Feel your food
In recent years we’ve seen more articles during the yearend holiday season warning about the dangers of unhealthy eating. The advice usually is: not too fatty, not too sweet, not too salty. Generally, too, the advice is to eat less.
To some extent, we take the advice tongue in cheek. People will joke about taking their maintenance medicine (for cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure) right after a feast, or bingeing through the holidays then making up for it by dieting in the new year.
I propose an alternative to the “less painful” prescriptions that I just described: to take more pleasure in eating, without bingeing. Coming from Zen Buddhism, the mantra is to be more mindful about eating: what we eat, what it tastes like, and more.
In its most ritualized form, which I am not suggesting for our holiday gatherings, Zen mindful eating is used during retreats. People file into the dining room quietly, where the dinnerware has been set. “Dinnerware” makes it sound fancy when it’s really very simple: a bowl, a plate, spoon and fork or chopsticks. There are people who will serve the food, rationing it out in small servings. A short prayer is said, then people begin to eat, quietly.
After some time, the food servers go around offering a second serving. Because you can’t talk, you position your bowl and/or plate in a certain way—usually moved forward on the table—to indicate you want more.
I haven’t seen a third serving yet. Two should be enough. Someone signals, and there’s a ritual to clean up. Well, preferably, you would have eaten all that was served so you only clean up the bowl and plate with a little water. A closing prayer is said, then everyone gets up and files out of the room, back to meditation.
These meals can be very moving when done with large numbers. I’ve attended several in large temples. Even with the number of diners going past 100, there is almost complete silence, allowing you to be truly mindful of your meal.
We can modify that made-for-retreats mindful eating for our holiday gatherings. It would start with the grace before meals. For more secular families, it can be simple silence, or, borrowing from the Japanese, you put your palms together, say “Itadakimasu”—more or less meaning “I humbly receive”—bow, and then eat.
More religious families can formulate their own prayers, the goal being a reminder to everyone about the meal being a gift from God, from nature, from the farmers, Nanay (or Tatay), and others who cooked. I tend to avoid the set prayers, which people mumble through so they can eat right away. Better to have members of the family taking turns at saying grace.
Whatever grace might be, what you do is set the tone for a meal that is mindful of gratitude. For family reunions, it can be a time to give thanks for the year, not just the good things that happened but the challenges too, and how we survived… or are surviving.
The meal itself need not be silent. What’s more important is to ask everyone to take only what they need. Part of our training of children, especially at parties, is to warn them not to binge. We warn them against being patay gutom, meaning coming out looking like they’re dying of hunger. There’s class discrimination at times, with a warning not to be like a “squatter” heaping food on a plate.
In reality, the well-to-do also binge, egged on by grandmas and aunts: Get more, eat more. In recent years, though, the script has changed: Lola or Tita will offer food and qualify it’s not too fatty, or for dessert, “Take more cake. It’s good. It’s not sweet.”
But by and large, I still see a lot of bingeing across classes, and a lot of food designed to send you to hospital.
Emergency wards aside, I’d push for mindful eating because it actually moves from eating to dining, and more pleasurable dining at that. Bingeing smothers the food’s flavors and, in the end, you don’t feel full but stuffed, sometimes with a disastrous sequel as the body rebels, sending you running to the toilet to expel the excess.
Mindful eating is slower eating, which allows you to “feel” your food with your senses. The Japanese have mastered food as a visual feast. Filipino offers two words that richly describe the sensuous and the sensual. The first is lasahin, relishing the flavors, allowing your taste buds to take in the four flavors of food (sweet, sour, salty and bitter). The best foods are actually blends of different flavors, accentuated by a fifth sense that the Japanese call umami, brought out by glutamate-rich foods like tomatoes, cheeses, mushrooms.
Besides lasahin, the other key to mindful eating is langhapin, which originally meant “to inhale” but, thanks to the late advertising guru Minyong Ordoñez, came to mean a total experiencing of the tastiness of food. In an article he wrote shortly before his death (“Secrets of a Filipino brand’s advertising success”), he described how Jollibee’s “Langhap sarap” came about from his advertising philosophy of thinking and feeling Filipino. For Filipinos, strong aromas are important in food, so langhap sarap is to use our nose (and taste buds, actually, because smell and taste are closely related) to fully savor food.
You can’t lasa and langhap if you’re trying to get as much food as possible on your plate and into your gut. What you end up doing is racing, as if you were in an eat-all-you-can contest. Because speed is emphasized, you end up washing down the food with as much beverages, usually soda or beer, as you can.
Mindful eating leads us to better appreciate people, not just who brought or cooked the food but also their company. Which is why, when you’re in a reunion with people you don’t like, you tend to binge more—a good excuse not to have to talk to each other. Mindful eating is being aware of the feelings around eating: Are you bingeing because you’re angry, or sad, or just need some comfort?
There are studies showing that slow and mindful eating is healthier as well, like the famous Mediterranean diets. Scientists have wondered why, despite their fatty foods, Spaniards, Italians and Greeks have fairly low rates of cardiovascular diseases compared with their European neighbors. Olive oil and red wine have been given some of the credit, but there’s also the way southern Europeans eat: savoring long, slow meals, in good company.
Yes, there’s room for mindfulness involving beverages, too, with fruit blends prepared at home with herbs and spices. If there’s alcohol, nothing beats carefully selected wine, or whisky which you can lasa and, certainly, langhap.
A toast, then, to all of you, to healthy dining and drinking through the holidays, and to good cheer, good friends and a good life!