Friday, September 29, 2006

My Sweet Life

More than a few foreigners have observed the unhealthy porteña attitude or their misconception towards food, their figure and health. Many eat little and replace sugar with artificial sweetener thinking that's being healthy. The polar oppposites refuse to change their life long habits to lose the necessary weight in order to lead a more active lifestyle which would lead to better health.

The highest concentration of skinny porteñas can be found in Patio Bullrich, Recoleta, and Paseo Alcorta, Palermo Chico; playgrounds of the moneyed few in this city. If you think their slimness is purely the result of exercise and good eating habits, you're wrong. Let's leave, for the time being, bulimia, anorexia and the liposuction, liposculpture or whatever those procedures are called nowadays. These ladies have not forgotten their sweet tooth; how could they when they've been brought up with too much sugar all their lives.

In this sense, the Argentines are very similar to the Italians. Most Italians I met poured a river of sugar into their little cups of espresso. If it was ristretto (a drop of very strong espresso) they were drinking, it turned into a brown sugary slush which they almost had to slurp down. Whenever I ordered caffè in Italy (an Italian coffee is always an espresso, our coffee is called caffè americano), some flirtatious barista would fiend surprise and say "No sugar? You life must be so sweet already. Tell me..." My standard reply was delivered with a big smile "Yes, it is very sweet indeed. Thank you and ci vediamo."

For this reason, Ser (a zero calorie line of sweet food and drinks) is very popular in Buenos Aires, so is artificial sweetener. In most cafes here, the waiter would only give you packets of sugar or sweetener when you order a coffee. They usually hand over 3-4 packets of the white dust. When Guillermo and I decline them altogether, the waiters are surprised. We always get comments like "Are you sure?" or "I'd have to take at least 4 packs myself".

Have you ever listened closely to the frizzing sounds of artificial sweetener when it touches hot liquid? It reminds me of my chemistry classes at boarding school. I remember reading an article in which a scientist looking at Splenda (a brand of artificial sweetener popular in the UK) said he couldn't tell exactly what it was but intuitively he knew he didn't want to put any of it in his body.

We don't get Splenda in Buenos Aires but to illustrate my point, I have in front of me a packet of some run-of-the-mill sweetener I took from a cafe; its composition lists hidratos de carbono 88.5%, ciclohexilsulfamato sódico 9.30%, benzosulfimida sódica 1.40%, and antiaglutinantes permitidos 0.80%. I don't think we need any translation into English to sense that none of them could possibly do our body any good.

Our tio (my mother-in-law's brother) who is overweight from too much good wine and food is dieting right now. He has lost 16kg so far with a company which sends him freezer meals. All he needs to do is reheat a portion at meal time. As a grown man, he consumes about 600 calories a day.

I personally think this company should be shut down immediately. No man or woman can possibly have a balanced and sufficient diet based on 600 calories a day. At this rate, he is losing muscles and water; his body is in a state of starvation. No wonder he looks tired and unhealthy.

Besides, he is not learning to make decisions about his food choices. When his food is no longer chosen and pre-portioned for him, he would probably overeat again. Also, how nutritious could this food be after freezing and reheating?

I've often joked that he should come and live with Guillermo and me for three months; he would loose weight naturally while eating well.

Of course, we too go through minor fluctuations in weight. If we have indulged too much, we eat light for a few days. Given the staple Argentine diet is pasta and pizza with loads of cheese; I have not only reinvented them with less cheese and sauce, but incorporated vegetables in them.

Guillermo loves my pasta primavera (light tomato sauce with vegetables) and pizzas topped with grilled aubergine or zucchini (combinations almost unheard of here). I also frequently make an open vegetable tart with wholemeal pastry; it is all sautéed acelga (chard) with a sprinkle of crumbled goat's cheese.

To curb any sugar cravings, I make cakes and other sweet treats with wholesome ingredients. It is better to have some natural sugar and butter than sweetener and trans-fats. Again, I frequently incorporate fruits (apples, pears or bananas) and vegetables (carrots or beetroots) into my cakes. We also enjoy a soft cookie made with tahini, walnuts, raisins and rolled oats, sweetened with organic honey.

Could I be thinner? Of course! But would I want to be much thinner than I am now? I don't think so. I eat well, walk everywhere as my daily exercise and I've a Body Mass Index of 21. I do not model clothes for a living and I don't feel I need to compete with pencil thin women. I wonder why our tio would rather listen to some quack nutritionist...

My yummy but healthy cookies:
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg (2 egg whites)
1/2 cup wholemeal flour (or spelt flour if you can find it)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup rolled oats (sometimes, I replace with sunflower seeds)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup dried fruits, chopped (apple, pear, sultanas)

Preheat the oven to 180C, Mark 4. Line the baking tray with baking parchment

In a bowl combine tahini, honey, vanilla extract and egg, beat well to combine.

Add dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Wet your hands to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers and palms. Roll the 1 tbsp of the dough into a ball and then flatten it slightly. Place on a baking tray, repeat the process until you have a batch of cookies.

Bake for 15 min or until golden.

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