The front door creeps open before I’ve had chance to knock and a smiling Nadia Lim appears, making a shushing motion and whispering that her one-year-old son, Bodhi, and his young playmate, have just been put down. I’m ushered through to the kitchen where a steaming plate of cookies await—an experimental spiced batch for a potential Christmas recipe. I’m a willing taste tester. They’re delicious.
This month sees the release of Nadia’s latest cookery tome, Let’s Eat!, a collection of healthy dishes (with the occasional “special occasion” indulgence chucked in) that she beams is her best yet. “I think generally every book gets better and better as I’ve learnt more with each one,” she says. “This is my seventh and the recipes reflect where I am in my life now. As a mum, I have less time on my hands and the dishes mirror that — they are simple and family-orientated.”
The book is dedicated to Nadia’s father, Ken, who died three years ago. Several of the recipes, such as the chicken rendang, were passed down from his side of the family (Nadia’s father’s family is Malaysian, her mother’s Kiwi). Her dad grew up in a “very poor family of nine” with some of his siblings unable to finish school in order to help out with the family business, “literally cooking and selling tofu from the back of a motorbike”. Ken, however, achieved good enough grades to study in New Zealand. He later visited Cambodia and, affected by how much the country had suffered, vowed to help in some way. “He always said that when he retired at 60 he was going to go over there to donate and help out with the education system,” recalls Nadia. “But when he was 59, he passed away suddenly from cancer.” In order that his wishes were carried out, Nadia, with her mother, headed over to Cambodia, and she now serves as an ambassador for the Cambodia Charitable Trust. “My mother is a patron and goes over there a couple of time a year,” says Nadia. “We didn’t expect any kind of recognition for the donation, but they insist on placing plaques with people’s names on, and now my dad’s name is on a school toilet block, which is kind of funny.”
For the first-time, MasterChef 2011 winner Nadia has self-published, under the name Nude Food, a nod to her healthy, back-to-basics food philosophy (“eat more real food from the ground, the sea, and the sky, and less from the factories”), and to her professional idol, the Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver. “When I was 12, my plan was to marry him and have a spin-off cooking show called Food in the Nude,” she chuckles. “Obviously, that didn’t work out.” Nadia did, however, marry her Otago University sweetheart, Carlos. One of the dishes that “sealed the deal” with her husband-to-be, she jokes, was her chocolate crème brûlée — and the recipe’s in the book.
Carlos’s cooking skills left much to be desired way back then, but Nadia reckons he could now easily hold his own on My Kitchen Rules: “If he hadn’t absorbed at least some of my skills over the past 13 years, I’d feel like I wasn’t a very good cook myself!” (She makes a point of insisting that she’s a cook, not a chef, as she’s not formally trained.) I ask Nadia (who is also a fully-qualified clinical dietician) if it’s the duty of chefs — and cooks — to educate and promote healthy eating.
“Absolutely,” she replies. “Anyone who cares about food should also care about everything that goes with it, including its farming, production and sustainability.” She says society needs to stop its reductionist attitude towards food, and rather than seeing it for its individual nutrients, look at it as a whole: “There are three key principles behind Nude Food: firstly, ignore all fad diets, hype and (food) marketing; the second key principle is to simply eat real food most of the time, i.e. food that’s as close to its natural state as possible, and less highly processed food products; and the third, trust your instincts and listen to your body – we’re all so genetically varied, that there’s no one diet that fits all.”
Last year, My Food Bag (which Nadia co-founded along with Cecilia and James Robinson) also launched Bargain Box, an essentially more affordable, family-friendly version. She believes that it’s important that kids learn to cook to develop a repertoire that will later alleviate their reliance on processed food and takeaways, making society healthier and economically better off. Both projects have also encouraged more couples to cook more with some even going as far as to tell Nadia that she saved their marriage: “You have no idea how many people have come up to me on the street and said that. I thought it was a joke at first, but, for many couples, it’s become a new hobby.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces