Welcome to Singapore. The hub of Asia and land of food and calories. I was living in London before moving to this beautiful country and remember thinking that I was in for an amazing new lifestyle. With such awesome weather and the fact every condo comes with a pool and gym as standard, I was expecting to be a more toned, tanned and fit version of my pasty British self. Fast forward to the present, and whilst I still think Singapore is an awesome place to live I have learnt the hard way that gaining weight in Singapore is totally unavoidable.
There are a couple of reasons for gaining weight in Singapore. Let me start with the obvious one first. The food is great. Singapore is reputed for its great variety of cuisines readily available as a result of its geolocation, history and multiculturalism. Food is the unifying cultural thread in this hot pot of countries and the Chinese, Malay, Peranakan and South Indian dishes are most prevalent and taste authentic. My favourite Chinese dish hands down has to be Wanton Mee, which are egg noodles served with a tasty broth-like sauce, Chinese vegetables, roasted pork and pork & shrimp dumplings. At the Lavender Food Hub you can enjoy this classic with a side of clear soup and the dumplings are cooked in two styles, steamed and fried, for only $5. Coming a close second, is my beloved Yong Tau Foo soup. This is usually sold at a self-service counter with your choice of vegetables, tofu stuffed with fish paste, noodles and soup base. Third, well it has to be Hong Kong style dumplings and Victor’s Kitchen is the best for this.
But let me do justice to the other main cuisines as well. If you fancy Malay, you cannot go past Nasi Lemak which is coconut steamed rice with pandan leaf, curried meat and topped with a fried egg. The Singapore food scene takes this national dish one step further with the Nasi Lemak burger, available at McDonalds and quite a few other burger joints.
Peranakan is something special. It is essentially Chinese and Malay fusion, descended from the original Chinese migrants who settled in Malaysia and Singapore. The defining characteristics are spiciness, aromatics and zest. Dishes combine elements of Chinese cooking such as noodles, or stir-frying and braising techniques with those used in Malay cooking to create rich tasting curries and soups. Ingredients include egg noodles, coconut milk, lemongrass, chilli, ginger and laksa leaf. My favourite Peranankan restaurant of all time, although a little on the pricy side, is the National Kitchen by Violent Oon. Make sure you try the Singapore Sling if you go here too.
South Indian cuisine is the most prevalent and sentimental type of Indian cooking you will find. Most Singaporeans will affectionately remember eating idli or dosa as a childhood breakfast treat. For the real deal, don’t go further than Little India but whether you eat here, along Orchard Road or in the outskirts of Singapore, remember this. Everyone loves prata and you just have to have it. Delicious, tasty and fried Indian bread served with fish, meat or vegetarian curry sauce for dipping. Singaporean hipsters are pushing the limits with their prata recipes, developing modern versions like the prata Alfredo, which is fried bread stuffed with mushroom and Italian cheesey sauce. However I content myself with the more local and filling twist, murtabak, which is Muslim Indian fried bread filled with meat and eggs and served with curry.
Singapore is also renown for its Western and fusion dining scene as well. As at October 2017, Singapore had 38 Michelin starred restaurants of which three I have been fortunate enough to dine at. Labyrinth probably stands out the most, offering deconstructed local fare. Their Hokkaido Scallop and Japanese A4 Wagyu are impressive (despite the egg) although their version of prawn noodle soup, where the soup part is jellied stock, is a bit of a wank. A real travesty is Burnt Ends has not yet been awarded a Michelin star. It’s an Australian BBQ joint with a decent wine list, top notch ingredients, and the chefs are on fire! Guests are sat facing the kitchen and watching the chefs operate like a well oiled machine is a pleasure on its own. But what else would you expect from an Australian chef?
I’m not even close to exhausting how good the food is, but let me finish off on this topic by concluding… it is a damn shame on Britain that brunch and coffee in Singapore blows London out of the water. The brunch scene here is great. Probably due to the combination of Asian and ANZ influence. Whilst there are always hits and misses (do me a favour and stay well clear of Jewel, which is spreading like the plague), generally speaking its not too hard to find a good cup of coffee. Just bear in mind a cappuccino is considered a luxury item and you will pay through the nose for it. Brunch menu options are interesting and whilst predominately Western, most brunch spots give their meals an Asia twist. Right now I am loving Old Hen Kitchen that does an amazing avocado toast with Indian spice as well as Creatures for their creamy cafe lattes and Taiwanese bubble tea flavoured cheese cake slab.
Reason number two why you will be gaining weight in Singapore is the food can be deceivingly cheap. Not all food, but the hawker food. Hawker centres are everywhere, but particularly in close proximity to public housing. This is to ensure all locals have access to affordable meals. Hawker centres are comprised of *independent* stalls, mostly run by old aunties and uncles, which prepare family recipes. There are a few staples you will always find at a hawker centre such as fish ball noodle soup, Hainanese chicken rice, kaya toast and bak kut teh (pork rib soup). Some hawker centres can be decidedly more Chinese whilst others more Indian and so forth. The Golden Mile complex near Bugis is famous for its Thai food stalls. However the best hawker dish I have tried so far is the oyster omelette at opposite Geylang Serai market.
Hawker food is by definition cheap. Your average dish will cost $5 and will be very filling. Sometimes you can even find food for $3 or cheaper. When you first arrive in Singapore you will be so amazed by all the delicious varieties of food selling so cheap that you will eat out all the time and want to try everything. It is only later you realise that hawker food is not healthy. Chicken rice for instance contains 600-700 calories as the rice is cooked in chicken fat, which gives it that special flavour. Most dishes are laden with cheap oil and only the fattiest cuts of pork are used to make dumplings. The healthiest dish is probably fish soup (without the noodles), which is still around 300-400 calories.
In stark contrast, supermarkets are very expensive. Singapore is not an agricultural but service based economy, meaning almost all food items are imported. Whilst a lot of fruit and vegetables come from nearby Malaysia and Thailand, a good proportion of meats, dairy products and dry goods come from countries as far away as Australia, New Zealand and England! A single-serve tub of plain yogurt costs around $3 whereas a mozzarella ball will cost $10. There is even a special shelf at most supermarkets for Tesco and Waitress branded products from Britain that are ridiculously marked up and presented as luxury purchases. Therefore even when you want to be healthy and cook at home, economics may force you to continue eating unhealthy hawker food instead. There are a range of wet markets in Singapore selling fruit, vegetables, meats, fish and various other food items considerably cheaper. Make sure you go there early in the morning to beat the crowds and purchase fresh foods before they sell out!
Lastly, and this is the real killer… if you work in a global organisation it is almost certain you will work long hours, which causes gaining weight in Singapore. For global calls and meetings, Asia always gets the rough end of the stick to accommodate other time zones. Evening in Singapore is midday in Europe and morning in the USA. Long hours and late nights at work invariably mean you are spending way too much time inactive and stationed at your desk. It can be challenging to carve time out to attend a gym class or even go for a walk. Because of the humidity, walking is actually avoided during the day to avoid becoming sweaty and smelly. In this regard, you need to be very disciplined about maintaining a work life balance. Either make time for yourself to have a dinner and gym break between calls and meetings in the early evening, or limit yourself to only working three late nights per week.
So there you have it. Three reasons why you will definitely be gaining weight in Singapore: great variety of food, cheap hawker centres and long working hours. In order to avoid learning the hard way (like me), here are a few things you can do to keep your healthy weight goals and avoid gaining weight:
- Only dine out at a restaurant once or twice per week
- Avoid rich curries and chicken rice, and opt for fish soup at the hawker centre
- Shop at the wet market for fruit, vegetable and produce rather than supermarkets
- Be disciplined about finding time to exercise
- If you have a pool in your condo, go for a swim in the mornings. It is a great way to start the day!
- Realise gaining weight is not the end of the world