The answer to staying clean was in my brain and mouth
As a whacky, half-depressed, and introspective creative, smoking was my way of resting my mind. This association was surely subconscious and over time it became a ritual because I believed and felt it in my body that I needed my smoke and nicotine to get through each day.
However, as a picky eater who valued my refined palate, I hated the lingering tar taste each stick left. Spicy just did not feel as spicy anymore and some days, my merlot tasted like watered-down sangria. I was paying for fancy meals but burning double the money to cockblock my tastebuds through cigarettes.
In hindsight, my body and mind saw it as a necessity, and quitting was never easy anyways—one week clean and a stressful day makes it impossible to not resist a drag of nicotine. At that moment, your mouth craves biting something, your body gets jittery and shaky, and your brain just needs a sedating dose. So it just clicked in my head that all I might have to do was try to find food to replace all of those needs. After all, food was, and is my biggest vice.
I set myself on eating and mouthing my way out of my nicotine addiction—from cravings down to withdrawals. I’ve been clean and happy for four months. Here’s my secret to staying clean while riding the highs by eating smart.
Iced Black Coffee: To replace the nicotine energy boost
If you’re a frequent smoker, you know how life-changing an energy boost from a cigarette can be. It’s 3am, your eyelids are closing, and you have a presentation due for your shitty boss at 8am. Chainsmoking to productively conquer the night sounds about the most efficient and tolerable option.
The whole point of coffee is to cut away the need to smoke to stay awake. Coffee + cigarettes must surely mean overdrive and quiver-inducing adrenaline right? Yes, but hear me out.
Black coffee gives me a potent kick without blacking out my lungs. It has its dependencies but it is the lesser of two evils and we all start somewhere. If you smoke after your meals, try replacing a stick with a cup of concentrated iced coffee instead. Take slow sips, taste the bittersweet roasted notes, focus on the tingling sensation on your lips, and feel the energy that runs through your body.
I always have a cup right before I start work so that my mind and body are forced to extend this feeling over to something exhaustive immediately. Because food is so sensorial, it helps trick the brain into forming new associations. If you bite your butts like me, chew on the straw if you need to just so your mouth feels like it’s sucking on something.
Four months on, I can’t get through a single day without at least three cups of iced coffee.
Beancurd: To help stay away from mints and sweets
Most smokers trying to quit would recommend toothing on a minty sweet to beat the mouthy fixations and cravings. But I hate processed sweets and find them nauseating to keep on my tongue for long periods.
I think it’s important to make the weaning off process an enjoyable habit and to stick to mostly sustainable replacements.
Imagine your favourite brand of sweets is out of stock at 7-Eleven and in that moment, you happen to glance upon someone checking out cigarettes at the cashier. Bam, you’re done for.
Skip anything that requires you to go to the convenience store entirely. Out of sight out of mind. My go-to sweet snack is soy beancurd. I barely ate beancurd a few months back; it was something I would only get if I happened to be within the vicinity of a famed local eatery like Selegie. Right now, I’ve integrated it into my weekly must-haves.
Beancurd was the first dessert I had after quitting and I will never forget how that bowl tasted. It was like eating food without a frosted glass filter over my tongue. Trust me when I say that post-cleanse bite hits the spot better than your partner.
Home-Cooked Curry: To savour robust and addictive flavours
A huge part of why I got so hooked on cigarettes and not e-ciggs is because there is just something primally soothing about biting my butt (Freud fanatics you’ll get me).
Tangy curries have always made my saliva froth and lips pucker. Most of the time, the flavours are so addictive that it’s hard to put my spoon down. Sounds pretty much like a stick right? And that’s why curries are effective when you’re on nicotine cleanse; they keep your tastebuds so engaged and stimulated that it makes cigarettes feel somehow less ‘engaging’.
These are the super bold curries that use mustard oil, assam, yoghurt, or preserved chillies. I always suggest cooking these curries from scratch because you’re forced to taste every component! This way, your tongue gets more sensitive to the nuances of each ingredient, and the thought of a cigarette ruining it would feel even more blasphemous.
Indian curries are perfect because they require stamina, practice, and finesse to balance out the insane number of spices that go into one curry.
Floral Teas: To calm nerves during withdrawals
When you’re so accustomed to nicotine, going off of it can feel very on edge. Sometimes you’re not even conscious of it. For me, since I’d go for a smoke when I just felt like ‘killing time’ those moments were always very calming; more so because I framed it as such. Come on, there’s nothing more classically poetic than sitting on a rooftop or looking at the rain with a half-burning cigarette in your mouth right?
Okay no, get that image out of your head. Essentially it’s that euphoric, calming feeling a warm cup of hot chocolate gives you on a wintery day. But that’s also because we grew up with that imagery from watching some of our favourite cartoons or movies. Hot chocolate isn’t even a thing in Singapore ffs.
Okay before I get carried away with the cognitive dissonance as I’m writing this let me get back to the main point: replace cigarettes with something that’s as physically and psychologically calming to break that association.
I resorted to tea because it’s calming and culturally, it’s revered for being so beneficial. This opposition helped me distance my mind from nicotine more. It’s also very portable, making it hard to find an excuse not to access it! Making excuses is often the biggest enemy when it comes to staying clean from anything.
So it’s important to make sure you have at least one alternative item that’s always on you. Tea is that one item on my secret list—even if it’s bottled tea! I think fruit-based teas like berries or very aromatic bases like vanilla or bergamot are great; they have a calming effect on both your mind and olfactory senses.
Quitting isn’t for everyone. But you should if you love things in your mouth.
The secret is to replace your addiction with something your mouth loves more. For me, it was food and I recognised how much I valued being able to taste my favourite dishes as best as I could.
Smokers, let’s be real. We all detest the smell of secondhand smoke even if we smoke. So the answer really lies within your senses. If you make it a habit to make them more sensitive to flavours and aromas, they’ll naturally repulse unpleasant sensory stimuli.
These are foods you can integrate into your life even if you’re still smoking! Just get yourself used to each texture, flavour, and sensation from each of these bites. Mindfulness is key.