"We love food. I have to control. For example, I don't eat rice, I eat quinoa, my son introduced me to quinoa."
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's recent revelation that he has been substituting rice with quinoa in his diet has stirred a controversy.
Speaking at the 2018 Budget sharing session at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) at Bangi on 22 February, Najib said he "does not exercise as often as he wants to" and said that he watches his diet to keep himself healthy.
Rice is known to be the staple food in Malaysia households, but Najib made the switch to quinoa as the grain, which originates from Peru, is said to be healthier.
"It is protein-based, so it has less carbohydrates and less sugar content, so it is better than rice," Najib said.
Following Najib's remarks, opposition politicians were quick to point out that quinoa is more expensive compared to rice
DAP's Lim Kit Siang said that that Najib's preference for quinoa shows that he is out of touch with the ordinary Malaysian.
He pointed out that "quinoa, which Najib eats, is about 23 times more expensive than rice", based on a survey that was conducted by Malaysiakini recently.
Malaysiakini previously reported that Tesco was selling a 250-gram packet of Love Earth Organic Quinoa for RM14.79, amounting to RM591.60 for 10kg, while it cost RM25.85 for a 10kg packet of Jasmine Super Special (five percent broken rice).
Former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad took a swipe at Najib by posting on Twitter an image with the caption, "I only eat local rice."
The post features a photo of Najib with his quote that he only eats quinoa, and a photo of a beggar with the text, "What he eats - quinoa - 250g costs RM15. What the people eat - rice - costs RM2.70 for 1kg."
The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has issued a statement following the criticism
In its statement, the PMO said it was "aware that certain parties including the opposition politicians have twisted Najib’s remarks" about quinoa.
It explained that Najib eating quinoa is "part of a healthy diet regime" that is "also on the advice of a doctor".
"In addition, the Prime Minister also performs regular workouts for health and fitness. We are pleased to note that the Prime Minister attends many events every week and is always entertained with various meals including rice in the functions," read the statement.
Najib himself has also responded to Mahathir's comments
Several media outlets have cited a report from Sin Chew Daily newspaper that quoted Najib as saying that Mahathir, who is supposedly known to have a penchant for rearing horses, spends much more on horses’ food than him on quinoa.
"Even my quinoa diet can become an issue. I still do eat nasi lemak and nasi vanggey.
"But did Mahathir think about his horse feed which is more expensive? A month's horse feed can buy me three years of quinoa. How many horses does Mahathir have?" Najib was quoted as saying.
Najib's preference for quinoa became such a heated topic of discussion among Malaysians that it caught the attention of international press
"It’s not the first time Najib has caused outrage with his culinary comments. He was jeered in 2014 after responding to complaints about the rising cost of living by pointing out that prices had fallen for some popular foods, like water spinach (kangkung)," New York Times noted.
In addition, The Independent's report also thrust Najib's son Ashman Najib into the limelight
"Online critics also posted screenshots of Ashman Najib's Instagram posts which appear to show him celebrating the launch of 'our brand of quinoa', Quib," The Independent wrote.
It was learned that that have been allegations that Ashman owned a quinoa business since he once promoted quinoa products marketed by the brand 'Quib'.
In the same sharing session when he talked about his preference for quinoa over rice, Najib also talked about his dislike for tolls: