Food may be available around the clock in Singapore, but that has not stopped companies from producing instant food.
But instead of dehydrated ingredients or MSG-laden instant noodles, ready-to-eat meals with meat and vegetables are hitting the shelves. Some even come with mixed grain rice.
They can be stored at room temperature and are shelf-stable for at least one year.
To prepare, simply open the packet, pour out the contents and heat them up in the microwave.
Options include briyani by House Brand, Chinese-style chicken soup from Freshen Food and curry chicken from Foodbox. These come in retort pouches, which are also commonly used for army rations called Meals, Ready to Eat (MRE).
Retort technology is a heatsterilisation process that keeps food shelf-stable without the use of preservatives. The meals are cooked from scratch and vacuum- sealed before sterilisation.
By adjusting the heat parameters, flavours and nutrients are preserved, while bacteria is destroyed.
Just last month, Prima Taste launched its Ready Meal range.
The range features four flavours - Curry Chicken, Nonya Sambal Chicken, Beef Rendang and Chicken Claypot Rice.
The rice component is a mix of white basmati rice, wholegrain basmati rice and multi-grains.
Mr Lewis Cheng, executive director and general manager of Prima Food, says: "The decision to create Prima Taste Ready Meals was driven by our observations of the increasing demand for healthier food products in the market.
"While we do enjoy a vast selection of food in Singapore, we wanted to create a product that time-starved consumers, who lack sufficient time to prepare a meal from scratch, can enjoy at any time of the day."
Foodbox founder Bay Hwee Eng, 30, is also catering to busy Singaporeans who want convenient meals. (See correction note below)
On using the retort technology, she says: "If I keep a chilled foodpack in the fridge, I may not be able to consume it before the expiry date, which is usually less than a week."
She says she picked Soy Ginger Chicken, Curry Chicken and Black Pepper Chicken to provide spicy and non-spicy choices.
Research and development for Foodbox started two years ago, in collaboration with Singapore Polytechnic's Food Innovation and Resource Center.
She is also in talks with supermarkets to sell Foodbox and is looking to introduce more options.
Suriya Trading Enterprises, which manufactures ready-to-cook spices and ready-to-eat products, rolled out its House Brand Ready to Eat Meals in 2013.
Business has been brisk and the products, currently made in India, are likely to be manufactured here next year.
Housewife Amy Ang, 63, a mother of three, says: "Instant food is never my first option for the kids, but it is better than having them hungry if they come home late.
"I like the soups by Freshen Food as they are not the usual canned creamy soups. They make for a quick supper - hot, comforting and hassle-free."
Engineer Nathan Lim, 32, says: "I find Prima Taste's rice pretty tasty and very easy to prepare. It does remind me of fancy army rations, though, but as long as it fills me up, I'll buy it."
Ready to eat
What: For spicy meals, try House Brand's channa masala, vegetable kurma or vegetable briyani.
These vegetarian meals are made in India. Just pour out the contents and heat on high for one to two minutes.
Price: From $2.55, available at Mustafa Centre, Big Box as well as Sheng Shiong, Giant and Fortune supermarkets.
Verdict: A star anise falls out of the briyani packet and I am immediately amazed. The spiced rice is fragrant even before it is cooked and it has peas, potato chunks, French beans and sliced carrots in it too.
The channa masala packet is filled with tender chickpeas and it is well seasoned with cloves, cumin seeds and turmeric, among other spices.
Similarly, the peas in the vegetable kurma retain their bite while the slightly spicy and thick curry goes well with the briyani.
If you do not want to have the rice, just buy the channa masala and vegetable kurma, and mop up the gravy with chapati or naan.
PRIMA TASTE READY MEALS
What: Prima Taste's quick meal product range now includes local dishes with rice. The four options are Curry Chicken, Nonya Sambal Chicken, Beef Rendang and Chicken Claypot Rice.
The meals feature a combination of white basmati rice, wholegrain basmati rice and other grains such as barley, black glutinous rice and brown rice. Just make a small tear in the vacuum pack (to vent steam), cook on high for 90 seconds in the microwave and serve.
Price: $6.50 each, available at all major supermarkets
Verdict: My favourite of the flavours is the beef rendang, which is well-seasoned and tastes like the real thing. The spiced beef is also tender, unlike the chicken pieces in the other options, which are on the dry side.
My least favourite is the Chicken Claypot Rice. The Chinese chicken sausage is too soft and I do not taste any of the salted fish listed in the ingredients. I also find the Nonya and curry chicken a bit too sweet for my liking.
Overall, I am impressed by the moist rice. It is easy to loosen the rice without the grains breaking up into mush.
This product is good for those who are really lazy. Preparation is fuss-free and you can eat it straight from the packet if you don't want to pour the contents out onto a dish.
What: A fancier version of the usual frozen microwave meals at convenience stores.
Three flavours, all halal-certified, are available - Soy Ginger Chicken with Mushroom, Black Pepper Chicken and Curry Chicken with Potato .
The meat and mixed-grain rice are packed separately in a microwaveable container, complete with cutlery. Just pour out the contents and microwave for two minutes.
New flavours as well as vegetarian and lower-calorie options are in the pipeline.
Price: $6.90 (online price), $7.90 (original retail price)
Info: Available online at www.foodbox.sg
Verdict: The effort to pack the meat and rice separately does make a difference as the rice does not end up soggy from being soaked in gravy.
I am pleasantly surprised by the tender chunks of meat in the packets. The meat is not dried out and it does not flake apart when cut.
The Soy Ginger Chicken option comes with three whole shiitake mushrooms that are tender and juicy. However, it is my least favourite gravy as the ginger and soya flavours do not stand out.
The tastiest gravy is the black pepper one, while the chicken curry is too sweet and milky.
What: One can be fooled into thinking these soups have been simmered for hours. But no toiling over the stove is required.
The home-style Carrot & Potato Chicken Soup, Radish & Carrot Chicken Soup and Lotus Root & Peanut Chicken Soup (above) just need to be poured into a microwavable bowl and heated on medium for three minutes. The foil pouch cannot be microwaved.
Price: $5.95 at selected major FairPrice supermarkets and online at online.keesong.com/
Verdict: Instant soup is not uncommon, but these Asian-style ones really remind me of home-cooked soups that mum makes.
They have carrot, radish and potato chunks, as well as bone-in chicken pieces. The meat falls off the bone, just like it would in soups that have been boiled for hours.
Similarly, the vegetables are very soft, like they have been stewed for a long time.
The soups are also not artificially sweet and not too oily.
I would probably pack some of these with me if I'm going overseas for a long period of time.
PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, FRESHEN FOOD, FOODBOX
Correction note: An earlier version of this article referred to Foodbox founder as Goh Hwee Eng, when in fact it should be Bay Hwee Eng. We are sorry for the error.