FOR someone who helped to nourish millions with fish, it is only apt that her favourite food in Penang is the asam laksa.
The spicy and sour fish soup with noodles is a go-to dish for nutrition expert Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, who was recently named the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate.
“When I go to one restaurant, that’s the only thing I would order, ” says the Danish citizen based in Penang with a smile, during an interview over video call recently.
In fact, Thilsted, believes being in Penang is wonderful as a lot of its cuisine is based on aquatic foods like fish head curry and ikan bilis.
“What I like is that all parts of the fish are used and consumed. Even shrimp heads are used to make stock (for Penang Hokkien mee), ” she quips.
Penangites should be so proud with this compliment from Thilsted, who is the global lead for nutrition and public health at WorldFish, an international research institution on aquatic food systems, headquartered in Bayan Lepas, Penang.
On May 11, Thilsted became the first woman of Asian descent to be given the World Food Prize – an award by the World Food Prize Foundation for individuals with trailblazing achievements in food security and innovation.
Calling fish a superfood, she was honoured for her work in helping millions of low income families have healthier diets after she developed the pond polyculture system to raise various fish inexpensively.
The system involves small and large fish species being farmed together in the same water body like wet rice fields.
This helped low income families put food on their tables, both literally and figuratively – the larger fish can be sold for extra money, while the nutrient-dense smaller fish can be consumed as a healthy meal.
The approach has helped children and breastfeeding mothers across countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Burma, Zambia, Malawi to get key nutrients for healthy growth and development.
In Malaysia, with our reputation as a food heaven, our issue isn’t so much about supply but rather, putting healthy choices into our bodies.
“Generally speaking, there can be more opportunities to have more varied and well-balanced diets in Malaysia.
“Aquatic food like fish is one part of having diverse nutritious foods. At the markets here, I see there is great scope for doing this.
“While I have not done any local consumption surveys here, there is sometimes an imbalance in diets – too much of staple food like rice and too little aquatic food, ” Thilsted says.
Increasing the portion of aquatic food like fish and seafood would definitely provide a more nourishing meal, she adds.
Fish as a superfood
Growing up in a family of Indian Hindu migrants in Trinidad and Tobago, Thilsted, 71, always had an interest in science as a young girl.
The obvious choice would be to study medicine, Thilsted remarks, but she wanted to work with food and nutrition.
“We lived with my grandmother and she always impressed on us the value of food, especially fish, to have good brains and a strong body.
“But my favourite food was not fish, but mango, ” she laughs.
But like a seed, her grandmother’s wisdom was planted in her and it blossomed into the fruits of her work today in developing the pond polyculture system.
Thilsted studied agriculture and worked her way through physiology and biochemistry, and ultimately, decided to look at the value fish has for people.
While working as an agricultural officer in Tobago, she met her husband, Finn Thilsted and moved to his home country of Denmark, where she took up post-graduate studies.
“I worked in Bangladesh in the 1980s because my husband was working at the Danish embassy there.
“I started working with malnourished children there and I realised that fish is a superfood for preventing malnutrition and keeping mothers strong.
“It’s especially true also for children in their first 1,000 days. Fish has multiple nutrients like vitamin B12 and essential fatty acids which are crucial for brain development and cognition, ” she says.
While fish is culturally accepted and well-liked there, Thilsted realised that poor and vulnerable communities lacked fish in meals.
So, the goal became to improve their access and consumption of fish.
From her research, she found that small fish species from Bangladesh and Cambodia were packed with multiple macro nutrients like vitamin A, calcium, iron, zinc and others.
“Using that knowledge, if we want to increase consumption, one of the routes is production, ” she says, tapping into the potential most of the fish in Bangladesh was supplied from four million household ponds owned by smallholder farmers.
Hence, the pond polyculture system to raise fish was born.
At that time, farmers would clean the ponds first by poisoning all fish, because they thought the small, native fish would compete with bigger, stock fish like carp.
But against this belief, Thilsted’s research proved that the small and large fish actually increased in production together and farmers would get higher nutritional quality because such small fish are dense in nutrients.
Thilsted and her team also developed a way where women could fish without going into the water by devising a net with pulley so they can harvest some fish to be cooked.
The next step was to make convenient products so that all, including pregnant and lactating women, can eat them.
Inspired by her grandmother’s recipe, Thilsted developed a highly nutritious fish chutney and fish powder that can be mixed with foods for young children.
Soon, the results of her work were seen and many villagers came up to her, proudly showing them their healthy children.
“In a Cambodian village, a lady asked me to meet her youngest granddaughter.
“She said after adding fish powder to their food, her granddaughter became the smartest and strongest of her grandkids, ” Thilsted fondly recalls.
Above and beyond
Being awarded the World Food Prize, Thilsted says it has now given her a good platform to move forward.
“I would like to see collaborations with the private sector to develop convenient nutritious foods, especially focusing on young children and lactating women.
“Now, in countries all over, there is a call for convenience and if we don’t have foods that are affordable, easy to use and prepare, we will lose out to non-nutritious food, ” she stresses.
At a more general level, Thilsted finds that aquatic food systems are not yet recognised as a powerful solution to nourish nations.
“I want to see more focus on this and more research in this area, ” she adds.
Beyond that, Thilsted says there is also a need for more people, especially young women, to study science and nutrition.
With a pandemic upon the world, Thilsted laments that Covid-19 has added a barrier to the two billion people worldwide who are not well-nourished.
“With Covid-19, more are falling into the ranks of being undernourished.
“There are governments and organisations that realise it is very difficult for some who cannot afford or can’t get access to nutritious food.
“While some governments have food rations and safety net programmes, a lot of it is focused on providing staple food items like rice in Asia or maize in Africa.
“It fills your stomach with energy but it does not have complete nourishment, ” she points out.
For those falling behind or suddenly losing their jobs from such tough times, there is a need to provide them with nutritious food.
Thilsted also believes that there are more opportunities to increase the supply of aquatic foods in Malaysia by expanding aquaculture activities.
“On the production systems in Malaysia, I do think there’s a lot in Malaysia that can be used not only here but across the region.
“It would be good if Malaysia and WorldFish can work together to help other countries as there is much here that can lend itself to others, ” she says.