When faced with assorted cooked vegetables, meat dishes, seafood and a harried server behind a glass display, your day’s lunch usually ends up being either the same old selection with white rice or a gut-feel pick of a balanced meal. You can do better. After all, these iconic hawker storefronts are usually the best options for a personal serving of a balanced meal – that is (you guessed it) a quarter plate of rice for carbohydrates, one meat dish for protein, and two vegetable sides plus a fruit for fibre, says dietitian Goh Yiting of Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Nutrition and Dietetics Department. We ask our experts to break down these mixed rice guidelines into the three main cuisines you’ll find at the hawker centre, so you can, well, mix it up during feeding time.
CHINESE CAI FAN
“Ask for brown rice if it’s available,” suggests Yiting, explaining that it contains more fibre compared to jasmine rice. “Then choose one of these types of dishes: stir-fried vegetables and meat, and steamed fish, egg or tofu. If you select meat cooked in gravy, leave the gravy, skin and fat behind.”
Avoid topping your rice with curry or gravy, and skip dishes cooked with processed ingredients such as hot dogs, luncheon meat, fish ball, fish cake, salted egg and salted vegetables. “This helps reduce your sodium intake,” Yiting advises. “Also, limit your intake of seafood such as sotong and animal organs, as these foods are high in cholesterol.”
MALAY NASI PADANG
You’ll find more curry and spicy dishes here. So choose food such as assam pedas fish or curry chicken without the gravy, says Yiting. As for your side of vegetables, look for stir-fried dishes or those with the least gravy, says plant-based nutrition expert Hairin Bahren of MyMaha.com. “The healthiest dishes contain vegetables that retain most of their original colour. It should not be discoloured by oil, gravy or curry,” she explains.
“Your best bets are broccoli, carrots, cauliflowers and long beans.” Hairin also recommends gado gado – steamed vegetables with peanut sauce that you can share with friends. “You will get fibre and phytonutrients from vegetables, and the peanut sauce gives you a serving of protein and healthy fats,” she explains. “Just go easy on the deep-fried tofu and tempeh.”
Order here as you would at the Malay stall, except that the choice of carbs has changed. The long grained basmati rice served here is lower in glycaemic index compared to white rice, notes Yiting, meaning it’ll break down more slowly, keeping your blood sugar and insulin levels more stable. The downside, however, is that the nasi biryani version is usually cooked with ghee and, as a result, is high in fat – a whopping 9.9g per serving compared to 2g in nasi kunyit (yellow turmeric rice) and 0.3g in white rice. “So ask for plain basmati rice if it’s available,” says Yiting. “If it’s not, go for plain jasmine rice.”