A Food Allergy Sufferer’s Essential Guide to Singapore: 6 Common Allergens in Hawker Dishes

Asian cities are great for their street food, but the ingredients that go into these delicacies and their condiments may contain food allergens that diners aren’t aware of. For a visitor with a food allergy, staying satiated, comfortable and alive requires extra research and planning. In this post, I’ve focused on common local dishes in Singapore since I’m familiar with them. Hopefully, the knowledge translates into a less painful experience in the city-state for you and your guests with food allergy.

Note: Please take this as a general guide to what goes into various dishes. It’s not exhaustive, and I cannot guarantee that you will be alright if you follow this guide. I cannot account for individual recipe variations that include ingredients that you are allergic to.

Lasted updated: Jul 24, 2022 @ 1:52 PM

About Food Allegens in Singapore

Singapore’s cuisine reflects the ethnic mix of its people; therefore, there are usually options if you’re allergic to an ingredient that one culture frequently uses in its food.  The cheapest places to get one’s fill are the hawker centre, but there are also cafes and restaurants that serve up refined versions of the local cuisine.

However, awareness of food allergy here is low compared to America, Europe and Australia. Some restaurants mark the dishes that do not contain allergens on their menus; however, establishments that are completely free of (insert allergen here) are rare. Contrary to Ronnie Chieng’s joke, it’s just plain ignorance and has nothing to do with “strengthening the gene pool”.

Although the Singapore Food Agency regulates the labelling of packaged food, there isn’t a local agency that certifies or administers standards to dining establishments in this manner. Hawkers are much less likely to tell you what goes into your food, especially if there is a long line of people behind you.

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The following six ingredients affect 90% of the world’s food allergy sufferers. I’ve listed the dishes that you probably didn’t know contain these allergens and, where possible, the establishments that omit them.

food allergy
A dish of fried carrot cake. You wouldn’t have guessed from the name alone that it has eggs and fish sauce (fish and gluten)

Eggs

Food allergy culprits

  • Any food that is battered and fried;
  • some types of tofu;
  • fried carrot cake (which is actually made with daikon);
  • wheat noodle varieties such as u-mee/mee kia and mee pok
  • wanton and dumpling skins;
  • egg wash on pies, bread and puffs;
  • custard buns (liu sha bao) and tarts;
  • fish soup (may include crispy egg threads);
  • some mooncakes; murtabak (an Indian-style crepe filled with meat, eggs and onions–plain prata may be contaminated if fried on the same griddle);
  • fried rice
  • Mee rebus and mee siam often have a boiled egg topping

Examples of relatively safe hawker dishes

Satay, chicken rice (order it alone and beware the braised egg in the set meals), Cantonese roast meats (same as with chicken rice sets)

Dairy/Lactose intolerance

Food allergy culprits

  • Fish and bitter gourd soup (milk is added sometimes);
  • White beehoon (not the rice vermicelli itself but a dish stir-fried with pork and seafood, sometimes enriched with condensed milk)
  • packaged coconut milk used in curries and desserts.
  • Note that roti prata, murtabak and biryani are sometimes prepared with ghee.

Examples of relatively safe hawker dishes

Almost everything other than the above is usually fine since Asians often suffer from lactose intolerance.

Penang Road laksa in a bowl
Penang laksa contains fish and prawn paste

Fish and shellfish

Food allergy culprits

  • Fried carrot cake (there is fish sauce);
  • many spicy Peranakan and Malay dishes (belacan, or fermented shrimp paste, is a common component of spice mixtures);
  • cincalok (fermented shrimp-and-rice mixture used as a condiment with beef noodles);
  • Penang-style/assam laksa (fish and prawn paste go into this sour and spicy dish); 
  • Nyonya/Katong laksa (contains cockles, prawns and shrimp paste)
  • rojak (Chinese and Malay versions contain prawn paste)
  • yong tau hu soup stock (anchovies are used, while yong tau hu refers to vegetables and beancurd stuffed with fish paste or pork);
  • Hong Kong-style wanton noodles (the soup may include shrimp roe);
  • the sambal that goes into Chinese noodle dishes may contain shrimps too
  • Thunder tea rice (lei cha or lui cha) often has a dried shrimp topping but you can ask to leave it out
  • Good kimchi may also be prepared with oysters
  • Satay beehoon contains added cockles and cuttlefish
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Examples of relatively safe hawker dishes

Cantonese roast meats on rice, chicken rice, popiah (wraps stuffed with braised jicama– but go without the prawns if they are offered), chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with salted radish pickles).

The three types of food allergy above (dairy, eggs and seafood) can usually be avoided by dining at one of the island’s vegan establishments, such as Smoocht and Veganburg. You can use the HappyCow website or app to find others.

Peanuts, sesame seeds and nuts

Food allergy culprits

  • Many spicy Peranakan and Malay dishes (candlenut is often an ingredient in the spice mix);
  • the chilli paste of Chinese noodle dishes (candlenut sometimes);
  • satay sauce, satay beehoon and massaman curry;
  • rojak (as a topping on the fruit salad);
  • pancakes (e.g. mee chiang kueh); 
  • kueh tutu (a steamed cake that may contain peanuts); tang yuan (rice flour balls with a nut, sesame or bean filling);
  • nasi lemak (fried peanuts feature on the side);
  • dishes fried with peanut oil
  • Roasted sesame oil is often added to congee and chicken rice for flavour, while the light version is sometimes used to fry tempura
  • Sesame seeds also appear on some Chinese, Japanese and Malay desserts
  • Some ramen shops also serve sesame seeds as an optional garnish
  • Any dish that has goma or a goma dressing contains sesame seeds
  • Muah chee (a sticky rice dessert coated in crushed peanuts)
  • Lo mai kai (glutinous rice often has fried peanuts)
  • Cashews are also used in butter chicken.

Examples of relatively safe hawker dishes

Mee soto, pork soup, beef noodles (some stalls add crushed peanuts to the starchy gravy version, however), roti prata and murtabak.

A bowl of Lanzhou beef noodles
Lanzhou beef noodles are one of several kinds you can find in Singapore

Soy

Food allergy culprits

  • Dishes that use soy sauce (chicken rice, dark carrot cake, fried bee hoon or vermicelli, char kuay teow or fried flat rice noodles, and some types of chilli dip),
  • fermented beans like natto or tempeh (in mee siam, a tangy and spicy noodle dish)
  • kecap manis in Malay and Indonesian dishes (in ayam bakar or grilled chicken);
  • sayur lodeh (coconut-based vegetable curry) that may contain tempeh;
  • yong tau hu (there is beancurd and the soup may contain soy beans);
  • dishes fried with soybean oil;
  • Dark Klang-style bak kut teh is flavoured with soy sauce
  • Thick yellow noodles that are offered at noodle stalls and with mee soto and mee rebus
  • Mee siam is often topped with taupok (fried beancurd puffs)
  • edamame toppings for salad bowls
  • Malay rojak may contain tempeh
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Examples of relatively safe hawker dishes

Soy is such a big part of East Asian cooking that I would simply suggest Indian dishes. It’s hard to know for certain what oils are used for cooking.

Celiac disease (gluten)

Food allergy culprits

  • Things that contain soy or fish sauce (see above)
  • Wheat flour is sometimes used to thicken gravies
  • Note that “barley” drinks are usually prepared with Job’s tears, which are gluten-free

There are establishments which have gluten-free options on their menus, such as The Soup Spoon chain, Entre-Nous Creperie and Super Loco at Customs House and Robertson Quay, but there’s the risk of cross-contamination for very sensitive people. Then there is The Butcher’s Wife, where the menu is gluten-free. All these places usually do not serve Singaporean cuisine.

Tips for Visitors with Food Allergies

  • Do your research. Reading this post is a good start, if I may say so. Search travel and expatriate forums and ask if you can’t get the answers you’re looking for.
  • Going to a restaurant? Call well ahead to reserve a spot and let them know your needs. They’ll appreciate this far more than if you were to walk in unannounced and make your demands. If you have an allergen-free version of an essential condiment, bring it along for the restaurant’s use.
  • Get a knowledgeable local to take you places and double up as an interpreter.
  • Be prepared to go without. Spice mixes are usually prepared in the morning and not a la minute. The cook may not deem it worthwhile to make a new batch to accommodate you. Ingredients may be sometimes prepared in an off-site kitchen.

Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed something so that everyone benefits! And if you’re looking for things to do, have a look at my two-week Singapore itinerary. Feeling brave enough already? Here are five unusual dishes you can try.

This article was first posted on 27 January 2017.