When cooking instructor Normalis Selamat read reports of high obesity rates in the Malay community two years ago, she decided to step up efforts to cook healthily for her family.
The 55-year-old started roasting and steaming chicken and fish instead of deep-frying them.
She also traded her wok for an airfryer to cook with less oil, switched to using canola and olive oil from vegetable oil, and stirred low-fat yoghurt into her rendang instead of using coconut milk.
Madam Normalis, a volunteer with the Health Promotion Board (HPB) who promotes health messages at its community outreach events, says: "It took some time for my family to get used to the healthy versions of Malay dishes, as they can sometimes be on the bland side.
"However, with the rising cost of healthcare, it is easier not to have to deal with health problems, so prevention is better than cure."
The issues that prompted her to rethink her cooking have resurfaced.
Statistics released by the National Registry of Diseases last month show that Malays make up a disproportionate number of patients who suffer from chronic ailments such as diabetes, kidney failure, heart attacks and strokes.
HPB believes that these diseases stem from obesity, which is on the rise in Singapore due to sedentary lifestyles and larger food portions.
Obesity is more pronounced among Malays.
The last National Health Survey in 2010 showed that the obesity rate in the community is 24 per cent, which is more than double the average obesity rate among Singaporeans.
Obesity is caused by caloric imbalance, the consumption of excessive calories that leads to unwanted weight gain.
Dr Annie Ling, HPB's director of obesity prevention and management, says obesity among Malays can be linked to what is served on the dining table.
She says: "This may be in part related to the celebrated Malay food culture: Delicious food but that which is high in sugar, fat and calories, involving the heavy use of ingredients such as coconut milk and oil, which increase the amount of saturated fat in the food."
Besides the types of food, eating habits also play a part. The National Health Survey showed that Malays consume more sweet beverages and deep-fried food and tend to include less whole grains, fruit and vegetables in their diets than the general population.
To counter this, HPB has introduced initiatives aimed at getting Malays to adopt healthier eating habits. Last month, it launched calendars which contain 12 healthy and low-cost recipes for Malay dishes, such as soto ayam madura (spicy chicken noodle soup), targeted at lowincome Malay families.
Almost all of its 30,000 print run has been distributed in social service centres.
To promote wholesome dining out options, the board also started a Healthier Dining Programme, which gives incentives to restaurants that offer 500-calorie meals.
More than 20 brands have come on board since June last year. Of these, Swensen's, Fish & Co and Pastamania are halal-certified.
Participating eateries are publicised on HPB's publicity platforms and can apply for grants of up to $15,000 to cover the cost of menu development and efforts to promote healthier menu options.
Cooking instructors have also seen an increase in requests from people who want to cook healthy Malay dishes.
Mr Jihardi Mohamed Amin, 37, who has been teaching Malay cooking classes in community clubs for six years, says: "More Malays are worried about their families' health, as they are aware of the high fat content in their food."
He has introduced nasi kerabu, a Malay herb rice flavoured with finely chopped mint, kaffir lime and Thai basil leaves.
Instead of using white rice, he uses brown rice mixed with barley grains. And instead of serving fried chicken with the rice, he teaches participants to make steamed lemongrass-infused chicken.
Another People's Association cooking instructor, Madam Jamilah Aris, 55, says: "More participants are health conscious and want tips on cooking for family members with diabetes or heart diseases."
In her classes, she uses ground almond and evaporated milk rather than coconut milk to thicken curries, and replaces ghee with margarine when cooking basmati rice for nasi briyani.
Housewife Jamila Ahmad, 58, says she seasons her dishes with cumin and garlic, instead of salt. She also dilutes her coconut milk with water or stirs low-fat yoghurt into curries, which "adds creaminess without increasing cholesterol levels".
Noting that the eating time also matters, she adds: "Malays tend to eat quite late, after 7pm, and that means less time for the food to digest before going to bed, so I usually eat my dinner before 7pm."
Television scriptwriter Muhammad Mahfuz, 40, found inspiration from cooking shows such as MasterChef on how to make a healthy version of ayam balado, or fried chicken topped with a spicy sambal.
Besides roasting the chicken, he also roasts the chilli, garlic and tomatoes for the sambal, before frying them in a non-stick pan. He says the caramelisation from the roasting helps to "get the full flavours out", reducing the amount of oil needed for frying the sambal paste.
While he lauds efforts to promote healthier cooking, he admits that the reworked dishes "lack depth and do not taste as rich and scrumptious".
He says: "If you cook rendang or lontong without coconut milk, it feels like going for only the kiddie rides at Universal Studios theme park and missing out on the roller-coaster rides."
So he continues to use coconut milk for these dishes, but cooks them less often, usually for special occasions such as birthdays and Hari Raya.
He says: "The important thing is to make a conscientious decision on when to cook full-on and when to tone down the flavours."
How to cook and eat more healthily
Use cooking oils with higher unsaturated fat and lower saturated fat, such as canola and peanut oil.
Opt for cooking methods that do not require much oil, such as baking, grilling or steaming. This cuts out extra calories from fat. For example, give deep-fried dishes such as ikan balado and ayam goreng a miss and choose grilled alternatives such as ikan bakar and ayam pangang instead.
Use soya bean puffs and tempeh instead of deep-fried tau kwa (firm beancurd) in lontong.
When cooking curries and lontong, replace coconut milk with low-fat or skimmed milk. If you want to retain some coconut flavour, add a few spoonfuls of coconut milk to the dishes.
Replace white rice with brown rice. For starters, substitute one quarter of white rice with brown rice. This can also apply to the flavoured rice used in nasi lemak and nasi kuning. Increase your brown rice intake gradually once you are used to the taste.
Consuming brown rice lowers the risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. It also adds bulk to your diet, which prevents overeating.
Add more vegetables, which are a rich source of nutrients and vitamins, to dishes such as lontong and mee soto.
For dishes such as ayam masak merah and ayam or ikan balado, eliminate the deep-frying step and cook the meat directly with the gravy.
When preparing meat-based dishes such as beef rendang, select leaner cuts of meat, such as eye of round roast and sirloin tip, which have visibly less marbling.
Choose to drink water over sweetened beverages, which have calories with little nutritive value. To add some flavour to plain water, add a slice of lemon or lime, or mint leaves.
Eat slowly to cut down on excessive eating as the brain takes about 20 minutes to register fullness. Distraction can also cause one to eat excessively, so try not to eat while watching television.
Keep high-calorie food such as beef rendang and ayam goreng to one palm sized portion (90g) at each meal and eat them no more than twice a week.
Choose your snacks wisely. Snacking between meals prevents you from feeling too hungry and can curb overeating. Good choices include one serving of fruit, three plain biscuits, a handful of unsalted nuts or dried fruit, low-fat milk and low-fat yogurt.
Sources: Health Promotion Board, Eat Right Nutrition Consultancy and Gourmet Guru Limited
Some healthy Malay food recipes
This article was first published on Jan 4, 2015.
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