When housewife Angeline Lim orders wonton and fishball noodles at a hawker centre, she always asks for less oil and salt.
Whether the hawker will comply is a “50-50 chance”, says the 52-year-old.
She says: “Some sellers will get angry or treat you rudely as they don’t want to compromise on the taste of their dishes.”
She makes it a point to ask anyway.
Sometimes, asking for healthy options at hawker centres can be seen as being finicky or insulting to the cook – but diners such as Ms Lim are getting more endorsement on their quest for healthy eating.
During the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appealed to Singaporeans to watch their diets to curb mounting health conditions such as diabetes.
He urged Singaporeans to choose healthier dishes such as yong tau foo or fish soup if they eat out, or healthier alternatives with less oil, sugar and salt that some hawkers offer.
This is in line with measures taken by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) targeting hawkers since December.
For the past three years, it has been running the Healthier Dining Programme, which encourages food-and-beverage businesses to offer healthier dining options.
They can display on their stall front labels such as “Lower in calories” for providing meals up to 500 calories each and “We serve wholegrain options” for incorporating wholegrain noodles, rice and bread in their food.
HPB plans to get four in 10 hawker stalls to sell at least one healthier dish by 2019. The board has identified a list of 63 dishes that tend to be under 500 calories, including beef noodle soup, masala thosai and mee soto.
But the fact remains that most hawker dishes are unhealthy, says Ms Bibi Chia, a principal dietitian at Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre.
She says a healthy meal should contain less than 500 calories, be low in fat, sugar and salt and high in nutrients such as calcium and dietary fibre and minerals such as iron and zinc.
Most hawker dishes do not make the grade as they contain high amounts of fat and salt and little vegetables.
“Char kway teow is cooked the same way as decades ago, even after years of public healthy-eating education,” Ms Chia says.
Diners should take charge of their diets instead of depending on hawkers to change their recipes, she adds.
One way is to plan what you want to eat in advance, which is easy because people are familiar with the food options in the hawker centres near their homes and offices.
“Diners tend to give in to temptation to order something unhealthy when they are hungry,” she says.
One can also eat less by sharing food, especially unhealthy dishes.
“Share a plate of fried noodles with someone and order something healthy, like a bowl of fish soup, to share,” she suggests.
She adds that diners need to be persistent in asking that their food be cooked with less oil and salt and with more greens.
“Just treat it as if you are ordering food in a restaurant, where it is the norm to customise food orders,” she says. “You just have to do it as it is your health you are talking about.”
For diners though, sometimes the mind is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Take finance executive Mohamad Saddiq, 29, who says: “Scraping away the gravy of my beef rendang or having less mee soto gravy is not realistic as the coconut and fat make these dishes delicious.
“It would be like eating a cake without the cream.”
“Limit these dishes to two servings a week.”
The Sunday Times takes Ms Chia to Tiong Bahru Food Centre, where she recommends some of the healthier dishes easily found in hawker centres.
Here are six suggestions.