June 17, 2024

Jo Mai Asian Culture

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Commentary: Salt is critical in Asian cuisine, but we’re eating too much of it

2 min read


With food where salt plays a critical function beyond flavour, reducing salt can be an uphill challenge. For decades, salt has been used in Asian culture as a means of extending the shelf life of food, particularly in a time where refrigerators were not mainstream.

Salted eggs that accompany porridge, preserved radish that stud omelettes, and salted fish that are slipped into curries are all examples of how interwoven preserved foods are in our food culture.

It is not just salinity that salt lends to these foods; salt inhibits bacterial action, thus allowing raw ingredients to be transformed by the alchemy of time. Anyone who has tasted salted egg yolks would be able to attest to how they taste uncannily like cheese, complex and full-flavoured.

Seemingly innocuous spheres of fish paste in bowls of fish ball noodle soup are also major sodium culprits, but it is difficult to lower their salt content without compromising texture. This is because salt allows the muscle proteins of fish to form a gelatinous matrix that gives fish balls their characteristic bounce – just like how salt is essential in producing a hot dog that snaps. 

But, for the most part, I believe that the sodium crisis stems from deeply held cultural norms and perceptions. While reading about adobo from the Philippines, I learnt that it is not uncommon to encounter intentionally saltier versions – both home-cooked or commercially sold – so that eaters would be encouraged to eat more rice, thereby stretching the dish between more mouths.

An echo of this resides in economical rice (cai png) stalls in Singapore, where a generous amount of rice is offered to provide bland relief to the intensely flavoured dishes that accompany it. This might have been a way of cooking that began in a time when people did not have much means, but the habit has stuck, and the end result is more carbohydrates and sodium on one’s plate.

While there are health-conscious customers who would request for their dishes to be made with less salt or soy sauce, a challenge to these alternatives being mainstream lies in the public perception that low-sodium products lack flavour.

To some, promoting healthy eating is to the detriment of hawker food culture. The example of pork lard, which has practically been banished from Singapore in the name of healthy eating, comes to mind. Many older Singaporeans that I know have lamented about how difficult it is to find char kway teow with pork lard these days.

For a nation of foodies, placing health benefits before enjoyment of food can be a difficult pill to swallow. I remember once being told by an aunt of mine, amid the ever-changing health news in the media, that life is short and meant to be savoured, not endured.


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