If you are on a low-carb or no-carb diet, chances are that you’d be avoiding Singapore’s food centres for fear of succumbing to your nemesis. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressed in grease, like char kway teow, or served in soup, like kway chap – carbs are [the backbone of our hawker foods, and a hawker centre might as well be a leper’s colony to the uninfected].
But if you have to drown your sorrows in cold-pressed vegetable juice at a salad bar every meal, life would be miserable. Sometimes, you just want to eat with your colleagues.
Besides, you still need to eat. According to online newsletter Healthline, an average-sized dieting woman needs 1,500 calories a day. Divide that by three, and you still have a quota of about 500 calories per main meal. The trick to making those calories go the distance is to up your protein intake. Protein is an important nutrient, requires more energy to metabolise, and can curb appetite. In fact, as animal protein is generally not a main highlight in most Asian dishes, you may even find yourself consuming more wholesome plant protein from soy, mushrooms and green vegetables.
So read on to find out how you can have your kway and eat it too! (Sorry, that was just a figure of speech. Some foods, like fried carrot cake and anything to do with kway, are unhackable.)
1. Bak Kut Teh
A typical bowl of bak kut teh, or meat broth, is about 324 calories. For a light 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 a serving of blanched chrysanthemum greens (tang oh), which taste great when paired with bak kut the. A cup of blanched tang oh has only 12 calories and is chock full of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.
Calories: 635 – (111 + 200) + 12 = 336
Modifications: Omit the fried dough fritter and rice; order blanched greens instead.
2. Hakka Lei Cha (Thunder Tea Rice)
Hear me out before you gloss over this option because it contains rice. The reason why this item is even in this list is because it is high in plant proteins, and contains lots of nutrient-dense ingredients and herbs which are known for their health benefits. If you are on a low-carb and not no-carb diet, you can still enjoy lei cha by opting for brown rice, and ask for a smaller portion. Brown rice is a great source of whole grains, is a complex carb, and has a lower glycemic index than white rice. A full serving of thunder tea rice is 430 calories, which is still lower than your meal quota. If you’ve had lei cha, you’ll know that it’s quite filling and is a good dinner option.
Modifications: Opt for brown rice and ask for a smaller portion.
3. Yong Tau Foo
Chey, eating yong tau foo is obvious, you say. But do you know that you could have been eating it wrong all this while? Choosing deep-fried items would be an obvious mistake but do you smother everything in sweet sauce and chili? Do you drink the soup? A-ha. The dressing contains a ton of sugar, sodium and oil, while the soup is most likely to contain flavour enhancers. Excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, of which an undesirable side effect is fluid retention. Remember to opt for un-deviled vegetables like broccoli and spinach, which are packed with protein. Mushrooms and black fungus are a wonderful source of micronutrients.
Modifications: Opt to keep the dressing separate. Omit the noodles/rice if you’re on a no-carb diet. Choose blanched or raw vegetable items. Leave the soup alone, but eat up all the soybeans.
4. Sliced fish soup
This is another deceptively soupy dish which is a favourite of dieters. However, if you tend to choose to have milk added to your soup, slurp up all the rice noodles, or go for deep-fried fish instead of blanched fish slices, then it’s no wonder why you aren’t losing weight. Lose the noodles and ask for more tofu to fill up your tummy.
Modifications: No added milk, only blanched fish slices, and have more tofu instead of rice or noodles.
5. Soft boiled eggs
For breakfast, you can forget about sugar-laden kaya toast and greasy, high-carb economical bee hoon, but soft boiled eggs are a yes. They’re high in protein, are a good source of vitamin A and fatty acids.
Calories: 68 per egg
Modification: None but don’t overload it with soy sauce
6. Popiah – no lard
Lauded as one of the healthiest hawker foods, a single popiah roll ensconces crunchy cucumber, grated turnips, bean sprouts, hard-boiled egg, peanuts and sometimes even prawns. However, some may still gripe about its high fat content due to the presence of lard. Well, even if you ask for it to be omitted, the other ingredients still make for a highly flavourful meal full of texture in every wholesome bite.
Modifications: Omit the lard if you’re into a low-fat diet.
7. Chicken Rice (Steamed)
Everyone knows that the most fattening component of chicken rice is the rice itself, because it is cooked in chicken fat, which imparts a fantastic aroma. The next fattening and most sinfully delicious thing is the skin, which, according to experts, should be moist, flavourful and gelatinous.But if you’re one of those who will cringe at the thought of eating slimy chicken skin, and you’re also calorie-counting, great! Peel it off. But those on a low-carb, high-fat diet might want to slurp down all of that epidermal jelly.
8. Char Siew
Using the same tactic as #7, one can order char siew rice without the rice and sweet sauce. But the difference between this and chicken rice is that one can usually order a side of blanched Chinese kai lan to go with the meat.
Calories: 251 + 22 = 273
Modifications: Omit the rice and sweet sauce, and add on a side of blanched kai lan for a balanced meal.
As you probably have surmised from our hacks, the key is to shave off processed carbs and to make protein – be it plant protein, egg, fish or meat – the main focus of the dish. Lastly, eat in moderation and limit your consumption to no more than one serving every meal.
Do you have other hawker food hacks to share with us? Leave them in the comments below!