On June 1, 2006, I committed an act of bravery. I decided to become a vegetarian.
I had just returned from a month long trip to India, where I had lived in an ashram (a religious place) while undergoing a yoga teachers' training course. As with every religious place, this too, had its own set of rules and regulations. No revealing attire, no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs and no meat. Scanning through the list, I figured that adhering to the first four would be a cinch. The last, however, would either make or break me.
Up to that point, the longest I had ever abstained from meat was during lunch hour. I had a deep relationship with chicken, and enjoyed occasional flings with beef, turkey and lamb. I loved them in every shape, style and with any seasoning. Now, we were about to be apart for the first time. For a full month. A whole thirty days! Would I survive? I was worried, but when in Rome we must do as the Romans do, so I gritted my teeth and vowed to soldier through any separation issues. As it turned out, there were none.
If there is any country that can make vegetables luscious and intriguing, it is India. It did not take long for my out-of-sight meaty mates to be out of mind as well, and I happily embarked on delightful liaisons with beans, tofu, potatoes, pumpkin and the rest of the vegetable posse. After two weeks, I noticed that my taste buds were not the only ones luxuriating in my delicious new diet. My eyes were brighter and my tongue was pinker. My insides felt squeaky clean. My body was stronger, leaner and lighter. I could glide effortlessly into a headstand and remain there without feeling like I was being crushed to death. My stamina and endurance levels had risen and my yoga practice flourished. The inner cleansing also helped settle my mind and my meditation practice blossomed. It was the best I had ever felt in a long while. Determined to hang on to this feeling, I decided I would continue being a vegetarian when I returned to Kuala Lumpur. After all, I had already done the impossible. How much more difficult could it get? I was about to find out.
The first few days felt like a continuous reruns of the same movie. Friends and colleagues would smile sympathetically at my plate, piled high with greens, and encourage me to take my time returning to meat dishes. I would reply that I had decided to stop eating meat indefinitely. After recovering from the shock, they would shoot incredulous questions at me and I would reiterate everything I had said to the previous interrogator. Very soon, I grew tired of the constant need to explain myself and defend my choice of eating habits. Then, I discovered just how much of an anomaly vegetarianism is in Malaysia.
Malaysia is a food haven and its capital, Kuala Lumpur, is bursting at the seams with omnipresent hawker stalls, obligatory fast food joints, swanky restaurants, quaint cafes and trendy bistros. There is a food outlet literally everywhere you turn. Be it local, Thai, Japanese, Mediterranean, French, Italian or even African cuisine, there is a place in Kuala Lumpur that serves it. In other words, if you want to sample the cuisine of the world under one roof, Malaysia is the place to do it.
Without a doubt, Malaysians love their food. Unfortunately, most of the time, that love only extends to unhealthy food. You would sooner catch a Malaysian wolfing down a plate of rice cooked in coconut milk accompanied by fried chicken, fried anchovies and a fried egg, than you would one digging into a salad. In fact, salads are not even considered 'real' food here. I discovered this the hard way.
The nature of my job requires me to meet people. And since Malaysians adore eating, most of these meetings are held over lunch. After the tenth meeting, I no longer needed a menu to place my order. The only vegetarian options most restaurants have are caesar salad, cream of mushroom soup, minestrone soup and garlic bread. If I am really lucky, there will be a vegetarian pasta dish. Boring, but vegetarian nonetheless. It was as though these restaurants frowned upon those who do not appreciate meat. My feeble excuse for a lunch would send my dining companion on a guilt trip, especially if his or her order consisted of a huge slab of meat. Then I would have to assure him or her that I was perfectly happy with my meal. This whole routine got stale very quickly and I now schedule meetings over breakfast or coffee instead.
The other stumbling block involved my daily meals and this time it was a little more challenging. If I did not have any lunch meetings, my colleagues and I would hop over to the Chinese 'mixed rice' restaurant in the office vicinity. Mixed rice restaurants offer cheap buffet-style dining, with a satisfactory vegetarian selection. After a week of eating there, I realised that the same vegetables, cooked in the same style, were being served everyday. So much for variety! My solution - instead of taking small helpings of five different vegetables, I was now take big helpings of three and am successfully keeping boredom at bay.
Of course, there were times when throwing in the towel and reverting to the old ways were sorely tempting. Yet I refused to cave in to the inconvenience, because I knew I was doing right by my body. I am still reaping the benefits that I was in India and am loving every minute of it! Many friends, upon hearing of my new eating habits, remarked, "I really admire you. I'd love to be vegetarian, but I can't. I just love my meat too much!"
That is the lamest excuse in the book. Take it from someone who has been there and loudly declared that herself. What I have come to realise is that healthy eating has nothing to do with sacrifice, and everything to do with intention and choices. There is nothing difficult about choosing roasted vegetables and couscous over spareribs in plum sauce or steamed chicken over deep fried chicken. And this is where yoga was of tremendous help.
In yoga, intention is everything. If you have the right intention, your choices will always guide you in the right direction. If you do not know why you are doing something, you are probably not going to be doing it for very long. I have a rock solid reason for changing my eating habits and that is what is still keeping my resolve alive.
I was also lucky to be raised in a household where chips, ice-cream and chocolate were special treats instead of daily desserts. Where my grandmother and mother willingly took on the responsibility of feeding my sister and I home cooked meals everyday. Where we were made to have breakfast each morning before going to school. Where we were forced to eat fish at least twice a week, no matter what faces we pulled. And where we were reprimanded for staying indoors on beautiful evenings. Unlike many Malaysians, I now view healthy eating as a way of life rather than a form of dieting or deprivation. And this is where yoga stepped in again.
Another important aspect of yoga is equilibrium or balance. The last thing I wanted was to eat without passion and so, I made some minor alterations to my diet. I now eat a largely vegetarian diet but when I do crave meat I allow myself a tiny piece or two. Just knowing that that option is available makes it easier for me to choose a fully vegetarian meal each time.
What I'm battling now, however, is the Malaysian quirk is to eat around the clock. No matter the place or the time, there is always an eatery open. While the bigger ones close at 10pm, their smaller counterparts are usually ready to serve you at 2am. There even some who are open 24-hours. In fact, every decent neighbourhood will boast of at least two such restaurants. And yes, there are patrons there at every hour. These restaurants are Malaysia's version of fast food and a godsend to college students burning the midnight oil, those working the nightshift and of course, party animals looking to sober up fast. But to the health-conscious, they are a curse. It is almost impossible to drive past one of these outlets with a growling stomach and I often find myself succumbing to a supper of vegetarian fried noodles.
All Malaysians know that they should and could be eating healthier. They can quote statistics, they know at least one who has suffered a heart attack courtesy of an unhealthy lifestyle and they worry about their own health from time to time. Yet, it will take a health scare or a positive experience like mine, to convince them to make the effort of changing their eating habits today instead of tomorrow.
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