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Looking Ahead at 2019’s Dietary Shifts

By Kames Narayanan

Toriyama Wagyu with fermented petai and homemade ume sambal served with cincalok emulsion emulsified with wagyu fat.
Toriyama Wagyu with fermented petai and homemade ume sambal served with cincalok emulsion emulsified with wagyu fat.

Be it keto, intermittent fasting, paleo or carb cycling, 2018 was the year when diets reigned supreme. It was inescapable on social media, where Instagram feeds were infiltrated with pre- and post-diet bodies to prove the validity of the various permutations of restricting dietary intake. Supplementary to these human case studies, the Internet became a bottomless pit of vastly unsolicited information on how to partake in the widely talked about diets.

While the promises of these diets run the gamut from weight loss to better regulated blood sugar levels and anti- inflammatory benefits, more often than not, nose-diving into these practices are inherently unsustainable in the long run. “Over the course of the last three years, the diet trends that have emerged seem to be very restrictive. It started with a Gluten-Free Diet, Dairy-Free Diet, I Quit Sugar Diet, Paleo Diet and Intermittent Fasting. These diets either exclude a lot of food groups or restrict eating to only certain times of the day or week,” says Dr. Vincent Candrawinata, one of the world’s youngest PhD holders in the field of food science and human nutrition.

“There is no one thing that is going to make you gain weight or lose weight, excluding a certain kind of food or eating at a certain period of time is not something that should be sustained for long time because these practices have detrimental effects on our health [in] the long run,” he continues.

The entire topic of diets is an endless conundrum, which to date, is riddled with ambiguity. Despite years of research on the topic, the opinions on the matter remain divided. Which diet is the most beneficial? What are the benefits of the various diets? These questions have been an area of continuous research for experts in the field.

There have, however, been some common ground established over the years. As reported in a journal by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, these include the revelations that there is no one formula that is a sure fit for all — individuals react differently to the consumption of different foods — and dieting for health varies from doing it for weight loss.

Ironically, at a time when throngs of people nosedive into diets, the fundamental meaning of the term itself is largely misconstrued. “Diet is derived from the Greek word ‘diatia’, which means a way of life,” says Dr. Candrawinata.

While the rest of the world indulged in quick-fix solutions for weight loss, a steadily growing group of people were instead, tweaking their dietary intake for the long haul.

Tung PhamWater kefir midway through fermentation.
Water kefir midway through fermentation.

“2019 will see a move of people embarking on diets no longer solely to lose weight, but rather to become healthier — better digestive health, better energy, better skin and better well-being,” says Dr. Candrawinata. This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Naras Lapsys, a consultant dietitian who is also a member of the Dietitians Association of Australia. “For several years now, the concept of gut health and eating to improve gut health has been building in momentum. Gluten-free diets, diets that address Leaky Gut Syndrome, diets that seek to alter the gut microbiome, all come under this general gut health banner. We will continue to see these dietary trends grow in popularity in 2019 and beyond,” says Dr. Lapsys.

These observations are pertinent to Singapore where a growing community leans towards incorporating fermented foods in their day-to-day food consumption. In retrospect, fermented food has long remained on the side line of Asian cuisine — think fermented vegetables like kimchi or derivations of soya beans like soya sauce. Today, this category of edibles sees a shift from the perimeters of the Asian diet to its forefront.

Last year, the city-state saw its inaugural “Funk’d Fest”, a fermented food festival that pooled local vendors together.

“We’re constantly surrounded by and consuming fermented food and drinks, especially here in Asia, just that people are not entirely aware of it. When we realised that no one had put together a festival in Singapore to celebrate fermentation, we wanted a fun and engaging platform to educate people and create awareness about naturally fermented food,” says Jasmin Wong, who is a member of the Funk’d Fest organising team.

As more health enthusiasts have grown aware of the long term benefits of regular consumption of probiotic foods, they have in turn turned their kitchens into personal fermentation labs. Some, go a step further in conducting workshops to share their breath of knowledge.

Tung PhamBottles of infused kefir ready for consumption.
Bottles of infused kefir ready for consumption.

“I have been conducting kefir making workshops for two years now. I first learnt the process from a teacher from Malaysia through assisting her at the classes she used to hold,” says Jaslyn Ng, a teacher and wellness practitioner at One Heart, a Singapore-based community of like-minded teachers who strive for holistic well-being.

At One Heart, the refrigerator is stocked with various water kefir-based, naturally flavoured bottled drinks. A sip from the peach-flavoured water kefir dances on the palate with the slight fizzle of lemonade, a refreshing medley of sweetness underscored by a mild bitter after taste of alcohol (from the fermentation process). What also sits on the counter is a deceiving slab, both in appearance and taste, of what she later reveals to be kefir butter.

The products of kefir (water or milk) grains are aplenty. Its popular counterpart, kombucha, however is more stringent in its uses, most often consumed as a beverage. While swelling in popularity, the realm of fermented foods is very much in its infancy here.

“Although fermentation is gaining popularity today, it is very much still a traditional process that not many people are aware of. It is still passed down from person to person and elsewhere in Asia, the people there are much more well-versed in the topic,” says Ng.

The rise in demand for this category of fermented food can also be observed in supermarkets where shelves are increasingly stocked with extensive offerings of kombucha and kefir — the more popular varieties of fermented foods.

Veering away from the entry-level, quaint local restaurant Morsels, offers an extensive menu of dishes that employs fermentation techniques to an array of produce that ranges from the conventional kimchi to the lesser heard of apricot.

“I was an understudy in Korea where I shadowed an elderly woman in a South korean countryside in Yangpyeong and another kimchi master. I like to take the skill and make my own interpretations of the food that I would like to ferment,” says Petrina Loh, chef and owner of Morsels. “For dinners, we have fermented cherry kimchi and baek-kimchi (or white kimchi) with Chinese herbs. I also enjoy fermenting root vegetables in particular.”

MorselsTomato fermentation.
Tomato fermentation.

Even when approached with the culinary prowess of a well-seasoned chef, the strong taste profile of fermented foods remains the greatest deterrent to many. “When I first started incorporating it in the menu, guests didn’t like it because of the smell and its sourness, which can come off strongly. But I see it in restaurants a lot now, compared to in the past,” says Loh.

Its less-than-remarkable appearance, too, can be hard to stomach for some. “There are several misconceptions about fermented foods. We are used to seeing final products that are all polished with no residual particles. But achieving that requires stabilisers, additives and preservatives that are absent in the fermentation process,” says Claudia Cani, the founder of kroodi kulture, a retailer of plant- based, raw food products.

Looking past the superficiality of fermented foods, it boasts benefits that far outweigh the minor inconveniences. “The inclusion of fermented foods to the diet often helps to relive common complaints such as bloating, cramping and irregular bowel movement. Major health issues can also be addressed from improving gut health. Inflammation, immune function and incidences of certain cancers are linked to our microbiome,” says Dr. Lapsys.

“The concept that we may be able to better manage, prevent or even reverse, [the] often life threatening diseases via manipulation of our gut microbiome is fast becoming a valid option or an adjunct therapy,” he continues.

Of all the compelling influences that owe to the rise in repute of fermented foods, the shifting perspectives on the ideals of beauty have a significant part to play. “It is no longer a one-dimensional beauty and body type where one has to be skinny to be beautiful. People, especially women, are embracing and celebrating the fact that beauty is multi-dimensional and it comes in different shapes and forms. one could be athletic, curvy or slim — are all beautiful,” says Dr. Candrawinata.

As the fodder about trimming weight to achieve an idealised hourglass physique weans off, the conversation of health takes precedence and with it follows the embrace of a lifestyle rather than a short-lived diet.

“Diet is like a relationship. It centres around our relationship with food. It should be a healthy relationship. If your relationship is demanding and restrictive, it is not healthy for you,” says Dr. Candrawinata.