Soup for strength

Sayur lodeh, which comprises vegetables and coconut milk, is easily digested and converted into energy.
PHOTO: Soup for strength

Would you cook sayur lodeh for someone with cancer? Many would have said "no".

Yet, it is a dish comprising mostly vegetables and coconut milk, which, I have recently discovered, is actually recommended to cancer patients who are abstaining from cow's milk.

Cancer patients are often advised to abstain from dairy products, and coconut milk is seen as an acceptable alternative.

It is easily digested and converted into energy. It also contains compounds which stimulate immunity.

While coconut milk has long been viewed as unhealthy because of its high saturated-fat content, the saturated fatty acids in coconut milk are different and healthier than those found in cow's milk, according to health website

In addition, the American Cancer Society's Complete Guide To Nutrition For Cancer Survivors states that cow's milk contains proteins that can provoke inflammatory reactions and hormones that stimulate growth factors, both of which are not beneficial to cancer patients.

Typically, such patients are asked to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, while cutting back on processed foods and abstaining from certain dairy products, especially those which contain hormones.

As for the spice paste in sayur lodeh, it is often seen as off limits to cancer patients, probably because it is gutsy and fiery.

However, it is made with fresh herbs and spices, which can be found on the list of the world's healthiest foods.

Turmeric, galangal, chilli, onion, candlenut and coriander are either anti-inflammatory (inflammation is linked to heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and even cancer) or contain powerful antioxidants.

Candlenut, for instance, is rich with unsaturated fat, which not only reduces levels of bad cholesterol, but also prevents blood clots, which can cause heart attack and stroke.

And if you follow the old way of making coconut milk - that is, freshly squeezed from grated coconut bought from the wet market - you get extra-virgin milk which has undergone little processing, yet another recommendation for healthy eating.

That is why I have omitted the shrimp paste, or belacan, from the recipe, as it is a highly processed and fermented food.

With a flavour enhancer such as a stock cube, you could get the same sweetness from a prawn stock made from boiling fresh prawn shells.

Plus, there is plenty of flavour from the many colourful vegetables found in a pot of sayur lodeh.

Following traditional recipes, I used purple brinjal, red carrot, green long bean and white cabbage. You could also add cauliflower or broccoli.

I prefer pumpkin, although it is not traditionally used. I like its bright orange colour and nutty sweetness.

All these touches make the familiar favourite of sayur lodeh acceptable for healthy eating.

Recipe: Sayur lodeh (Serves eight to 10)

This dish belongs to a category of coconut-rich nonya gravy which is usually seafood-based. Strongly influenced by the Malays, it uses a spice paste, rempah lemak, with minor alterations.


2 brinjals, sliced thickly

2 carrots, sliced thickly

300g pumpkin, peeled and sliced thickly

Half a round cabbage, cut into wedges

1 bundle of long beans, cut into short lengths

5 soya bean puffs or tau pok, cut diagonally into half

1 cup of prawn or vegetable stock

1 stalk of lemongrass, white part only, bruised with the back of a knife

3 - 4 kaffir lime leaves

1 tbs salt or to taste

1 - 2 tbs of oil

200ml coconut milk, squeezed from a freshly grated coconut

Brown rice, if preferred

Spice paste

4 - 5 red chillies

1 cup peeled shallots

5 slices of fresh galangal (lengkwas)

5 candlenuts

1 thumb-sized length of turmeric root, peeled

1 tbs roasted coriander powder, available from spice stalls at the market. Otherwise, grind your own, in an old coffee grinder, from roasted coriander seeds


Prepare the vegetables. Set aside.

Place ingredients for the spice paste into a food processor or mortar and process them till fine.

Heat 1 to 2 tbs of oil in a pot large enough for the gravy. Lightly saute the spice paste, together with the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, until the aroma arises. Sprinkle water from time to time to keep the heat low and to prevent burning.

Add the chopped vegetables and tau pok to this sauteed spice paste.

Toss well to coat the vegetables with the spices. After a few minutes, add stock or water until the vegetables are half immersed, and bring to the boil.

When the vegetables are tender, add the coconut milk, stirring constantly over low heat.

Season with salt or to taste.

Eat with brown rice, if preferred.

Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous recipes for Eat To Live can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste.

This article was published on April 24 in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times.Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to for more stories.