Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Past and Present Chinatown of Singapore

Each year, in present Singapore, as the Chinese New Year approaches, bustling night market stalls in Chinatown become even busier than usual, thrown into a frenzy of activity by the annual street light-up of colourful fairy lights and temporary street archway lit up with traditional Chinese red lanterns along the key streets in Chinatown - Eu Tong Sen Street, New Bridge Road, South Bridge Road, Pagoda Street and Garden Bridge. Hundreds of stalls selling traditional foods such as sweetmeats, waxed duck, and cookies, flowers, Chinese handicrafts, and customary New Year decorations compete with each other for business and patronage in a noisy but orderly manner. Although this annual happening is as old as Chinatown itself, I still think it is quite different from my memory, growing up in Singapore when it was a British colony. Chinatown was lined with wholesale produce shophouses together with families living in crowded quarters in the side-streets and alleyways. From a pigeon's eye view (I have long suspected that pigeons were commonly kept not as pets but as a food supplement instead), the old Chinatown with its orange brown terracotta roofs and people milled around,disappearing then reappearing among the stalls was a gigantic pasar. Beside the terraced shophouses, the streets were lined with stalls selling fruits, fish and meat and other household sundries and goods. Countless small lorries and private-chauffeur driven Austin cars with tai tai and their black and white uniformed amahs doing their rounds of daily marketing were there too. Here and everywhere, trishaws, push-carts, baskets slung on bamboo poles summoned into the important task to load and unload their wares and produce were tangled into a chaotic scramble. People were shouting and bickering and vehicles were honking, demanding to pass, everything either moved at a snail's pace or was stuck in a total knot. Amid those noises and activities crescendoed towards the Chinese New Year, the typical daily greetings between between my mother and other housewives at that time were "Are you getting ready for the New Year?' or Are you done with your tee kueh (nian kuo) ?''
Gee, the Chinese New Year is upon us again soon. We haven't prepared any traditional goodies yet, but my wife is going to prepare kueh bulu this weekend for the makan session we are having for the New Year celebration with friends and relatives from home. I'll keep you posted with the recipe when it is done.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Home and Away...

We have been inundated with emails from Singaporean parents, enquiring about the types student accommodation and concern of living safety for their child who is coming to study and live in Sydney for the first time. Before I continue, let me thank those for writing to me and treating me as if I am one of their uncles in their extended families. As a parent, I can understand their deep concern especially when their child is leaving home for the first time and starting university in another country can be a daunting prospect. To many students, finding a place to call home, for the duration of their overseas studies is one of the most important steps in the initial part of this process of leaving home and away. And finding just the right place for you can make your experience as an overseas student much more enjoyable and beside sparing your parents from worrying from the start.

To be honest, I am better at dishing out recipes than to advice on the type of accommodation for your child. But since I have gone back to uni as a full-time student and graduated in 2008, I have had a good understanding of the student living environment in and off the campus. There is a variety of accommodation options available to students and they range from accommodation dorms or units owned by the universities to private rental accommodation offered by landlords and leasing in Sydney. I am pretty sure that every university has a housing office to assist students to find accommodation while they are studying at the university. There are two sides of the proverbial coin debate between these two type of accommodations. The University Accommodation / Student Accommodation Houses are basically self contained dorms or units rented to students, so that you have your own bathroom and kitchen or share bathroom and kitchen facilities. These can be pretty lively and social, but students will need to adhere to any University policies for behaviour and social events. While university knows very well that every 18 years old student is probably not going to obey any strict behaviour codes, these places will probably expect a level of maturity and consideration. On the other side of the coin, students may decide to rent a house or unit from a private landlord, maybe as part of a group with other students. You are usually responsible for all of their own meals, or as part of a share agreement with their housemates. These share houses can often be noisy places, with lots going on, depending on your housemates. Most suited to independent, social and lively students. But keep in mind that you will be liable for part of any expenses involved in damage to the property... and may be evicted if you are a nuisance!
My final advice is to make use of the internet to find out what possibilities are available, long before you bid farewell to mama and papa at the Changi airport!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chinese New Year is not a public holiday...

If you are planning to escape from the crowded Chinese New Year festivities in Singapore and come to enjoy the peace and quiet of Sydney during the festive break, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you are a newly arrived student leaving home for the first time and nursing the lonely prospect of eating the New Year Eve's dinner on your own, do not despair. Although Chinese New Year is not observed as a public holiday in Australia, Sydney with its significant Chinese migrants populations claims to have the largest Chinese New Year Celebrations outside of Asia with more than 600,000 people attend the festival annually, making it one of the most popular events on Sydney’s annual calendar. This annual festival has events that span over three weeks including the launch celebration, outdoor markets, evening street food stalls, Chinese top opera performances, dragon boat races, a film festival and multiple parades.

This year's festival will run from Friday 28 January to Sunday 13 February 2011, with the Twilight Parade and fireworks on Sunday 6 February expected to attract more than 100,000 people to the city streets. Well, to our new and lonely Singaporean students, why not joined holiday crowd to see the martial art experts and entertainers from Hubei who will be joining more than 2000 local performers to present a dazzling street spectacular with colourful costumes, floats and music. And if you still miss home and desperately homesick and want to join and share our makan, we can probably accommodate another five people at our dinner table in our home.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sydney is cleaning up for the Year of the Rabbit?

Kerbside cleanup collection is a common sight at this time of the year in many Sydney's suburbs, where local councils normally organise two bulk household collections per year, and that householders are issued with a brochure two weeks before collection is due. General household clean-ups are limited to 2 cubic metres to 3 cubic metres depending on where you live. Accepted collection items such as unwanted furniture, old mattresses, household appliances and bric-a-brac for collection are placed on the nature strip at the front of your property no earlier than the weekend before the cleanup date. But these days, teams of professional kadung guning men go through your thrown-out items and salvage anything that has a recycle value before the council's contractor comes. In case you are a new arrival in Sydney, please check with your local council on what is acceptable or not to be included in the cleanup collection as Council’s contractor has the right to refuse any unsuitable items such as, car tyres and parts, household hazardous waste, renovation and building material and garbage and food straps. And if you have unwanted items which are still in good condition, consider donating them to charitable organisations. Not only it'll benefit the less fortunate but you are also doing a good deed to the environment too.

I am not sure anyone beside me have noticed that the cleanup collections in my neighbouring suburb of Eastwood, where a large Chinese community resides are getting bigger than usual. But I am pretty sure that it is not a collaboration between the council and the many Chinese families performing their annual clean up together . But rather a coincident that in a fortnight from now, we will be bidding farewell to the tiger as it passes the baton to the rabbit to start a new zodiac sign in the Chinese Zodiac cycle. The start of a new zodiac is also celebrated on Chinese New Year which falls on the 3rd of February this year along with many other customs. One of the customs for many Singaporean Chinese is to have the annual House Cleaning before the new year begins. I can still vividly remember my mother took this annual task rather seriously. On the designated day, beginning early in the morning, all of the furniture in the family's house was covered with sheets of old newspaper serving as a drop sheet before the walls and ceilings are swept down with brooms made from the ribs from coconut leaves in which a bamboo pole was attached so that the cobwebs on the eaves can be reached. Then the entire house was scrubbed clean from the floor to the window sills. Furniture was moved about to make sure each corner of the house was thoroughly cleaned. The older children were assigned to polish the pair of candle sticks and the big brass josstick urn with brasso and the red ribbons and tinsels on the tablets and urns were replaced with new ones. Even the family ancestor's altar had a makeover for the coming new year.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Can we survive as Singaporean...

It was reported in AsiaOne that when Singaporean Leong Ming En, was told to flee his house in the West End suburb of Brisbane on Tuesday, he headed to a supermarket nearby, only to find the food items almost sold out He managed to buy only a pack of unflavoured biscuits. On that Tuesday night, he headed to a friend's hilltop home - he took with him only his laptop, camera and passport, and he has been wearing the same T-shirt since Tuesday. He had, it seems, do not grasp the imminent danger and under estimate the fury of Mother Nature that had taken at least 20 lives and suburbs were filled with water, apartment blocks stood like islands in a brown sea and left everyone waiting for the water to go down .Only then will the worst of the damage be know. Nevertheless, he is now safe in a friend's home, I can't help but ponder over the importance of his laptop, camera and passport in an emergency evacuation like this. Having gone through the aftermaths of two big earthquakes in the Solomon Islands(1978) and Rabaul (1994), I always have an emergency kit in my house ever since. Believe me, those three items carried by Ming En in the news report are not in my emergency kit, instead I have the following items:

1. First aid kit and essential medications.
2. Canned food and can opener
3. At least 10 litres of water per person
4. Protective clothing, raincoat, and bedding or sleeping bags
5. Battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries.

For most Overseas Singaporeans, who are living in places where natural disaster can occur anytime, I am pretty sure that you have already prepared one at home.But just remember to replace or check the batteries. To those who are complacent (boh chap) or new arrivals, please start one today.Remember this is only our basic emergency for my own family and but if you have young ones or elderly as family members, please include special items such as diapers, toys, etc to cater for their needs in the event of an emergency.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Flood of the Century in Brisbane We share Together

At the most direct level, the explanation for the inflationary impact or the shortage of any fruit and vegetables in the pasar (marketplace), that lies in the mind of most Singaporeans, is to put the blame on Mother nature for causing the flood or drought in our neighbouring countries in the first place. There is no doubt, there is a strong correlation between the weather and those making a living off the ground but how aware are we city dwelling Singaporeans when face with the fury of Mother Nature? Not unless you are one of the few Overseas Singaporeans living in Brisbane right now.
Brisbane has been bracing for the worst flood in 100 years since Monday when Toowoomba was battered by a torrent of rain that caused an "inland tsunami" of water to cascade cars and other vehicles down the high street. Since then, It has turned into a creeping flood towards the city of Brisbane and infiltrated and inundated farms and houses along its path. Land and livelihoods are ruined, as are the countless kilometres of rail, road and bridge.
As I write, heartbreaking images of residents on their rooftops and their homes inundated in a sea of brown water, are being televised throughout the morning. The breaking news is 12 people have been killed and 45 are still missing in the Queensland flood. For now, as the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and the Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh have warned, there are grim days ahead, as the death toll is likely to climb.
Like many Singaporeans, our thoughts are with the flood stricken and hope they can return and rebuild their homes soon.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Black rice aka Pulut Hitam is the new blueberry.

Printed in bold "Black rice tops the superfood hit list" briefly caught my attention while I was nonchalantly flicking the pages of a magazine in the cafe at the mall. I earmarked it so that I could show it to my wife, an avid follower of the "multi-grains" cooking regime, when she returned from her shopping. What was the big deal, you may ask. Just like the hits parade in the music scene, superfood is constantly being replaced by another new hit with the same old tune of promoting benefits such as anti-aging, detoxification, energy enhancement and immunity boosts. There is no definitive Top Ten hits list of superfood and I have long suspected that new food is regularly put forward, usually backed by persuasive advertising. However, there are still classical like apples and oranges but less likely to revive and spark a worldwide following to sing their praises.
Well, what actually interested me was the report that Black rice had joined and top the hits parade of superfood with salmon and blueberries as a nutrient and antioxidant-packed superfood, but at a fraction of the cost. Of course, it is comparatively much cheaper than blueberries; a small punnet of blueberries cost between $3.50 to $5.00 at our local fruit shop even at the height of its season.
Black Rice (Pulut Hitam) is as old as a folksong and has been sung and featured in many dessert dishes as black "sticky" rice especially among the South East Asian countries, but scientists at the 240th annual National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, in Boston, had only recently revealed it could actually be the greatest superfood. It also reported that researchers from Louisiana State University looked at samples of bran from black rice, discovering high levels of water-soluble anthocyanin antioxidants, which are responsible for the dark colours in many fruits and vegetables including blueberries.
Anthocyanin antioxidants have been found to help fight heart disease and cancer, as they help protect arteries and clear out harmful free radicals, Science Daily reported.
"Just a spoonful of black rice bran contains more health-promoting anthocyanin antioxidants than are found in a spoonful of blueberries, but with less sugar, and more fibre and vitamin E antioxidants," food scientist and lead researcher, Dr Zhimin Xu said in a media statement.
"If berries are used to boost health, why not black rice and black rice bran? Especially, black rice bran would be a unique and economical material to increase consumption of health-promoting antioxidants."
I do not know how long it will remain number one, so here is one of the old classical recipes for your collection. Please stay tune for the next number one in the hits parade.

Black Rice Porridge(Bubur Hitam) with Coconut Cream Recipe:


300g black glutinous rice (washed & drained)
7 cups water
2 pandan leaves (tied into knots)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon tapioca flour or cornflour
1/2 cup thick coconut milk
a pinch of salt

Put black glutinous rice in pot with water and pandan leaves. Bring to a boil. Lower heat, remove pandan leaves then simmer for 45 minutes till rice is soften and porridge like. Add sugar and simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt.
Mix cornflour flour with 1 tablespoon of water. Stir mixture into pot to thicken.
Remove black glutinous rice porridge from heat and transfer into bowls. Drizzle with thick coconut milk on top before serving.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Going to the Great Wall and Becoming a True Man (不到长城,非好汉)

From the top of a hillock about 70 km northwest of Beijing, my family and I gazed westwards across an undulating Great Wall of China winding itself like a dragon along the ridges of the Jundu Mountain on a cold and windy morning; as it was 10 below zero with the chill wind factor. I stood there dumbfounded at its size, the setting and the spectacle of its history that made me and everyone fell silent as we approached and joined other tourists at the entrance of the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Stepping onto the Wall for the first time was awe inspiring. Nothing can compare with the immense human labour and arduous hardship that history tells us, which seemed compressed over a period of many centuries into the construction and almost constant renovation and expansion of that monuments as a symbol of Chinese civilization, and one of the wonders that the Chinese people have had created.

After travelling two hours from Beijing, we arrived at the entrance of Badaling Section of the Great Wall. We walked past the hawkers selling beanies and woolen scarves and the bears in a sunken enclosure huddling together at the foot of the Badaling section to board a "roller coaster" to get to the top. The views here were astounding. Vast mountain scenery extended in all directions, Stretching before us was the the Great Wall, which was constructed almost entirely of bricks and stones.. Some of the stones had a height of two metres and I reckoned they could weigh over a thousand kilograms. My son, who has always had an interest in ancient history, pointed to us how the parapets were crenellated and the lower section of the walls had loopholes for defensive fire by the archers.

According to our guide, Badaling was probably the most popular tourist spot on the Wall. Made famous by a visit from Chairman Mao, Richard Nixon and a host of other visiting dignitaries, Badaling now sees more tourists each year than any other part of the wall. As for me, this part of the wall was more a tourist attraction. The incline was much steeper than I thought and the stone beneath me was worn smooth by the vast numbers of tourists who came here to "become a real man" as visitors were inclined to feel a sense of accomplishment when they reached the top.
We had come here to begin a two weeks tour of China that would take us through ancient Forbidden City of Beijing and the modern Shanghai and hoping to see the rich history and varied food and lifestyle of each city with our own eyes.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hoisin "海鮮", is not seafood?

Hoisin sauce is a popular Chinese dipping sauce in most places, but it is not commonly used amongst Singaporeans. Our favourite dipping sauces range from "die die must have cut chillies in soya sauce" to vinegared chillies, chopped garlic and grated ginger instead. Besides, many Singaporeans will be puzzled by the word Hoisin "海鮮", which is a romanization of the Cantonese word for seafood and despite the literal meaning of "seafood", it does not contain anything from the sea.
Hoisin sauce is sometime called Chinese barbeque sauce is a fragrant, pungent sauce used frequently in stir-fries and marinades. It is made from a combination of fermented soy, garlic, vinegar, and usually chilies and sweetener, hoisin is dark in color and thick in consistency. It has a very strong salty and slightly sweet flavor and has a distinct taste, which some may find objectionable. It is common for people to either love the taste of hoisin sauce or hate it. My family and I have come to acquire a taste for it and frequently used as a substitute for " tee cheo"(sweet sauce) as a dressing for "chee cheong fun" (steamed rice rolled noodle). Here is a great homemade marinade for beef or chicken we have concocted in our kitchen with Hoisin suace.


1/2 cup cooking sherry
1 cup Hoisin sauce
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tsp Sesame oil
1 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder
Combine all ingredients in saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes or until it begins to thicken. Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Rice Story.

Once upon a time, in a place called home, there was rice. It was always cooked by Mother or Grandma into plain white rice or porridge to perfection. Life was pretty simple. Until we got to leave home or live in a distant land to buy or take a look in the supermarket. Suddenly, there are Long grain, Short grain, Medium grain and Basmati etc etc. And there are more rice products than some years ago, fueled by our newly acquired appetite for ethnic cuisines and desiring new varieties of rice that are grown in different countries for sushi, risotto and biriani. If they haven't added to your confusion, up went the number of organic and brown rice products (we now have brown or white long grain, brown or white basmati and more). And of course life got so busy, it seems, that we really didn't want to cook rice — just eat it in 90 seconds. Stir innovations into the mix (ready-in-2 minutes types, blends, etc.) and it's mind-boggling!
Which raises the question: What rice do I cook? Well, it depends whether the dishes call for a specific types of rice.Cooking, texture and flavor vary with almost every product.
If you know you're going to make a rice pudding or a risotto, for instance, then you're going to need a medium-grain rice. Choose long grain when you need grains to be separate and fluffy, or use a short or medium grain for a stickier, clingier rice for dishes such as sushi. And you will have a perfect rice to live happily ever after.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Happy New Year

Though this world is ever changing, we still have with us the never changing spirit of the holiday season, again prompting us to set aside our worldly problems - pausing to remember our cherished old friends, our valued new friends, and to reflect upon the fortunes of the year 2010, now just passed into history.
As we looked back we are reminded of the many new found friends we have associated through this blog - of our appreciation of the opportunity and privilege to add you in our circle of friends. We will endeavour to continue to merit your friendship and hoping that you will continue to read and comment on my journal in this blog.
May we add our best wishes for your happiness and continued prosperity in the New Year.