Monday, January 02, 2006

Singapore - the food paradise!

Happy New Year to everyone who reads this blog!
To start off a great new year, Jeff Yen has an awesome essay on nutrition. It's interesting to note that the Health Promotion Board is cooperating with McDonalds to teach people about nutrition! Hahaha

Indeed, it is about time that Singaporeans learn more about nutrition. The older generation of Singaporeans care very much about the kinds of food that their families eat. It's very common to hear the elders say to the younger ones, "Don't eat too much of 'outside food'; it's not so good for you..." And they would probably say that fast food in general is not really healthy.

The younger generation, however, is an 'eating out' generation. By that, I mean a generation that generally eats outside :) or buy takeaways...This is related to what I have earlier called the 'outsourcing of cooking' in my essay on Singaporean women who can't cook. The ready availability and affordability of takeaway food is one of the causal factors. The other is the increasing number of bosses and managers who are 'slave drivers', resulting in Singaporeans having to work very long hours and suffer immense stress associated with work. This leaves most Singaporeans with no time or inclination to prepare home-cooked meals. So buying takeaways and eating outside become attractive options that would help people to save time.

Because of the prioritization of 'convenience' as a factor affecting how we eat, 'nutrition' has become downplayed and is generally not an important consideration for Singaporeans. In other words, there is a shift of attention away from what we eat due to the lop-sided focus on how we eat. Long queues waiting for oily dishes such as char kway teow or chai tow kway (fried carrot cake) are commonly seen. Singaporeans are willing to wait for 45 minutes for a plate of Hokkien prawn mee (noodles) or BBQ sting ray or satays. Ask anyone in the queue why they love these dishes so much and they'll tell you right away, "Because they're nice!" Thus, 'nice' is a generic word that most commonly used in Singapore to justify all kinds of choices: the choice of a partner ('she's nice or 'he's nice'), unhealthy food ('it's so nice....yum yum'), well-designed clothings ('this top is really nice', 'that shirt is nice'), expensive apartments ('they are nice'). Because 'nice' sounds so disarming and innocent, the use of this word to explain one's consumption choices immediately makes all other considerations disappear. Yet, these considerations that have been made to disappear are those that could and should be regarded as equally or even more relevant and salient.
The tyranny of the word 'nice' operates together with marketing slogans and widespread myths circulating in society. Singaporeans and organizations operating in the tourism/hospitality/food-and-beverages industries here happily rehearse the phrase 'Singapore is a food paradise!' over and over again. Locals and foreigners accept this phrase too and joyfully agree and repeat, 'Yeah! Singapore is indeed a food paradise!'

In a way, Singapore is truly a food paradise. Our food courts, food centres, and hawker centres are unbeatable in the world. The food they sell are so tasty that Singaporean men would gladly give up their partners for them (and same for Singaporean women too). But this is precisely the key problem as I see it: the prioritization of taste over nutrition. People say that Singaporeans are 'practical' rather than 'emotional' or driven by instincts. But when it comes to food, this general observation does not apply; Singaporeans are driven by instincts rather than rationality when it comes to food! Who cares about the nutritional value of the food? What matters is that the food is nice! :) (ooh, the pigs' trotters, the kway chap with all the tantalizing pigs' intestines! the greasely grilled chicken wings!) Who says Singaporeans do not know how to enjoy and are too serious? They are not - they are hedonistic and are not serious about eating well when it comes to food and nutrition!

The only four stalls that sell healthy food in food courts or food centres are (a) the porridge stall, (b) the soup-based noodles stall, (c) the yong-tau-fu stall, and (d) the 'mixed dishes'/economical rice stall. The food sold at these stalls are the only ones that are (a) not oily, (b) have acceptable levels of cholesterol, and (c) contain a few shreds of vegetables in them. The Health Promotion Board needs to tell people to eat more fibre. In fact, I propose two draconian but potentially highly effective measures: the first is to force all Singaporeans to become temporary 'herbivores' (I like this word) :) and eat lots of fibre for at least one week every month and fine anybody who dares to go against this order (say, $1000, which is peanuts anyway), and the second is to have a national campaign to make Singapore a 'fibre eating' hub. I feel that the Health Promotion Board's strategy is too generic to be effective. Achieving 'good health' by eating healthily is too vague as a message for Singaporeans. The crux of the problem lies in the insufficiency of fibre in the typical Singaporean's diet, which is tied to two other phenomena I've discussed earlier, namely, the 'eating out' culture and the composition of stalls in the food courts/centres.

Another problem relates to hot drinks in Singapore: they are simply too hot for human consumption! I have a friend who is able to finish a cup of boiling hot 'teh si' (milk tea) in 2 minutes. Unfortunately, most Singaporeans can't do that. In fact, they shouldn't even try to do that because it's extremely bad for one's throat. The World Book encyclopaedia said that Singapore has one of the highest rates of throat cancer, precisely because of this rather brainless practice of preparing boiling-hot beverages for customers to drink. Do these drink stall operators (and even some fast food restaurants) really expect customers to sit down for half an hour just to wait for the drinks to cool down to an acceptable temperature? I once had an amazing experience too: this drink stall operator asked me, "You want your tea to be 'not-so-hot'? Do you mean I should add ice?" I was so appalled that I asked back in exasperation, "Do you mean you don't know how to make tea that is not so hot? Just add some cold water!"

Finally, Singaporeans who care about nutrition should learn to decode nutritional information. This does not mean simply reading and accepting all those information at face value. For example, instead of simply accepting that food product X has Y amount of carbohydrates/protein/fat etc, think about how it is cooked and prepared. Everybody knows that the way food is cooked will affect its nutritional value. So the key question that a reader of nutritional labels must ask is: does the nutritional information presented pertain to the food/ingredients that are 'pre-cooked' or 'after-being-cooked'? And does it pertain to the amount of nutrition one would potentially get (ideally speaking) if you cook the food well, or to the amount of nutrition that one would definitely get based on the way that the restaurant/packaged-food company in question has prepared the food for consumption. What I think is missing in Singapore is a nutritional literacy. And the Health Promotion Board isn't exactly addressing this issue with its rather elementary 'nutrition awareness' campaign, unfortunately.


Blogger MQube said...

hmmm...not the mixed dishes/economical rice store...too oily

i sugg the popiah store!

Mon Jan 02, 03:30:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous HSDS fan said...

You are right about the hot drinks. The ones from vending machines are also terrible. So hot that you have trouble even holding the paper cup. And worse if you are in a place such as a hospital waiting to see the doctor and there is nowhere for you to put the cup down. I suppose, though, the high temperatures may be necessary to kill germs or keep ants away or whatever.

There is a short 'filler'(about 3 minutes)called Vitaminix that comes on sometimes on Playhouse Disney Channel. It has surprisingly become quite a favourite with my son and I'm glad someone has come up with this fun way of teaching children about the importance of a healthy diet.

Tue Jan 03, 10:50:00 AM 2006  
Blogger domestic rat said...

I think sandwiches are the best takeaways. Fast food that is nutritious, of course, if you skip the bacon.

Tue Jan 03, 06:24:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi folks, thanks for your comments! Sorry late reply...I'm back now!

MQube: Hmm...I would agree that Popiah store should be added! Why didn't i think of that? :)

HSDS Fan: Oh, Vitaminix? Will check it out. Yeah, the drinks from the machines are even worse! Actually, soup/gravy-based food too (e.g. Ban Mian, Hor Fun) - at some stalls these are so hot that I've to wait for 20 mins before I can have my first bite!

Domestic Rat: I do agree that they are v healthy, esp if you add lots of lettuce :) The sandwiches in UK (esp London) are really nice...Much nicer than Singapore's! Singapore should strive to become a Sandwiches Hub! :)

Fri Jan 06, 01:55:00 AM 2006  
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