List: On Dietary Restrictions at Canteens and Food Courts

In analyzing the food culture of any place, one must also consider how those with minority diets are treated. Is Singapore halal-friendly, vegan-friendly, celiac-friendly, etc.? Would my friend–let’s call him Robot since I didn’t ask for permission to include his personal info on my blog–with numerous allergies (egg, peanuts, shellfish) be able to survive eating at the canteens at NUS (which are where I get the majority of my meals) if he visited Singapore?
Note: This post is centered more for tourists and study abroad students (aka those who can’t cook for themselves or visit farmers’ and wet markets vs. eating out at hawker stalls and canteens, and also those who aren’t continually visiting higher-class restaurants, which are probably more likely to be attentive to unique customer needs) rather than commenting on how local Singaporeans deal with these.

IF YOU’RE A VEGETARIAN:
– I was vegetarian for about nine months before coming here, and gave it up about a week after visiting. Part of it was because I wanted to try Singaporean cuisine to its fullest, and the other part was that I was frustrated with
– Random meat. What looks like plain sauteed green beans may actually have been cooked with fish sauce, and many dishes have a few random anchovies (or a scant few pieces of chicken) thrown into it if you don’t look hard enough. Certain stalls at the NUS canteen (which function similarly to food courts/hawker centres off-campus) work like buffets where you pay per side dish ordered, and those usually don’t use labels.
– Not that it’s impossible, by a long shot, to stay a vegetarian here (and/or just avoid meat as much as possible). Breakfast options: waffles (a lot of waffles here are pandan-flavored, aka sweet and slightly green), chilled sweet bean curd, dim sum, the fruits and fruit juices (sometimes with fruit ice, red bean soup, or agar agar, even though those are more desserts) stall, pastries, kaya butter toast with eggs and coffee, oatmeal (microwaved in dorm). Savory options: the Mixed Vegetable Rice stall if you’re discerning enough and probably have asked a few people which dishes have meat in them, the Taiwan Noodle at the UTown noodle stall, Indian food, salad or spaghetti arrabiata at western food stalls if available, a hot pot place if you don’t mind the high prices for the small servings (>$5 SGD, aka >$4 US).
– Overall, vegetarians will probably be eating roughly the same food every day–and I mean this for NUS students who live on-campus (it’s probably a bit easier if you can cook for yourself).

IF YOU’RE A VEGAN:
– There’s not as drastic a difference here between being a vegan and being a vegetarian as there is in the United States, since no one really consumes dairy anyway. You’ll still miss out on a lot of dishes that have egg in them, like fried rices, most pastries, the traditional kaya toast breakfast, and the ubiquitous half-egg so often added to dishes or thrown into noodle soups (though you shouldn’t be ordering those either, since they usually have meat in them). What you can eat: I’m imagining mostly rice and vegetable options, but check to make sure the vegetable wasn’t cooked or simmered in a meat-based sauce.
– Overall: hope you like Indian food.

IF YOU’RE SENSITIVE TO GLUTEN:
– I honestly don’t know that much about gluten other than that gluten-free products are expensive here, but they’re probably normally expensive anyway.
– Fortunately, rice is way more popular than grains here.
– Unfortunately, depending on how sensitive you are to gluten, I wouldn’t be surprised if cross-contamination was common[1].

IF YOU’RE RELIGIOUSLY JEWISH:
– Kosher laws vary in strictness depending on interpretation, and I don’t know that much about it, but I found two good links. Generally, the Jewish community in Singapore is pretty small, and I rarely see kosher labels.
Kosher products in Singaporean supermarket chains
– The two kosher restaurants in Singapore, as well as comments about the community

IF YOU’RE HINDU:
– There’s a significant Tamil population here, which means that South Indian food[2] is commonly found at most food courts (not to mention Little India).
– Beef is somewhat common, but also pretty easy to avoid.

IF YOU’RE ISLAMIC:
– You’re in luck–there’s a significant Muslim community in Singapore. Food is often labelled Halal or non-Halal here (especially at ambiguous places like bakeries, where items may or may not be made with lard), and pork isn’t overly popular (unlike in, say, Spain, which has a culture based around ham).
– Random story: My Chinese tutorial leader, who’s well-meaning but awkward in many ways, hosted an in-class competition. One of the two girls in the winning team was wearing a hijab, and the prize was a bag of gummy candy[3] (which the two girls generously distributed to the rest of the class anyway). He didn’t notice.

IF YOU HAVE ALLERGIES:
– Everything: Cross-contamination’s always possible.
– Seafood: A bit more common here than in the US.
– Nuts: Random peanuts may be added to certain noodle dishes. I get that if it’s Thai cuisine, but here you get peanuts added to spicy seafood ramen at a hot pot place. Alrighty then.

Conclusion: Robot would die here.

[1] I don’t know how to explain what I mean to convey here, but I tolerate ‘dinginess’ (I typed ‘dirtiness’ at first, but that wasn’t the right word) at sit-down Chinese restaurants a lot more than at Western restaurants due to cultural expectations. And I haven’t generally experienced Chinese restaurants caring much about customer service like labeling gluten-free items or taking care of allergic sensitivities. Craig was surprised to see so many Bs given to eateries from health departments here at first; I wasn’t. In the United States, Asian restaurants that my family frequents (usually in the San Gabriel Valley, particularly Asian-American communities in the City of Industry, Rowland Heights, Alhambra, Monterey Park, etc.) are way more likely to get Bs and even Cs than As compared to other restaurants. “Real ethnic food places have Bs and Cs,” a Yelp commenter posted when I tried to look for a discussion on why (quality of linked discussion may vary, and I don’t support all of the opinions expressed in it).
There’s also an LA Times article linked within the above discussion link that takes this to a journalistic level, if you’re interested.

[2] From what I can tell, the main difference between North and South Indian food is that North Indian food places a higher emphasis on dairy products, which is why I’ve found my favorite South Asian dish–palak paneer–only once here despite visiting numerous Indian food stalls.

[3] Gelatin is sometimes, but not always, derived from pork. Sidenote: my vegetarian cousin still consumes gummy candy and rice krispies (and I did too a few times, by accident), but I didn’t realize how much vegetarians differed in scale (lacto-ovo vs. ovo vs. lacto vs. neither: whether you also eat dairy or egg products, and also the degree of strictness and reason for becoming vegetarian–whether it’s a lifelong lifestyle, a personal-health-spurred phase, or an environmental pledge), and the perceptions people had of them (“you don’t even eat fish, even sometimes?” my sister asked; “no, that’s pescetarian,” I responded, surprised that she didn’t know the distinction between the two).

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