A Conversation with Professor Gerard Bodeker & Why Eating Local is Good for You

Photo by The Global Wellness Institute

The name Gerard Bodeker isn’t one that typically comes up in a conversation about Malaysian food. He isn’t a chef, cook or restaurateur, nor is he Malaysian. Instead, this learned Professor from Columbia University in New York and Oxford University in the UK, has an incredible wealth of knowledge about one our country’s most underrated ingredients – the ulam.

While writing Health and Beauty from the Rainforest, Malaysian Traditions of Ramuan, Professor Gerry and his colleagues realized that they needed to go beyond traditional and herbal medicines, urut and ramuan. “We also needed to look at food. Not only is food medicine, but medicine is food. And so we have a section in the book looking at ulam, because ulam is something very unique and special to this country and its traditions.”


Professor Gerard Bodeker’s start in traditional cultural medicine

Bodeker’s interest in traditional cultural medicine has deep roots originating during his days as young clinical psychologist working with Australian Aboriginal communities in the 1970s. “I was the first clinical psychologist assigned to the Kimberley region in the far north of Western Australia and I had to learn everything again as I was working with very, very traditional culture and with elders whose parents had never seen Europeans. I had to learn how to think in a different cultural way because I couldn’t go in there with a Western mindset and try and help resolve problems… And so I came out of a Western-European individual focus and had to learn about community and culture and society and levels of seniority in a society, and one of the things I learned was the communication value of silence.”

Professor Gerry shared his experience of how meetings with the Aboriginal community would not ‘start’ for ten minutes or half an hour or as long as it was necessary. Despite the silence, a lot of nonverbal communication was taking place. “You’ve got to sit it out until they choose to go from silent communication to spoken communication.

“There’s a lot happening in that silence, this whole process, these dynamics. As a young professional, it was very progressive for me, and it was a very powerful disconnect from my cultural upbringing. That really orientated me to a deep understanding on how to learn from another culture.”


The path from silence to medicine

Professor Gerard Bodeker’s experience with silence and learning from other cultures led him towards traditional cultural medicine. “I learned transcendental meditation in Australia in 1974. Of course meditation is about silence, so it was like a double lesson, as if life was trying to say to me, you’ve got something to learn by keeping quiet.”

After listening to a lecture in 1980 by the Head of the All India Ayurveda Congress, Dr. B.D. Triguna, Professor Gerry was electrified. “I was so fascinated with the details that a year later I took myself off to America to look at relevant doctoral programmes. I was offered a one year research position at Harvard University, focusing on meditation with prisoners, and looking at improvement of mental health and behaviour, and return rates to prison among those prisoners.”

From there, he went into a doctoral programme at Harvard on International Public Policy on Health, Social and Educational Policy, doing his research on Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, specifically how India and China had brought traditional medicine into their national healthcare system. Bodeker wanted to research Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to see how health policy can change to support local indigenous approaches to healthcare that are familiar and culturally acceptable to those societies. “My advisers at Harvard asked, ‘It’s very interesting, but what are you going to do with this?’. I said, ‘The world is changing, this is the future’.”


The world is changing, this is the future.


This is the future

Exactly 20 years later, Professor Bodeker produced for the World Health Organization a two volume World Health Organization Global Atlas of Traditional and Complementary Medicine Mapping Policy on Traditional Complementary Medicine Around the World. Professor Gerry jokes, “I was tempted to send copies to my advisory community but it was twenty years on and they would never remember what remark they made to which student twenty years ago.”

After Harvard, Bodeker worked in a foundation in Washington DC funding research on Ayurvedic medicine, and from there went to the National Museum of Health and Medicine where he set up a traditional medicine program in the US Government’s National Museum of Health and Medicine. His work then took him to the World Bank in Asia and Africa. “In Africa I worked with the World Bank in Uganda and Ethiopia, and in Asia I worked with the World Bank in Vietnam. And that was the beginning of my work in Southeast Asia in 1993.”


Coming to Malaysia

Professor Gerry’s journey to Malaysia began with a chance meeting during a Commonwealth Health Minister’s Conference Barbados. “I was standing in the food line at the Prime Minister’s residence at a welcome party for everybody. I was chatting to the person in front of me and we were talking about how beautiful and what a gorgeous setting it was. He asked me what brought me to the event and I told him the Commonwealth had asked me to come as an adviser to the Ministers since policy on traditional and complementary medicine was one of the agendas.”

That person in line turned out to be Malaysia’s former Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng. “He said, ‘Will you come to Malaysia and help set up a herbal research programme on traditional medicine in Malaysia?” That was in late 1998 and Bodeker went on to work as an advisor with the Health Ministry for three or four years on a regular visiting basis. He is currently involved in research into traditional knowledge about health, including traditional medicine and traditional nutrition.


Nutrition: one size does not fit all

During our conversation with Professor Gerry, he shared with us a simple piece of information on Malaysian eating habits and how we’ve been getting it wrong when it comes to the term ‘eating healthy’. “You’ve all heard that the Mediterranean diet is great for us all. It prevents heart disease, reduces cancer risk and so on. What we’ve learned more recently is that one size does not fit all in terms of nutrition, and Malaysians aren’t going to get super healthy living on a Mediterranean diet. Why? Because you’re not Mediterranean, that’s the short answer.”


What we’ve learned more recently is that one size does not fit all in terms of nutrition, and Malaysians aren’t going to get super healthy living on a Mediterranean diet.


We’ve all heard about genes, but there’s a recently discovered part of our genetic make-up known as epigenetic material – a material above the gene that learns from generation to generation, passing these codes on to even more future generations. “What’s happened over time is that we’ve all evolved as different ethnic groupings… We have adapted to our geography, to our plant life, to our animal life, and that’s become embedded in the way we process food. This is called nutrigenomics and metabolomics – the genetics of nutrition and the genetics of how we metabolize food. It’s different from culture to culture.”

Bodeker gives the Japanese diet as an example. “It’s super nutritious. The Japanese live a very long time and they don’t need to eat the Mediterranean diet. Not only do they not need to, but it wouldn’t work for them the way it works for the Mediterraneans, because of different nutrigenomic and metabolomic histories.”



Malaysian dietary traditions

So, what about Malaysia’s nutrigenomic and metabolomics history? “Malaysia is a multicultural society and we all know that the large main groupings are Malay, Chinese and Indian. Chinese and Indian food traditions are very well studied. Malay food traditions are less well studied, that’s why we started to look at them.”

Switching to a traditional diet is not straightforward, especially for those with a multicultural heritage, which makes up, the majority of the Malaysian, and even global, population. Finding out which diet suits you best will require trial and error. “I have some Asian ancestry and grew up eating an entirely Western diet. What I discovered as an adult is that the Asian diet suits me better. As soon as I started switching to a more Asian-style diet – more vegetarian, more Asian spices, my health and energy improved. It was very noticeable.” At the time Professor Gerry knew nothing about nutrigenomics or microbiomes, but he knew what made him feel better.

Besides nutrigenomics, there is another reason why Malaysians should focus on a more traditional diet. “Mediterranean salads are not medicines. Malay salads are pure medicine. Tomato, lettuce and basil are nice, and contain some pharmacological properties. But line them up with turmeric or ginger, petai or ulam raja, and there’s just no comparison.”


…line them up with turmeric or ginger, petai or ulam raja, and there’s just no comparison.


According to Professor Gerard Bodeker, everything in a Malay ulam is a medicine. When people eat ulam, they’re taking care of parasites especially when living in a rural setting and many ulams are also antibacterial. Certain types of ulam stimulate digestion and metabolic functioning. Petai, for example, influences renal function in kidneys. And when people dip ulam in sambal belacan, they’re also getting healthy microbes into their gut through fermentation and a supply of protein.


The healthy origins of nasi lemak

“Historically, people living in rural areas had times when crops were good and everyone was living and eating well. And they had times when they were not living well. But there was always ulam. There were always little shrimp in the stream along their paddy field. There was always ikan bilis. That, plus coconut and a handful of their own beras from their own field, that’s the beginning of nasi lemak. Everything in nasi lemak is local for a family. They didn’t have to go to a Mamak to buy nasi lemak.”


Everything in nasi lemak is local for a family, they didn’t have to go to a Mamak to buy nasi lemak.


Nasi lemak is the essence of local Malaysian food. Bodeker stresses, however, that modern nasi lemak is nothing like traditional nasi lemak. “For a start, the nasi, the beras, was not put into steel rollers and polished. It was dehusked by hand or in a winnowing basket. It was brown rice, not nasi putih.”


Brown rice – why it’s good for you

Unlike brown rice, white rice only has cosmetic value. According to Professor Gerry, that little brown skin on a grain of rice – the endosperm – contains vitamin B complex which prevents dementia. Research by his fellow colleagues at Oxford University has shown that B complex reduces brain shrinkage in people with early onset dementia at a level eight times greater than any other approach. The rice’s endosperm also contains enzymes that break down starch content in the body of the rice. “Starch’s chemical formula is identical with sugar. Starch equals sugar. A clever little rice grain has enzymes in its skin that breaks down those sugars so they don’t give us diabetes. Take off that skin, no enzymes, pure sugar.”


Starch’s chemical formula is identical with sugar. Starch equals sugar.


Brown rice also has amino acids that build muscle tissue, bone tissue and brain cells. “When we polish rice for nasi putih, we throw away B complex. We throw away enzymes that break down the sugars in the starch. And, we throw away amino acids that build our brains, our muscles and our bones.” Brown rice also contains protein under its membrane. When we polish off the skin, we inadvertently polish off all its nutrients. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that if people add two servings of brown or unpolished rice to their diet just twice a week, they reduce the risk of diabetes by 16%. If brown rice and other whole grains are added four or more times a week, the risk is reduced by more than a third.


The diabetes risk in Malaysia

Our consumption of white rice combined with our love for white sugar has resulted in a diabetes epidemic in Malaysia. “Traditionally, sugar and rice were brown. Any sweetener in kuih would come from gula kelapa, not cane sugar.” When comparing the glycemic index of cane sugar and coconut sugar, gula kelapa has a much lower glycemic index compared to cane sugar.

“If Malaysians want to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, there are two big changes that can be made really easily – cut out white sugar and cut out white rice. I know that’s a big culture shock for Malaysians, but those two things will totally turn around an individual’s health, and the health of a nation.”


If Malaysians want to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, there are two big changes that can be made really easily – cut out white sugar and cut out white rice.


Malaysia currently has the highest diabetes, heart disease and obesity rates in the entire South East Asia. Besides our consumption of white rice and white sugar, Professor Gerard Bodeker also attributes this to our eating habits as we are the furthest away in our consumption of our traditional diet compared to other ASEAN countries. “You go to Indonesia and it’s all Indonesian food, you go to Thailand, it’s all Thai food. You come here and people are eating fast food and steaks.” This metabolic disorder spike results from what is called the ‘nutritional transition’. “Malaysia and India are the two countries in Asia that have the highest consumption of international foods and processed foods. And, Malaysia and India are the two countries with the highest diabetes and obesity and cardiovascular rates in Asia. It’s not an accident, they go together.”


Eating local is more important than you think

“So, in looking at Malay dietary traditions, one of the things we see is that local is really, really important, and these vary a lot, state to state. There are big differences in practice, and it is really important to document while people still know about it, because it’s not guaranteed that they will always know about it.”


…local is really, really important…


Speaking on his current project on healing Malay foods, Professor Gerry and his colleagues are studying our local food traditions in a scientific, systematic and evidence-based way. “We want to revive and document food at the village level, asking older people what their grandparents would have used for preventing stroke, for example. We’ll document this, then check against all the databases and look at all the research to confirm it’s an anticoagulant and improves synaptic firing in the brain, etc. We put the evidence behind it, then we can work with people like you and others to get the word out about scientific bases of Malay healing foods to prevent non-communicable diseases.

“This is the nutritional power of traditional foods. It’s not just grandma’s recipes and let’s create nostalgia and be how we were. Instead, the message in these foods is: let’s survive. Let’s not get diabetes. And let’s not suffer from obesity, heart disease and stroke.”


The power of ulam

So, what ulam does Professor Gerard Bodeker recommend we grow in our gardens or balconies? His answer is pegaga, also known as pennywort, gotu kola or centella asiatica scientifically. “One of the most important ulam is pegaga. Pegaga is used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Only in South East Asia is it consumed fresh, particularly in Malaysia.

“The thing about pegaga is that it’s a brain tonic. Studies have found that pegaga increases synaptic firing in the brain. It improves cognitive performance, memory and learning ability. Every student should be having this every day.” Bodeker suggests juicing it with carrot or beetroot to mask its somewhat unpleasant taste.

“Now that’s what an ulam is – it’s got something that’s a brain tonic, it’s got something that’s a kidney tonic. It can stimulate digestion.” Coriander is another ulam Professor Gerry recommends. “Coriander is a heavy metal chelator, it pulls heavy metals out of the blood. In Kuala Lumpur, there is a high level of ground water arsenic from the tin mining days. Arsenic is a very bad toxin, particularly for the brain. So, if you’ve got coriander in an ulam, you’re preventing heavy metal toxicity.

“Ulam is really underrated. It’s just thought of as a side dish.” Professor Gerry and his colleagues aren’t just studying what should be eaten, but how it’s traditionally eaten too. The pegaga, for example, is traditionally eaten by rolling the stem around the leaf in a little package. “That is called an extraction technology. It’s not just a food ingredient, it’s the methods used to prepare food. By doing that, you get as much juice as you possibly can, because it presses in on itself. In looking at tradition, it’s important to understand the simple things.”


The Professor’s favourite ulam

Professor Gerry admits to not having a particular favorite ulam. “But I would say the ulam I use most is pegaga, because I’m focused on the brain, and my brain is my living. So, anything that helps the brain, I go for it.” And if you’re having trouble locating fresh ulam, Professor Gerry recommends looking for them in night markets or Little India in Brickfields.

If you’d like to find out more about Professor Gerry Bodeker and his work, visit the Mental Wellness Initiative under Global Wellness Institute and the Global Initiative For Traditional Systems of Health, both chaired by Professor Gerry. And we don’t know about you, but we’re definitely adding more ulam to our diet from now on.



Butterkicap Team

We're just a small group of friends who love food, culture and Malaysia. We saw the rise of mediocre food, deteriorating relationships and missed the good old days of Malaysia where food was good, homes were warmer and full of friends and family. So we rolled up our sleeves, and made Butterkicap with the hope that it will bring people and flavors home.

Love Malaysian food and culture? Find Malaysian recipes and stories on culture here in the Butterkicap community. Join us.

Sign up for Butterkicap

Tweet us 

Show the world just how amazing Malaysian food is.

Hashtag us at #butterkicap

Please check your feed, the data was entered incorrectly.