Eating out while on keto is a challenge, but eating at a hawker center is even more difficult. For many people however, dashing to the food court on a quick break is the only lunch option available. Is it possible to stay on keto visiting these local food stands?
The keto diet is a high fat, medium protein and low carb diet. First, the bad news. Most food at the hawker center is carb-heavy. 90% of the food you get at the hawker center combines a small amount of meat / veg with a larger portion of some carbs like rice or noodles. Some dishes are almost 100% carb-based. It's a minefield out there for someone on keto!
The good news is there are some hawker food options for those on a keto diet. But you should be prepared for:
The last point is important. If you're trying to get into ketosis and want to fuel your body on fat, you need to consume more fat. Fat-rich foods that are also low in carbs are extremely rare at the hawker center. This is a list of foods that are keto-friendly in that they are low carb with some non-zero amount of fat and protein, but they are not all perfect examples of a balanced keto meal.
My philosophy with keto is that it's easier to get your fat from different sources at different times throughout the day. I never expect one single meal to deliver me a perfect macronutrient dose of high fat, medium protein and low carb - it's impractical to expect so and you'll run around in circles trying to find meals that fit this profile when eating out.
If you're struggling to find keto-friendly meals when eating out, just do low-carb, and then supplement with fat throughout the day. For example, eat a low carb lunch and then a fat-rich snack afterwards like some healthy nuts or a fat bomb.
A piece of fatty pork belly is high fat, medium protein and low (zero) carb so it fits keto macros almost perfectly. Siu yuk is made by rubbing pork belly with salt and spices, then roasting it. I like dishes where it hasn't gone through too many convoluted steps to reach the end product.
This is one of my go-to dishes if I'm at the hawker center, but just eating a pile of pork belly isn't particularly healthy for you so I usually try to consume some greens at the same time, which is where the mixed rice stall comes in handy…
If there was one stall that I consistently visit on keto at the hawker center, it's mixed rice. I like being able to visually pick out my food because I can avoid the keto-unfriendly ones e.g. they contain keto-unfriendly ingredients or have some kind of thick sauce thats probably thickened with starch.
How to do keto at the mixed rice stall? Firstly, captain obvious time, but no rice! Secondly, I usually focus on vegetables (okra, pak choi, bitter gourd), the steamed minced pork dish and the steamed egg dish. Third, when navigating the mixed rice stall it's important to know what to avoid… more on that at the end of this post.
No rice! Fish soup is delicious, but a bowl of soup without rice probably won't fill you up. This is keto friendly since it is low carb, but not a perfectly balanced keto meal as it has very little fat content.
No rice or youtiao! Similar to fish soup, this is simply meat in liquid, so it's keto friendly. If you get the fatty cuts of meat, BKT can be more satisfying than fish soup.
If you're caught out at breakfast surrounded by mee siam and kaya toast (both not keto friendly), don't forget that the kopi stall can make you some plain soft or hard-boiled eggs. Eggs fit the keto macronutrient profile quite well and as you can see in my 1 year of keto food post, I eat them often.
No beehoon! Another keto breakfast option at the hawker center is dishes from the beehoon stall, without the beehoon. Here you can get fried eggs, fried spam, and ngoh hiang. There's probably a bit of carbs in the ngoh hiang (sugar, water chestnut) but not a super high amount. Eggs and fried spam isn't a particularly healthy breakfast I know, but it does align to keto macros. This is a breakfast I would eat only if I'm really in a pinch.
Grilled chicken wings in Singapore and Malaysia are usually quite harmless. The marinade is usually soy-based and while it may contain some sugar, it's not a prominent amount as the flavour profile is more salty than sweet.
You do have to be careful of the chilli sauce as again, there's some sugar in it. Just use the chilli sparingly. Watery, bright red, vinegar-based chilli sauces like the ones that you get with grilled chicken wings are fine in moderation. In the keto chilli universe, you just have to absolutely avoid the ketchup-like chilli sauces such as maggi (which is like eating glucose syrup) and thick, syrupy sambals which have been cooked down with a lot of palm sugar.
If you're with friends, the zi-char stall is a great way to fulfill your body's keto needs. Keto-friendly items you can order at the zi-char stall include:
Here are some dishes that you should absolutely avoid if you're on keto at the hawker center. Are you reading this? This is not a continuation of the above list… these are foods to be AVOIDED!!!
Char siew - avoid this on keto because the marinade is almost pure sugar. So even though this is meat which is zero carb, it's encased in a carb-heavy outer crust.
Sweet and sour pork - you would be shocked if you saw how much sugar goes into making sweet and sour pork. It's a lot. Don't eat this if you're on keto.
Fruit / juice - one of the keto basics that a lot of people mess up. Fruit is healthy so it's fine for keto right? Sorry, wrong! Fruit is high in sugar / carbs. Juice is pure, liquefied fructose and is basically like drinking a coca cola with some extra vitamins. There exist some keto-friendly fruits but they are to be eaten very sparingly and they aren't the kind that you find at the hawker center anyway.
Bubble tea - milk, sugar and tapioca starch, it's a massive bomb of carbs. Bubble tea is this generation's soda. Avoid it.
Anything gloopy - a gloopy consistency usually means it has been thickened with starch. When I'm at the mixed rice stall I avoid dishes that are shiny / gloopy.
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