Sunday, March 28, 2010

Can A Job Transform One's life?

Can a job posting transform one's life? I wouldn't have believed it, but almost to the day I went to Papua New Guinea to work - my life was altered forever. Ever since I was posted to work in Buluma, a small coastal village which lies in between the Hoskin Airport and Kimbe, the capital of West New Britain Province,it had definitely changed my perspective of looking at things. Almost before I unpacked my bags in Buluma, I had more insect-bites than I ever had since the mandatory army training days in Singapore. Within a year, I could no longer even remember life before Buluma. For me, my initial two years working contract eventuated into twenty four years of residency in Papua New Guinea.The experience opened my eyes, my ears and my sensibilities to the ritual of an expatriate working in Papua New Guinea, but most important of all, the simpler daily life of a villager I came to know. Before, I had only read about this life , and finally I was a witness, participant; and was making it happen. From the beginning, Buluma is a place where I could not be alone. Each weekend, the company mess was filled to overflowing. At the table, there were always occupied fifteen or even twenty people. The guests list often included the local school teacher, missionary lay preacher, expatriates, volunteers from various countries, workers and villagers for long festive meals. Subsequently, many of the the guests would adjourned to my veranda for another round of drinks for the road. Before long, I could not go to Kimbe to replenish my pantry or collecting mails in the postal box at the post office without the errant turning into a social events.

In West New Britain province, I was struck by the timeless rhythms of daily life of the villagers. The menfolks rise before daybreak to head out to the reefs and lagoons.Women tend gardens, raise children and prepare meals of fresh fish and kaukau (sweet potato), singapore (yam) and tapiok (cassava) plantains (banana). Children help with family chores, scrubbing dirty clothes in the fresh water creek and cleaning fish hauled in by their fathers. This subsistence lifestyle, as well as physical and geographical isolation has help to reinforce an enduring way of life for many generations. Unfortunately, not for long.

Since the late 70s, however there has been an accelerated migration from the villages to the cities. Shift towards a wage economy, according to many village elders "we are not as self sufficient as we used to be" they lamented. Many people, especially the young ones have moved to the cities like Lae and Port Moresby, the national capital city, in search of jobs and wages. Like an old friend of mine said, "seduced by the bright lights of the cities just like insects attracted to the kerosene hurricane lamps at night in their village, to meet their untimely death. Yes, the salt spray and sea's simple gifts can't stem entirely the desire for material goods that sends many villagers to the cities in search for jobs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How to Copy Cat a Ngoh Hiang (Five-Spice Meat Roll)

One of the most frequently asked questions I found in my blog is "Do you feel homesick?" To be honest, both my wife and I sufferred bouts of homesickness during our decades abroad: "The smell of the durian and the lingering of the aftertaste on the tongue after you have eaten the whole durian ... that what we miss." There are two things and it's helpful to know about overcoming homesickness while you are living away from home. The first is that, once you get the hang of cooking a basic meal and with the help of Google, you properly able to duplicate most recipes and secondly, trying to mimic a traditional Singaporean dish with local available ingredients is just the kind of challenge home cooks love. Besides, you get heaps of praise from fellow homesick Singaporeans and gets high marks for coming close to the real thing.
Here is my copy cat version of my mother's Ngoh Hiang (Five-Spice Meat Rolls) recipe.

2 pcs beancurd skin
750g coarsely minced pork
2 large onions (finely chopped)
150g fresh water chestnut chopped (if unavailable use canned or frozen water chestnut)
1 smal carrot cut into fine shreds
3 cloves of garlic chopped
1 1/2 tbsp five-spice powder.
1/2 cup plain flour
3 tbsp sugar
2tsp salt
2 tbsp soya sauce
1/2 tsp pepper
2 eggs
500 ml oil

Cut the beancurd skin into 15x 20 cm rectangles. Mixed the minced pork, carrot, water chestnut onion and garlic in a large mixing bowl.Add salt, sugar, pepper and soya sauce. Sprinkle in the five-spice powder and stir in the flour and eggs. Spoon the mixture onto the beancurd skin and roll up tightly like a cigar. Twist the end of the beancurd. Deep fry the meat rolls over a medium heat until golden brown. Drain and leave to cool. Sliced diagonally and serve with sliced cucumber and sweet chilli sauce. For a halal version, use chicken or beef mince.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is there a duplicate for Singapore Food?

If not perhaps as rich in regional dishes as countries like China or India, it is reasonable to say Singapore can boast of quite number of dishes that we can claim as our own. Some of them, such as Hainan Chicken Rice, Bak Kut Teh, Fish Head Curry may have come from the villages of our ancesters but over the generations they have become distinguishly Singaporean. Some of them are linked with certain festival, while others are derived from local produce or evolved from local custom. Likewise our Nonya food betrays a distinct local flavour, where after making Singapore their home, the Perankans soon learned to use the herbs and spices found in the regions into their cooking. Although, the Chinese influence is still most apparent during the feast days. To this day, I can not help but associate Kiam Chai Ark (salt-pickled vegetable and duck soup), Tu Tor T'ng ( pig stomach soup) Chap Chai T'ng (Mixed vegetables soup) Ngoh Hiang (Five Spiced Meat Roll) and Heh Chi'ng( Prawns Fritters) with Lunar New Year's eve and the ancestor-worshipping feast days during the Lunar Calendar Year. Like many Overseas Singaporeans, it is difficult at times, to obtain or buy some of the ingredients from where we are now living. The fact that there aren't many "die die must have" ingredients available in the market does not mean that we have to wait until we balek kampung to taste them. Of course, nothing taste better than the original , but with our metaphorically attitude that "boh hu, heh mah ho" (better than nothing), I have been trying, testing and correcting recipes with locally available ingredients to keep alive the memory of my be continued.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

How to eat an English Muffin?

English muffins have always been my favourite Sunday breakfast, long before they are found on the breakfast menus of American fast food restaurants worldwide. They have now made a well deserved comeback in our kitchen, as a breakfast meal of egg (fried, scrambled, poached or steam-poached) with bacon or sausages for my teenage son. As for me, they are most often toasted and then topped with butter and jam or honey. I can still remember Mrs Otley who was from Yorkshire in England, dutifully taught me how a muffin was served and eaten during my stay with her. This is how I've been taught. After being toasted on both sides, the muffin should be pulled apart with your hands but never cut through with a knife. The edges may be slit to make the pulling operation easier. Thinly slice some firm butter and place the pieces of butter between the two halves that were pulled apart in the middle; they are then left on a hot plate and set in a warm place to allow the butter to melt through before serving. Although muffins are readily available in the supermarkets, I always maintain that nothing is comparable to Mrs Otley's homemade muffins. I have inherited the Mrs. Otley's muffin recipe but I could not make them like she did. She cooked her muffins on rings set hot greased iron girdle; cook over slow to moderate heat on the cook top of the stove. Since I do not have a girdle, my alternative is to cook in the oven for about 20-25 minutes.

Mrs.Otley's English Muffin Recipe.

600 gm plain flour
1 tsp salt
450ml milk
1 1/2 tsp of dry yeast
Grease the muffin rings. Sift the flour and salt into a warm mixing bowl. Heat the milk to lukewarm and dissolve the yeast in the milk.Make a well in the centre of the flour, pour in the yeast mixture and mix to a soft dough. Cover and leave about 40-45 minutes to rise. Once the dough is well risen, divide into 12 even sized pieces; pat these lightly on a well-floured board in the shape of the muffin ring, putting one piece into each greased ring on a baking sheet lined tray. Cook in a pre-heated oven of 190 C /375 F for about 20-25 minutes. Muffins must not be too well browned because they have to be toasted before serving. To serve, toast on both sides, pull them apart and butter as directed.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

“A rose by any other name is still a rose”. Similarly,Blachan by any other name is still Blachan

The unmistakable smell of blachan still wafts across the house even after I have left the windows opened since last night. It seems impossible to disperse and get rid of the smell from the house, especially in the kitchen, where I prepared the sambal hei bee. To be honest, my wife and I would'nt mind the least except for my son who never understands why I have to use such an ingredient as the blachan in my cooking. It is a popular flavoring and an essential seasoning in the dishes of Southeast Asian countries particularly Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. This pungent, dark-brown dried shrimp paste is known as blachan in Malaysia, terasi in Indonesia, gapi in Thailand, bagoong in the Philippines and balichǎo in Macao. It is made mainly from shrimps that have been allowed to ferment and dry the sun until very pungent and odorous. It's then mashed and in some cases dried. Balachan is available in paste, powder or as hard slabs or cakes form in Asian markets or supermarkets. The Cantonese make a softer shrimp paste known as hump har, which is often used in a steamed pork ribs dish. Blachan varies in flavour and intensity from country to country or even region to region within some countries. There is a marked difference between the East Coast (Kelantan and Trengganu) and West Coast (Penang and Malacca) of Penisular Malaysia, in terms of colour and flavour. Blachan is always cooked to mellow its very pungent aroma and flavour, sometimes it is mixed into a curry paste before frying and other times grilled or fried before being blended into a sauce or paste (sambal).

Sambal Hei Bee (Sambal udang kering)Recipe


1/2 cup dried prawns (udang kering) - soaked in hot water to soften
2 medium sized onions
15 pcs of dried chilies - soaked in hot water
2 tbs of tamarind pulp - soaked in hot water to make the juice
11/2 inch belachan
8pcs kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced (if available)
Salt and sugar
1/4 cup cooking oil


In a traditional pestel and mortar or a food processor process onions, chillies until they are finely pounded or chopped. After soaking the dried prawns, pound them coasely in a mortar. Grill the blachan until slightly burnt. Heat oil in a saucepan or a small wok and saute the spices until the oil separates from the spices. Add in finely pounded udang kering.and add in toasted belachan and mix well into the spices. Pour in the tamarind juice and simmer until the paste thicken. Add sugar and salt to taste Finally add the kaffir leaves if available.

Monday, March 1, 2010

How to dress a Mango

Today heralds the start of autumn in Australia, I am heaving a sigh of relief after enduring a long, hot summer in so many days of record breaking temperature. And soon cooler nights proclaim the summer done. Well, not until I finish the last mango from the box that I bought from the local green grocer. Unlike Singapore, where mangoes are available throughout the year, we have to wait until they come into season again during the summer months. Ever since my childhood, mango has been one of my favourite fruits and I can remember how I peeled away the skin and sunk my teeth into the sweet succulent flesh with the juice running down my arms. Without a thought, I would naturally wipe my sticky arms onto my clothing much to disapproval of my poor mother, whose daily chores also included hand washing the clothing of a family of eleven.
Unlike other summer fruits such as apricots and peaches, the fresh of mango sticks to its seed and must cut away with a sharp knife. The best way to eat a mango is to lay the mango on its side on a cutting board and with a sharp knife sliced just above the stem. When the knife reaches the seed, continue slicing through the fruit and keep the blade of the knife as close to the seed as possible. Turn over the mango and do the same, to produce 2 fleshy pieces and the seed. Carefully with the tip of the knife, cut a crisscross pattern without cutting through the mango skin. Hold the cut mango piece with both hands and press slightly onto the skin with your fingers to produce a cube-like patterns on the fresh.