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