Have your ever wondered whether the eating habits that have been passed down to you through generations of Maldivians are actually healthy? From the benefits and repercussions of food ingrained throughout our history to the ones we adopted from other cultures, we asked an expert which dishes are healthy, and how to fix the ones that are not.
Fathimath Umar (Fathun) is a veteran of the culinary industry, with more than a decade of experience under her belt. She has fulfilled many important roles throughout her career, from being a F&B Manager to Executive Chef at a Five Star luxury resort.
Following her Masters degree, Fathun now serves as a Culinary Lecturer at the Maldives National University. She believes that food habits of the world are changing with more people all over the world becoming aware of healthy habits while still eating what they love, and that as a country dedicated to promoting tourism, we should be aware of this change.
“Training students has always been a big dream of mine, and I try my best to support all my students. I especially enjoy teaching nutrition classes because I am very passionate about it, and I think it’s very important for our future culinary professionals to be ready.”
We took the time to ask Fathun some questions about some of the most common foods in Maldives and how to eat those same things while maintaining a healthy diet.
Taste: How healthy were the eating habits of our ancestors?
Fathun: Leaving ancestors aside, even up until about 40 years ago, the food eaten at Maldives was a lot healthier than now. Most food eaten here was fresh. Tuna, which is rich in protein and omega 3 is still a staple of the Maldivian diet, but back then it was fished up from seas that were much less polluted.
Our ancestors used to eat very balanced meals. We made garudhiya (fish soup) with that tuna, served with rice cooked in coconut cream and along with it accompaniments such as fiya (onion), lonumedhu (garlic) and githeyo mirus (scotch bonnet peppers). There would also be sides made from vegetables like ala (taro), chichandaa (snake gourd), or bashi (eggplant), and sides made from local greens like kopee faiy (local kale) and kulhafilaa faiy (launaea sarmentosa).
Other healthy leafy greens like masaagu faiy (foxtail amaranth), dhigu thiyara faiy (coffee-senna), and muranga faiy (moringa) grew around the house so they would often eat these leaves by making it a breakfast mas-huni or satani (salad).
Instead of processed cane sugar, we used Dhiyaihakuru (palm sugar), and deep fried food weren’t very common. The sodium and trans fats intake was also low, as most of the food eaten was organically grown and harvested in the country.
All of these simple but beneficial items in their diet helped our ancestors stay very healthy.
T: How healthy is the classic favorite, Garudhiya and Baiy?
F: Garudhiya and Baiy by itself might only give you carbs and proteins, but all the accompaniments we tend to add to it makes it a complete and balanced meal. Most times we would eat some kind of satani with it, like fiya satani or faiy satani, along with lime, chilies, pickles and grilled fish.
So yes, the complete meal would be good for you to eat. One thing to keep in mind though, try to stay a little far away from the theluli faiy. It tastes nice because its deep fried, but there’s actually no health benefits left in theluli faiy after the frying process. Moringa leaves are delicate and all the nutrients get destroyed, and you’re just left with some leaves and a whole lot of oil.
T: How about roshi with mas-huni or kulhimas for breakfast?
F: It’s a great breakfast, along with some eggs and a cup of tea. Delicious and nutritious, especially if you’re eating a fathu mas-huni or a vegetable mas-huni like thora (bottle gourd) or baraboa (pumpkin).
If you are concerned with your carb intake try eating roshi made with whole wheat flour. But keep in mind, if you add some cheap vegetable oil while making your atta roshi that kind of defeats the purpose, so go for grated coconut (like our ancestors did) or some olive oil instead.
On the subject of breakfast, try to stay away from eating sausages. Sausages have proven carcinogens; it has nitrates which promotes cancer. Even WHO has warned against eating processed meats.
T: Is my daily morning cup of coffee bad for me?
F: Definitely not!
Research has proven that drinking a cup of coffee everyday is actually beneficial for your health, so don’t let anyone take your morning cuppa away from you!
T: Can I keep eating cakes and drinking fizzy/energy drinks?
F: I’m sure you already know the issues caused by taking in excessive sugar which is found rampant in cakes, fizzy drinks and energy drinks, so let me just advice you on something a bit different.
The food coloring used excessively in most cakes (think Red Velvet) are not very good for you as the food coloring is not natural, its artificial. Don’t eat it every day.
Energy drinks should always be forbidden to children, but as an adult you can have an energy drink if you want one. Just don’t drink it daily, or drink more than one in the same day. That being said under no circumstance am I saying that you should drink energy drinks, nor do I support it.
If you really want to have the occasional fizzy drink with your meal, go for the normal kind. The artificial sugars used in the ‘diet’ drinks are actually worse for you than normal sugars.
T: Everyone says Rihaakuru is bad for me. Is that true?
F: It is true that the studies conducted have shown that rihaakuru is not good for you. There has been a research done which shows that Garudhiya should be good because fish have a lot of protein. However, when we reduce it so much, and then use it as a glaze (it’s not really a paste, even though we tend to call it a fish paste) there’s a high level of concentration which reduces the amount of nutrients and increases the amount of histamines.
If you really want to eat rihaakuru despite this, try adding some of the nutrients back to it. Making rihaakuru dhiya or mas fen is very easy. Add coconut cream, some more tuna for protein, some vegetables like onions, bilimagu (bilimbi) and huiy ambu (green mangoes) and you still get to eat a delicious rihaakuru meal that is somewhat nutritious too.
T: How do I still satisfy my hedhika cravings?
F: Let me start off by saying I love hedhika. But of course, the obvious answer is to eat baked hedhika like masroshi or boakibaa rather than the fried varieties.
It might be interesting to explore some other ways of enjoying hedhika too. For instance, in the north of Maldives, our ancestors used to make these delicate boiled/steamed gulha similar to dumplings.
When making things like sandwiches, cakes or hedhika like cream jehi banas and roas paan don’t use margarine. Margarine is a hydrogenated fat and honestly, using butter is a better option even though it’s a little more expensive.
T: Can eating better help solve gastritis issues?
F: Maldivians suffer from gastric problems a lot, but it can be solved easily. The main issue is that we tend to not eat properly throughout the day, and then eat a huge meal that puts a lot of pressure on our systems.
Eating late at night is also a very big problem. Having a heavy meal at night and falling asleep will make some very drastic changes to your body. Eating a snack before bed is okay but heavy meals late at night is very bad for you. Try to eat around 3 or 4 hours before you sleep.
T: Can you give us one easy to follow tip that would take less than 1 minute to do everyday, but make a noticeable positive difference to our health?
F: When you wake up in the morning, drink a glass of lukewarm water with a squeeze of lemon inside it. It would take all of 30 seconds and will help your digestive system greatly throughout the day.
Another tip I can give you, although it takes more than a minute, would be to read the labels of things you buy. Maldives has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, but we still don’t read the labels before we buy things. It’s not just to see the expiry date, you should always look at the ingredients and know what you are putting into your body.
T: After eating, is it okay to enjoy some dhufun?
F: We know that dhufun has some correlation with certain types of cancers, but there’s a new trend now that actually makes dhufun even worse. A lot of the ‘sweet nuts’ available these days are sweetened with artificial or diabetic sugar, which research has shown is detrimental to your health.
Try to stay away from these kinds of nuts even though they taste good with all that sweetener in it.
T: What is your all-rounded advice for healthier eating habits?
F: Control is key.
Don’t stop eating the things you enjoy eating. Find ways to make those things good for you and keep eating them. Don’t lose your love for food, just learn to keep it balanced and controlled.
Words by Ruba Ali