Edinburgh Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres turned 15 this past week. Born from one woman’s idea of supporting those affected by cancer in a beautiful space, and with cancer support specialists, the Edinburgh centre was the first of 15 such centres around the UK. More are being built around the world as I write. Maggie herself, who died before the landmark Edinburgh centre was completed, would be truly stunned at her legacy. It is a remarkable place that means a lot to so many.
As for myself, every time I step through the elegant, transparent front door I am suffused with a sense of calm. Even when I am running late and the rain is lashing down while I’m bringing in nutrition workshop bits and bobs, my breathing slows and my shoulders drop. The natural light, the colourful handmade cushions, the burbling of the ever-on kettle, and of course the wonderful volunteers and staff, make this building so welcoming. Like a beautiful friend who also happens to have a PhD in something useful, the Maggies’ Centres combine form and function to great effect.
The occasion/achievement of turning 15 was marked with a day-long open-house event attended by I don’t know how many hundreds of people: a teensy bit like some fifteen-year olds’ Facebook -advertised birthday parties – minus the smuggled in alcohol and broken furniture. But unlike the parties our teens get asked to this one served soup (I made soup for 300), fresh bread and tables of delicious-looking home-baking. I say ‘looking’ because I didn’t get a chance to sample any. I was too busy getting a ‘soup sauna’, as wit and colleague Issy dubbed it, ladling out this and this. Volunteer Margaret did a fab job with the mental maths and money collecting while I ladled and chatted over my two 37-litre soup pots. It was a terrific atmosphere with lots of laughter, cake eating, and surreptitious ogling of Maggie’s Scotland rugby team calendar. And lots of ‘friends reunited’.
I was also lucky enough to the next day attend the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network conference. With the unwieldy title ‘stacking the odds against cancer occurence and recurrence’ it was a useful and surprisingly upbeat day of updating my knowledge and meeting cancer research movers and shakers. Organised by the highly-regarded and warmly personable Annie Anderson, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of Dundee, the conference wasn’t just a report of what’s happening in the field but also a push for us all to do more to improve our nation’s frankly appalling cancer statistics. Challenging to say the least. Even the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Dr Aileen Keel, was forthright in her assessment of the current situation and of the difficulties in bringing about meaningful and sustainable change.
Perhaps the best thing that day was the personal story of Glynnis, and her experience of bowel cancer diagnosis and treatment. She had a wonderful sense of humour about herself and her disease, but she also made acute points that will no doubt cause all in attendance to want to do our respective jobs that much better. Her story, and the sobering statistics flashed up throughout the day, certainly has reinforced my personal and professional mission to eat more fibre, eat more colour and not delay going to the GP with any suspicious symptoms. How about making it a goal to know more about reducing your risk of cancer? The newly revamped bowelcanceruk.org website is a great place to start, as is the aicr.org and wcrf.org sites.
Today’s recipe is a celebration of colour, lip-smacking taste and of well-disguised nutrition. I was actually daydreaming of this soup while eating my buffet-snaffled vegan (half) sandwich and handful of grapes. I was decidely hungry but as the conference lunch immediately followed some pretty up-front obesity and cancer statistics, I dared not go too wild with the walnut and something or other sandwiches. I think that night I fixed some steamed fish and plain vegetables for my poor family. What was I thinking? It wasn’t even as if Madonna was coming over. Eating healthily doesn’t and shouldn’t be about punishment and unadorned vegetables. Food should be enjoyed, and bring joy. Making this dish and sharing it with others, whether family, friends or both, is a joy to me. This laksa is incredibly healthy but feels so celebratory to slurp. I hope you enjoy my modest version.
Like many dishes that have been around seemingly forever, it is difficult to trace the origin of curry laksa – or laksa as it is often called. The word origin too has been lost, although the Hindi word for vermicelli – ‘lakhshah’ – seems a likely contender. What’s fairly indisputable is that the dish itself originates from Malaysia. Neighbouring Singapore and Indonesia also do versions. Delicious imaginings of this dish are extremely varied, but commonly have noodles and a spicy, thinnish coconut broth as the mainstays. Many have fish and seafood like cockles, as these are the most common proteins available in this region, but some have chicken and many also include deep-fried puffed tofu as an add-in or as the primary protein. Vegetarian versions are not unusual, but liberties may be taken with the definition of vegetarian. Two words – shrimp paste.
In Malaysia laksa curry is considered ‘hawker’ (street) food, so it isn’t often made by the home cook. But luckily for us this deliriously flavoursome soup can be reasonably approximated from the contents of a reasonably well-equipped kitchen and shop. And employing reasonable chopping skills (lots of julienning if you want to be authentic). Super authentic recipes are on the Internet involving blanched candle nuts and special fish cakes but this recipe, and versions thereof, is the one I use most often. I adore Malaysian food – well all southeast Asian food – but this is the only dish I make at home on a regular basis, when time is short and temper shorter. It is so easy and tastes like you’ve pounded, whisked and chopped for hours. But you haven’t. Hooray!
My little laksa is not strictly vegetarian as it calls for optional shrimp paste, which I think adds a special something. You may disagree. A veggie alternative would be yellow bean sauce – it’s closest approximation. And as with a lot of my dishes use whatever vegetables that seem good and appropriate to you. I haven’t put green beans in the recipe, but these could go in, and sweet broccoli stems too (save the florets for something else), as could sweet potatoes or even white potatoes, instead of the slightly more fussy butternut squash. A key for me is the near-rawness of most of the ingredients, but cook them a bit more if you like, garnishing with cooling, raw cucumber strands (like green, liquid noodles), thick wheels of lime and punchy coriander – stalk and all. As for the noodles, I didn’t have brown rice noodles for the photo opportunity but I would recommend them for their quickness. I used buckwheat soba noodles, cooking them in the broth mix for a few minutes before adding the vegetables and tofu. I wish I had shown more of the broth as that’s really how to eat it but I guess I was anxious to ‘show-off’ the colourful vegetables. But it’s really about the broth. It’s real bowl scraping stuff.
Warning; the ingredient list may turn off the casual reader of this recipe, but it really is so easy if you have a blender or mini chopper/processor. The key is the the prep. And worth every pre-prandial moment.
regular supermarket chilli is fine for family eating – not spicy
Serves 4 large bowlsful with some leftover for later.