The first time I visited Singapore, in 2009, I hated it. It was hot, humid, shopping-obsessed, shiny, loud, and so clean as to feel sterilised. All I remember about the food was economical rice for breakfast, and that all the vegetarian places seemed to close at 6.30pm.
This time, I’ve really enjoyed it. Possibily because I’m more travel-seasoned now, possibly because I’ve just spent three months in places where you freeze if you take off your heavy coat, or possibly just because everybody speaks English and the cultures are more familiar to me, which is nice as I’m a bit tired from so much change.
In any case, its been a joy this time around.
William Gibson once referred to Singapore as disneyland with the death penalty, and he wasn’t wrong.
If you haven’t been there, I’ll explain. Singapore is like the rest of region (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao, Indonesia and Malaysia) – hot and humid, colourful, a little smelly, and with tropical plants.
The difference is that everyone speaks English, the public transport is safe and reliable, there are footpaths, and you can drink the water. You can get great vegan food, its really easy to get around (although a little time consuming), and the public infrastructure is (in some places) exceptionally good.
On the crap side it is a heavily consumerist society – never will you visit a train station without being surrounded by people holding branded shopping bags – and a very segregated one (in terms of work, at least). Nearly without exception, all outdoor council staff (garbage collection, road works) and constructions workers are Indian or Bangladeshi men. Its also quite strict, with severe penalties for drug offences, and penalties such as corporal and capital punishment still on the books.
Four cultures are intertwined here. It is predominantly ethnic chinese, with a significant number of citizens and temporary workers from Malay, Indian and Bangladesh backgrounds. It shows in the shopping centres, with clothing stores selling short shorts and badly translated printed tee-shirts next to modesty clothing stores for Islamic Malay women, next to a sari store. It also shows in the street scopes, where you can find mosques, temples, and churches. And of course, it shows in the food.
Okay, if you can’t be vegan in Singapore, there really is no hope for you. Between the Indian options everywhere, buddhist vegetarian stalls, fresh fruit and veg, soy bean drink and supermarket fare, vegans are more than covered here.
There are plenty of dedicated vegetarian restaurants, ranging from down at heel to super fancy, but your best bet is to head to a hawker centre.
Hawker Centres and Food Courts
Within walking distance from any housing block there will be a hawker centre – a number of food stalls surrounding a shared seating area. In addition, most shopping centres (and these are everywhere) have a food court, sometimes in addition to a hawker centre.
Most of the food courts and hawker centres will have a dedicated vegetarian stall, whether Indian or Chinese, as well as a number of omni stalls, a dessert stall and a drinks stall.
The Indian option is self explanatory really – ask about dairy, then order off the menu or point at the the buffet options. I love a dosa if we find a south Indian place, Mr loves chenna masala and paratha (when we can get it vegan), but the buffet options are usually fine.
At the Chinese Buddhist stalls you often have two options. You can order from the menu, or get economical rice. Menus vary, having soups, fried rice dishes, Malay dishes like nasi lemak, mock fish dishes, dumplings, Hainan chicken rice (flavoured rice served with some vegan and some pale, mock boiled-chicken), anything. A meal can range from $2.50 to $9 depending on what you order. The pros of ordering from the menu are that you get a fresh, hot meal, and you know what you ordered.
I prefer economical rice for the variety, even though it is often a little cold. Economical rice is when you get a plate with rice, and you choose a number of dishes-of-the-day from the buffet. The dishes usually include a number of mock meats (fish, roast pork, chicken, squid), some tofu, several vegetable options, and a curry. To get this, ask for rice, then point of self serve from the other dishes. Ask for gravy to get some curry sauce (or other sauce) over your rice. You can usually get brown rice if you want. A price of a rice plate depends on what you choose, but it is most often around $3 to $3.50 for a meal.
You generally can’t buy a drink from the place you got your food. You need to find the dedicated drinks stall to quench your thirst. You can always get bottled water, fruit juices, soft drink and beer (with ice in it), but why do that when you can often find home made ais limau, iced tea (Teh O Ice/Ais), rose cordial, water chestnut cordial, Chrysanthemum Tea, cold soy bean drink (thinner and sweeter than Aussie soy milk) or sugar cane juice?
If you want something sweet, you have to check out the dessert stall. Filled with fruits, sweet red beans, ice and (vegetarian) jelly, you can’t go wrong. My favourite is Ice Kechang. Its a bowl with sweet red beans, lychees and jelly, covered with a mountain of shaved ice, three colours of syrup, one sweet corn (admittedly not my favourite part) and sweet milk. Vegans (like me) just ask for it without the sweet milk, and sometimes you can get coconut milk if you’re lucky.
A note of caution: Beware the omni places at the hawker centers and the food courts. This goes especially for the ones advertising tofu (dofu or Tau Foo) or vegetables. Singaporeans eat tofu and veg, but it is usually flavoured with meat stock, ground pork, mini fried fish, fish flakes, pork floss, chicken skin, oyster sauce etc etc etc. Its up to you, but unless I couldn’t find something else, or my language skills improved, I’d steer well clear of these places.
Coming soon on AroundTheWorldVegan, restaurant reviews, so much soya bean drink, and a guest post by Mr!