Why Scotland’s First Muslim Female Boxer Stopped Eating Home-Cooked Curry

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Why Scotland’s First Muslim Female Boxer Stopped Eating Home-Cooked Curry

“My mum didn’t know how to react to my new diet," says Glasgow-based Farah Jamil, currently training for the Commonwealth Games. "She thought I was eating rabbit food when I had a salad over saalan."
August 5, 2016, 12:00pm

Glasgow's Bellahouston Boxing Club is quiet when Farah Jamil changes into her protective gear for a quick workout. She slips into the boxing ring and within seconds, is darting back and forth as she raises her fists for a perfect uppercut.

The 27-year-old is Scotland's first Muslim amateur female boxer, getting into the sport four years ago.

READ MORE: How to Eat Like a Muay Thai Fighter

"My extended family do have a problem with what I do, but I don't let it bother me," she says after showing me her moves. "I won't say it was easy to get into boxing."

For many in Glasgow's conservative Pakistani community, boxing is not seen as an appropriate sport for girls.

Boxer Farah Jamil at Bellahouston Boxing Club, Glasgow. All photos by the author.

"It's hard being a Pakistani girl growing up in this community. You get a lot of people that judge you. I wasn't really bothered because I just want my parents to be supportive," says Jamil. "They found it difficult at first because they thought it's a male sport. You're wearing a vest and shorts and some people believe it shouldn't be allowed. My mum and dad came round to the idea and support me 100 percent."

With her parents' blessing, Jamil won the 2014 Scottish featherweight title, followed by silver in London's Haringey Boxing Cup championships last year. She now hopes to compete in the 2018 Commonwealth Games and trains four times a week.

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These sporting achievements have come at the cost of a significant part of Jamil's lifestyle: traditional, home-cooked desi food.

Since beginning her training seriously, Jamil has swapped her mother's ghee- and meat-heavy curries, oily pakora, roti, and other South Asian dishes in favour of a wholefoods-focused diet. Refusing home-cooked food was almost as hard for her family to comprehend as her decision to take up boxing.

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"My mum didn't know how to react to my diet. She thought I was eating rabbit food when I had a salad over saalan," Jamil says, referring to the Pakistani curry. "She couldn't comprehend how I could eat anything without spices either."

Jamil heats coconut oil to fry salmon and chicken.

South Asian food is known for its richness, but the excessive use of oil, ghee, and meats favoured by some home cooks can mean increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Health campaigners have warned that South Asians in Britain are six times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and account for around 8 percent of all undiagnosed cases in the UK.

"The diet definitely needs to change especially in Asian communities because they eat too many foods full of fat, salt, and spice and don't have healthy alternatives at all," says Jamil as she comes to the end of her workout. "There should be a way to change that but because of how the older generation grew up, they still think it's down to your genes rather than what you eat."

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Clarified butter known as ghee, often used in traditional South Asian dishes.

Jamil tells me that as a child, her diet wasn't the most healthy.

"In an Asian household, you'll find different masalas, roti, rice, and a lot of chicken dipped in oil," she says. "Every parent makes it so it wasn't exactly healthy. It never crossed my mind that eating this unhealthy food could affect my health. I was quite young and I didn't know much about nutrition so I ate whatever was cooked that day."

In a Pakistani household, if your food doesn't have enough spices or salt, it is called pika, which means "tasteless" in Urdu.

Red salmon.

Jamil's mum and many South Asian friends were dumbfounded by her choice to swap curry for pika rice and vegetables, but training without taking care of her diet wasn't realistic if the boxer was to take her sport seriously.

"I tried to bring some of my Asian friends here to box," Jamil says. "They lasted two weeks and are still to this day baffled at how active I am in the ring, but also with the kind of food I eat."

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We arrive at Jamil's home in the south part of Glasgow where she lives with her parents. She immediately shows me what the family meal will be for the day.

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"Just check inside the handi," she says, gesturing to a large pot in the corner. "You'll see how much oil is used to cook."

She lifts the lid of the pot and the strong smell of ground cumin, fresh coriander, and chicken masala wafts out. Despite the fresh ingredients, the curry is layered with oil.

"This is what we use," Jamil continues, pulling a large bottle of sunflower oil and tub of ghee out of the cupboard. "I'm going to make the opposite of this."

After marinating red salmon and chicken in light spices, she gently fries them in coconut oil.

"When I started boxing, my attitude towards food changed," Jamil explains as she peels the skin from the cooked salmon and prepares brown rice and salad to accompany the protein. "I researched it and realised there were a lot of things I needed to fix, including water because beforehand I never used to drink it and now it makes a huge difference to my diet."

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Yogurt with honey.

Next, we make dessert. Jamil pours honey over yogurt before and topping with ground cinnamon, chia seeds, and strawberries. As she works, I ask about her first fight.

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"I still remember my first punch, it's not something that I'll forget because I broke my nose," she says. "But it's OK, it's fun!"

Salmon, salad, and rice.

We sit down to eat at the kitchen table, framed Arabic prayers hanging on the wall behind us.

"I have no regret about what I do," Jamil smiles as she sits on a stool. "And besides, if I walk down the street, no one messes with me."