If you see rows of vegetables on display in a typical Singaporean hawker centre, don’t mistake it for a salad bar! Instead, it is actually a yong tau foo stall, a hawker centre staple in Singapore, which offers up a healthy, affordable and delicious meal. Most local dishes can be oily and carb-heavy, so this healthy Singaporean hawker food is definitely needed.
There are two types of yong tau foo stalls – the first type whereby the ingredients are fixed, and the second and more common type where you choose your own ingredients – the possibilities are endless!
Origins of the dish
Traditionally, yong tau foo is a Hakka dish, and the name is the Hokkien term for ‘stuffed tofu’, but locals use the term to refer to the whole dish, which can consist of vegetables, sausages, fish balls and more! The ingredients are then boiled briefly in hot soup (usually a soybean stock), which gets even more flavourful throughout the day as more ingredients are boiled in it.
A lunchtime favourite of office workers, this healthy Singaporean hawker dish is arguably the most nutritious you can get, as long as you choose lots of vegetables and choose the clear broth. Some stalls may deep-fry certain items, such as the fried beancurd and the fish cakes, but you can inform the server to not deep-fry it if you prefer! A bowl of yong tau foo typically costs around $5, making it as affordable as it is healthy.
Yong tau foo stalls are also perfect for vegetarians and vegans, as they can pick their favourite ingredients from a large selection. However, they should always check with the servers what is the soup stock made from, as it could be from animal sources such as chicken or anchovies.
A good balance of a yong tau foo dish would be three vegetables, one tofu and two meat or deep-fried items, with clear broth and rice noodles.
Now, onto the most important part – how to order:
1. Grab the tools
Get a pair of tongs and an empty bowl near the display of vegetables. You’ll get to pick the ingredients yourself and then hand the filled bowl over the counter staff later on.
2. Select your ingredients
Most stalls require a minimum selection of six ingredients, but some others have a minimum of five or seven, so make sure to check their display! Also, each piece counts as one ingredient, unless they are already bundled together. Each extra piece will cost more, according to how the store prices it. Similar to the economy rice stall, don’t take too long to select your ingredients, especially if there are people waiting behind you.
Tip! If you’re vegetarian or vegan, avoid the tofu and vegetables that are stuffed with white fish paste or minced meat. Typically, you can spot hollow vegetables like ladyfingers and chilli peppers are stuffed with fish paste.
3. Select your broth and carbs
Tell the server your choice of broth and carbs when you hand over your ingredients. For the broth, the most classic choice is the clear soup, but some stalls offer Laksa soup while others have Tom Yam soup (both costing extra), which will be shown on their display. If the weather is too hot for soup, you can order it dry – the server will strain the soup out and give you an extra bowl of soup on the side.
For the choice of carbs, the common options are rice vermicelli, thick bee hoon (thick rice noodles), kway teow (flat rice noodles) and rice. Some stalls may have other options like instant noodles, yi mian (fried egg noddles) and brown rice. Do ask the servers if you don’t see the noodle options on their display.
As the ingredients are boiled on the spot, there’s bound to be some waiting time of a few minutes. Stand at the side of the stall while you wait for your dish to be cooked.
5. Add the free condiments
An essential ingredient for the perfect yong tau foo is the sweet bean sauce, which is used to dip the slightly bland tasting ingredients in and comes in a reddish-brown colour. If you prefer some spice, there’s chilli sauce, looking more reddish and chunkier as it is more akin to a sambal sauce.
Tip! Locals usually drizzle the sauces liberally into their bowl if they ordered the dry version and mix it into the ingredients and noodles.
6. Getting your dish
When you get your dish, the server might scoop some dried anchovies and fried shallots into your dish, so do let them know if you don’t want any. If you spot a tub of boiled soybeans near the condiments display, that’s what the stall used for their soup stock and it’s free for customers to take!
And there, you finally have your bowl of delicious and healthy yong tau foo. Since yong tau foo is so customisable, there’s really no wrong way to eat this healthy Singaporean hawker food! As long as you enjoy the chosen ingredients, it will be a delicious dish.