(BUSINESS TIMES) - If you work in the CBD and are still contemplating either a salad or sandwich for lunch, then you clearly haven't received the memo on the latest in healthy eating. Namely, grain bowls or rice bowls - convenient, all-in-one meals that are showing up on menus with almost the same frequency as gluten-free options or salted egg yolk.
In fact, entire eateries have sprouted up serving only "bowl food", like Grain Traders which opened in September 2015, and Aloha Poke - serving Hawaiian-style poke bowls - in October. There are now at least five different brands of poke-centric restaurants alone, not counting outlets with rice or grain bowls in their menus.
Darren Wee of the Japanese-inspired healthy bowl eatery Ninja Bowl sums it up as a "one dish meal with a good balance of protein, vegetables, and carbohydrates." He adds, "It's easy to eat, pretty to photograph, and can be eaten on a regular basis."
The main draw is the convenience of everything being in one bowl, says Linus Loh, 26, of the charcoal-grilled meat bowl joint Chalong. "Bowl food is something you can have without even needing a table. It's easy to pack, consume and clean up. The demand can be seen from the increasing number of food delivery services and takeaways in the CBD," he says.
As many of these eateries also focus on healthy eating and nutrition, this style of fast food is actually better for you than something from McDonalds or KFC.
For instance, Javier Perez, 39, Founder and Director of Grain Traders, says their brand started after his business partner noticed the eating habits of people working in the CBD. "Often they don't have time to cook nutritious meals for themselves. Or their lunch is a hurried affair because they only have 20 minutes to spare. We wanted to provide people with slow-cooked food that's served up in the time that it takes for you to get fast food," he says.
This nutritional value might also contribute to the longevity of the trend, since it goes beyond just being fun or Instagram-worthy, adds A Poke Theory's Joey Lee, 23. "Bowl food usually enforces a balanced diet with grains, meat and veggies. And healthy eating is a trend that has a much more prolonged lifespan over food fads," he says.
It also helps that Singaporeans in general prefer rice and grains as staples because of our Asian roots, points out Ninja Bowl's Mr Wee, 31. We have already been eating things like chap chye png and nasi padang from coffeeshops and hawker centres for many years, so a modern take like "bowl food" is simply a natural evolution.
He says: "On a global scale, I think this concept has been around for centuries. Just look at Spanish paella, Korean bibimbap, Indian biryani - all examples of grain bowls with a strong presence in communities around the world. I believe that what we have done locally is to take bits and pieces of different cultures' salient ingredients, and put them together in a way that better suits our palate."
It all began with a trip to Hawaii in 2014. John Chen was travelling with his wife and their friends, when they came across poke and decided it would be something that would suit Singapore tastebuds.
"Singaporeans like sushi. There are a lot of sushi places in Singapore and many are always full. So it shows that there's a demand, and we felt that even people who don't like the taste of raw fish could enjoy this," says Mr Chen.
That's how they ended up opening Aloha Poke - the first eatery in Singapore to specialise in poke bowls inspired by the traditional Hawaiian dish. Since the first outlet's opening in October 2015, they have opened another two, and are looking to launch a fourth in Orchard Road,
Their menu is simple and easily customised. Customers fill in an order sheet, picking a base from white rice, brown rice, or salad, and pick their poke - either ahi tuna or salmon - in different styles like original, spicy, or wasabi mayo. Prices start at S$11.90, which includes 75g of poke.
92 Amoy Street
Siblings Joey and Vannessa Lee first ventured into bowl food in July 2016, with their healthy poke joint A Poke Theory. Its concept was born after Mr Lee's internship in Los Angeles, where he tasted a simple poke dish with just "fish over rice, garnished with some white onions and sesame seeds".
Less than six months after their first outlet opened, they expanded with a second outlet at the Esplanade that's aptly named Alter Ego.
"We now have our evil twin concept, with a totally polarised menu, vibe and attitude. It focuses on some lip-smacking indulgent bar grub such as our Pizza Fries or Fried Chicken Skin," says Mr Lee, who adds that the the concept for his second outlet resulted from his daydreaming about indulgent food while he was in the army.
The menu consists of an "Indulge Dirty" section, with the pizza fries (S$14) and fried chicken skin (S$8), but also has an "Eat Clean" section offering pre-set poke bowls like the Umami Omega (S$16) with spicy garlic sesame salmon on sushi rice, and The Wildcard (S$15) with avocado miso tuna.
8 Raffles Avenue, #01-13D
If you think that all bowl food immediately refers to the bright green salad bowls you see on Instagram, think again. Chalong, a two-month-old charcoal-grilled meat takeaway joint at Tanjong Pagar specialises in grilled meats in a bowl instead.
Not that it's particularly unhealthy since the ingredients are of a quality that co-founder Linus Loh takes pride in. The meat is prepared daily with beef air-flown from New Zealand. The salt is brought in from the Himalayas, while the butter comes from Denmark.
Chalong was inspired by a trip to Phuket, where the founders came across a restaurant popular among locals which served charcoal grilled pork. "We fell in love immediately and decided to create our take on the dish in Singapore," says Mr Loh.
Their bestsellers so far are an 18-hour sous vide Iberico jowl bowl (S$12) and a grass-fed black Angus striploin bowl (S$14) - all made by their chef and co-founder Elin Boh, who has a double diploma in pastry and cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu (Paris).
7 Wallich Street, B2-21
Tanjong Pagar Centre
Nutrition and balanced meals are the mantra of Grain Traders, a Singapore-born brand that opened at CapitaGreen in September 2015 and has since opened a flagship outlet at 100AM in Tanjong Pagar.
Founder and director Javier Perez says the inspiration for their concept came from places like Ottolenghi in London and Forage in Los Angeles. "The idea is somewhat similar-you have this mouthwatering display of good food that's made fresh and with local produce, based on whatever's best that season. You come in, and pick whatever looks, sounds, and smells good," he explains.
That's why they offer a "Build Your Own Bowl" option (S$16 nett) where customers can pick one type of grain, a protein, a hot vegetable, two cold vegetables, a topping, and a sauce. Alternatively, pick from their selection of signature bowls, like the El Hibaro - a grilled striploin with salsa verde, charred veggies, wafu tomato, bean sprout salad, and white sushi rice.
#01-03/04, 100 Tras Street
Ninja Bowl's owner Darren Wee started exploring the idea of bowl food as early as 2014. At the time, he was serving French-Japanese donburi at his other outlet, Babette - Restaurant & Bar. As these rice bowls gained traction, he thought it would be a good idea to open an eatery focused on just that.
"We wanted something purely Japanese, but as the years went by, a lot of other chirashisushi places came up so we decided on something Japanese-inspired so that we wouldn't be restricted," says Mr Wee. That's when he came up with Ninja Bowl, which opened in April 2016 serving "Japanese-inspired healthy bowls".
There are eight options to choose from, including the Tsukiji (S$16) with pan-seared tuna tataki, asparagus and edamame tossed in lemon juice and sesame oil, the Genki (S$16) which contains grilled Japanese eel, roasted pumpkin, and Korean beansprouts, and the Kaisen (S$16) with pan-seared Hokkaido scallops and New Zealand mussels with shimeiji, shiitake, and button mushrooms.
15 Duxton Road
T: 6222 8055
During her university years, Singapore-born Steph Kudus spent a few summers studying in Hawaii. Once she graduated, she found work in Hong Kong doing investment banking, and craved Hawaiian food - like poke. "Five years of eating sushi bentos while reading emails, prospectuses, and staring at my computer during lunch created a need for me to spice things up," she says.
With that, she decided to venture into F&B and came up with the idea for her poke chain Pololi. The first outlet opened in Hong Kong in 2014, and the first overseas outpost opened in Singapore just last December.
Pololi serves their bowls in two sizes - the Da Keiki (150g of poke) at S$15.99 and the Da Kama'aina (180g of poke) at S$17.99. There are five rotating flavours available every day, including traditional spicy, yuzu salmon, Thai spicy tuna, Korean spicy taco, and sweet onion teriyaki swordfish.
51 Telok Ayer Street