Malay and Indian food less healthy than Chinese food

From ‘War on diabetes: Changing eating habits of Malay, Indian communities an uphill task’, 25 Aug 17, article by Wong Pei Ting, Toh Ee Ming, Today

For Malay food vendor Aida Manapi, 50, the tastiest ayam penyet (smashed fried chicken) must be crispy and glistening, and there is only one way to cook it — “deep fried”.

And when it comes to roti prata, no one serves it by being stingy on ghee (clarified butter), said stall vendor Senthilvel Vedachalam, 43.

Such traditional methods of cooking or serving Indian and Malay favourite dishes, along with mindsets that they have to be cooked in a certain way for best results – have made it difficult for many hawkers and home cooks to change the way they prepare these dishes. For them, unlike Chinese dishes, one cannot produce a healthier, yet still tasty ayam penyet or roti prata by simply using less oil, salt or sauce.

In a related article back in 2010, even medical experts pointed to Malay food as a key reason for the burgeoning rate of diabetes and obesity among the community. Endocrinologist Lee Chung Horn also described Malays as ‘gregarious people’ characterised by social assemblies that revolve around fatty foods. The article above seems to suggest that toned down Malay and Indian dishes would be less enjoyable compared to Chinese food with their ‘bland’ porridges and soups, but that doesn’t explain why the queues for untampered char keow teow (with pork lard) are always longer than other stalls which put healthier choice stickers up on display.

Inevitably, the focus is always on hawker fare, food so rich and so close to our heart it’s often blamed for slowly destroying it. But that would be too simplistic an explanation for the diabetes epidemic. Due to our hectic, stressful lifestyles, it’s often challenging to prepare and indulge in homecooked meals, where one could at least regulate the amount of sugar, salt and fats, whatever race you are. Still, most of us don’t eat hawker food every day, we tend to go for variety across all cuisines, and articles like these also tend to avoid mentioning fast food for some mysterious reason. I would want to know if eating 1 Mcflurry is worse than a chendol, for example.  Of if a chicken chop at the ‘western’ stall is a healthier option than Spicy McChicken.

But if you’re talking about Chinese food being healthier than Malay/Indian food, here’s a quick rundown with a few shockers. References here , here and here.

  1. If you’re choosing between beef rendang and char kway teow, you could have 2 servings of the former and still take in less calories than the mother of all fatty foods. (312 vs 744 kcal)
  2. Roti prata vs Ang Ku Kueh? The Indian breakfast wins – minus curry I suppose (209 vs 240kcal)
  3. Goreng Pisang or Tau Huay? Of course the deep-fried banana anytime. (197 vs 317 kcal)
  4. Cantonese pork porridge with century egg has more cholesterol than mee rebus (370 vs 206g)
  5. Bak Chor Mee has more total fat than Mee Goreng ( 22.7 vs 20.4g )

Being accused of  gastro-racism aside, the fact of which race is more diabetic compared to the rest seems as clear as day, but putting the blame on some generic heritage foods alone without an assessment of other lifestyle habits may mislead some into preferring the wrong foods as ‘healthier’ alternatives, without controlling for hidden carbs/fat/salt in beverages or condiments. Further, just because something has less calories doesn’t mean it has more ‘nutritional value’. Take carrot cake vs nasi lemak as a single meal for example, the latter packed with more essential nutrients and fibre if you include fish, cucumber and egg. If we take this obsession with calorie counting and sugar content too far, we may neglect our B and C vitamins, calciums and omega-3s.

The adage ‘eat in moderation’ never seemed to cut it with me, perhaps ‘Eat Less, Move More, Occasional Treat, Screw Macs’ may be a personal mantra that could work in the long run.

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