Text and images by KF Seetoh @ Makansutra
First they attempted to introduce a 100% version, it was impossible. Then a 50% reduction was attempted but it kept breaking so now it’s down to 25% with a coating that helps to keep its resistance. Sounds like the efforts behind the latest F1 tyre technology that will help speed demons go “faster, better and cheaper”, to steal a famous local quote about productivity.
But they were talking about noodles and brown rice, or just how much brown rice flour can be mixed into starchy noodle flour (stuff folks from a developed and sedate nation needs a lot less of). All those, plus how we must, if we must have chicken rice regularly, use brown rice, as it is “here to stay”, in the words of Mr Ang Hak Seng, CEO of the Health Promotion Board (HPB), at the recent Worlds of Healthy Flavours Asia conference organised by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). His mission is to ensure that we become a healthier and happier bunch of Singaporeans so it does not adversely impress on healthcare cost and management here.
Apart from the diatribes about glycemic indexes and culinary strategies (the heavy stuff), the conference was more fun than I imagine. Prof Frank Hu (Harvard School of Public Health), fired the first salvo on stage about just how difficult it would be to have the majority Chinese folks here convert from white (which is a symbol of fortune and luck) to brown rice (which was traditionally associated with “peasants and the poor”). White rice is a status symbol for many Asians.
While the term “nutty” and nutritious was loudly and proudly bandied about at the conference under the banner of brown rice, it was all silence when, as requested, the Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice folks served up a dinner for some delegates using all brown rice. It was, well, nutty, something furthest from the minds of any fans eating chicken rice. At least it was fragrant. I believe I must have ruffled some official feathers when I raised the point about how they should tear down the stickers at the hawkers that proclaim – “Eat me, I am healthier”, or to that effect “Please don’t tell us what to eat, as it is, there are a lot of controls over what we do already.”, I breathed into the floor microphone. If the HPB is already giving financial assistance and encouragement to the hawkers in converting to healthier offerings, just do it and remember to still keep the “wow” factor intact. I will enjoy it, and if it’s healthy, it can only be a bonus. I cite Japanese food – they never touted the “healthier” brand in our face, it was the worldwide fans of their food that said it was. The hawker centres are naturally targeted by the HPB as they are an institution that feeds the masses here, and unfortunately, also the main cause of disproportionate (usually oversized) body mass indexes here too.
I like two “healthier” versions of popular street food demonstrated at the conference. One was celebrity chef and author Chef Devagi Sanmugam’s grilled, not fried, vegetarian vadai. She simply used a sandwich maker and doused the golden brown snack with a spicy raisin sauce. Chef Alexander Ong, owner-chef of Betelnut Restaurant in San Francisco had an epiphany after our kiam chye ark (salted vegetable and duck soup) dinner at the East Coast Lagoon hawker centre. He added wheat noodles to it and used a lot less salt. I would have loved if he used glass noodles or beehoon, but there were no brown rice versions available.
The HPB currently is working with five hawker centres and 20 food courts to convert to healthier alternatives. But would the Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice folks follow suit, here’s founder Mr Wee Toon Ouut’s parting shot “if I changed to brown rice, my customers will leave and I will close shop in three weeks. I have to follow what his customers want.” In short, I think we should just eat less (whatever you want) and move that sedate touché more often.