My daughter was six months old when I started having trouble with my left breast. It felt like a small piece of gravel was in there, which soon turned into the whole breast feeling rock hard. One day I was hand expressing and there was a tiny drop of blood in my milk. I texted my mothers’ group and one of them said, “Katrina hon, you’ve got to get that checked out.”
It was 2016. I was 34, young, fit and healthy. I was a Paris-trained pastry chef who had worked with Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in their Soho restaurant NOPI. Back home in Sydney I was a mum to a three-year-old and eight-month-old, as well as being a freelance food photographer and recipe developer.
I went to see the breast specialist who took three biopsies. She said to me, “We can wait for the results, but I’ve seen enough to tell you that you have breast cancer.” I had no family history of it. I was gobsmacked.
I had aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy, a double mastectomy and axillary dissection (removal of lymph nodes), but despite this, the cancer came back. It had spread to the sternal tissues, liver, kidney and other lymph nodes.
I now have metastatic (also called stage four or advanced) cancer. I may not look sick, but I combat treatment, medication and side effects every day. Nobody knows for sure, but I may only have a few Christmases left with my family.
After my initial diagnosis, I wrote a picture book to help explain cancer to young children. Then the metastatic diagnosis gave me the kick up the butt to get the book out there in the world.
After finishing the children’s book, I decided I needed to let my creativity express itself again. That’s when the cookbook idea with my mum came about.
My mum turns 70 this month. She’s an excellent home cook and her cooking is famous among our family and friends. I decided I wanted to photograph her best recipes and create a cookbook with her.
Every Wednesday for five months I went to her house after dropping my kids at daycare and school. Mum would cook the dishes – she always multitasks and never makes just one thing at a time – then she’d plate, while I’d style and photograph them. It turns out we work really well together. We captured over 70 magical photos and recipes.
Each week was an opportunity to share and connect with my mum. After shooting, we’d eat a late lunch with dad of all the food mum had just cooked, and I got to spend solid, quality time with them.
My mum is Chinese, but was born and lived in Malaysia until she emigrated to Australia when she was 19. The recipes in the book are mostly Chinese and Malaysian home-style cooking. This is generous, humble, nourishing, welcoming and comforting food.
Some of my favourite dishes in the book are Malaysian chicken satay, steamed tofu with prawn paste and assam laksa. Mum is also a fabulous baker and we have captured lesser-known Asian desserts and dessert soups, such as nine-layer kuih cake and bubur cha cha.
Working on this book together has, for the first time, celebrated my mum’s food. It has validated her keenly developed cooking instincts and shown her how amazing her talent is. While we were shooting, she said, “I never knew my food could look this good!” And I said, “It’s always tasted this good; it’s now making it look as good as it tastes.”
After finishing the photoshoots, I developed breathlessness on top of a burning pain in my left scapula. This has led to my current situation – the cancer has progressed further to my lungs, brain and spine. I’m now on a new third generation chemotherapy drug, and in the middle of more radiation therapy.
I’ve recently had surgery to drain fluid from around my heart. The urgent hospital admissions for my heart and breathlessness made me question my survival. It immediately made me think of my children who I will be leaving behind and who I won’t be able to watch grow up; to guide, nurture and support.
I hope this cookbook I made with my mum is something enduring, that my children can flip through and maybe even cook from. A family memento to pass down old favourite recipes, so they may remember us, even after we have moved on to the next place.
To find out more about Katrina’s cookbook, go to makanatmums.com
Steamed tofu with prawn paste
Makes 12 pieces
6 squares of tofu or regular bean curd (e.g. Evergreen brand regular firm tofu)
120g fresh prawn meat, drained and dried
Pinch of salt
Sprinkle of white pepper
1/8 tsp sugar
1 tsp egg white, lightly whisked with a fork
Chopped shallots or spring onions
Pound the prawn meat with a mortar and pestle, then place in a mixing bowl and season with salt, pepper, sugar and egg white. Mix prawns and seasoning well, stirring around in one direction until the mixture is gluey. Set aside, or place in fridge.
Cut the squares of tofu (white bean curd) into halves. Carefully remove a bit of the tofu on one side to make an indent 0.5cm deep (about 1 tsp in size), then stuff some prawn paste into the divot in the tofu.
Arrange the stuffed tofu pieces on a heatproof plate, leaving space between each.
Steam the tofu on a rack in a wok over simmering water for six minutes, or until prawn is opaque. Remove from heat.
Pour soy sauce and sesame oil on top. Garnish with chopped shallots or spring onions.
Malaysian satay chicken
Makes 12-15 skewers
Note: start recipe the night before.
500g chicken thigh fillets
1 stalk lemongrass, white part only
1 clove garlic, peeled
¼ brown onion, chopped
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp chilli powder (optional)
1½ tbsp oil
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
½ red onion, cut into small chunks
1 cucumber, cut into small chunks
Cut the chicken into 2.5cm x 4cm pieces and set aside. Pound or blend the lemongrass, garlic and onion, then add turmeric, coriander and chilli powders, oil, salt and sugar.
Combine chicken and spice mixture. Mix well and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, soak bamboo skewers in water, then thread three to four pieces of chicken onto one end of the skewers.
Grill the chicken for two to three minutes each side, basting with a bit of oil while cooking.
Serve satay hot with cut red onion and cucumber on the side.