1. What are you eating??

1. WHAT are you eating??

In sickness and health, we pledge allegiance to that most mischievous of organs the tongue.  We crave taste. Sweet, salty, fatty, spicy … all combine to make what we eat delicious and ‘to die for’. And premature death is precisely the result if we continue on the unrelenting path of eating mostly to satisfy our taste buds.

I’m carefree in blissful late ’50s Singapore 

I don’t mean to scare you, and I know you’ve heard it all before: you’ll LIVE LONGER if you limit sugary and diet drinks, eat more veg and fruit, drink more water, and exercise

You will be thinking, ‘Why should I?  I’m in my prime, work hard, support a family, juggle tasks, do 10K steps daily (sometimes), eat well’. But when you tell me what your ‘well’ is, I see that your reasoning is likely based on what you’ve heard, read and seen. The facts of how food is digested and processed are conveniently ignored, and we eat in ignorance. 

Mind the fine print

Media personalities and so-called wellness experts convince you that all health problems can be solved by their ‘life-changing’ products and endorsements which only ‘may’ work. Catchphrases like ‘age-defying’, ‘liver-cleansing’ and ‘toxic bloating make you part with your money. Just as I did. Worse still are deceptions such as ‘no added sugar’ or ‘no added hormones’. They don’t say ‘no sugar’ or ‘no hormones’ because there already is sugar and there are hormones. ‘No added’ means they’ve not added any more. Got it?

Health Singapore-style

Back to the F-word. As a curious 9-year-old in the late 1950s, I would browse through my mother’s many books on vitamins (she was a supplements addict) and physiology. Together with her monthly Woman’s Own with its own smattering of health news, I understood how vital food nutrients were for good health. I also learned from grown-ups’ conversations about the apparently inevitable ailments of ‘high blood pressure’, ‘diabetes’ and ‘high cholesterol’. Well, nothing’s changed, has it?   

‘Sampan’ boats on the S’pore River with the city behind, 1960s
(From left) Me, Mum, baby sister, Ah Chai & Gran, 1955

But apart from that, my life as a youngster in Singapore was, well, blissful. Both parents worked, and we had live-in Malay cooks and maids. But one lady stands out in particular: Ah Chai, my beloved live-in Cantonese nanny (they were called majies or amahs). She was devoted to me and my younger siblings, dressed in her traditional white and black starched samfu uniform. Ah Chai remained with us for over 15 years, a huge part of all our lives.  

My parents constantly entertained, never having to worry about household chores. There was lunch, colonial High-Teas with fine porcelain, and dinner.  We feasted on Malaysian curries with saffron pilau rice and all things fried, followed by local desserts and the freshest fruit. There was also our fabulously rich, aromatic Iraqi-Jewish cuisine to the delight of our Singaporean friends – my father would goad them to eat even more and ‘drain the plate’.

S’pore’s CBD, Clifford Pier at right, 1970s

While not a big eater in my Dad’s footsteps, I still enjoyed the pleasure of having meals laid out for me. With cratefuls of soft drinks and sweet cordials, exotic ice-creams and icing biscuits in large tins, we were oblivious to the damage such ‘food’ was doing to our bodies. And in one way or another, we all paid a price.

An unusually calm family mahjong session, 1960s 

In the evenings, my mother’s family team would arrive for melodrama-mahjong, while my father would talk shares and property with his armchair cronies. After dinner, the men would nod off and snore. I hated the ‘fat’ tag then and more so now, but saw that most of them were just that – though a large man-tummy in Asian culture spelt prosperity. Men proudly patting their distended stomachs bulging over stretched trouser belts was a common sight.

Aged 13, with my parents & sister

Really, the only time my family would arise from their seats was to go to the bathroom. This they did in turns, usually an hour after eating. When in a room next to the toilet, burps and farts would often grace my ears. I still squirm at the word ‘fart’, but don’t know why. Maybe it’s because my prudish mother hated it too, and invented the word ‘poot’ as a substitute. So it was either ‘Did you make a smelly poot?’, ‘Who pooted?’, or ‘Why are you pooting so much??’ I laugh as I write this!  

Still, looking back, I’m grateful my parents didn’t drink, apart from a glass or two of whisky-soda or brandy-ginger-ale at dinner parties. Wine was never drunk with meals, except the kosher variety on religious occasions. What’s more, Dad didn’t smoke and Mum only had a few cigarettes a day, insisting she didn’t ‘inhale

Granny Azizah, the family angel

But of all my many relatives, Granny Azizah stood out. She remains an inspiration for me, and even for Shirl’s Pearls. I would see her every day after school, always welcomed with a big hug and smile. We’d have our Milo, and I’d make the milk bubble with a stick frother she called her ‘chop-chop’. Her chicken ‘bone soup’ was glorious – served steamy hot in a blue and white china bowl. Wouldn’t you know, it cured all our coughs and colds! 

I do visit Singapore often; my taste buds still love the old familiar foods and I make sure that I have just enough to make me happy. But I’ve noticed Singaporeans’ idiosyncratic eating habits haven’t changed much at all, despite the Singapore Government’s frequent health campaigns. 

Empress Place Plaza & Victorian buildings, 1960s

Singaporeans, like us, love their vitamins and herbs. Most popular are ‘Horny Goat Weed’ for men to boost libidos, collagen supplements for women, caffeine to boost hair growth, and pills to prevent bloating and constipation.

WELL (excuse the pun) – the secret to better health is out. Do read the next blog – It’s all Colonic

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8 thoughts on “1. What are you eating??

  1. Thank you for your comments. Yes have piles of books and newsarticles on my desk and putting the best bits together was a challenge – and well worth the time to hear comments like yours.

  2. Dirk Hansen

    Thank you for sharing this insightful look into you time growing up in Singapore.
    I am looking more to reading more about how we can all improve our eating habits.

    • Yes lots more Dirk and I hope I can help as many people as you have. ..why did I take so long? Joining your ‘Stay Strong and Live Long’ Seniors class was the best thing I every did. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for sharing some of the memories of your interesting childhood in Singapore with us Shirley.
    I look forward to hearing more from you.

  4. Hi Efrem ..love your honesty! Hard pills become easier to swallow with practice! It is never comfortable to change old habits .. and telling anyone that they are not eating right can be tricky. I know I will be treading on thin ice but I promise to tread slowly and carefully.

  5. René sekhas

    Very impressive and informative but I expected nothing less from you Shirley.
    Looking forward to reading the next blog

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