Local Food Ingredients

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A Guide to Singapore’s Popular Hawker Food & their Ingredients

(You can download the latest version of this article here.)

Those of you who suffer from food allergies know how frustrating it is to try new stuff especially when you can’t tell what’s in the food.

So, this section is written for the benefit of those who are particular about food substances.

(For vegetarians, see comments at the bottom of this article)

However, in no way is it implied that these food are unpalatable or dangerous to the normal palate. The happy majority, foreigners included, enjoy these meals as much as the locals.

If you have no food allergies, I urge you to try some of these, especially the Prata and Laksa, if you don’t mind something spicy. They are indeed special and you should not leave Singapore without experiencing them.

Cleanliness & hygiene

Singapore is without doubt one of the cleanest cities in the world.

But let us not exaggerate this. Its population has increased by more than a million in the past few years and the authorities are working doubly hard to maintain this reputation.

However, you need not worry about the standard of cleanliness of food establishments in Singapore. It is mandatory for all food handlers (cooks, kitchen assistants and servers) to attend a Food Handling & Personal Hygiene Course in the NEA (National Environment Agency) classrooms at Bukit Merah.

It’s safe to eat to your heart’s content unless you have food allergies

All F&B outlets, whether small stalls in food courts and coffee shops, or restaurants and hotels’ F&B outlets, are graded by the NEA immediately after opening.

Thereafter, each outlet is visited monthly by NEA officers who inspect fridges, freezers, kitchen exhaust, ovens, chopping boards, store rooms, stocks, plates & bowls, toilets (only for restaurants), preparation methods and supposedly nails (only finger nails, not toe nails) and hair of food handlers.

The overall grades given are between A and D (for the outlet, not the person). Grade A usually goes to hotels and fast food chains because of their modern equipment, preparation, handling methods and well-groomed personnel; while B and C usually go to restaurants and food stalls. D may be given to certain type of outlets where traditional preparation cannot be avoided.

The NEA responds immediately to public complaint(s) about any outlet’s unhygienic practices. The NEA encourages the public with posters to forward complaints by texting to 74688 on your cell phone or by calling toll free 1800 2255632.

Offenders will be given warning. Repeat offenders will be fined and suspended from operation until they show proof of corrective action. Those who fail to do so will have their licenses revoked.

Yes, all these sound pretty scary – if you operate a food business in Singapore! But the customers have no complaints!

Sources of local food ingredients

While cleanliness can be controlled to a large extent by the NEA and their eagle-eyed officers, control of ingredients are usually enforced through Singapore’s import regulations.

Unlike the West, where imports of agricultural products are stringently controlled by tough import measures, here in Singapore the import rules for such items are much more lenient.

A food establishment operator has easy access to a wide variety of herbs, preserved products, preservatives, sauces and seasonings, which are required in many local dishes and traditional meals.

Local food ingredients (some in their raw state and some semi-prepared) come from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India, Thailand and other neighboring countries. There is no way to monitor these ingredients or the substances used in the preservation, processing and preparation of such ingredients.

The only gauge is that since these ingredients have been used for decades and there has been no fatal incident, we can assume that they are safe for the general public. Many such ingredients are  used in local cooking tradition and culture – and without being too presumptuous, locals may be more tolerant of such ingredients than foreigners.

Therefore, if you have a serious allergic condition, you may want to be extra careful about what you eat especially from stalls in coffee shops, food courts and hawker centres. It is pointless asking any food seller about the ingredients of the dish or to make a point about your allergies. You probably won’t get the right answer.

You need to use your own judgment from the information given here (but I take no responsibility for any substance[s] which is not identified in the ingredient list below)

In regard to “local fare” which is found in the above mentioned outlets, my suggestion is that you go for the “popular” local dishes and avoid traditional herbal soup, or meals with soup and gravy. The ingredients of these popular dishes and meals are provided below but ONLY YOU can decide on your own allergy risk level.

Do note that almost all food contains MSG (monosodium glutamate). So, if you are allergic to this ingredient, DO NOT EAT OUT. Local food use a variety of sauces and all these are laced with MSG. Additional MSG is often added in preparation and when frying.

Popular meals

There are more than a dozen popular meals in Singapore but usually about a dozen or so is promoted on most tourist brochures whenever they mention the attraction of Singapore as a “gourmet paradise”.

Here is the list, which is touted as the “best” local meals:

  1. Fried Kueh Teow
  2. Fried Carrot Cake
  3. Fried Oyster Omelette
  4. Hokkien Mee
  5. Prawn Noodle
  6. Rojak
  7. Laksa
  8. Mee Goreng
  9. Nasi Lemak
  10. Satay
  11. Nasi Bryani (or Beriani)
  12. Prata

Items 1 to 7 are Chinese meals, 8 to 10 are Malay meals and 11 and 12 are Indian meals. Items 7 to 12 are spicy. But for many Singaporeans, items 1 to 6 are usually ordered with a request of accompanying chilli, which are added to the meals. So, generally, most meals here are eaten with chilli.

Here is a list of local food ingredients of the above 12 meals: 

Fried Kueh Teow – (stir-fry rice noodles with clams and Chinese sausage)

Fried Kueh Teow

The main ingredient here is a flat and white colored looking rice noodle, which is fry in a fiery wok with black soy sauce, black sweet soy sauce, light soy sauce and fish sauce. Other ingredients include: bean sprouts, garlic, lard, cockles, fish cake, shrimps, sliced Chinese sausage, chicken eggs, bits of crispy lard. All sauces contain msg and preservatives including benzoate. The ingredients in Chinese sausage are not clear. Also, some “rice” noodles are not 100% rice but are mixed with a significant percentage of gluten to achieve “elasticity”, which is ideal for frying. The chilli paste may contain dried prawns, sugar and salt, preservatives and vegetable oil. This meal is carcinogenic.  

Fried Carrot Cake – (stir-fry rice cakes with eggs)

Fried Carrot Cake

This meal has nothing to do with what you would find in a bakery or cake shop. It is actually shredded white carrot (horseradish) mixed with rice flour, preserved radish, pepper, salt, and sugar and steamed. When cooled, it is cut into cubes or strips and fry with vegetable oil (or lard), garlic, eggs, black sweet sauce (optional), light soy sauce and fish sauce. There is no guarantee that gluten flour is not added to hold the cubes together for frying. The chilli paste may contain pounded dried shrimps, sugar, salt, preservatives and vegetable oil. It is garnished with scallions and sometimes lime before serving. This meal is also carcinogenic.  

Fried Oyster Omelette – (stir-fry oysters with egg)

Fried Oyster Omelette

This is nothing more than putting a handful of fresh oysters (the small variety) into a bowlful of mixture of egg and potato starch. This is beaten and poured onto the frying pan with lard or vegetable oil until it turns brownish. Light soy sauce and fish sauce may be added in the frying for extra seasoning. It may be served with fresh lime and fresh coriander. The chilli paste may contain pounded dried prawns, sugar, salt, preservatives and vegetable oil.  

Hokkien Mee – (stir-fry noodles with shrimps and squids)

Hokkien Mee

The two main ingredients are what locals called “yellow noodle” and “thick rice noodle”. The yellow noodle is made from common white flour and the “thick rice noodle” from a mixture of rice flour and gluten flour. Lard, garlic, squid, shrimps, fish cake and scallions are added to the noodles and simmer over a broth. The types of broth used differ but it is usually obtained by boiling a mixture of shrimp heads and shells, chicken bones and parts, and other seafood parts such as fish bones, shells, dried anchovies, etc. The chilli paste may contain pounded dried shrimps, sugar, salt, preservatives and vegetable oil. 

Prawn Noodle Soup – (blanched noodles in shrimp broth)

Prawn Noodle Soup using “yellow noodles”

You have a choice of noodles for this soup-based meal. These are “yellow noodles”, “thick rice noodle” and “thin rice noodle”. The thinner version of the rice noodle is also likely to be mixed with gluten. The noodle is boiled (immediately after you order), sieved and put into a large bowl. Some pre-blanched sprouts and green vegetables may be added. A broth is poured over it and peeled boiled shrimps (or prawns), slices of boiled pork or pork ribs, shallots, white pepper powder are then added to the bowl before serving. The broth is obtained by boiling these ingredients: shrimp heads and shells, pork bones, dried anchovies, star anise, peppercorns, garlic, dried cloves, dark soy sauce and raw cane sugar. Preservatives may be added to the broth.   

Chinese Rojak – (so-called Singapore Salad; fresh vegetables mixed with fermented and pungent shrimp paste and crushed peanuts. Note that there is also Indian Rojak, which is a totally different thing.)

Chinese Rojak

This is an acquired taste. If you think durian is bad, wait till you sit next to someone who is eating this. The locals called this Singapore Salad. The ingredients are freshly cut pineapple, cucumber, turnip, green apple, boiled kang kong (a kind of swamp cabbage), boiled beansprout, deep fried Chinese croissant and deep fried soya puff. These are put into a large clay bowl and ladle-stirred (without heat) with a generous mixture of black shrimp paste, plentiful sugar, tamarind and some chilli paste. The contents is then emptied onto a plate and garnished with a large sprinkling of pounded roasted peanuts. The character of this dish comes from its black shrimp paste, which has a distinctively strong bacterial smell and taste. The paste is made from: fermented (for six months) plankton shrimp and salt. The chilli paste is usually made from dried shrimp paste, shallots, dried red chillies, cashew nuts, tamarind pulp, coconut milk, sugar and salt and may contain preservatives. 

Laksa – (rice noodles in a spicy shrimps broth that is mixed with coconut milk and chilli paste)

Katong Laksa

There are a number of Laksa variations, which can be generalized into two types: Coconut Laksa and Assam Laksa. The latter is sour and is not as popular as the former, which is sometimes referred to as Katong Laksa. No Singaporean can live without the former, so let us talk about this. It’s a fiery soup meal which has the “thick rice noodle” as its main ingredient. The noodle is made from a mixture of rice flour and gluten flour. The other key ingredients are: fresh cockles, soya bean puff, fish cake, bean sprouts and fresh shrimps. The gravy or the soup is extra-ordinary and is the reason why people eat this meal. It’s made from coconut milk (usually out of a large Tetra Pak),  dried shrimp, peanut oil, chicken stock, fish sauce, lemon grass, red chilies, galangal, ginger, shrimp paste, shallots, cloves, garlic, turmeric, sugar, tamarind paste, cilantro leaves and Vietnamese coriander, which gives it its unique flavour. The home-made chilli paste, which is optional, may contain dried shrimp paste, shallots, dried red chillies, cashew nuts, tamarind pulp, coconut milk, sugar, salt and preservatives. 

Mee Goreng – (spicy stir-fry noodle with minced mutton or minced beef)

Mee Goreng

This is probably the most popular Indian meals among Singaporeans of all backgrounds. Its main ingredients are yellow noodle, garlic, potato, green peas, onions, tofu, chye sim (a local green leafy vegetable), tomato, green chilli, egg and minced mutton. The noodle and main ingredients are stir fry in a wok with the following: tomato paste, light soy sauce, salt, msg, sugar and fish sauce. Fresh chilli paste is usually added into the frying. It is served with fresh cucumber slices and a home-made tomato ketchup. The tomato ketchup may contain bananas, onion, black raisins, black pepper, artificial vinegar, salt, nutmeg, cloves, tomato paste and preservatives. 

Nasi Lemak –  (rice boiled with coconut milk and accompanied with chilli paste and anchovies)

Nasi Lemak

A staple food among many in the Malay community, this fragrant meal consists of rice boiled with coconut milk (salt is added in the rice). The rice is served on a plate with fried eggs, deep fried dried anchovies and peanuts, deep fried whole fish, fresh cucumber and chilli paste piled onto it. Optional items may include otah (a paste made from fish and shrimps, wrapped in coconut leaves and barbequed over charcoal; preservatives may be included), deep fried chicken wings, fish cakes and fresh pineapple slices and other fresh vegetables. The chilli paste, which is an intrinsic part of the meal, may contain dried shrimp paste, anchovies, shallots, garlic, dried red chilies, cashew nuts, tamarind pulp, coconut milk, sugar, salt and preservatives. Note: all deep fried items share the same pot of oil. 

Satay – (barbequed, skewered pieces of meat, served with a spicy peanut sauce)

Satay and ketupat

A hot favorite among visitors. Its authentic version is sold by Malays. This refers to barbeque sticks which are made from the spines of coconut leaves on which seasoned strips of mutton, beef or chicken are skewered and then barbequed over charcoal. This is served with ketupat (rice wrapped in coconut leaves and boiled), fresh onions, fresh cucumber and a spicy peanut sauce to dip the sticks in. The meats are seasoned with a paste made from: shallots, garlic, turmeric, ginger, white peppercorn, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, dried shrimp paste, sugar and preservatives. The ingredients for the sauce: onions, garlic, chilli paste, lemongrass, dried shrimp paste, candlenuts/macadamia nuts, tamarind pulp, coconut milk, roasted peanuts, peanut oil, sugar, salt and preservatives. 

Nasi Briyani or “Beriani” – (rice boiled with spices and served with curry meat)

Chicken Nasi Briyani before gravy is added

This is basmati rice boiled with spices giving it an orangey look. The rice is served on a piece of banana leaf topped with a piece of curry mutton, curry chicken or curry beef along with fresh cucumber and fresh pineapple (sometimes replaced with pickled vegetables consisting of cucumber, carrot, pineapple and sesame seeds). The curry gravy is poured over the rice. The ingredients used for preparing the rice and meat may include the following: onions, poppy seeds, mint leaves, cloves, garlic, cinnamon, ginger, cardamoms, yoghurt, chilli powder, almond, saffron threads, golden raisins, milk, ghee and salt. The ingredients for the curry may include: chilli powder, shallots, turmeric, ginger, garlic, ground cumin seed, ground coriander seed, cinnamon stick, tomato puree, ghee, sugar, salt, curry leaves (Koenigii), fenugreek leaves and green chillies. 

Prata – (a dough served with curry)

Prata with curry gravy

The Indian version of pancake, which locals eat for breakfast but just as popular for lunch and dinner. The “prata” or pancake is made from white plain flour, yeast, vegetable oil, ghee (sometimes), salt, egg, transfat (sometimes) and condensed milk. Preparation requires the cook to swing the dough into the air to achieve its flaky texture. It is then heated on a giant size hotplate and immediately served with dhal, mutton, fish, chicken or beef curry. The curry may include: chilli powder, shallots, turmeric, ginger, garlic, lentil, ground cumin seed, ground coriander seed, cinnamon stick, tomato puree, ghee, sugar, salt, curry leaves (Koenigii), fenugreek leaves and green chillies.

If you are a vegetarian….

There are many options for vegetarians but it does depend on how strict you are and what you can and can’t consume, for example, are you a Vegan, Hindu, Buddhist,  pro animal activist or just trying to follow your doctor’s order?

Other than the Subway sandwich chain and sandwich cafes, other vegetarian options include Chinese vegetarian restaurants/stalls and Indian restaurants/stalls. These serve strictly 100% vegetarian meals. However, eggs may be part of the menu for some Chinese vegetarian outlets. But you can be assured that no animal by-products are used. These outlets distinguished themselves with clear signage which say, “vegetarian”. However, a larger dosage of MSG is often used to enhance the flavour. Preservatives such as benzoate is likely to be found in ingredients.

Most of the time you are also able to request for a plate of vegetarian fried rice or noodle from a non-vegetarian Chinese or Indian restaurant or stall. But do not be surprised that the sauces used may contain anchovies or fish stock or even chicken flavoured seasoning. Again, MSG and benzoate are commonly found in these sauces. It is unlikely that these outlets will have separate preparation utensils and cutlery for vegetarian meals.

For strict Hindu and Buddhist vegetarians, our advice is to stick to vegetarian outlets with the clear “vegetarian” signage.

If you have questions, please post them at our Holland-Village-Singapore Facebook Page. For ordering and dining etiquette, see our articxle on  Local Culture

Have fun!

Download the latest version of  A Guide To Singapore’s Popular Hawker Food & Their Ingredients here.