Designer dining: fashion guru Phillip Lim turns his creativity to the kitchen

THE TANGY-SWEET SCENT of chilli pepper, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce spiked with a splash of pungent fish sauce wafts from the wok. I stir through pieces of chicken, which sizzle stickily, the sauce caramelising into a thick, spicy-sweet coating. A handful of shredded basil later, it is ready. This is “Mom’s Ginger and Basil Chicken”, the signature dish from Chinese-American fashion designer Phillip Lim’s new cookbook, More Than Our Bellies, which he created in collaboration with Dutch artist and photographer Viviane Sassen to celebrate food, travel and family.

Lim co-founded fashion label 3.1 Phillip Lim in 2005 and is now one of the most successful independent designers in America. His structured, wearable designs have won him accolades from the Council of Fashion Designers of America – for womenswear in 2007 and for menswear in 2012 – and his Fall 2019 collection continues to build on the label’s signature structured yet casual aesthetic, with clean tailoring and muted palette. But this year also spells a new creative outlet for Lim, who recently discovered the pleasures of home cooking – a humbling antidote to high fashion.

The first-generation child of a Chinese couple, who moved to the United States in 1974 via Cambodia and Thailand, Lim grew up with a south-east Asian-influenced Chinese diet, cooked from scratch by his mother. But as a typical kid in the American school system, he rebelled. “I grew up in two worlds,” he says. “My parents wanted me to assimilate into Western culture, but the rules, food and language at home were all Chinese. When you’re a kid, you want McDonald’s and boxed cereal.” It wasn’t until Lim moved to New York City 14 years ago, to forge his fashion career, that he eventually reconnected with his ancestors’ food.

“For the first 10 years, I’d order takeout morning, noon and night,” says Lim. “I didn’t realise how bad it was for my body, but I was sluggish and feeling kind of hollow. Then, one day, I was missing my mother so much. She used to make me this basil ginger chicken which always put me in a good mood. I bought the ingredients I thought were in it, and went home and recreated it.”

That must have been no mean feat for a man who had never cooked before in his life – “My mum never taught me to cook,” he says, “she was old school that way” – but the chicken dish revealed to Lim that there’s more depth to food than its flavour.

“In South East Asia, they use humble ingredients that are actually antioxidants and superfoods,” says Lim. “Recently, I took a trip to Cambodia and in that humid climate there are a lot of mosquitoes. As a tourist, I was putting on loads of repellent and [I noticed] that the locals were not. It is because they eat food that naturally repels bugs, such as lemongrass. It is a traditional way of healing.”

Lim paid attention and, as a frequent traveller, uses his newfound food ethos to keep jet lag and fatigue at bay. “One of the major ingredients in Thai tom yum soup, for example, is galangal, which rebalances you,” he claims. “And kaffir lime de-puffs and helps remedy jet lag. Now, whenever I have been away and come home, I make that soup.”

Despite this, Lim insists that he is no chef – and it is clear that More Than Our Bellies is no ordinary cookbook. The accompanying photography by Lim’s friend and long-time collaborator Viviane Sassen does not correspond to the recipes. Instead, the artful shots, taken on her travels in Asia and Africa – Morocco, Ethiopia and Madagascar – display ripe, cut-open tomatoes on a market stand; sacks of rice glowing white under the sun; and trays of fried fish laid in silvery rows on a street-side stall. “We had travelled the world together and developed a mutual love and respect for non-Western cultures,” explains Lim. “This book is a love letter to each other.” It blurs the line between cookbook, travel documentary and fine-art tome – and for Lim it was a way to celebrate and connect to the people he loves.

“When I make clothes, I think of who wears them, how he or she might feel,” he says. “My goal is to make them feel at home, to give them armour to create memories in. And I do not know how it is going to turn out, which is the same with cooking. You are just trying to capture what was in your imagination.”

Born from an imagination as fruitful as Lim’s, it is no wonder that More Than Our Bellies has drawn the attention of the fashion, food and art worlds all at once. But the proof is always in the pudding. I place the ginger basil chicken atop a steaming bowl of white rice, grab a pair of chopsticks and dig in. It is tender, sweet and spicy; comfort on a plate. If Lim’s way of healing body and soul is this delicious, I think, then let him be my guru.,


The scent of Oman: in search of frankincense in Salalah

“Close your eyes and breathe three times,” a soothing voice murmurs. I inhale deeply, breathing in the fragrant smoke that’s gently wafting in front of me. Eucalyptus-like notes blend with sweet musk into an unmistakable, ancient scent. I slowly lift my eyelids to see a wooden burner cradling a small cluster of amber-like rocks, coated in a silvery dust and emitting a spiral of white smoke where they hit hot, black coals.

I’m in the middle of a “frankincense ritual” at the Al Baleed Resort in Salalah, in the southern Omani region of Dhofar. The 90-minute spa treatment – which begins with a frankincense and ginger-infused drink and ends with an outrageously pampering, four-hand massage – centres on a substance that has been the backbone of this region for more than 5,000 years.

Frankincense – a gum resin that is tapped from a tree and hardened to be burnt as incense – can be harvested in Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, but much of it comes from native Boswellia sacra trees in Oman, where it’s one of the main sources of income for its people. Considered to produce the highest-quality resin, this gnarled, spiky shrub – which looks like an olive tree that’s toughened up for the harsh desert climate – is found in the rocky plains surrounding Salalah, and along its stunning Eftalquot coastline, where wild turtles and dolphins splash in turquoise surf that washes over white sand beaches.

A visit to Salalah’s sleepy Hafa souq reveals how frankincense is distilled into essential oil and made into creams and soaps, which are stacked high in tiny shops. Thanks to its mythological, medicinal properties, frankincense oil is used to treat everything from swollen joints and stomach aches to acne, wrinkles and rashes. Inland trees produce better resin, as seaside moisture in the air can lead to impurities, and there are four quality grades of frankincense: the lowest grade has a brown, opaque hue, while the highest-quality – hojari – has a golden-green sheen. Fetching around 50 Omani rial (US$130) per kilo today, hojari frankincense has been one of the country’s most precious exports for some 2,000 years: in the second century BC the resin was worth more than gold and the southern Arabian peninsula was the richest region on Earth. The trade continued to flourish in the area until around AD 700, and frankincense was Arabia’s most valuable commodity until its discovery of oil.

The majority of Omani frankincense is harvested each April in the UNESCO-protected Wadi Dawkah, an arid valley 30 minutes drive from Salalah, which is home to some 5,000 Boswellia trees. I head there with Hussain Balhaf, a former nomad from the surrounding mountains known as the “Salalah Guru”. He turns off the well-kept highway onto a dirt track that soon turns into rocky sand punctured by boulders and shrubbery, which we lurch past in our 4×4. We heave over a steep hill and a vast, sandy expanse scattered with Boswellias unfolds below us.

“These trees are up to 300 years old,” says Balhaf, taking out a chisel and delicately scraping the top layer of bark off the underside of a branch. Underneath, the flesh is a bright orange, and dots of sticky, bright-white sap slowly start to bleed out. “It takes 15 to 20 days for the sap to harden, depending on how dry the weather is,” he continues, gesturing towards a previous cut on the tree, where the sap has solidified into a bead of squishy gum that resembles dripping candle wax. In a few more days, it’ll be hard enough to collect.

According to Balhaf, anyone can harvest frankincense, but it’s generally the preserve of tribesmen with knowledge passed down through generations. While camels have been replaced by 4x4s, the method of harvesting resin has remained largely unchanged – and it is becoming increasingly important to respect these traditional methods, which prioritise the health of the trees by not over-tapping. Recent research undertaken by the Environmental Society of Oman (ESO) showed a significant population decline and lower yield of resin from the trees, which are capable of producing 10kg per season when properly cared for. In fact, the Boswellia sacra is now listed as “near-threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

“Tourists are not the driving force for the diminishing numbers of frankincense,” the ESO’s Jenan Al Asfoor reassures me. “The main threats are due to over-tapping, habitat degradation, insect infestation and over grazing.” While there is not currently a certification system or sustainability campaign in place, visitors to the souq can ask where the product was harvested – Wadi Dawkah is a government-protected area.

Exploring the valley, we see herds of camels tearing at sparse foliage and geckos crawling over dusty rocks. We encounter a group of Bedu nomads sat cross-legged on woven rugs, and join them to sip sweet tea. When the sun dips into the hazy horizon, Balhaf revs up the car and we make the short drive back to Salalah, whose peaceful streets are waking up for the evening. Everywhere I look, construction is underway in this rapidly developing town. But if I stop, close my eyes and breathe deeply three times, one thing will be the same as it’s been for time immemorial: that unmistakable, musky fragrance, catching on the sea breeze.