Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Cost of Good Food

Eating well is something that matters to me. I think it's part of my father's legacy (not that he has passed on yet). Growing up, my family was middle-middle class; we could afford a maid, annual trips to Malaysia, a semi-private apartment (as opposed to the standard public housing that most Singaporeans live in), and membership at a private club that, in those days, had few facilities other than two swimming pools. Nothing to complain about except that I went to school with upper-middle class kids who could afford family vacations to Disneyland, Sunday brunches at top-notch hotels, and membership at premier clubs, complete with golf courses, so needless to say I felt a little envious.

Nevertheless, we ate well, very well in fact, as I discovered years later. Meals at home were five-dish affairs - one meat, one fish, one vegetable, one soup and one other, all lovingly cooked by my mother and her sidekick, the maid. Soups were painstakingly double-boiled, over charcoal fire, and made with good stock, using expensive cuts of meat. Seafood was a given; even a simple dish of leafy green vegetables was stir-fried with prawns. Fish, crabs, squid, lobsters, all made regular appearances on the dinner table, and not just for special occasions. It wasn't just the quantity or the variety, it was also the quality. Invariably, the fish was the relatively more expensive pomfret or seabass, rather than more humble varieties. I took all this for granted, never eating the "flavourless" pork rib bits in the soup, and turning my nose up at leftovers.

Likewise, when we went out to eat, my father would order five or six dishes even though there were four of us. His rule of thumb was always "one dish more than the number eating". If this meant that there was too much food, we were told not to eat the accompanying rice or noodles. But nothing made my father happier than to take us out to a first-class Chinese restaurant and order delicacies like sharksfin, abalone and birds' nest soup, items that cost $28 to $48 per head.

To appreciate how unusual this was, you would have to understand that my family ate this well on what was essentially civil servant-sized pay packets. If my parents had been lawyers, doctors or bankers, this would have been more expected. In fact, as I found out later on in life, families far more affluent than ours ate more frugally than we did. Ingrate that I was, I always assumed that eating like this was the norm. It was only after eating various meals with the families of friends that I realised how unusual my family's eating habits were. Other families may have eaten as much but few did so as extravagantly. In retrospect, we may well have been able to afford vacations to far-flung holiday destinations, had it not been for my father's insistence on eating well.
I am my father's daughter. I understand his obsession with the intrinsic value of food, from the nutritional aspect to taste and texture. I look at this week's grocery list and realise that I want to eat well and I will probably die broke because of it.
1. Whole chicken, to make stock with - never ever stock cubes.
2. Chicken breasts, for grilling - lower in fat
3. Peppers, eggplant and zucchini, for making grilled vegetable sandwiches - yummy and healthy
4. Portabello mushrooms, for grilling - because they are soooo good
5. Cod fish, for cod steaks. - fish is good for you
6. Salmon, for salmon steaks. - ditto
7. Unsweetened soy milk. - ok this one is more for HM
8. Asparagus for blanching - tastes good even on its own
9. Fresh leafy vegetables, for blanching and salads. - I'm learning to enjoy this
9. Walnut bread from a bakery - how can one eat those loaves that pass for "American Bread"?
10. Apples, oranges, bananas, kiwi fruit, mangosteens - 5 servings of fruit and veggies per day
I eat enough junk in school as it is, too much starchy fatty mulch that is low in nutrition. Don't get me wrong - I am a real trooper when it comes to food. I willingly eat at the school canteen and hardly ever complain about having to do so. And I relish junk food and hawker food when I'm out. I am also well aware that those meals at fancy restaurants are laden with artery-clogging ingredients like butter. But since I do have a choice over what I eat at home, I choose. Hence I would rather buy fresh than frozen, organic than conventionally farmed (or worse factory-farmed), brown rather than white. I want food that tastes great because it is so fresh, food that doesn't have to be majorly processed before it becomes palatable, and food that is good for me because it is chockful of vitamins, anti-oxidants and nutrients. If this ups my food cost, so be it. It would be cheaper if I lived in a city where there was a hinterland providing fresh farm produce cheaply, but I don't, so that's that. I think of eating well as an investment in my health and happiness.
P.S. When I last visited my parents' place, we had steamed lobster for dinner. Some things don't change.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my, you are quite the gourmand (my new favourite word). I actually am choosy myself about the groceries I buy to cook at home, though nowhere near as "atas" as you. Never stock cubes? Please don't tell me you throw away the chicken after that. -youknowwho

10:43 pm  
Blogger blobbes said...

Ah but I have since discovered that leftover chicken tastes great dressed up with a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil. Great as a topping for salads :)

11:12 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home