Plants with a pur­pose

Lil­ian Loh’s kitchen shows that she has put down her culi­nary roots into new soil.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Growing - JENNY SOMERVELL

Asian-kiwi kitchen fu­sion

Lil­ian and Steven Loh’s new life in ru­ral Ox­ford, Can­ter­bury is about as far from their old life in Sin­ga­pore as east is from west. In Sin­ga­pore they lived on the 11th storey of an apart­ment build­ing, sur­rounded by four mil­lion peo­ple on an is­land about the size of Auck­land.

In 2002 Lil­ian was di­ag­nosed with poly­cys­tic ovar­ian syn­drome (PCOS), an en­docrine dis­or­der af­fect­ing 5-10% of women, where the sex hor­mones are out of bal­ance. Symp­toms in­clude ir­reg­u­lar pe­ri­ods, low fer­til­ity, ex­cess body hair and weight gain. When she was told by a gy­nae­col­o­gist she would have to be on med­i­ca­tion for the rest of her life, Lil­ian be­gan her own re­search and dis­cov­ered that PCOS was closely re­lated to di­a­betes.

“I found out that just by cut­ting down on sugar, white bread and white rice, I could po­ten­tially re­verse PCOS. I also read that soy was not good for you un­less it was fer­mented. I thought ‘Maybe I have more oe­stro­gen in my sys­tem than is good for me?’”

While look­ing at what she ate, Lil­ian dis­cov­ered most soy sauce is not nat­u­rally brewed.

“To get a prop­erly flavoured soy sauce you have to brew it for 12 to 18 months. Now it’s done in two to three days with chem­i­cals and preser­va­tives. There is no brew­ing process.”

Lil­ian took soy prod­ucts and sugar out of her diet for a few months and sourced nat­u­rally-brewed soy sauce. Within four months her cy­cle was reg­u­lar. Six months from the day she started, she went back to her gy­nae­col­o­gist and they couldn’t find any­thing wrong with her ovaries. To­day she dras­ti­cally lim­its her sugar in­take.

Her ex­pe­ri­ence en­cour­aged Lil­ian to start look­ing at tra­di­tional ways of cook­ing and pre­serv­ing things with­out chem­i­cals.

“I started mak­ing ev­ery­thing I could from scratch, all my chicken stock, beef stock etc. These days even chicken rice spice mix comes in a packet. How do you make it from scratch? No­body knows! Ev­ery­body has a rice cooker. Peo­ple don’t even know how to cook rice in a pot - I was one of them!”

Steven had high choles­terol so they stopped eat­ing out be­cause the lo­cal res­tau­rant food was high in fat, salt, mono sodium glu­ta­mate, sugar, and highly frac­tion­ated oils which take higher heat. They dis­cov­ered how mar­garine was made and took that out too. They went back to nat­u­ral, home-cooked food, made from scratch.

“Just by do­ing that, Steven’s good choles­terol sky­rock­eted and the ‘bad’ choles­terol went down.”

Lil­ian was also con­cerned about the ef­fect of chem­i­cals on the en­docrine sys­tem. She wanted to take out foods with colours and preser­va­tives (‘E num­bers’) such as sodium ben­zoate but she couldn’t find any­thing with­out them as most com­mer­cial­ly­made prod­ucts like bis­cuits, ham, bread and sauces have them.

“Ninety-nine per cent of all the food in Sin­ga­pore is im­ported,” says Lil­ian. “When you im­port food ev­ery­thing looks per­fect… but is it? Eat­ing a chem­i­cal-free diet in Sin­ga­pore was im­pos­si­ble. Or­ganic food was hard to come by and cost an arm and a leg. We thought ‘if only we could grow our own veg­eta­bles’ but we couldn’t do that on the 11th floor of a build­ing!”

That was one of their rea­sons for com­ing to New Zealand in 2012.

“I wanted to use plants that had been planted here for food and adapt them to Asian dishes, like our an­ces­tors did,” says Lil­ian. “They trav­elled to dif­fer­ent parts of the world and used what­ever was there, thereby cre­at­ing new dishes.”

Lil­ian’s great grand­mother was from the Per­anakan cul­ture of east Malaysia, a mix of Malay and Chi­nese.

“They com­bined what they were used to in China with what was avail­able in Malaysia and came up with this fan­tas­tic cui­sine.” For ex­am­ple, Per­anakan women used the lo­cal pan­dan leaves to wrap their rice dumplings in­stead of bam­boo leaves.

When Lil­ian was asked to bring a plate for a lo­cal church gath­er­ing, she came up with her ver­sion of Viet­namese rice rolls, a dish she learned from her nephew’s Viet­namese wife.

“I had to think of some­thing not too spicy, some­thing bland with a lot of herbs.” She made tra­di­tional rice pa­per rolls and filled them with Viet­namese mint, basil, co­rian­der, spring onions, car­rots, roast beef, ham, salami, and boiled rice ver­mi­celli. To fin­ish, she made a dip­ping sauce with gar­lic, chillies, palm sugar, rice vine­gar and fish sauce.

“I didn’t ex­pect peo­ple in the Ox­ford Angli­can church to like them but they were gone re­ally fast!” Three years on, Lil­ian’s kitchen shows that she has put down culi­nary roots into new soil. Her pantry is stashed with a mix of Kiwi and Asian in­gre­di­ents, in­clud­ing sought-af­ter medic­i­nal herbs: liquorice root, fox nuts, apri­cot ker­nels, goji berries, dried lon­gans, dried win­ter melon, ster­cu­lia seeds, red dates, rock sugar, An­gel­ica sinen­sis, and more.

Lil­ian’s grand­mother saw food as medicine, and now she wants to learn more about it.

“My grand­mother knew what herbs to pick for var­i­ous ail­ments. So much of that knowl­edge has been lost, we need to write it down.”

The stress­ful days com­mut­ing in Sin­ga­pore and liv­ing in a ‘wall of noise’ are over and the cou­ple are much hap­pier. Lil­ian walks to the lo­cal mar­ket, and says she is well into a jour­ney back into cook­ing from raw in­gre­di­ents us­ing her tra­di­tional food her­itage.

“Cook­ing and eat­ing - ev­ery­one has to do it,” she says. “It’s what you put into your body that’s im­por­tant. It’s al­most like if you re­spect your­self, you feed your­self well and then you can give your best to other peo­ple.”

A Cook Is­land plan­tain grow­ing hap­pily in Reefton, an in­land South Is­land town known for its rugged

win­ters and sear­ing sum­mers.

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