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The Stairway to Intestinal Heaven

with Dr Grace, Gut Goddess

Last night my friend's 40th birthday party marked the end of a chocolate and alcohol abundant, sleep and exercise poor summer.  I'm feeling sluggish, heavier and getting out of bed for a morning ride has turned into pulling up the doona.  But from this morning and for the entire month of February I am embarking on a journey back to health using Gut Goddess - Dr Grace's 7 Steps to cure SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) as my template.

I've been following Grace Liu's chaotic but fascinating gut blog animalpharm for a few years now.  Grace is a pharmacologist and is one of those rare people who enjoy reading scientific papers in their spare time.  With geek-grade enthusiasm Grace shares her discoveries; everything from the great potato starch debate to the beneficial effects of chitin fibre found in cricket flour.  Grace advocates what she calls microbiome-hacking - using the information she finds in scientific studies as a guide to self-experimentation.  She encourages others to share their gut journeys along the way.

It's been empowering to apply Grace's hacking approach to our own health - for the past year Grace's blog has helped our family heal a can't-leave-the-house level eczema problem that mainstream and alternative therapies failed to treat for many miserable and itchy years.  Here I'm going to be a bit more systematic and follow Grace's 7 step protocol which goes like this:

Step One – Eat Fermented Foods
Step Two – Eat Resistant-Starch-Rich Tubers, Grains, Legumes and Pulses
Step Three – Eat Soil-Based Probiotics
Step Four – Eat Diverse Fibre
Step Five – Exercise low-moderate intensity one hour daily continuously (10,000 steps)
Step Six – Avoid allergenic foods  (corn, soy, gluten/wheat, dairy, nuts, egg whites, etc),  GMO products and livestock/poultry fed GMO crops 
Step Seven – Heal hormones and immunity — take adrenal support, liver support, antioxidants etc

It all seems simple enough though I'm not sure what I'd eat if I had to go without dairy, eggs and corn (ours is almost ready to harvest).  But first, before I head up Grace's steps, I have bought a uBiome 5 site test to find out what's happening in my gut after the recent Summer assault.  

The uBiome kit will tell me what state my microbiome is in by collecting bacteria from my skin (rubbing a swab behind my ears), my mouth (swab inside the cheek), my nose (a cotton bud up a nostril) and my genitals (well you get the picture - it's all swabbing and rubbing).  What about the poo you ask? (everybody always wants to know about the poo). I too, was worried about the mechanics of poo collection - the high probability of an accidental spillage and/or accompanying family ridicule.  However, I was comforted to discover the instructions telling me all I have to do was,  "Swab your toilet paper... just enough to change the color of the swab."

The results come back from uBiome in 4-6 weeks and at the end of February I'll do the 5 site test again and see if anything's changed.  If you're on your own Unglut Your Gut journey let us know how you've gone about it and how you're feeling now.  We'll give our favourite story a Generous Cook's Box - email us at


Summer reading continues with The Cabbage Heart of Darkness Part V


In the previous instalment, our family had reached the city of Medan in Eastern Sumatra on their way to Berastagi, home of a giant cabbage sculpture. Cut off by cyclonic rains, they are forced to detour via Lake Toba. With their driver, Ishmael, guiding them through a scarred rainforest they lunch at an isolated water park surrounded by an enormous palm oil plantation. After being reunited with his lost wallet, we leave Chris pondering the nature of fate, human kindness and the relative luckiness of bok choi. 

Part 5: Kohl's Family Homestay

In the rainy dark a wiry old Batak man holding three umbrellas greets us at the entrance of Kohl’s Family Homestay. We are rushed to our bungalow and quickly fall asleep as the rain thunders down on the tin roof.  The sulphury smell of rotting vegetation pervades everything.  I dream I’m six years old sitting at the dinner table, on the plate in front of me is a pile of grey, over-boiled cauliflower.  The smell is enough to make me gag.  My parents decree over and over I cannot leave the table until I finish. Choking, I swallow the sulphury clumps whole while my brain, body and a million years of collective human survival instinct scream, “This food is clearly POISON!”  

I wake in the morning, a bad taste in my mouth.  The rain has stopped and I wander out onto the verandah.  Stretching out over the horizon, mist rising off its glassy green surface, is an immense volcanic lake. Behind me, high up on the steep rim of the old volcano, waterfalls tumble down into thick rain forest.  Kohl’s Family Homestay sits deep inside the crater, tucked at the edge of a small lagoon ringed by guesthouses, gardens and rice paddies. I’ve read about the Toba eruption, I try to imagine this green sea in front of me as a hundred kilometre long mountain range blowing itself into the sky, but the image won’t fit in my head.

I go back inside and pull on the shorts I bought in Medan.  I’m not usually sentimental about clothes but these pants fit me so perfectly that I’ve fallen in love with them.  All, however, is not well; with their close fit and the constant humidity I have developed a terrible itch in my groin. Googling the symptoms I discover I have a tropical fungal infection commonly known as Crotch Rot. 

We wander down to book in at reception.  Out on the office verandah, sitting at a wooden desk is the owner, Kohl, a greying Dutchman in his 70’s dressed formally in business shirt and slacks.  Kohl’s resting expression is downcast and disapproving but as he sees us he breaks into a remarkably warm smile. 

Kohl, with his Batak wife, Lydia, in tow, shows us around the property.  A dozen Batak families live and work here and it seems more of a village than a homestay.  Leading us along elegantly engineered water channels to three large stone fish pens we watch Batak men on the lake’s edge dragging out a huge clump of water hyacinth to make compost for Kohl’s gardens.  Kohl calls out to one of the men.  He baits a line and within a minute has pulled a large tilapia out of one of the pens.

The beautifully laid out gardens are Lydia’s domain; her team of Batak women busily weed the enormous broccoli, bok choi, kang kung, peanuts and lettuce.  We walk through a grove of bananas, mandarins, coffee and cacao over to where some men are extending a rabbit house.  Sitting on an old blue tarp, a woman and a young boy are shucking a waist-high pile of corn, feed for the rabbits and chickens.  From under a doe Lydia gently slips out a couple of baby rabbits for our boys to hold.

Apart from cooking oil, sugar and salt Kohl proclaims his property self-sufficient.  I compliment Kohl; the homestay is one of the best examples of closed loop agriculture I have seen anywhere.  I tell them farmers and gardeners from all over the world would travel to see it.  Kohl seems surprised and pleased and asks what we’re planning to do in Lake Toba.  I explain about Berastagi and the giant cabbage.  Kohl says he knows of a guide and some accommodation and would be happy to arrange everything.  He excuses himself.  Peta and the boys spend the morning playing with the rabbits while I find relief from my itching in the cool lake. 

We return to the bungalow surprised to find Kohl in our lounge.  A lunch of fish, fried potatoes and salad is laid out on the table.  Kohl informs us our guide and accommodations in Berastagi have been booked.  He helps himself to a beer from the fridge and joins us for lunch.  We eat and Kohl announces he has also organised for us to attend a Batak wedding on our way to Berastagi.  We protest; we don’t know the couple and it would be an intrusion.  Kohl won’t hear any of it; the family owe him a favour and it has all been arranged.  He finishes his meal and departs inviting us to join him that night for his famous fish feast.  

In the afternoon we walk around the village.  It’s the week before Christmas and people are busy stocking up on food at the market, others emerge from the bus station returning home from jobs in Medan, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur dragging huge candy-striped bags full of gifts.  As darkness falls we stop to watch a candlelit parade of Batak school children singing carols.  

We arrive back at the homestay and are called to the end of the jetty.  Standing between flaming torches, a crisp white table cloth before him is Kohl.  He opens his arms.  We sit and I try not to scratch myself.  Telling well-worn jokes Kohl grandly welcomes us to his famous fish feast while in the shadows Lydia and the other Batak women cook fish on barbecues.  We ask if they’re joining us but Kohl says they’ve already eaten. 

As the first course of eel is served fireworks explode overhead, momentarily lighting up one side of the lagoon.  An answering salvo lights up the other side and a kind of skyrocket battle erupts.  Clearly unimpressed Kohl explains the guesthouse owner on our left is firing rockets to make people think he is a big man even though everyone knows he has no money.   Meanwhile the guesthouse owner on our right, who seems to be winning the battle, is the local drug dealer thanking everybody for their business this past year.  Another guesthouse joins in the barrage and Kohl sneers.

We’re full after two courses but six more follow.  The famous fish feast turns into a grotesque endurance test. Oblivious to our discomfort Kohl enthusiastically teaches us how to remove the skeleton or shell of each particular fish and crustacean.  We apologise, hardly touching the last of the heaving platters but Kohl assures us whatever we don’t eat his Batak families will gladly finish.  

Our boys begin nodding off and Peta takes them off to bed. I stay with Kohl.  Sitting on the table is our dinner offering; a bottle of jungle whiskey we bought in Medan.  I pour us each a shot and thank Kohl for his hospitality.  But before I can say goodnight Kohl refills my glass.  Drinking two shots to my one the bottle disappears in no time and Kohl barks at Lydia to bring another.  

As we drink Kohl recalls his childhood in rural Holland; he had trouble learning to read and write. His teachers gave up on him thinking he was simple and his classmates bullied him. Kohl’s grandmother took pity and told him that a man who could hunt would always be his own master.  Instead of reading books Kohl learned to read the animals and fish living in the hedgerows and canals that surrounded his family’s dairy farm.  As his hunting skills improved he would ask his grandmother whether she wanted rabbit, quail or fish for dinner and unfailingly bring it to her.

The more Kohl drinks the more the words fall out of him and the more it feels like a confession.  His stories are giant loops; he repeats phrases over and over like a typewriter stuck on the same spot.  Occasionally, as if to emphasise some hidden meaning at the end of a passage, he pauses dramatically.  I try to listen but the jungle whisky seems to have aggravated my Crotch Rot.  The itching is excruciating.  I begin frantically rubbing my chin trying to distract myself.
Kohl looks at me quizzically but ploughs on about his career as a civil engineer across the Middle East and Asia. Through his work he’d met the King of Jordan, Suharto, Bush senior, Clinton, and various regional despots.  Of them all Kohl professes most respect for “His Excellency” Saddam Hussein.  From then on he always prefixes the dead dictator with a hissing “His Excellency”.  I ask him why Hussein, but he doesn’t explain and talks about building World Bank-funded dams.  

My groin burns and I fantasise about being lowered waist-deep into some freezing Himalayan hydroelectric lake. Kohl reveals there are countries he can never return for fear of being imprisoned.  He recalls an Iranian couple who visited him earlier that year - knows why they came, knows what they wanted.  When he muses that Lake Tabo is beautiful but also very deep, I don’t know whether to be amused or alarmed. 

Lydia refills my water glass.  Almost completely hunched over in my seat I ask Kohl how he came to be married.  He explains once he was engaged to young Batak woman, he bought her a house and a beauty salon and then she left him.  After that he took a more businesslike approach to love.  Posting a position description around the village Kohl specified three selection criteria for his new wife-to-be: she must be an orphan, already have had children and not be a Muslim.

As if selecting a new car Kohl describes how he wined, dined and bedded a dozen women before he made his choice. When Lydia auditioned she was a widow living on her uncle’s subsistence rice farm, her daughter indentured to a local businessman to pay her husband’s debts.  It’s hard to imagine today, Lydia has a certain swagger and is clearly boss of the other compound families. Everything, however, is made clear when Kohl barks for a new ice bucket Lydia jumps to like a nervous house girl on her first day at work.   

Kohl goes on - how on the eve of a new overseas project he ignored a major heart attack and dragged himself to the airport.  How after he brought in a hundred truckloads of rock to build his jetty the jealous locals tried to take it from him.  How he saved the lake from the choking water hyacinth with his composting.  How he distributes hundreds of Christmas cakes to poor families each Christmas.  Kohl speaks and speaks but all I’m thinking is whether I can scratch myself with my dinner fork without anybody noticing.

Then unexpectedly, like a disappointed child at Christmas, Kohl cries out.  Startled, I drop my fork. Turning on me, he says he knows who I am, knows from the internet my background in aquaponics.  He has been waiting all day for me to offer my services and demands to know why I am holding out on him.  Surprised I tell him I’m no expert and what he has is already impressive.  

Kohl relents but a minute later he insists again.  I decline but he won’t be put off.  Kohl pleads for help; he has to keep his property ahead of the others.  I’m tired and drunk and my crotch is raging, angrily I rebuke him for his presumptuousness, reminding him I am here with my family on holiday.  Kohl retreats into silence and suddenly I fear I may wake up at the bottom of the lake beside the Iranian agents.

Then, in a surprisingly soft voice, he asks me if I think one person can own another?  Wearily I reply, no, my tone betraying distaste for the subject.  Kohl tells me after he married Lydia he bought her daughter out of bonded labour and for doing so believes she is now his.  I disagree with his assertion.  He snorts and pours himself another shot. Speaking almost in a whisper Kohl confides that once she comes of age he will leave his step-daughter his money, his businesses, everything.  I stare at him; his eyes are glazed with tears.

More rockets explode above us and Kohl leaps from his chair.  From the end of his jetty he curses and yells at his neighbours while in the dark behind him Lydia clears up.  He bellows on, oblivious to his wife, cut-off from her and his Batak family in his own ancient crater of hurts and prejudices.   And as Kohl rails at the sparkling sky I take the chance to quickly shove a handful of ice cubes into my underpants and I understand, if this is my cabbage heart of darkness, then perhaps Kohl is my Kurtz.


Note:  If you are wondering where this summer reading stuff is coming from - these stories were one of the rewards from our Rewiring the Food System crowdfunding campaign we held last year. 

Have a great week


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