By Cheryl Mandy
Eating healthily doesn’t have to mean eating rabbit food, as Cheryl Mandy discovers as she checks out the Middle East’s new hunger for nutritionally-balanced dishes and spa cuisine
Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, the biggest trend when it comes to spa cuisine is a return to food with actual flavour, according to a number of spa and hotel managers in the Middle East. And spa cuisine does not necessarily only encompass low calorie meals.
“Consumers today are more health conscious than ever, opting for healthier selections in food and products. This trend reflects changes in lifestyles and habits, and transcends from food to all things relating to health and self.
“The philosophy is that what can nourish you on the inside can also be beneficial to you on the outside, and often vice versa,” says Rhett Pickering, Marriott International’s director of spa operations and spa development for Asia Pacific.
“The idea of spa food is going main-stream, with a large number of spa cuisine cookbooks on the market and spas becoming part of people’s everyday life,” he continues.
“The evolution of spa cuisine has brought it from years back, when spa food was perceived as healthy, but boring, bland and tasteless, to what it is now: an intriguing culinary dimension full of flavours, borrowing from historically lighter cuisines, such as Asian and Middle Eastern, yet more complex than ever to master, having to incorporate the ever-evolving dietary requirements of customers.”
Pickering finds that the Asian influence in contemporary spa cuisine is particularly evident, with sushi, noodles, Asian soups, hot seafood broths and soybean dishes all becoming the norm.
“Healthier options of classic bestsellers, like sandwiches and soups are offered and although most guests visit spas for the health aspect, many of them, at the end of a day at the spa look for opportunities to ‘treat’ themselves and indulge in dishes like steaks with truffled waffle chips.
“At the Marriott’s Middle Eastern hotels, there are no dedicated spa restaurants, simply because Middle Eastern cuisine traditionally has lighter, healthier options within the range of different foods available, says Pickering. “Often we can easily adjust these types of cuisine to make them healthier. For example, using cold pressed oils to make hummus. If you look at our hotel menus there are many healthy options already available, so there was no benefit to make a specific, spa-focused menu.”
While the majority of five-star hotels do not have a dedicated spa restaurant per se, some, such as the Four Seasons Hotel Doha and the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, have catered for the worldwide desire to live longer and adopt a healthier lifestyle.
The Four Seasons Doha has an après spa café offering a selection of juice and snacks. The menu concept offered is based on the five elements — also the general theme of the spa — but, as executive chef Kenji Salz says, “We found that no matter what we presented in a healthy, trendy line, our guests to a great degree were still looking for burgers, panninis and club sandwiches.
“As a service-oriented operation we had to ‘cut to the chase’, as they say. We dropped the strictly spa approach and let the guests guide us on menu selection.”
When Salz is asked to prepare a spa menu, he always considers the current trends in cuisine. At present, these include raw food, vegetarian — the ovo-lacto and vegan options in particular, and he encourages the adoption of a holistic approach to managed eating.
The aim of this is to achieve lower level of obesity and ultimately gain better health and longevity.
“This is a strong trend particularly in the face of growing level of obesity in all levels of society,” he says.
Salz has also found that there is a strong sports and fitness trend in the Middle East, but the widespread fanaticism for healthy lifestyles and eating schemes is “nowhere near the level of what we can find in USA”, he says, where he believes the public’s current obsession with fad diets is fed by the support of “mass marketing and mass media”.
The Kempinski group of hotels has a philosophy that “spa cuisine should always reflect and go hand in hand with the style of treatment”. After a treatment session with its Ligne St Barth products at the Laguna Spa at the Kempinski Hotel Ajman, for example, the food on offer afterwards would be mainly based around fresh fruits and vegetables, as these are also the main ingredients within the spa products themselves.
“Therefore, we keep a good balance of vitamins and enzymes, which do the skin good from the outside as well as from the inside,” says Ursula von Platen, regional director of PR for the group.
At the Burj Al Arab, there is a general trend among its guests to favour healthy food.
“Many of our guests have very specific diet plans, completely different from one to another, according to their physical activities, food allergies and their body systems,” says Assawan Spa and Health Club manager, Tina Phillips.
“We do carry 1100 food products in our inventory, but those meal plans are highly personalised and a lot of effort is spent in sourcing specific ingredients and preparing menus in order to accommodate those specific requests,” she adds.
The hotel’s guests are mostly from European, Russian and GCC countries, and there is now expansion into the Asian and US markets, too. The Assawan Amphitheatre, near the hotel’s spa on the 18th floor, has a selection of dishes with healthy options using ingredients, such as skinless organic poultry, artificial sweetener, low fat milk and yoghurt, and reduced-sugar jams.
As a destination spa, Chiva-Som in Hua Hin, Thailand, has two dedicated spa restaurants for its captive audience of health-conscious in-house guests.
The whole concept of Chiva-Som is to encourage a healthy and balanced long-term approach to health and weight management, so the spa chef, Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat, adheres to the same healthy options trend by serving “dishes that are good for you.”
“We avoid the use of butter, oil, and salt and try to teach our guests to incorporate a balanced diet into their lifestyle, and to continue this practice at home. We don’t necessarily recommend the lowest calorie, lowest fat dishes, which could prove detrimental in the long term such as quick weight loss schemes, including high protein and low carbohydrates. Balance is our key.”
The secluded resort, located on the beach some 220km south of Bangkok, offers individualised programmes and treatments for everything from weight loss and stress reduction to relaxation and pampering.
The resort produces its own organically-grown vegetables and tries to use fresh local ingredients. There are vegetarian options, as well as beef, lamb, chicken and seafood dishes, usually served up in smaller portion sizes.
The menu incorporates a fusion of Asian and Western ingredients sprinkled with a diverse range of herbs and spices.
As a guest-only destination spa offering a minimum three-night stay, all meals are included and guests are encouraged to sample selections from their menus, rather than venturing out to eat at local restaurants.
“The spa cuisine is Thai-influenced, so it contains no saturated fat, no added sugar, and no added salt, but it’s very tasty because we use a wide variety of spices and herbs, and ingredients to give it a good balance of flavours,” Chiva-Som’s health and vitality development manager, Sue Davis, explains.
“Guests don’t feel like they are being deprived. It is portion controlled — so someone that’s used to eating a massive plate of pasta might feel that they’re lacking a bit, but people do get used to it,” she continues.
“There’s a buffet breakfast and a buffet lunch. Generally, guests can’t go too far wrong, because the bulk of it is vegetables, but it’s not just carrot sticks and lettuce leaves — it’s real food.”