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 Mohana Gill.
Mohana Gill.

"Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul." — Luther Burbank

“MORNING glory, garlic flower, golden garland. The big tree there is the moringa. The moringa flower is edible, morning glory no... But I bought some edible flowers to show you.” My gaze turns towards the cluster of lush foliage mentioned by my host, a corner of the garden brimming with purple and pink flowering creepers that create a verdant canopy and some welcome shade from the glaring afternoon rays. The moringa tree and a lipstick palm tree stand tall, overlooking the double-storey bungalow near the foothills of Bukit Gasing.

I’d recently arrived at the home of Mohana Gill, an award-winning author of cookbooks and children’s books, who just released a brand new book titled Flowerlicious, a culinary ode to the versatility and beauty of flowers. I was hoping an invitation to her home would include a peek at her garden and fortunately there was an opportunity.

She continues the guided walk to a climbing plant dotted with deep blue flowers, before sharing: “We have a lot of blue pea. This is edible. Bunga Telang.” I know that the blue pea flower gives nasi kerabu its renowned blue hue and I’m intrigued to know how else this local species can be used in the kitchen.

 Spring rolls.
Spring rolls.

The affable Gill shows me a little shrub in a planter box. “It’s not blooming but this is hibiscus. You have to take off the stamen and leave just the flower,” she explains before adding: “You have to be very careful when eating flowers, especially in today’s age, because people put a lot of insecticides and pesticides so we only buy flowers from supermarkets where it’s labelled as edible flowers.” And having flowers grown organically in her garden (to which she credits her husband) means a home supply as well.

Swathed in a striking sari, my petite host is the personification of a vibrant bouquet, her signature attire awash with rich shades of green and purple, matching the palette of her garden.

The sprightly 82-year-old glides around the house purposefully and effortlessly in her sari, neither the drapes enveloping her nor the bangles on her wrist making any sound that alerts you of her presence until she appears by your side. One minute she’s in the dining room, or in the garden, or she has disappeared to attend to some household matters.

My photographer and I welcome the invitation to head indoors for light refreshments comprising home-made samosas, desserts from India and a chilled beverage which the matriarch suddenly declares: “This is Rosella drink!” We all burst out laughing knowing that the photographer’s name is coincidentally Rosela! The thirst-quenching concoction of roselle and pineapple is as refreshing as a waterfall.

I learn from Gill that roselle, a species of hibiscus, is grown in her garden and it’s an extremely useful flower that contains a lot of nutrition, as much as cranberry. “We can eat the calyx of the roselle and the leaves can be made into a sambal. And even a roselle soup because it’s a bit sour. It’s very nice!” I trust her word; after all, she’s the expert on using fresh blooms to make appetising dishes.

MORE THAN A COOKBOOK

 Fruitastic (far left) won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award (equivalent to the Oscars) along with Mohana’s Hayley series.
Fruitastic (far left) won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award (equivalent to the Oscars) along with Mohana’s Hayley series.

Her latest publication completes a trilogy of cookbooks extolling the virtues of nature’s bounty and healthy eating, a venture that began with her very first book featuring fruits and subsequently vegetables.

Fruitastic won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award (equivalent to the Oscars) while Vegemania earned her another for The Best Vegetarian Book in the World. These accolades prompted the former Economics lecturer, who only began writing cookbooks in 2006, to think that she must be doing something right.

Today, she’s the only Malaysian with seven international book awards. In a corner of her house, her awards and books are displayed with pride; books that also include a children’s series and one on Myanmar cuisine, an homage to her birth country.

 Vegemania (far left) earned Mohana another for The Best Vegetarian Book in the World.
Vegemania (far left) earned Mohana another for The Best Vegetarian Book in the World.

To my surprise, she divulges that Flowerlicious is going to be her last book. Or at least the last of this genre. “I want this book, my last book, to be something spec-tac-ular! And I thought how wrong can it be to write about flowers because they are SO beautiful!” affirms this nature lover who speaks with passion and punctuated words.

Continuing, Gill says: “Although technically a cookbook, it’s really a book for anyone who loves flowers because the photographs are beautiful and the book has some beautiful quotes on flowers and interesting recipes. So it’s not just for those who want to cook with flowers but for anybody who wants to feel good and happy.”

Upon learning that I haven’t yet seen the book, she flutters off with an alamak and returns with a hard-cover tome made to grace a coffee table than tucked away on a shelf. While her earlier two cookbooks were more factual, this beauty in my hands is “a book you read for pleasure”, says the delighted author. I can’t contain multiple tiny gasps of “wow” while leafing through the pages in all their colourful glory as my senses feast on the artful combination of food, flowers and photography.

Many of the recipes use local flowers such as marigold, roselle, ginger torch and banana blossom, which are known to contain a lot of nutritional value and health benefits. Marigold is said to treat indigestion and eczema. Roselle is rich in antioxidants and so is banana blossom which also offers a lot of potassium.

From 100 recipes, Gill whittled the final list down to 60, covering everything from appetisers, mains and desserts, to salads, condiments and drinks. As I flick through the pages, I’m intrigued by the sound of nasi lemak with moringa flowers, roselle enchiladas, blue pea sago pudding, and flower-flavoured ice-creams.

If those sound daunting to make, the Flowerlicious author has included the simplest idea that even a toddler can make: edible flower ice cubes. Samples made earlier are brought out in a bowl; pretty little flowers encased within each icy nugget, perfect for popping into the drinks of guests, or, as Gill demonstrates, a bottled beverage can be stylishly chilled in a bowl filled with these embellished cubes, offering a talking point.

NURTURING THE YOUNG

 Mohana's grandson Ari loved having all these flowers around.
Mohana's grandson Ari loved having all these flowers around.

By the time we’re both seated in another room to continue the interview, I’ve seen other facets of her generous hospitality and congeniality, traits that make her a natural at hosting house parties and entertaining guests so well that everyone encouraged her to write a cookbook.

This domestic goddess and full-time home-maker had found herself with free time once her three sons began leading their own lives. “All those years even when you cook, you’re not cooking what you want to eat; you’re cooking what your family wants to eat. So I wanted to do something for myself.”

She adds that parents also lamented to her helplessly about their children not eating fruit and vegetables, so she wrote a series of children’s books encouraging healthier eating, featuring a character named Hayley, based on her own granddaughter.

 Flower pizza.
Flower pizza.

She floats away and returns quickly with a few of her other books and while perusing them, I suddenly hear her exclaim: “Fruits? What fruits?” The grandmother of two is speaking into a mobile phone. “My goodness! Strawberry, mulberry, pomelo and oranges! So many fruits you want? Ohhh…okay, okay… see you tomorrow!” With a doting smile, she turns to me and exclaims: “My grandson!”

Children’s health and wellness is clearly a topic close to her heart, particularly evident in the way Gill enthuses about her desire to author more children’s books and to continue the Hayley series focusing on local topics such as Malaysian flowers (which would supplement Flowerlicious), Malaysian vegetables and our different cultures and foods.

Her children’s books represent the legacy that she wants to be remembered for. The healthy eating advocate is an ardent believer in the importance of children having access to books on food and good habits, to educate them now so they may have a better future. Lowering her tone, she immediately shares one of her favourite quotes: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

BONDING OVER FOOD

 Flower pizza and other dishes that Mohana whipped up for lunch.
Flower pizza and other dishes that Mohana whipped up for lunch.

Inspiring young children to take an interest in healthier food isn’t always an easy task so one of her recommended ways is to involve them in the whole process, from taking them to the market, letting them choose the fresh produce, and making the cooking a team effort.

“Children will always eat what they put their hands into and eat what they see their parents eating,” maintains Gill. “Cook this food together, eat together, talk about the food, is it crunchy, sweet or sour? This is the time for family bonding.”

It’s advice that also comes from personal experience; from a mother of three who taught her sons to be hands-on in the kitchen, to cook together and they even had a baking day once a week, churning out home-made breads and cookies.

But food isn’t all about cooking and eating, she hastens to add. “The whole idea of food is to nurture people. You want to feed people and make them feel special. I always like to entertain at home. People who come to your home feel special that you’ve made the effort to invite them and prepare this food. And the food has to look great, have nutrition and be easy to prepare.”

Whatever food and lifestyle choices that Gill has been making, I’m convinced that her formula works. With her 83rd birthday approaching and still blessed with a youthful countenance and spirit, the Flowerlicious author is the epitome of health, longevity and wellness. “I don’t think there’s any secret. I think one of the most important things is to have contentment in your life — be happy with who you are and what you do.”

Flowerlicious can be purchased from MPH Group Publishing at their stores or online via www.mphonline.com.

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