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