Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Fast Food Showdown: A Singaporean Reflection

Pea eating chicken rice in Singapore-

When we started looking into moving to Southeast Asia, specifically Singapore, we were lucky enough to have friends of friends we could talk to about what to expect. My approach to mining these valuable resources made mountaintop removal look gentle. I will be forever grateful for the long email exchanges and Skype phone calls various folks endured, where conversations were more akin to military interrogations.
Towards the end of one of our marathon calls, I was really surprised by something a mama friend told me. She said that if given the choice between a Saturday treat of McDonalds or chicken rice—a Singaporean staple from the hawker stands, their version of fast food that is NOTHING like fast food as we know it—the kids would choose chicken rice every time. I had trouble believing this on a number of levels.
First off, I couldn’t believe this woman was admitting to feeding her children McDonalds. You have to understand that I had been living in the Brooklyn breeding grounds of Park Slope and its surroundings, where feeding your children fast food was akin to child abuse. It was only tolerated if the parents were deemed poor, because they were considered abused by the system, having not been indoctrinated—sorry, I mean educated—that buying organic vegetables with inedible stalks or leaves and a dapple of dirt was the only acceptable form. My mind raced to rationalize her statement.
Well, she was British, a nation known for drinking copiously during the working day. This was reinforced by the memory that the only time I ever ate McDonald’s on what could be deemed a regular basis was when I lived in London, usually at the end of a drunken night or the next morning with a severe hangover. Ok, this could make sense. She most definitely must not have seen the foodie-mentary “Supersize Me”.
The second thought I had was that this couldn’t possibly be true. What sort of kids could resist the call of McDonalds? We had all been warned: once one of those salty, fat-laden crispy fries crossed the lips of your child, you would be doomed to the perpetual whine and wear of your children persecuting you for happy meals ’til the industrial cows break out of the CAFO. The virginal and pure child’s palate will be soiled forever. I didn’t worry too much about the veracity of this statement since I was sure I would never succumb to feeding my toddler such atrocities. After all, my little girl had been raised on fresh, organic, co-op produce marred with the odd guilty pleasure of a local slice (pizza for you non-New Yorkers) or a bag of Pirate’s Booty.
With hindsight and a large serving of booze, I laugh and tell myself who the hell was I kidding?
A few months later, we moved to Singapore and shortly after our arrival, we were blessed with our second child. We were also extremely fortunate to have another addition to our family, a wonderful helper from the Philippines for whom McDonalds and KFC poppers were a divine treat to which one aspires. Case in point: hunger laughs in the face of additives and transfat.  My approach to feeding my kid, or at least letting others feed her, took a substantial step towards turning my formerly known rules into guidelines. In fact everyone’s meals radically changed.
Having previously been spoiled with shopping at a small fresh market where the origin of all the produce and meat was known and where organic food was highly affordable, I had developed quite a culinary snobbishness all in the name of good health and animal husbandry of course! Yet once we arrived in Singapore, I allowed my helper to treat my kids to KFC and McDonalds more than I cared to admit to—in reality I was turning a blind eye as I quickly figured out this was happening on their adventures out and about. I tried once to buy an organic chicken but at USD $40 for a very skinny bird, it just wasn’t something I could afford. Even organic vegetables were prohibitively costly.
We began to regularly purchase all manners of dishes from the local hawkers. I avoided thinking about the additives and the sources of food. My husband, Jav, and I tried to embrace the local culture and explore as many dishes as possible, spices permitting. On our very first outing, we ordered Pacifique a plate of chicken rice. This dish among others always comes with a side of broth. She had become a big fan of soup thanks to our helper and she tore into her plate of food and drank all the broth down to the last drop. There was no turning back.
Despite experiencing all that is evil and bizarrely delicious—well, not so much delicious as addictive—in a McDonald’s Happy Meal, P always opted for chicken rice. In fact, if asked what she would like to eat, 99% of the time, she will ask for chicken rice, which is proving rather challenging now that we have moved to Bangkok. The only time she has ever requested McDonald’s is when we’ve walked by and then all she is actually after is one of their ice creams and nothing to do with the Golden Arches. Whole foods: 1, Processed foods: 0.

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Born in New York back when subway graffiti was rife, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas mostly spends her time pondering, parenting, and writing. Franco-American, she spent her summers in the Loire indulging in heart-arresting foods. An eclectic background ranging from Japanese art and postal history to environmental social innovations and rigging dinghies has taken her to England, Turkey, Singapore and now Thailand, where she resides with her Mexican husband and their two daughters. They are attempting to raise trilingual kids in Spanish, French and English with some Thai thrown in. She can also be found blogging at

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  1. CommentsFast Food Showdown: A Singaporean Reflection « Multilingual Mama   |  Friday, 08 June 2012 at 4:04 am

    […] post was written for A is for Manzana, my blog on In Culture Parent. To continue reading please click here. Share this:FacebookEmailStumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from […]

  2. CommentsBeth   |  Friday, 08 June 2012 at 7:39 am

    I love this piece Cordelia. When my kids were young I would send them to school with sandwiches made with my home made whole wheat bread and home made peanut butter. The teacher loved to trade lunches with them, and the girls often helped the Filipino kids with their lumpias. They may have gone to McDonalds very occasionally, but they were never allowed to order coke for some reason.

    I made my own granola, soups, pizza. This was the 70’s, and they still were picky eaters. I would come home from work sometimes and make one dish for the vegetarian, one for the meat eater, one who wanted American hot dogs, and another for the kid who would only eat Annie’s Marcaroni and Cheese. It was years before they got a cookie or other sweets. In the long run it probably doesn’t matter, as long as they were breast fed for six months or so.

    Your description of parenting in Park Slope is hilarious. Enjoy your time in Southeast Asia.

  3. CommentsEmma   |  Friday, 08 June 2012 at 2:39 pm

    “Well, she was British, a nation known for drinking copiously during the working day.”

    I really don’t know where you get your perceptions of the British from, but it is generally considered acceptable to drink one pint during a working lunch when members of the office pop out together; in many places this is only on a Friday. Copious drinking is reserved for the evening.

    I didn’t like this article, even before I snorted my drink (non-alcoholic) everywhere at the mention of the British.

  4. CommentsJennie   |  Tuesday, 19 June 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Hi, just wanted to point out that a plate of Singaporean Chicken Rice is well known as being massively high in both salt and fat. This was the subject of many a conversation/ article/ food blog in Singapore, where I also lived as an expat for four years. A couple of blogs I read even said that chicken rice was worse for you than McDonalds. Maybe I’m missing the point of this article, it just seems strange that you’d be proud of feeding your kids cheap, crappy meat from either a hawker OR McDonalds.

  5. CommentsCordelia Newlin de Rojas   |  Sunday, 01 July 2012 at 10:34 pm

    Beth, Thank you so much.
    Emma, I am very sorry if I offended. I was being a bit tongue in cheek. For the record, I based my observation on the ten years I spent living and working in Britain. I also ran this by my friend who gave me the advice to ensure she would find it humorous.
    Jennie, that is a really interesting point. There is this assumption that packaged fast food chains are the worst but perhaps this isn’t always the case! That said, even if both dishes include much fat and salt, the way the nugget chicken meat is processed (have you seen the video?) is pretty horrifying. There is something soothing about actually recognizing the pieces of chicken. I guess I should beware of appearances!

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