It’s a food trend available to the adventurous and those who can afford them, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
CUISINES typically develop around the raw ingredients that are available in a particular region, together with the cooking techniques favoured by that community and their religious food requirements.
Climate and weather conditions play a huge role in the availability of ingredients, as they determine what crops can be grown where — rice and wheat, for example, require different conditions to thrive. Seasonal changes also affect food production.
Modern farming and food storing techniques, together with a widespread transportation system, has changed the way the world eats. The modern shopper gets their food from a supermarket and is usually not too concerned about how food gets to their shopping cart.
Still, alarm bells are raised over modern food manufacturing with its use of additives to make the product tastier, more attractive and longer-lasting (and in some cases, cheaper to make) but at the expense of our health.
Modernity has led to a more sedentary lifestyle for many of us, yet we are still eating a calorie-rich cuisine built around the need to give us lots of energy for a physically-demanding life. This caloric imbalance is usually the root cause of obesity and its related health problems.
It is at this juncture that we find ourselves at a kind of new global cuisine — the healthy cuisine. It happens as people become more aware of the need to take care of their health and wellbeing through food intake.
It also helps that the things we eat are slowly becoming more alike around the world. This is arguably started by big brands and corporations and their global expansions but the daring of people for trying new things and liking them should also not be discounted.
Historically, every culture and society around the world has some form of food that are therapeutic and medicinal — the proof of which is either anecdotal or scientific, or both.
Modern healthy cuisines would often champion these ingredients, which can become popular by word-of-mouth, or through scientific backing and marketing campaigns. These foods may be unheard-of previously and quite exotic, like quinoa.
Exotic is, of course, a relative term. The highly-nutritious quinoa is a staple to people in the Andes mountains in South America but a new ingredient elsewhere.
It’s in the same way that coconut oil is not uncommon here but has become a very popular health food item around the world. It is such that it’s making “native” users of coconut oil, who have not used it for decades, to give it second look.
Other characteristics of healthy cuisine is that it tends to be heavy on plants i.e. vegetables and fruits, but low on starch and cooked simply.
But it needs to be said that like everything else, health foods are dictated by trends and marketing. Take the term superfoods, which is more of an umbrella concept rather than a precise, scientific label.
And research itself can be tricky. While certain foods may be scientifically proven to be high in essential nutrients, it costs money to find out about it. The funds may come from parties that have a vested interest, so it’s not exactly a level and objective playing field.
Given the “exoticness” and unfamiliarity of these health food dishes and ingredients, I find it easier to try them out in cafes and restaurants. It’s the opposite of most dietary advice as home-cooking is usually the healthier route, but some ingredients are hard to source to cook at home.
Besides that, I have no reference for how these dishes are suppose to taste like — a lot of these things are not what I grew up eating. So I’d rather leave it to the professionals, who I assume have a broader palate and know what they’re doing.
The elephant in the room for healthy eating is its price. These healthy cuisines are not cheap, although some would argue if you’d rather spend your money on medical bills instead.
But the fact is, food costs more if it comes from far away, like fresh berries. It costs more if it’s produced on a small scale, like coconut sugar. It costs more when it’s hard to grow, like organic greens. It also costs more if there’s demand for it, like avocado.
For breakfast, I head to The Good Co in Bangsar. It opens at 9am and has an assortment of sandwiches, salads and smoothies. The Hulk Sandwich is RM18, made from two slices of organic rye bread with a cream cheese spread, and a filling of arugula, avocado slices and sundried tomatoes.
Rye is a different grain to wheat and rye bread is higher in fibre than white bread. Cream cheese is a dairy product and a source of protein, but also saturated fat. Avocado is high in vitamins and minerals as well as monounsaturated fat - the so-called good fat — and the calorie content is quite high.
Arugula is a leafy plant with a lot of antioxidants. Sundried tomatoes are presumably good for you as well, but I think its addition in the sandwich is to give it some tang and cut through the richness of the cream cheese and avocado.
I had a Poke Bowl (RM21) for lunch at a cafe called Rubber Duck in Plaza Damas. It’s a Hawaiian dish with raw salmon, crunchy red cabbage, edamame and brown rice, and you mix it all up with a sesame sauce.
Salmon is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, it’s high in proteins and vitamin B. Raw salmon apparently has no greater benefit compared to cooked salmon, but it does taste better. Edamame is also a good source of plant protein.
Meanwhile, brown rice is a whole grain that has not had its fibre and other nutrients stripped during processing, unlike regular white rice. But it’s still rice, so it’s still high in carbohydrates and calories.
I skipped eating out for dinner and ordered from food delivery service DahMakan. I had the healthy chicken rendang with brown rice (RM23) and the website conveniently tells it has a calorie count of 560kcal.
The rice is mixed with local herbs and veggies such as bunga kantan, long beans and kacang botol (winged bean), which is an excellent way to prop up your nutrient intake. The rendang wasn’t oily and chicken comes from breast portion with the skin removed, and I thought it was very good.
Along the way, I drank kombucha, which is a probiotic drink. It’s basically fermented tea that’s effervescent and slightly sour that’s good for your guts. That said, there’s no real scientific evidence behind claims that it’s miracle drink but it’s nice and refreshing all the same.
The other popular drink in the healthy food circle is cold-pressed juice, such as the classic Goodness Greens from La Juiceria at RM13. Here, fruits and vegetables are first shredded and pulped, then pressed to extract the juices. Conventional juicing with a blender generates out heat, which destroys some of the enzymes and nutrients.
What’s interesting about these dishes is that you can also find them in other cities around the world, eaten by diners who are also concerned about their health.
We may even participate in the same gym exercise, read the same wellness websites and follow the same people on Instagram for fitness inspiration. Health is, indeed, a global culture.
A WAY OF LIFE, A WAY OF EATING
HEALTHY doesn’t need to be a cuisine. It’s also a way of eating. Whether at home or when you’re dining out, healthy eating is not “dieting” or depriving yourself of meals and being hungry. It’s a way of life, by eating the right things in the right balance and proportion.
Some of the key concepts include:
* Portion — be mindful of how much food you’re supposed to eat depending on your age, size and activities.
* Ingredients — plant-based foods are better for your health than animal-based products, so eat lots of vegetables. Pick whole grains as they are higher in nutritional content. Be mindful keeping a balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fibre, fat and water.
* How it’s cooked — steaming or roasting is better than deep frying. Cooking food in the microwave can also work to preserve the nutrients.
* Drink plain water — drinking water is essential to our health and plain water with zero calories is usually the way to go. Drinks like tea and coffee may contain good antioxidants but its benefits can be impacted by the sugar or dairy in the drink. Fresh fruit juice may be high in sugar but it also comes with other nutrients, so consider the cost and benefits of that.
* Calorie counting — use this as a guide on how much you can eat versus how much energy you will expend in a day. Do note that calorie counting tends to put an exact number on meals with many variables so don’t get too hung up about it. Remember that you still burn calories just by doing regular everyday things.