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Embracing the M word

Tan Hsueh Yun on 23 Dec 2018

The Straits Times


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I am coming round to the idea of moderation - it yields wonderful results and I do not have to give up all that I love


Moderation, I have always thought, is death. People like to tell me to "eat everything in moderation", "drink moderately" and also, very vaguely, "go easy now".


To me, that is losing the will to live large. Moderation seems small, mean and boxed in. It is the death of desire.


I am an all-or-nothing sort of person. I don't want eight potato chips, I want the whole bag. I can't have just one scoop of ice cream, a bite of a doughnut, half a hot dog, a square of chocolate or "half a glass of champagne, please".


Recently, when my family celebrated my dad's 80th birthday, the restaurant we went to suggested half a roast suckling pig because there were just four of us. "That's ridiculous," I thought. "Are they mad? Half a pig?"


We had a whole one but, and you must surely have known there would be a but, I am coming round to accepting the idea.


This comes from knowing that moderation can yield wonderful results, from seeing how being immoderate can have a horrible impact on a person's health, and from just being tired of going the whole hog.


A year before I turned 50, I hit a wall. I woke up one day and decided I no longer wanted to do all the things I had done for a long time - eat with wild abandon and go out pretty much every night checking out new (and almost always underwhelming) restaurants, not thinking about the consequences of my lifestyle.


I took elaborate steps to turn my life around. When I am ready, I will tell you how, in excruciating detail.


Engineering a complete life makeover has demanded more bandwidth than I thought I had. But today, I am in the best shape I have been in my life.


Part of the process involved embracing the M word.


Instead of demanding pleasure at every meal, I divide them three ways: meals for nutrition (70 per cent), meals for work (15 per cent) and meals for pleasure (15 per cent). My day-to-day diet is boring and predictable for good reason - when I want to splurge, I do and feel no guilt.


The adjustment has not been easy because I want to splurge all the time. Sometimes, I get angry and frustrated that I cannot eat in quantity, especially when my brain wants food for comfort. I am re-learning how to navigate a multi-course tasting menu. My instinct is to eat everything on every plate. I am working towards leaving behind half. It is a titanic effort when the food is good.


But I tell myself to stay the course because I see how worthwhile it has been. Also, I reason, I have not had to give up all that I love. My love burns with the same intensity, just with much less volume.


So yes, I take eight chips out of the bag and pass the rest on. I recently bought mini 20g bars of a brand of chocolate I like and tell myself to be happy with half of that each time I need a chocolate fix.


My palate is sharper because I am not assaulting it 24/7. That has been a most unexpected and delightful pay-off.


For the holidays, I offer a salad recipe that is light, but also happens to be a complete meal, the sort you might want to schedule in between the feasting. Crucially, it uses up the abundant leftovers we have at this time of year.


The idea comes from dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong, which offer little plates of tiny black fungus buds dressed in sesame oil and vinegar. When I came home after a recent trip there, I found punnets of fresh black fungus in supermarkets. They are not as delicate as the Hong Kong ones, so I snip them into thin strips.


I have used cucumber, celery, chilli and coriander leaves to bulk up the salad, but root in your refrigerator for ideas. Carrot strips would work, and so would spinach or salad leaves, sweet mini or bell peppers, and Japanese seaweed. If you want carbs, use mung bean or sweet potato noodles. Need fibre? Add shirataki noodles made from konjac yam.


The dressing comes together from pantry ingredients, but delivers a punch of flavour that I hope distracts you from the fact that you are eating celery. You can use apple cider or balsamic vinegar instead of black vinegar. It will not taste as good, but why buy a new bottle for just a couple of tablespoons?


I am about halfway through the process of rewiring my brain, but know this - even when I am done, if I am ever done, I will never have half a roast suckling pig at my table. Some things must be had whole, or not at all.


Plus I have this recipe for Moderation Salad, you know, for the leftovers.





For the dressing

  • 1 Tbs sesame oil
  • 2 Tbs black vinegar
  • 2 tsp honey, or to taste
  • 1 tsp soya sauce, or to taste
  • 1 clove garlic, minced


For the salad

  • 300g fresh black fungus (above)
  • 1 Japanese cucumber
  • 2 ribs celery
  • 2 large red chillies
  • 30g to 50g fresh coriander leaves
  • 250g to 300g cooked chicken or turkey, shredded
  • Freshly cracked white pepper




1. Measure the sesame oil, black vinegar, honey and soya sauce into a clean glass jar with a screw top. Add the garlic, twist on the lid and shake until the ingredients are emulsified. Refrigerate the dressing while you prepare the other ingredients.


2. Rinse the black fungus under running water, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into thin strips and place in a large glass mixing bowl.


3. Cut the cucumber lengthwise into quarters and slice off the core, where the seeds are. Slice the cucumber thinly on the diagonal. Slice the celery thinly on the diagonal. Remove the stems from the chillies, cut in half lengthwise and slice thinly on the diagonal. Slice off the coriander roots and cut the rest into 4 to 5cm lengths crosswise. Place all the vegetables in the mixing bowl, reserving a few sprigs of coriander for garnish.


4. Add the chicken or turkey and freshly cracked white pepper to taste and toss to mix. Remove the dressing from the fridge and give it a shake. Have a taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Pour the dressing over the salad, toss and top with reserved coriander leaves.


Serves four to six as part of a meal with other dishes, or two as a main course


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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