The day I ate my grandma’s spinach soup

As far as my memory can tell, I’ve been fat – or at least overweight, for most of my 39 years of life. There are three periods when I wasn’t. As a toddler (based on photos from the 1970s), when I was doing my National Service in the Navy Band (I remember losing 5kg in the space of 3 months due to the rigours of this vocation), and right now.

Looking at the photos of my childhood time, it seems I began to look fat from around age 6 or 7. In the days past of Asian/Chinese society, chubby kids are a good thing, it suggests health and “prosperity”. But that view is not perhaps as popular today in modern, first-world Chinese societies.


Photo from noobcook (with recipe)

I had a maternal grandmother who was a great cook, and she raised me from young. I lived with her until around age 17 – and so, I ate well growing up. I remember one time she accused me of not eating my veggies – as almost all children are at some point or another. In a huff, I sat down at the dining table, where a large (really large, enough to serve a table of 6) bowl of spinach soup was sitting, still fresh from her stove, and I wolfed it all down in front of her. She was speechless.

If there was any reason that caused me to give my grandmother to think I avoided my greens, I hope she did not see it anymore after that incident. To be honest I don’t ever remember disliking vegetables, nor did anyone ever said I did after that.

Still when I think back, I feel remorseful for incidents such as these. I know now the responsibility of feeding children, as a father myself today. I know my grandmother meant well. Having said that, to date, I also have the nagging feeling that she was not aware of the dangers of a late 20-century diet, as well as we are today. She fed me as any grandmother who was born before the days of artificial flavouring would – to the best she could afford to.

So, I ate well as a child. I remember bite-sized pieces of breaded fried chicken breast meat which she made just for me (I think I’ve always preferred breast meat because of my grandmother’s fried chicken). I remember potato+luncheon meat cubes stir-fried with red onions. Her curry chicken remains a legend in my extended family. Only the wife of my eldest uncle, i.e. my aunt, can get the recipe right today.

My grandmother also fed me a few things that, when I think about it as an adult, makes so little sense that I’m forced to question just how severe the lack of knowledge/understanding she had on nutrition. She regularly made me a hot drink at night when I was not even 12 years old, usually close to 10pm. Milo hot chocolate was one option. The other? Nescafe coffee. Yes, I was having instant coffee before 12 years of age, at 10pm at night.

What is just as startling is that I had no idea of the impact on my health. How would I? I was a child. To my grandmother, I believe, it was simply giving her favourite grandson a hot drink. I vaguely recall on one occasion, my uncle (her second son), scolding me for making my grandma make drinks for me so late at night. I did not understand why that was wrong. Neither of us had any ill intentions.

My point is, was I overweight for most of my life because of the eating habits that I grew up with? Did my grandmother unknowingly inculcated these poor habits in me?

It could be. Though that is no reason for me to begrudge or blame her. She loved me, and in a typically maternal way, that manifested through the gift of food.

She once told me that, with MY kind of personality (friends – you’ll have to decide what that means!), I will never get married until I was past 30 years old. Feeling slightly shaken by this challenge, much like the veggies episode decades ago, I swore silently to myself to get married before 30 (which I did) and more importantly, give her a great-grandchild to play with and cook for.

I could not fulfil this wish. My grandmother died unexpectedly in 1996. I still miss her deeply.

My first child was born in 2002. She has never tasted my grandma’s cooking. My mom – the doting grandmother of my kids – is a good, experienced cook herself, and she’s a very close match in many ways, sometimes superior. What my children will also benefit from in terms of diet and nutrition is also my hindsight, the one I gained from growing up with my grandmother. I temper my grandmother’s good intentions with it. While this means many a lecture and reprimand about eating vegetables, I have on several occasions stir-fried potato and luncheon meat cubes, or made fish and chips. My grandchildren – these days I think I will live long enough to see them – will have to contend with my advice some day – I might just challenge them to eat a whole bowl of spinach soup some day.


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