Monday, 28 October 2013

The smallest and the best -- a trivial discussion

My friends celebrated my birthday recently with a large durian puree cake. I don't mind its size at all this time round as it was me who cooked lunch -- and one dish only. Everyone had stomach left for huge slices!
WHAT would it be for you -- the "smallest and the best" or "the biggest and the best"?

In terms of preference, how many "smallest and the best" things are there in this world as compared to "biggest and the best" things?

Well, not many. But there are some. For example, I know I would prefer the "smallest and the best" birthday cake. The cake is usually served only after a huge birthday meal. So, only the best will do (to entice everyone to eat it) -- and only the smallest will do (to prevent waste). Just taking a morsel of the best birthday cake in the world will suffice. I certainly don't want a huge slice after a 10-course meal -- no matter how great its reputation is. I will even reject a durian souffle, so there.

I would also love to own a piece of jade that is the "smallest and the best" -- how interesting it would be to wear it round your neck. Just a speck, but hey, it is the world's best jade.

I would also prefer the smallest and the best of pearls -- something you can keep in a pouch, to take out to admire now and then. I can imagine the headlines (if this pearl exists and gets into the news) -- Smallest in the world but most luminous... See the world in this grain of pearl.

(What can you do with a monstrosity of a pearl, even though it is the best?)

I would also prefer to own the world's smallest but best flower -- as compared to the world's biggest and best flower. How delicate, and being the world's best flower, it would have a unique scent that's powerful and subtle at the same time. (That's my definition of "best" anyway, for flowers.)

Actually, I can't think of any more "smallest but best" things. Smallest but best eyes? Not really -- though there are lots of appealing small eyes around, big eyes are considered more attractive. Anime characters all have saucer-like eyes. And consider the fashion trend now for "youthful" eyebags -- small eyes sporting such eyebags would be a bad combination.

OK, how about the smallest and the best mobile phone? That would work for me, because I don't do a lot of things on my handphone except to text and make calls. If I could own one that can be worn as a ring, that would be superb! If I could just speak and the message transformed into a text message by this little gadget. And if I could just tap it to receive or make calls (maybe tap once to make calls, and tap twice to receive). Perfect! But generally, people play games on them, do all sorts of things, including surfing, and finding directions. Guess they won't want a handphone that's the size of a speck.

TV screens -- the biggest and the best of course. And the biggest and the best view (say of a mountain, a beach, a river... The biggest and the best waterfall (best here meaning, the most splendid, most majestic).

Diamonds? The biggest and the best of course.

Hmm, but if only a birthday cake is served and nothing else, please give me the biggest slice. And the best, you know, the part with all goodies, where the durian puree cream is the thickest?

Idiot-proof recipe for chicken rice

I used chicken wings instead of drumsticks last Sunday.
No need to chop into smaller bits.
 THERE was a TV series on Robin Hood shown sometime in the 60s during my childhood. Little John and Robin Hood apparently eat nothing but wild fowls (shot with arrows of course) roasted  over a fire in the forest. When cooked, they would each tear a drumstick and eat heartily while making plans to rescue Miriam.

It would be good too, for the audience to be similarly engaged, not in rescuing Maid Miriam, but in partaking that drumstick while watching TV.

So, here's an idiot-proof recipe to cook chicken rice using chicken drumstick (or any parts of the chicken you like best) instead of a whole chicken which you would need to chop up after cooking (could be messy with a lot of bits splattering around -- besides, you need a cleaver).

Get two drumsticks (thawed frozen ones from Cold Storage should be fine). Once home, wash and dry them, then rub over with salt till the skin is smooth and clean. Cook them in a pot of water. Throw in spring onions (tied into a bundle), garlic cloves, and lots of ginger slices. Bring to boil, then simmer till the drumsticks are cooked. This will probably take about half to an hour. Remove drumsticks and place them into a basin filled with ice. Count up to 10 (moderate speed) and remove. Drizzle some sesame oil over the drumsticks.

Now, fry some shallots, ginger slices and garlics (smashed) in a bit of oil till fragrant. Add two cups (or more depending on the number of people willing to eat your chicken rice) of rice grains. Fry for a little while and then transfer into rice cooker. Add enough stock which you have used to poach the chicken, to cook the rice.

Serve with a dip -- chilli sauce. lime juice and grated ginger (available especially for chicken rice, packaged in small bottles). Add thick black soya sauce if you like.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Idiot-proof recipe for ginger milk curd

QUITE a few have blogged about this milk curd. I remember mum used to try making this as well and though it was a nice thick drink, we never quite achieved a "curd".

So, here's my recipe for a cup of ginger milk yogurt. Pour about a cup of milk into saucepan and bring to boil. Once you see it bubbling, reduce heat immediately. Keep stirring for a few seconds then remove from heat. Tilt saucepan from side to side and stir at the same time to cool milk down.

Before you boil the milk, you need to prepare ginger juice. One easy way to do this is to cut a knob of ginger into slices and then into small bits.  Place bits into a sieve. Put the sieve into a cup and use a spoon or grinder to press onto the ginger bits till juice is extracted. (Do not add any water).

Now, the interesting part. Pour the slightly cooled milk into the cup, through the sieve. Mash the ginger bits some more to extract the last drop of juice. Remove sieve, and let the milk cool a little. You will find that the milk have formed into a curd.

Sprinkle some brown sugar on top. Slurp.

Idiot-proof recipe for braised pork belly

NOT difficult, I swear. You can get it right the first time.

I got a recipe from the Internet. It sounded simple already -- but I have modified it and made it even more simple.

Go get 600 gms of pork belly meat (to serve about 3 to 4 persons).  Ask the butcher to cut them into thick slices for you.

Wash the meat, dry with napkins, and put them to steam. Once cooked (when the meat changed colour) take them out to cool. Cut them into smaller slices if you wish.

Then comes the very interesting part. Melt about three tablespoons of rock sugar in the pan. Stir till all the sugar has melted and syrup has turned a pale yellow. This means that it is about to caramelise. Throw in the pork slices. Continue to cook and stir till the liquid thickens and becomes really sticky. OK, stop!

That's how you smash a garlic to release its flavour.
Wash the pan. Heat oil and throw in a few garlic cloves. (No need to de-skin, but just slightly smash them so that the cloves release their flavour. You can use the pounder or bang the palm of your hand on the spatula over the garlics.)

Pour in black soya sauce -- about two tablespoons. Pour in light soya sauce, about three tablespoons. Add a teaspoon of Worcester sauce. Mix in 5 Spice Powder (just a sprinkle will do as only a subtle flavour is required.)

Next, pour in the meat in its syrup. Pour in a bit more water so that the meat is covered. Bring to boil, then lower heat and let the whole thing simmer. About two hours later, voila -- braised belly pork! As a final touch, place a sprig of Chinese parsley on the dish.

Serve meat with steamed buns instead of rice for a change.

Instead of pork belly, you can use chicken wings. I like to use the middle portions. No need to steam first. Just poach them in boiling water till they are slightly cooked before you do the rock sugar syrup part. Don't pour away the water after poaching, but add it later to the black sauce.

Next, I am going to try the lazy man's chicken rice.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

'Hare-ly" encounters

COME to think of it, my dad was an animal lover. Besides birds, he kept some hares in a wooden hatch in the garden. We were very small then, and he told us not to go near the hatch and most of all, not to put our hands into the hatch or we might get bitten.

Only my eldest brother was allowed to go near the hatch as it was his job to feed them. I remember vaguely that it was some scraps and vegetables on a metal plate which my brother pushed through the hatch door every evening. The door would then be latched back firmly and with much alacrity. I would watch this from a safe distance, in the darkness.

We often wondered why dad kept such fierce pets. How the hares came to be owned by us was a mystery. Since I wasn't allow to go near those wild things, I never really knew them. I think they gradually died from old age or sickness and dad decided to replace the hares with rabbits. We went to "Bird Street" again (which specialised in birds but also sold rabbits) -- sometimes to buy a white bunny with red eyes which the shopkeeper would put into a paper bag for us to bring home. And sometimes it would be a tiny brown bunny. We preferred bunnies as they were cuter than adults. But they were very fragile and had very short lifespan.

Dad thought it might be the damp from the soil in the garden, or could it be too many carrots in their diet? In the end, we gave up. No more rabbits.

I did try another time to keep a rabbit as pet. When I was a librarian with the Marine Parade Branch Library, there was a pet shop nearby and I decided to take home a brown bunny. Strangely enough, it grew quite wild in appearance -- and in behaviour. It would growl at me when I tried to stroke it. I thought it was because he didn't like being caged up. So he was given free roam of the house. My friend came one day and it ran under the bed. When he tried to attract it by drumming his finger against the bed's frame, the wild thing snapped his finger.

At my wits end, I took it to SPCA. "I think it is a hare, quite wild," I told SPCA. They were nice about it and accepted it along with my token of some money.

After note:
Two papaya trees were planted on the spot in the garden where the rabbit hatch once stood. They bore fruits frequently. My mum's explanation was that the hare's dung acted as good fertilizers.

All fluffed up, with one leg raised

MY dad was fond of birds. Maybe that's why I was named "swallow". Our old house at Serangoon Gardens always had a few birds around -- when Dad was around.

The garden itself was heavily visited by little brown sparrows. My dad would tell me why they were called "wor cheok jay" ('little field birds' in Cantonese) as back in China, these birds would be pecking at grains in the fields.

There were a few other species which visited us -- I don't know what they were but they had yellow backside. My second brother and I actually took care of a baby (of the yellow backside species) which we found lying on the grass in the garden. We put it in a shoe box and fed it strips of bread soaked in milk. My brother said the strips would look like worms and so they would go down well with the baby bird. We left it in the garden in the day -- but the mother bird did not come back for it. We took it into the house in the evenings for fear that stray cats might make a meal out of it.  It grew up quite strong and flew away happily one day.

My dad liked to shop for birds. We started with two budgies -- two green -- then one green and one blue -- then two yellow. He would bring me along when he went to this street that has a row of bird shops down one side of its length. It was a very noisy street -- as you can imagine. I have the impression that it was either Rochor Road or Sungei Road. My dad nicknamed the road "cheok jai gai" ("bird street" in Cantonese). I remember a river which flowed behind the row of shops. They sold all your needs for birds -- cages, containers for water and bird seeds, and cakes (these were small round cakes made of green beans which you stick on the side of the cage for the birds to peck at.)

The bird shop owners would suggest all kinds of birds for dad. We did try out one or two other colourful species besides the budgies. Their diet was fruit, the bird keeper told us, not seeds. But these fruit eaters had such big splatters of watery droppings that we eventually went back to budgies.

Budgies' droppings are manageable. Little greenish black and white things. And they are such darlings especially when they preen each other's head.  A few owners have told me how affectionate their budgies were. But those we had in our childhood were not particularly so.

I used to poke them gently with my pencil when they were all fluffed out in their sleep with one leg up. This would cause them to go all a-fluttered. Making grumpy noises, they would compose themselves and would gradually lift one leg up to sleep again.

One afternoon, perhaps they were all fluffed up as usual, someone came in through the gate and snatched them -- cage and all. My eldest brother gave chase on his bike. Pale and breathless, he returned triumphant with the bird cage.

The pair of love birds none the worse for their adventure but were excited for quite a while, their feathers tight around their bodies. It wasn't some time before they settled down and were all fluffed up again, with one leg raised.

How long does a memory remain in a bird brain, I wonder?

Tuesday, 22 October 2013


IT all started when I got a set of kitchen utensils from mum. There was a red pot with lid, made of metal. It was big in my eyes -- at least two inch in diameter. I can't really remember the other "crockery" that came with the set -- there was an accompanying ladle, I guess. I can still remember the smell of the metal pot when it was new. (I guess it may be the smell of the paint, but there was a distinct scent.)

But it was this red pot that stays in my memory. You can pack some clay into it, pretend to put the whole thing in the oven to bake -- and then turn it out -- and you have a great cake. Or you could put water in it, put some bits of grass in it, pound with a stick till the water turned a little greenish -- and your "soup" is ready.

At times, this mixture could be "wine" which you pour into vessels (tiny vase-like things made of china which were really for Dad's caged birds). You cover the opening of the vessels with a little piece of paper or cloth with a string tied round the neck so that they look like miniature vessels of wine that roadside inns always sold to thirsty swordsmen or swordswomen in Chinese movies.

You can sit the whole afternoon at the doorstep of the house, preparing all sorts of fine cuisine with this one little pot.  Occasionally, you may need to go up the mountains to look for herbs (again inspired by those Cantonese swordfighting movies). So you go to the garden and pluck various grass and weeds growing there. These transformed to ginseng or lingzhi that only grow on precarious mountain tops. Or that one precious flower that would only bloom on a snowy mountain. It could cure all ills.

When my friends came over, we even tried to boil a few grains of rice in the pot. Mum put a stop to that. One shouldn't waste rice, she said. (But once, she let us fill our five stones with rice grains mixed with green beans. Just this once, she said -- and if we ever run out of rice in the house we can unpick the five stones and cook those rice grains.)

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Pampered prisoners?

I am awake now, so where's my breakfast? Followers of the TV serial, Empresses in the Palace may agree that he looks somewhat like the Emperor. The eye expression, no?  起来吧, he will say to his subjects as they come and pay their respect.
Afternoon nap, after lunch.
THEY are given the world's best privileges, with carte blanche to go anywhere in the house.

They occupy the centre position of your bed, or the best soft spot on your favourite sofa. Anywhere their mood takes them -- the bathroom sink is a good idea, or by the kitchen sink (which incidentally have a good view of the neighbourhood), or on top of the washing machine, or it could even be deep in your closet, among clean towels.

They are served breakfast even before you brush your teeth. Home from work already? Please see to dinner. And it better be a good dinner.

Yet, the mad dash for freedom. That fur ball of a cat would squeeze through your legs the moment you open the door. For sure.

It's the same with dogs, I guess. At 18, he is on the doddering side. But like an arrow it is gone, the moment the gate is open a crack -- out onto the roads before you can say "Coalie" -- his name -- my brother's dog.

Morning nap, after breakfast.
Many a times, I drove by my brother's place and would find it nosing around at the road junction, occasionally sniffing the air.

The happiest of dogs.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The coffee boy, the foreman, and the showflat receptionist

AH Mong was the boy who served coffee at the worksite canteen when Hin Seng Garden was being built in the 70s. I was working temporarily as a receptionist with the show flat there, with another girl. Our job as receptionist was to take potential buyers round the house (that was when I learnt what a mezzanine floor was, conduits and cornices) and to take down their particulars if they were interested.

Off Ayer Rajah Road, it was a long way from where I was living in Serangoon Gardens. But as I started work at 10am, it wasn't too bad.

Ah Mong was very happy to have company. It probably was boring for him at the worksite. He would only be busy during breakfast and lunch when the workmen would trudge to the wooden shack for their breaks.
He was always delighted to see us. My co-worker was a very pretty girl. She was fair, slim and tall, her long hair tied into a neat bun. Ah Mong was infatuated with her.

So was the foreman.  Ever morning, the foreman would come to the show flat to pour over his plans and drawings, now and then speaking decisively into his walkie-talkie. He had this air of importance each time he came to the show flat. Sometimes Ah Mong would follow him, but usually, he would come on his own, leaving his muddy boots at the door.

I had this brilliant idea to tie up his bootlaces so that his two boots were inseparable. Muttering curses as he tried to separate his boots, he pretended to scold the innocent Ah Mong, though he knew that the culprit was us. When this happened too many times, he gave up all pretence of civility and scolded us. But I pushed my friend forward and said it was her idea. He smiled happily.

So that was how their friendship started. My friend left the worksite earlier as her course in business administration had started. Ah Mong was extremely sad, and made her a last cup of coffee.

I too left the show flat after a while, to take up a new "appointment". Not too long later, I received an invitation from my friend  to celebrate her birthday at her house. I went of course, and there, helping her to light up her birthday cake was the foreman.

The year after, I received an invitation to their wedding.

Friday, 4 October 2013

In and out the cherry blossoms or 'stream of consciousness'

HAVE you ever wondered why certain things just get stuck in your mind and refuse to go? Certain snatches of memory, rather inconsequential, would play in your mind for no rhyme of reason -- and then exit only to return again later.

Maybe if I share some with you, I'd be able to make them go into my archives, to be retrieved only at will, and not flash around at random, which can be quite irritating. Here goes:

  • The coloured twirls you see in glass marbles. They are among the most beautiful things in the world. The mustard yellow twirls in a glass marble about the diameter of a Singapore 50 cent coin. Or the red one in a 10 cent size.
  • Close-up of a Flame of the Forest bark growing in the compound of Zion Church along Tavistock Avenue -- I was on a bus to work and I zoomed into a portion of the trunk and obtained a good mental image of the tree bark.
  • Close-up of the top of a bus shelter as I passed by on a double decker -- strewn with dried leaves and twigs and rubbish like drink cartons -- along with an old rusty nail.
  • A girl carrying some grocery and walking along a narrow trail along the side of grass slope along Pasir Panjang Road, slightly after Haw Par Villa (towards Clementi Road) on a sunny afternoon. (That grass slope is no longer around. A new condo is being built there.)
  • I was bothered by my cold sore and thinking how ugly I must have looked (I was on the bus again, of course). Then I told myself to remember this girl standing in front of me, in her beige dress, holding on to the iron pole in the crowded bus -- because, I told myself, a few days later I would recall this mental image -- but my cold sore would be gone by then. This thought was comforting.
  • Once, when I was in primary school, I told my friend.that one can never escape anything by committing suicide because one would just enter the consciousness of someone else and start feeling all over again.
  • Again in primary school (primary 5, I think), Mr Gomez posed us this question: "What do plants do in the day?" When no one answered, he pressed his thumb on the blackboard, leaving wet marks... "Transpiration, transpiration, class..." he said. 
  • And my Pre-U teacher (Science teacher if I remember rightly) once told us how a woman always thought she had swallowed a snake. The doctor made her vomit into a pail and somehow managed to throw in a snake. The woman was cured of her obsession. (I think the teacher was trying to make a point about psychology.)
  • Strangely, after A-Levels, I wrote in to an architecture firm  for the position of a clerk. The boss replied that he thinks I would do better if I further my studies and perhaps do psychology. I have sent out numerous applications but he was the only one who replied. I am still wondering why he suggested psychology. Based on what I have written? My letter was a simple standard letter that started with "With reference to your advertisement..." Was it my photograph that I sent with the letter -- rather chubby faced then. But it was very kind of him to have bothered replying me, and with advice even.
  • Two mynahs talking to each other at the bus terminal of Serangoon Gardens and me thinking about what I have written to my English Lit lecturer in Australia -- that the question "So what?" takes the joy out of every (if not most) thing. Sometimes we should just... "Just do it!"
  • And one more for the road... there were seven orange stripes on my cat's head.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


Athens (1989) , a city I always wanted to visit.
SOLITAIRE.  This word puts the romance and glamour into doing things alone. Maybe it's the way Andy William sang it. Maybe it is associated with diamonds.

I have been playing Solitaire since I was a kid. There was a card game my mum taught me. It is a game of chance -- you win if you deal yourself the right cards and end up with 4 Aces. I would use this game as a kind of oracle. If I get 4 Aces, it would mean that I pass maths... Or I would get the doll I have been badgering Dad to buy.

I grew up enjoying doing things on my own -- going for shows, drives, bus rides, eating out, shopping. I am my own best company.

So it was that I set out to Athens one September (off peak season for tourists in Greece) in 1989 -- on my own. Always wanted to see those ruins and majestic columns, and those postcard white domes against a brilliant blue. There was a monastery I wanted to see at Thessaloniki -- so I took the night train from Athens in the south to northern Greece -- and missed some of the best Grecian scenery -- so I read when I returned to Singapore. (I have this habit of reading travel books only after each time I've returned from a country.)

But the trip to Greece was one of the best I ever had... I walked all the way from Delphi to Itea, a little sleepy seaside town that appeared suddenly after I have walked past rows after rows of olive trees. Before the olive plantations, hills kept me company -- foothills which shot up vertically from each side of the road. (They must have cut a road through the hills.) Occasionally a herd of goats would trot out from somewhere among the rocks, their bells tinkling, and their heads following me as I trudged on.

Visited the town called Drama of course -- I just had to, because of the very name. People there were friendly but not overly so as to ask you all sort of questions. Just a smile or two when you visited the shops, which was how I liked it (I hated the way salesgirls greet customers in a singsong manner in some chains in Singapore). As I walked along the streets in the afternoon, I thought I could well be back in Singapore -- now and then, some stray notes from the piano as a child practised, would drift out from among the bungalows. A very homely feel about this sleepy residential neighbourhood.

The hotels, no matter how cheap, would have marble for counters. Often, they were way too high for me -- I always had to stand on tiptoes to present my passport and sign whatever there was to sign. The cinemas seemed to always show RA stuff, so there went my hope of seeing a show on my own in Greece. Roadside stalls selling piping hot food seemed delicious as I walked along the chilly streets of Athens in the early dawn, just back from the night train ride. But I needed rest badly and trudged on to find a reasonably cheap hotel.

Solitaire -- flight to Delhi

It was this solo flight to Delhi which led me to think that travelling alone is not all that bad. This was in 1983. My friend had gone ahead of me to India and after my uni exams, I was to meet him in Delhi. Took a flight by Aeroflot. My friend had requested me to bring what appeared to me to be very strange things to sell in India. These items, he wrote with much confidence, would fetch good money. And what were these items? Watches (any brand) and Johnny Walker (must be black label). Got the watches from a shop at North Bridge Road. Got the whisky at the Duty Free Emporium at the airport. Thus armed, I went on my first flight and on Aeroflot, no less.

The Russian air hostesses were not exceedingly charming, but I liked their brisk and no nonsense attitude. The passenger next to me (who was also bound for India I presume, though the flight had a stop-over somewhere in Middle East, couldn't remember where) had begun to kick out a big fuss just when we were about to take off. He insisted that the two bottles of whisky that I had in a paper bag below my seat, was his. A burly air-hostess appeared and told him to shut up, and that the whiskies were mine.

I don't know to this day how she came to the right conclusion, but I am forever grateful. Anyway, after this uproar, I mentally congratulated my friend that he had hit upon the right ware to sell in India -- it being so coveted.

Reached Delhi airport in the middle of the night -- and no friend waiting at the airport as promised. What to do? Look for a public telephone. There they were, all lined up in a straight row. Strange, all the dials have missing bits -- so that certain numbers became 'undialable'.

I ran from booth to booth -- trailed by a long line of kids draped in long torn blankets that trailed behind them as they ran after me. I remembered what my friends told me -- don't give money to any of them or you will find yourself mobbed by beggars!

Then one of them signed that he will help me dial the number. I was desperate so I showed him the scrap of paper with the number of the tourist inn my friend was staying in. Magically, the boy managed to dial the number even when the dial was broken in many places. Mission Possible and I managed to speak to a very sleepy friend. He mumbled that I should take a cab to the inn and hung up. I was very grateful to the little boy and gave him some rupees. He smiled. They stood in a row and waved me goodbye as I went in search of a cab.

I then met another angel -- a Sikh and a fellow Singaporean.

"Looking for a cab?" a voice suddenly sounded in the darkness outside the airport. We hopped onto a tut-tut which sped to my destination. Both the tut-tut driver and my new found friend helped me make enough ruckus to wake the dead -- and the caretaker of the inn. The Sikh waited for me to go into the gate and onto this long path that led to the inn before speeding off in the tut-tut.

How can I forget such an exciting and heart- warming travelling experience?

After note: We managed to sell the two bottles of Johnny Walker to a tut-tut driver. But I had to bring home the two Titoni watches. No takers.