Kiwi-asian fu­sion in­spi­ra­tion

A mix of fam­ily cook­ing tra­di­tions have rolled into one Can­ter­bury kitchen, with mouth-wa­ter­ing re­sults.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - JENNY SOMERVELL

Start talk­ing cook­ing and food to Lil­ian Loh and her eyes light up, her face be­comes an­i­mated, and the words trip over each other in a rush. The cook in her can’t get out fast enough.

“I love to read dif­fer­ent recipes from all over the world and dif­fer­ent cul­tures. I’ll think… I’ll cook this, I’ll cook that… and my brain goes into a spin! Do I have this in­gre­di­ent, do I have that? And if not, what can I sub­sti­tute? Some­times I don’t get to sleep, I have so many ideas spin­ning in my head.”

To­day she is try­ing out dishes for a 70-per­son, six-course Asian fu­sion ban­quet and we are the lucky guinea pigs. In­trigu­ing in­gre­di­ents tum­ble out of boxes and plas­tic bags. The shrimp paste (bela­can) is in a sealed bag.

“Don’t take it out of the bag!” she warns me. “You’ll re­gret it!”

A sniff re­veals a cross be­tween Ro­torua mud pools and a fish fac­tory. Will the Thai green curry paste re­ally taste good with that in it?

“Trust me!” she says with a grin. “It will!”

Onto the chop­ping board goes a whole co­rian­der plant, in­clud­ing the root, but shouldn’t it be re­moved?

“No way,” says Lil­ian. “We use ev­ery­thing!”

At least the co­rian­der is recog­nis­able. The iden­tity of a creamy white root with a pink­ish tinge that Lil­ian is chop­ping up is a com­plete mys­tery.

“Galan­gal. It’s like ginger but has clean, pep­pery bite and pun­gent spici­ness. We use it in many spicy dishes.”

The co­rian­der roots, leaves and stalks are tossed into the blender, along with kaf­fir lime, lemon­grass leaves, roasted cumin, co­rian­der seeds, the in­fa­mous shrimp paste, gar­lic, pep­per­corns and five chillies. This is go­ing to pack a punch.

Lil­ian cranks up the blender and the aro­matic in­gre­di­ents swizz up into a green­ish paste, then I get of­fered a spoon­ful to try. The taste is sur­pris­ing, a com­plex mix of flavours.

“At home, we would have it much hot­ter.”

Cook­ing is in Lil­lian’s blood, run­ning through her fam­ily for gen­er­a­tions. One of her first mem­o­ries as a child grow­ing up in Sin­ga­pore is stand­ing on a stool wash­ing veg­eta­bles next to her grand­mother as she chopped them.

At Chi­nese New Year, the mar­kets

“Sin­ga­pore – it’s a food crazy town. Overindulging is easy to do, es­pe­cially when great food is as om­nipresent as the smoth­er­ing Sin­ga­porean heat.”

An­thony Bour­dain, No Reser­va­tions, 2008

would be “chocka with chick­ens,” says Lil­ian, all in cages on top of each other. Back then, be­fore the cul­ture of frozen food, the only way her fam­ily could get the par­tic­u­lar grade of chicken they wanted was for Lil­lian’s mother and grand­mother to buy a live bird and tie one of its legs to a chair in their tiny apart­ment. It would live there for a cou­ple of days un­til the ap­pro­pri­ate time for it to be dis­patched.

“It sounds bar­baric but we were five floors up and you couldn’t af­ford to have it run­ning around.”

Ev­ery part of the chicken was used: giz­zard, liver, heart, in­testines, and even the blood for black pud­ding.

“Although I can’t re­mem­ber granny ever us­ing the in­testines and blood… when you kill an an­i­mal you don’t waste any­thing. Clean­ing it was in­ter­est­ing.”

Lil­ian’s fa­ther’s fam­ily came from Hainan, the large is­land to the south of China, and he was also a great cook. Her fa­ther de­scribed the chick­ens we use to­day as “cot­ton wool chick­ens” in com­par­i­son to those days, and Lil­lian agrees.

“The best chick­ens for boiling, with the per­fect amount of fat and flavour, were those that had laid eggs sev­eral times, per­haps around six months old. “When mum and dad got mar­ried, cook­ing was their thing. My grandma and un­cle lived with us – mum, dad, and my sis­ter – and we were al­ways hav­ing friends around. There was al­ways a feast and there were many cel­e­bra­tions – birthdays, fes­ti­vals, New Year.”

One of the hall­marks of Asian cook­ing is hos­pi­tal­ity. Rather than ask­ing ‘how are you?’ it’s ‘have you eaten yet?’, and whether it’s In­dian, Malay or Chi­nese, there’s al­ways food in the house and a place at the ta­ble.

It seemed like a good time to tell Lil­lian we are ex­pect­ing an ex­tra per­son for din­ner.

“The more the mer­rier,” she says, un­fazed.

At the end of the day, when she’s all tucked up in bed, food is still on her mind. Her night time read­ing? Recipe books.

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