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”. Premature death is precisely the result if we continue on the unrelenting path of eating mostly to satisfy our taste buds!
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”. And you’ll be thinking, “Why should I? I’m in my prime, work hard, support a family, juggle tasks, do 10K steps daily (sometimes), eat healthy food”. But when you tell me what your “healthy” is, I learn that your reasoning is likely based on what you’ve heard, read and seen.
Conveniently ignored are the facts of how food is digested and processed. We eat in ignorance without the slightest concern that we’re putting on weight and shortening our lives!
Mind the fine print
Wellness experts, media personalities and even celebrities tout their anti-ageing products and endorsements – which, in case you haven’t read the fine print, only “may” work … “and if symptoms persist, see your health-care professional”.
“Age-defying”, “liver-cleansing”, “anti-inflammatory” and “bloating” are words that entice – and you part with your money just as I did. Worse still are the claims of “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
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 “high blood pressure”, “diabetes” and “high cholesterol” – all linked to “old age”, it seems. Nothing’s changed!
Apart from that, my life as a Singaporean youngster 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’.
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.
In the evenings, my mother’s family team would arrive for high 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.
Women didn’t escape from the tummy-bulge either. I would ask my mother: “Is Auntie having a baby?” Mum would smile and say, “No, it’s only wind” (in Asia, this word usually meant any pain below the waist!).
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’.
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. Now we learn it’s rich in collagen too – and so easy to make at home!
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.
Singaporeans, like us, love their vitamins and herbs. Most popular are ‘Horny Goat Weed’ for men to boost libidos, antioxidant, fibre and multivitamin supplements for women, caffeine to boost hair growth, and pills to “break up the wind” (i.e. bloating and acid-reflux!).