KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - With ingredients such as high cholesterol coconut milk, clarified butter and sugar cane, the traditional Malaysian diet may be among the most unhealthy cuisines in the world.
But chefs in food-mad Malaysia, which touts itself as an Asian gastronomic heaven, are reinventing local cuisine due to a sharp jump in cases of obesity, diabetes and strokes in the Southeast Asian Muslim country.
Fattening coconut milk, an essential ingredient in Malaysia’s spicy curries, is being shunted aside for nutritious soy milk. White rice is being replaced by brown rice and greens are playing a more dominant role on the menus of local restaurants.
Malaysian celebrity chef Ismail Ahmad has changed the menu of his restaurant Rebung in an old bungalow in Kuala Lumpur to include more vegetables and less meat.
“People want to look good, they want to look healthy,” said the 47-year old who has added braised tofu, ferns and beansprouts in chili paste to his menu.
“Before, 70 percent of my buffet dishes was meat. Now I use more roots and vegetables,” added Ismail, who said he cut sugar and rice from his diet after a battle with gout.
From fine dining lobster veloute to rice flour noodles fried in lard from street hawkers, food in Malaysia is often high in cholesterol and fat, with copious amounts of sugar and salt.
In a country where eating is a national pastime, Malaysians routinely drive miles in search of deep-fried dim sum in the northern town of Ipoh or curried offal rice in the island state of Penang.
But healthy eating is catching on.
Diets to lose weight and get healthy are popular, ranging from the classic low-carbohydrates, high-protein diets to fad diets of eating certain foods or adding herbal medicines to dishes.
At Purple Cane, an eatery in the Malaysian capital, tea is an ingredient in all its dishes ranging from fish to prawns.
“Our customers like something that’s not oily,” said K C Tan, a manager with the restaurant. “Tea is good for health, it brings down cholesterol and fat.”
Malaysia has good reason to curb the widespread use of fats and sugars in local food as it has one of the highest rates of diabetes, strokes and heart disease in Southeast Asia.
In 2000, 7.6 percent of Malaysians over the age of 20, or 1.82 million people, were diabetic in a country of nearly 24 million people, according to the World Health Organisation. At around the same time, 6.7 percent of the population of Indonesia and 3.8 percent of the population of Thailand had diabetes.
Experts blame rising affluence, a sedentary lifestyle and a growing trend of working mothers for the rise in health problems.
“Generally people are eating more and eating higher-caloried food,” said Tan Yoke Hwa, President of the Malaysian Dieticians’ Association.
“We need to have more aggressive education and to impart information to the community, getting them to make the change.”
More than two-thirds of Malaysians over 18 do not exercise, government statistics show. The number of overweight Malaysian adults rose to 29.1 per cent last year from 16.6 per cent in 1996, while obesity increased from 4.4 per cent to 14 per cent during the same period.
At the same time, public healthcare costs rose from 1 billion ringgit ($297.4 million) in 1983 to 6.3 billion ringgit in 2003. Health spending is expected to exceed 10 billion ringgit by 2010.
Food is plentiful, cheap and easily available in Malaysia. Night markets and hawkers on bicycles serve fast-food meals, while 24-hour eateries offer Indian chapati bread and ginger tea for anyone feeling peckish at three in the morning.
To deter the consumption of unhealthy foods, the government has banned fast food eateries from advertising during children’s television programmes. Fast food chains are also required to detail the cholesterol, fat and sugar content of their items.
Chef Bong Jun Choi has noticed a change in eating patterns, with diners requesting less meat.
“Now people are more concerned about being healthy,” said Bong who serves up Cantonese food at a five-star hotel in the Malaysian capital.
But not everyone is ready to give up traditional Malaysian comfort foods.
“Of course not,” said S.C. Wong, a 34-year old lawyer, scoffing at the idea of trading oily fried noodles for a salad.
“I love food. I‘m going to die anyway so I might as well eat hearty.”
Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn, editing by Megan Goldin