized woman needs 1,500 calories a day. That is a quota of about 500 calories per meal that you can play with.
Read on to find out how you can have your kway and eat it too. (Sorry, that was just a figure of speech. Some hawker foods, like fried carrot cake, are unhackable.)
1. Bak kut teh
A typical bowl of bak kut teh, or meat broth, is about 324 calories. For a light hawker lunch, skip the yew char kueh (fried dough fritter), which is 200 calories, and the bowl of white rice, which is 111 calories.
Instead, order blanched chrysanthemum greens (tang oh), which complements a bowl of bak kut teh perfectly. A serving of this has only 12 calories and brims with vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.
Calories: 635 – (111 + 200) + 12 = 336
Suggestion: Avoid the fried dough fritter and rice; order blanched greens instead.
2. Hakka lei cha (Thunder tea rice)
Don’t dismiss this hawker dish on account of the fact that it contains rice. Hakka lei cha is a generous source of plant proteins, and is prepared with many nutrient-dense herbs.
If you’re concerned about carbohydrate intake, you can opt for a smaller portion of brown rice. Brown rice has high fibre content and low glycemic index, which helps to maintain feelings of satiety. A whole serving of thunder tea wholegrain rice guarantees you a filling meal at only 430 calories – your calorie budget is safe!
Suggestion: Opt for brown rice and ask for a smaller portion.
3. Yong tau foo
This hawker dish may seem obvious. You may be eating it wrong, though. Common dieting mistakes include flavouring your yong tau foo dish with a whole lot of sweet sauce and chili, topping off with deep-fried ingredients and taking the soup. The soup itself is loaded with MSG while sauces contain the usual culprits: sodium, sugar and oil, which can lead to high blood pressure and fluid retention.
Instead, you may want to load up on lightly seasoned, protein-heavy vegetables like broccoli and spinach. Mushrooms and black fungus are also attractive sources of micronutrients.
Suggestion: Dressing on the side, please. Avoid the noodles if you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet, and only allow yourself the blanched or raw vegetable items. Leave the soup alone, but go wild with the soybeans.
4. Sliced fish soup
Fish soup is a deceptively healthy hawker dish that is a staple of many diets. However, if you like milk in your soup, or if you like to leave your bowl of rice noodles empty, it won’t help your waistline. Instead, pass up on the noodles and swap out the deep-fried fillets for blanched fish slices. Ask for more tofu to keep yourself satiated till dinner.
Suggestion: No added milk, go only for blanched fish slices, and top it off with a generous serving of tofu in place of rice and noodles.
5. Softboiled eggs
If you are watching your waistline, you may have to give your morning fix of bee hoon and kaya toast a pass. Grease and butter have very little place in a weight loss plan, but fortunately, there are equally tempting alternatives.
For breakfast at a hawker centre, treat yourself to a pair of softboiled eggs. They’re rich in protein, vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids, and afford you a filling meal for relatively small amount of calories. That’s a win!
Calories: 68 per egg
Suggestion: None, but don’t smother it in soy sauce!
6. Lard-less popiah
A single popiah roll contains cucumber, hardboiled egg, grated turnips, bean sprouts, coriander and peanuts that give this hawker dish some of its coveted crunch. If you’re worried about its potentially high fat content, play it safe by asking your hawker for a lard-free option.
For the even more health-conscious, there are hawkers whose claim to fame is popiah dishes that are devoid of MSG and artificial colouring.
Suggestion: None, but aim for the lard-free option if you’re also on a low-fat diet.
7. Steamed chicken rice
If you’re watching your weight but still craving for a plate of juicy steamed chicken, we have your back. At 58g of protein per serving (that’s almost 30%), there’s a reason why chicken breast remains a classic source of lean protein. As long as you avoid the skin of the chicken and keep your intake of chicken rice to a minimum – since chicken rice is quite literally marinated in chicken fat – you’re good to go.
8. Char siew
Using the same tactic as #7, it is possible to include char siew into a low-carbohydrate diet, as long as you give the rice and sweet sauce a miss. To round out your hawker meal, you may want order a side of blanched Chinese kai lan as well.
Calories: 251 + 22 = 273
Suggestion: Avoid the rice and sweet sauce, and add on a side of blanched kai lan for a balanced meal.
Everything in moderation
With any diet that excludes processed carbohydrates, the key is to make protein – be it eggs, poultry, seafood or vegetables – the main focus of the hawker dish. And as always, too much of a good thing can backfire. Even with healthy hawker dishes, always eat in moderation and limit your consumption to no more than one serving every meal.
Do you have other hawker dish hacks to share with us? Leave them in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to read about how supposedly healthy diets cause weight gain.