But Will Lard's Newfound Dietary Legitimacy Temper Its Allure?
Hakka mee bathed in 'white sauce'
KLue September 2007 vol 107
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
The other day a friend passed along the coordinates of a hawker stall offering 'heavenly' char koay teow. As I wrote down the address she moved in close, lowered her voice, and added, with the tight little smile of a kid about to raid the cookie jar, 'He uses lard.'
Lard occupies a special place in the the culinary imagination of Malaysians undeterred by religious belief or doctor's orders from partaking of the pig. To true believers, stir-fried Hokkien mee lacking lard and cracklings is like a day without sunshine, rendered pork fat-free char koay teow is merely a pretender, and sweet bean biscuits made without hog fat evince all the flakiness of a piece of cardboard. Hardcore lardies worship at the altar of Hakka mee, assembling in the morning at a little stall in Pudu to gobble noodles dressed in 'white sauce', the vendor's euphemism for pure, unadulterated lard. It doesn't get much more animal fatty than that.
What accounts for lard's irresistible appeal? What explains, for example, the preference for koay teow fried in pig fat over that charred in vegetable oil?
'You can taste the difference straightaway,' claims one lard aficionado. 'A char koay teow made with lard is much more fragrant. And there's that, you know, bacon-y flavor.'
But is it all in the imagination? Inspired by attacks on the health benefit claims made for non-saturated fats such as vegetable oils, American food writer and lard enthusiast Pete Wells conducted taste tests, using liters of the stuff to deep-fry chicken, fish, and hush puppies (the crispy vadai of the American Deep South).
Surprisingly, he found that hog fat contributed absolutely nothing in terms of flavor: 'My friends and I agreed that our food bore no trace of pig.'
Maybe Malaysians are born with extra-sensitive lard receptors. Or perhaps growing up amidst the easy availability of foods lubricated with pig fat has enabled them to develop lard flavor-detecting abilities the likes of which will forever elude Mr. Wells and his cohort, who were raised in an age of dietary fearfulness that not only disapproved the enjoyment of lard, but viewed it as akin to gastronomic depravity.
Or is Malaysian lard ardor rooted, in the end, in the allure of the forbidden?
Last year, a national survey conducted by the Malaysian Shape of the Nation found that 47.1 per cent of the country's males and 60.2 per cent of its females suffer from abdominal obesity. Clearly Malaysians love to live as they know they shouldn't: unhealthily. An insalubrious lifestyle - for those not bound by religion to avoid porky products, that is - no doubt includes the regular intake of larded foods.
'I know it's bad for me, but I just can't help indulging once in a while,' bemoans a regular at a Petaling Jaya Hokkien mee stall praised for its liberal use of lard.
'I really shouldn't. Only for special occasions,' says a woman picking up a few boxes of lard-pastry bean paste buns at a Chow Kit bakery.
It wasn't always this way. Saturated fats - animal fats chief among them - were once considered part of a balanced diet. Once upon a time American home bakers relied on lard for flaky pie crusts and McDonald's fried its potatoes in beef tallow. Malaysian cookbooks from the time of the nation's birth include dozens of recipes calling for loads of the stuff.
Then, in the West, when saturated fats were linked to obesity and stratospheric cholesterol levels, lard ceased to be accepted in the kitchen. The contagion spread to Asia - though it did take a few extra decades for Asian lard admirers to come to grips with the notion that a favorite foodstuff had suddenly become forbidden fruit.
Now the tables have turned, and saturated fats have relinquished their high ranking on the scale of culinary-evils-incarnate to trans fats. The reasons for the flip-flop are the stuff of serious science, something to do with crazy, cell-attacking, dementia-causing free radicals that are created when vegetable oil is hydrogenated to a solid state. The details really aren't important. All a lard lover needs to know is this: Trans fats bad. Saturated fats (including - yes - lard) OK.
This turn of events has led Americans like Mr. Wells to contemplate the joys of living in a Brave New World, one that embraces hog fat. For many Malaysians this dream has long been a reality. The question is, now that one can argue with a straight face that the quest for good health practically demands a heapin' helpin' of crackling-speckled Hokkien mee, will the Malaysian zeal for lard cool?
After all, when have the words 'Go ahead, it's good for you!' ever stoked the appetite?