Stirfries, noodle soups, Asian salads, sushi, dim sum – these were just some of the delicious healthy options I was expecting to encounter by moving to Asia and hoped that after a few months away from a Western diet, I’d start to resemble some of the bird-like, graceful women I met whilst on my investigative trip out here.
Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth! Food is a Singapore obession and must rank as the most popular way to spend leisure time given the ever-increasing number of restaurants which are popping up all the time. The variety is enormous and ranges from every type of food you can imagine – Chicken Satay to Korean Roast Duck; Frog Leg Porridge (for breakfast!) to Tandoori Chicken.
Spot the odd one out? All but the frog leg porridge are mimicked in vegetarian versions that I have seen around the city where the “meat” is a meat substitute like TVP, Tofu or Soya, which has been created so that it feels like meat, looks like meat and worst of all, tastes like meat.
This was a surprise at first. In fact, I had ordered a mushroom satay from one of Lau Pa Sat’s famous satay stalls and was relishing the spicy, peanutty, deliciousness that was about to come my way. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. What arrived had been squished onto a skewer, blackened over a fire and then brought with a small tub of satay sauce. Somewhat gingerly, I picked up a skewer and took a sniff – definitely meat. Ugh. I waved at the boy who served me who came over obligingly. “Is this mushroom?” I enquired, doubtfully. He looked closer and said “I’ll check with the chef, and scampered off to double check. Glad that I’d caught it before eating it, that lasted seconds before my hunger returned and I became annoyed that I was going to have to try and find another option and wait all over again.
Instead, the boy came back and confirmed that yes – it was in fact mushroom. I pulled it apart and stared at it. Took another sniff, a tentative bite. Yes, he was right, it was but a far cry from the button mushies from home. This was strong, meaty and wild and by that point, I was thoroughly put off.
The “mock meat” as it is called is there to serve the Chinese vegetarians here as well as the large Indian community, and the Buddists, so I’m in good company. the problem is that I am vegetarian because I believe that animals are not put here for us to eat and we abuse our position at the top of the food chain in doing so. I also don’t like the taste and haven’t eaten meat since the age of 10. I realise this is unusual and would not seek to enforce my views on others (unlike some of my carnivore/neanderthal friends!).
That said, I see a frustrating lack of great tasting vegetables and eggs here. The lack of veggies is because they are expensive in the supermarkets as most are imported from Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. Eggs are different and have a strange colour to them compared to the luscious sunshine-yellow yolks of the UK.
Most countries can offer me one or two dishes that I can rely to be good and veggie (mostly but I always check!). Indonesia – Gado Gado; Thailand – Pad Thai, Vietnam – Veggie Summer Rolls (and maybe Banh Xeo if I’m lucky), Japan – Nasu Karashi Sumiso-Ae, etc. Problem is that I always end up having to have the same thing!
Don’t get me wrong – Singapore has an abundance of food and it would be wrong to suggest that even the pickiest vegetarian is going to go hungry here (unlike Korea or China). It’s impossible. But you might just get really bored if you stick to Asian food so don’t feel bad for trying out the Western restaurants too – some of them are fantastic, albeit expensive, and you can find some gems – try Original Sin, Holland Village for fusion food at its best…. dare I say that even the most carnivorous of appetites will be satisfied!