The French believe in teaching their children how to eat well, lessons Malaysian kids take to easily.
We had some friends over for brunch last Sunday. I made nasi lemak lightly perfumed with ginger and daun pandan, complete with peanuts, spicy sambal and fried ikan bilis. On the side were a quiche lorraine, salad, and light flaky pastries from the local bakery.
Dessert was a mixed fruit crumble, with desiccated coconut added to the crumble topping, a twist on the original recipe.
It’s often like this in our home.
It’s our interpretation of fusion, rather unsophisticated fusion, but nevertheless...
When we lived in Malaysia, we had the privilege of my mother living with us. Being the amazing cook she is, she spoilt us with homecooked Nyonya specialties. A couple of times a week, I would cook some French cuisine, but my mum’s cooking almost always took the trophy.
So much so that my husband and my children’s favourite dishes are, you guessed it, my mum’s creations. We even gave cooking lessons to some expat ladies, curious about but totally unfamiliar with our diverse range of green vegetables.
In my French kitchen, I try to replicate my mother’s recipes.
Some can pass the test, but others don’t quite hit the mark. My husband tries to be tactful. My kids don’t, and tell me outright it is nothing like Ah Ma’s.
My two demoiselles are fantastically good eaters, better than any French gourmet kids in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé (the best-selling book about the wisdom of French parenting) or Karen le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything.
Much has been written lately about French children and their eating habits; how they don’t snack in between meals, behave in restaurants and are gourmets.
Frankly, I don’t know what the big fuss is about – Malaysian kids can easily tick off at least two of the above.
Snacking doesn’t count, as we all know it’s a national pastime.
I find most of the ingredients I need for my mum’s recipes in a little Asian grocery store in my neighbourhood, run by some very friendly Vietnamese. We often exchange recipes at the cashier counter, indifferent to the people behind me waiting to pay.
They are probably eavesdropping anyway, secretly noting down our recipes.
I have some ingredients specially delivered from home. I can’t find the perfect substitute for my preferred brand of soya sauce (for some, it’s Heinz tomato sauce, for others it’s Maille mustard, for me it’s Camel soya sauce). It’s a requirement I make on visiting friends; at least two bottles of soya sauce in exchange for board.
One thing I have had to learn to do in France is to eat seasonally. That means buying and cooking what’s in season.
Spring, for example, is the time to eat asparagus, peas and strawberries. The French know their seasonal produce very well and their cooking – in restaurants and at home – reflects this. Children understand that they can eat strawberries all they want now but when the season is over, it’s over, and they need to wait for next year.
I remember what a fun time rambutan season was. It was the only time I didn’t get scolded for climbing a tree with my brothers. Most French people I know almost always buy what’s in season, and what is grown in France.
I expect my children to eat like adults. I needn’t worry. They always turn their noses up at the children’s menu in a restaurant, and never order it, although I sometimes wish they would, as it’s lighter on the wallet.
In France, children are expected to eat like adults from an early age. Championing healthy school lunches in Britain, English chef Jamie Oliver said: “Imagine a world where children were fed tasty and nutritious, real food at school from the age of four to 18. A world where every child was educated about how amazing food is, where it comes from, how it affects the body and how it can save their lives.”
Well, he might as well be talking about France. Since the 1990s, France as a nation celebrates La Semaine du Goût – Tasting Week, if you like.
Schools, hotels, restaurants, bakeries and homes dedicate an entire week to food tasting, inexpensive tasting menus, food-related career seminars, fruit and vegetable sculpting workshops, cooking competitions, even sessions on how to read nutritional labels.
The main objective of La Semaine du Goût is “taste education”, notably for children. I remember my kids in kindergarten, three years old at that time, exploring their sense of smell and taste, sticking their little noses in jars filled with vanilla, cinnamon and all kinds of herbs, and given little samplings of different tastes, all the while blindfolded.
The French believe that all children can learn to appreciate different tastes, distinguish between them, and then talk about them. They also believe that parents, chefs and schools should share the responsibility in taste education.
Learning to eat, and to eat well, should mean knowing what you eat. So educational information on food products, their origins and mode of production is also the focus of La Semaine du Goût.
No less important are the trades and skills to be found in the food industry.
The French believe that all this forms the foundation of a balanced, healthy and diverse diet.
The French Ministry of National Education stipulates a minimum 30-minute requirement for children to sit at the table at school canteen lunches, so as to allow them to eat their food properly and slowly. Of course, a four-course meal cannot be gobbled down in five minutes.
Because that’s what the French school canteen lunch menu is: a four-course meal.
First, there will be a raw vegetable starter, and then a hot dish: meat (fish on Fridays) with a vegetable side dish, cheese/dairy course and dessert (fruit every day except for a sweet treat once a week).
Fresh baguette, by default, comes with every meal.
Only water is served; there is no juice or flavoured milk.
This is what my children are eating at the school canteen today:
Starter – Beetroot salad with chives;
Main – Blue ling fillet (from the cod family) with sautéed carrots;
Cheese/Dairy – Strawberry yogurt;
Dessert – Banana.
There is only one choice of menu and vending machines are banned by law in French schools.
So if you don’t like what’s on the menu, you go hungry. Children cannot bring packed lunches to school unless they have a very specific dietary requirement authorised by a doctor.
They can, however, go home for lunch. As two-thirds of French mothers work full time, most children eat in the school canteen. Non-working mothers may have their children eat at home once or twice a week, but eating in the canteen is encouraged, being considered good training for kids to eat more diversely. And mum gets a break.
The social aspect is important too; kids eating with their peers is seen as a form of citizenship training.
In our arrondissement (district), at least one item on the lunch menu must be organic.
Every year, schools in the area visit an organic food exhibition at our local town hall where they learn how organic food is grown, where they come from and who the producers are.
Four-course meals and organic food – you must be wondering how much a meal costs at the school canteen.
Families follow a sliding scale, a system that allows lower-income families to pay less than wealthier ones, to provide all children equal access.
A low-income family may pay 15 cents (66 sen) for a meal and a family on the highest tier may pay no more than 6 euros (RM26.40).
It all sounds great. But is it good? Some days my kids rave about what they eat at the canteen and some days they screw up their faces the minute I pick them up from school, because lunch “was disgusting”. I guess the canteen can miss the mark too, like me.
Still, France has the lowest child obesity rates in the industrialised world, so maybe it is doing something right. Lunch is the main meal of the day. One snack is sanctioned, and it’s known as the goûter or le quatre heure which literally means four o’clock, as it’s eaten between 4pm and 4.30pm, after school. This is the only snack of the day, and applies only to children.
Most French parents don’t serve their children meat for the evening meal. They believe that one portion of protein a day is sufficient. Like the no-snacking rule, the no-meat-for-dinner rule is culturally rooted and collective.
I do vegetarian nights several times a week, but I do serve up meat for dinner. After all, I have to perfect my mum’s recipe of tau eu bak, braised pork in soya sauce, with fried asparagus in sambal belacan on the side.
Pamela Druckerman and Karen le Billon should really meet some Malaysian kids.
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