Sunday, December 23, 2012

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas but settle for green...

When I was a child growing up in tropical Singapore, I thought of Christmas in the western countries and thought of snow and even put cotton-wool on the Christmas tree to duplicate snow. But now I am living in a western country like Australia there are still major differences between the stereotypical Christmas and an Australian Christmas. Australian Christmases are quite different from the rest of the western world.

While Christmas in the northern hemisphere may be accompanied by snow, Christmas in Australia is accompanied by plenty of sunshine. Christmas is celebrated here during the Sothern hemisphere summer and temperatures on Christmas can sometimes reach over 40 degrees Centigrade. Instead of building snowmen on Christmas day, Australian children may actually go swimming and surfing in the sea.

Storms at times play a major role in Christmas around the world, and the same can be said for Australia, just different kinds of storms. While some European countries may be blanketed with snow, Australia could be getting rain, or worse. In the past, Christmases in Australia have provided floods, hailstorms, brush-fires, and cyclones. In terms of weather, the worst Christmas in Australia had to be Christmas 1974. On that day, Cyclone Tracy tore through Darwin, in the Northern Territory flattened nearly every house on its path.

Due to the hot weather at this time of the year, we normally make our Christmas wreath at the very last moment. This morning, my wife Jo made an eco-friendly wreath from reusable materials that most of you probably have lying around the house.
With some pine branches, pinecones and some recycled Christmas decorations she weaved them together and turn them into a Christmas wreath just
to add that special touch to our front door to greet our visitors during this festive season.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Giving my Calamansi an Air layering treatment...

Spring is coming round the corner, it looks like the weather is starting to warm up so I thought why not spend more time in the garden to raise new plants through vegetative propagation. I feel duty bound to learn this fascinating and interesting gardening art and one from which is possible to gain much pleasure  and a great sense of achievement if only I can successfully in propagating my calamansi plant. It has becomes the most sought after plant in my garden since I wrote about it in this blog. I have been inundated with requests from Singaporeans living in Australia for cuttings or seeds so that they too can enjoy this unique lime with their mee rabus or hokkien mee from their garden.
Success in plant propagation is often attributed to the possession of a “green thumb” - a belief which is not without some foundation. It is true that some people seem to be gifted and have little or no difficulty in propagating young plants. I have not been successful in the past few attempts and hope my renewed enthusiasm is not dampened by possible early setbacks and failure.  But there is no reason why I should not successfully propagate my calamansi plant, provided certain essentials are borne in mind. This time around, I will be trying the Chinese method of air layering with my clamansi plant which in its original form was practiced in China centuries ago. My calamansi plant has been grown in the open since I bought it from the nursery and I would be air layering it this coming spring when the sap is rising and flowing freely.  I will post the air layering and its method with drawings or photos once I get it started in the coming weeks.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Drop in this arvo for a cuppa, mate.

In the colonial Singapore, having "high tea" was mainly confined to the tai tai (rich housewives) with their leisurely lifestyle or mainly to affirm their social standing among themselves and usually held in their own bungalows.  As times and lifestyles changed the popularity of the formal afternoon tea waned, but has seen a revival in recent years as people once again enjoy its elegance in the foyer or courtyard of most hotels in Singapore. Most Singaporeans tend to associate nonya kuehs together with dainty decorated cupcakes, sandwiches and scones with High Tea. Contrary to its present fare, High Tea was a more substantial meal, including meat and/or fish, and was really an early dinner which well suited the middle and lower classes after a long day at work in England and Ireland.   This long established eating pattern was brought to Australia amongst the early English and Irish migrants. Today, many Australians still refer to the evening meal as tea and can use the term to mean a cup of tea or 'cuppa'. When invited to “Come for tea” could mean “Come for dinner”, so it is best you ask “at what time?” Tea usually means the evening meal, but as Australians also have "afternoon tea" (mid afternoon light snack) and "morning tea" (mid morning light snack) confusion might result from the word "tea" so you must check with the host, but time will be a good indication as well, i.e. invitation after 6.00pm will be dinner, not just a cup of tea. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

How To Protect Your Banana From The Winter Frost.

I have neglected this makan blog in the last couple of months and put it in cold storage since I learned how to use the Facebook. I didn’t know it is so addictive and time consuming to keep up with the continuous postings by the group members throughout the day. Not only I have stopped writing this blog all together, the overgrown backyard has not been tidied since I last saw my banana tree sprouted its first flower. Thanks to my wife constant reminder about saving the fruiting flower before the winter frost takes its toll, I have literally taken a leaf from gardening pages of the villagers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea by wrapping the bunch of forming green banana with its leaves in order to prevent it from the cold. Maybe I just really should get that addiction out of my head and then moved on.  Should I go cold turkey to get rid of my Facebook addiction? I can’t say.  But another issue has come up in my life that I feel a need to get out into the electronic world that connects us all.  Well, to be more accurate, in my Facebook friend’s life.

Monday, April 30, 2012

It's all coming down to bananas once again.

I have been keeping an eye on my banana tree since a conical shaped flower appeared suddenly after the rain. My enthusiasm   is compounded by the fact it is long overdue to repay me with its dividend since I first planted it in my backyard five years ago. Until now, it is one of those bad investments that are not yielding a good percentage of its par value.

I am pretty sure my conversation piece at the dinner table in my house for this week will be the CPI barometer growing in my backyard. For Australia, it's all coming down to bananas once again by the RBA. The nation's 23 million people have always been very touchy about references to the yellow fruit. A previous Prime Minister Paul Keating from 1991 to 1995 once famously warned Australia risked becoming a banana republic. But the plummeting price of bananas over the past three months has been a godsend to the current Treasurer, Wayne Swan, by pulling down inflation. According to the some economists on the Reserve Bank‘s interest rate decision tomorrow; falling prices - led by a drop in the cost of fruit - have made an interest rate cut all but certain by the RBA board which always meets on the first Tuesday of each month to set rates with a view to holding inflation within a 2 to 3 per cent target range.

Like all investment in the stock exchange, it is all about timing. Unfortunately, my banana tree is flowering at the wrong time as it is mid autumn and a cold snap may wipe away my potential harvest of its golden yield.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lest We Forget...

Thousands of Australians rose early to pay respect to the nation's fallen diggers in Anzac Day dawn services around the country this morning. As a Singaporean migrant, who was away from his home country for more than four decades, bearing a Singapore passport, I once struggled to see how Anzac Day could have meaning for me when I change my national identity. During my earlier years, I found myself at a loss when watching ceremonies, parades and other activities were held on ANZAC Day to remember the lives of those who participated or died in military action. This wasn’t something to which I could relate except for marching veterans and military personnel trooping their units’ colours in the street as they reminded me of my own participation in street parades during my enlistment in the National service in Singapore. And I also knew enough to know that the Australian Diggers fought to defend the British Malaya, colonial Singapore and Papua New Guinea in World War II against the Japanese. In time, I came to accept the Anzac legend as integral to an Australian story, as a cornerstone of mateship and represent the comradeship that the soldiers experienced as they rose each morning to prepare for another day of military action, particularly on the Gallipoli Peninsula in World War I. Truth is, when you adopt a national identity you inherit a tradition, with all the benefits and responsibilities that come with it. And one of those responsibilities is to remember on Anzac Day that the soldiers risked and sacrificed their lives for Australia, a place we now call home. It has since developed into a day where all enlisted men are remembered and honoured for their service to the country. It is important not to forget the sacrifices made, hence the words; Lest we forget.

 Anzac Biscuits Recipe
 1½ cup Rolled Oats
 ½ cup plain flour ½ cup sugar
 90 grams butter 1 tablespoon golden syrup/honey
 1 tablespoon boiling water
 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda Method:
 1. Pre-heat oven to 180°
 2. Mix together the oats, flour and sugar in a medium bowl.
 3. Heat butter together with golden syrup or honey until melted.
 4. Combine water and bicarbonate of soda In a small bowl, then add into the golden syrup/honey mix while stirring.
 5. Pour syrup into the dry ingredients and mix together to combine.
 6. Roll a dessertspoon of mixture into balls and place on baking trays lined with non-stick baking paper. Press down tops to flatten slightly.
 7. Bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden brown. Stand for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Chicken or the Egg?

Last week at a friend’s place, the sight of brood of chicken digging and searching for food over a pile of lawn clippings evoked fond memories of the kampong lifestyle I knew from my visits to my maternal grandmother at her village during my school holidays. Sadly, the old village was bulldozed to give way for the construction of blocks of HDB flats after it was zoned and destined to become Ponggol Housing Estate in Singapore. I am now seriously toying with the idea of having a couple of chooks in my backyard as they bring a bit of old-style living back to my suburban existence. I am pretty sure that I am not the only one going “chooku”, as it is reported recently in the news recently that the retail giant Bunnings who owns a chain of home improvement stores has noted a recent trend towards people trying to create a more eco-friendly environment for their kids at home. Before I build a chook pen and rush to buy a couple of day old chicken, I have to sell my idea to my wife who has always been not too keen of having backyard chooks. It is going to be a tough sell on the economic point of view. Not only will I get a negative answer but for sure to receive a question in return. Is it economically viable to produce your own eggs? Sadly the answer is no. I have done some calculations which to begin with, will make the cost per egg more than purchasing eggs from a store, especially when you take into the account of the initial costs involved with raising chickens in your own backyard. I also learned that chicks up until the age of around 2 months should also be fed a special chick feed, this will set you back between $10-$15.The purchase of a chicken coop will be your largest expense. Unless you are lucky enough to have an old shed that can be turned into a coop but if not you will either have to build your own or buy a pre-made coop. Pre-made coops can cost anywhere between $200-$2000. The other option is to keep an eye out for second hand coops in your local classifieds. You can save a lot of money by building your own coop. Costs in building your own coop with involve timber, chicken wire and nails and vary in costs depending on the size required. There isn’t much ammunition left for me to convince my better half to come to the party, but there is no harm telling her that chooks makes great pets even if you are not interested in egg production.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sweet Potato Leaves Fried With Sambal

My wife came to the kitchen with a handful of sweet potato leaves that she had just harvested from the vege patch in our backyard. Nonchalantly, she put it into a jug as if it was a bouquet of cut flowers for the house. She turned to me and said, “It not what you think but it’s for dinner tonight”, as she added water to keep it fresh.
The leaves of sweet potato are often judged to be a poor man’s’ vegetable in the past and eaten without much fanfare as it has been given today. In modern Singapore today, a dish of sweet potato leaves cooked in sambal would cost at least $10 or more for anyone who likes to sample the taste of yesteryear at the food stalls in the kopitaim. The image of these leaves as a vegetable was tarnished during the World War II, as it became the staple diet of many families during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (especially in the tropical warm climates, where the plant tends to be evergreen and be easily grown all year round in any vegetable patches).
According to my late mother, sweet potatoes were a daily staple in those days as there was a great shortage of rice during the war. Sweet potato was dished up in every possible way, making many older Singaporeans resistant to the use of this very versatile plant and its tubers for a long time. Contrary to popular belief, the sweet potato plant is related to morning glory, not potatoes, and originated from Mexico.

Sweet Potato Leaves Fried with Sambal(Hwang Tsu Heok Char Sambal)

500 gm Sweet potato leaves
4 tbsp cooking oil
80g Dried prawns soaked and pounded.

To make Spice paste (ground or pound):

5 pcs fresh chillies
8 pcs dry chillies soaked
2 cloves garlic
I small brown onion or 12 shallots
5 candlenuts
5g belachan, toasted
3 tbsp of water
1tsp salt
1tsp sugar
Wash and drain sweet potato leaves. Cut stem and leaves into 50mm in length. Heat wok and add oil to fry dried prawns until slightly golden brown. Remove and set aside. With the same oil in the wok, sauté the grounded spice paste until fragrant. Add sweet potato leaves and stem and stir fry to mix well with paste.Put in fried dried prawns and mix well. Add water and salt to taste.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Fisherman's Tale and Trick...

In order to show off our biggest catch of the day and to make it appear larger than its actual size, an often used camera trick by many fishermen was suggested by Mark, the owner of the boat; by simply holding the fish with an outstretched arm towards the camera, it will double its size in an instant.
The next biggest trick was to turn the Australasian salmon into a delicious lunch for us and especially for Mark’s teenage children who were not too keen on fish except the filet o’ fish from McDonalds.

Despite the common name, Australian “salmon” is not related to the salmon (family Salmonidae) of the Northern Hemisphere; it was named so by early European settlers only because of their superficial resemblance to the salmon. Furthermore the big difference lies underneath the skin; it has white flesh unlike the distinguishable pink coloured flesh of the salmon.

Mark’s wife came to the rescue by offering to cook the fish. She simply chopped up a mango and two peaches from her fruit bowl and combined it with a chopped onion to make a stuffing for the fish. She smeared the fish with olive oil on both sides and top with chopped chilli and a squeeze of lime juice. Wrapped in foil to form a parcel, the fish was roasted in a hot oven for about 10 to 12 minutes before it was served strewn with fresh coriander leaves and lime wedges.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Big Day Out ...The Sun and The Sea

I was not sure what the catch was going to be but I was happy to be invited to go fishing at Lake Macquarie (that’s the largest coastal saltwater lake in Australia) if only for the weather being so warm, bright and cheerful after a La Nina weather pattern, had produced unseasonal wet Sydney summer and it’s not over yet. The weather outlook for longer periods of extreme rainfall, such as those that caused flooding of the Darling, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers and which made the Warragamba Dam to overflow a fortnight ago, still hold a threat to many residents living downstream.

It was a big day out at the Lake Macquarie, an aquatic playground, perfect for a relaxing day! Needless to say birds of all kind seemed to descend together on the same spot; a long line of eager anglers waiting in their 4WDs for other early birds taking their turn to launch their watercrafts, sharp-eyed terns circling in the clear blue sky and lazy seagulls with a flotilla of penguins waiting for a feed from fishermen gutting their catch of the day.

Soon we found ourselves floating and trolling lazily on the lake and occasionally interrupted to check on the moving lines with their metal lures. I was the first in the group to pull in a catch but luckily for the fish, it was just millimetres short of its legal size and I had to let it go back to the water to see another day.

My good deed was eventually rewarded with a combined catch of five taylors and an Australian salmon for the crew. Everyone on board was pleased with the catch of the day and for the next half an hour of homeward bound trip we were already planning for next fishing outing and collectively decided what was the best fish recipe for lunch. . Please stay tuned for the recipe.

Monday, March 5, 2012

There's a Toad in My Kuih Kodok !

Buying this whole box of banana for $5 in the market was likened to a ray of sunshine peeping through the dark rainy clouds that hung over Sydney in the past few days. How could we not bring it home to share with neighbours and friends? From our past experiences, we know that the price of vegetables and fruits will soon shoot through the roof as flooding had inundated most of NSW. I remember that a kilo of bananas was selling at $15, after cyclones desolated nearly all the banana crops in Queensland, last year and the year before. Like many price conscious shoppers, we simply had to delete bananas from our shopping list during that period and waited for the price to drop before we could afford to put bananas on the table again.

After distributing half a box of bananas away, we are left with the other half, and that is a lot of bananas for a family of three. Besides, they are all ripening at the same time right in front of our eyes. Think fast, mate! “What are we going to do with them?”, My wife said to me, as if it was my responsibility to save every banana from turning brown. “No worries mum, what we cannot finish today, I turn them into banana bread tomorrow”, I replied. “Before you do that, can we have some kuih kodok (banana fritters) for afternoon tea?” She added. For the next hour, we were still talking about what to do with the bananas which seem to be ripening by the minutes. Okay, before I go banana, let me post the kodok recipe. Incidentally kodok is toad in the Malay language and I do not want to go there without relating to the cane toads and bananas in Queensland. That’s another story.

Recipe: Kuih Kodok (Fried Banana Fritters)

6 big ripe bananas
1 1/2 cup flour
2 1/2 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt.
Oil for deep frying

Mash the bananas with fork into small pieces and put them into a bowl. Add flour, sugar to the mashed banana, Stir the ingredients so they are well blended.
Heat the cooking oil in a wok. Once the oil is heated, scoop up a spoonful of batter into the hot oil.. Deep fry until golden brown. Drain well on paper towel

Friday, March 2, 2012

Three-Quarter of NSW is threatened with flood!

Despite 75 per cent of NSW being either under water or threatened by floodwaters as the state buckles under its heaviest rains since the 1920s, my wife and I braved the rain this morning to do our weekly marketing. It took us longer than usual as the traffic was heavy and slow due to the wet condition on the road.

While in the traffic we heard from the radio that Sydney school children in areas near Warragamba Dam have been advised to stay at home today as the reservoir looks set to overflow for the first time in 14 years. The dam has reached 95 per cent capacity on last night and is predicted to spill over into the already swollen Murrumbidgee, Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers any moment today. Remember when former Prime Minister John Howard said a couple of years ago, that we better pray for rain? The Maker must have heard an awful lot of people. Within a short time, the sky broke the La Nina’s curse and brought much relief to farming communities throughout the state. Since then, I reckon He must have forgotten to turn off the tap. It was only last month that many communities in Queensland and Northern NSW remembered the lost of their loved ones and properties during of the first anniversary services of the flood that brought immeasurable grief to so many people.

As I write, residents of four towns, Bega, Cowra, Goulburn and Cooma have been evacuated as floodwaters sweep across NSW. People living in some properties in the outer western Sydney enclaves of Pitt Town, Gronos Point and Lower Richmond are also on alert as the Hawkesbury threatens to burst its banks.
I know we need water but don’t pour them by the buckets. Turn off the tap, please. I know you hear me!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A bottle of Penfolds Grange Shiraz 1953 is priced at $17,000 and on sale at our local liquor outlet

In the first week autumn which starts today, wine districts in Australia get very busy to be ready for wine festivals, which in Australia are many, supplying great wines and fun. Sydney jumped the gun and kicked off last weekend with the hugely popular and biggest wine event, aptly called Sydney Cellar Door, which allowed Sydneysiders to discover the wide range and the depth of winemaking in the state of New South Wales without leaving the city.
Like many Singaporeans, beer, not wine, is the beverage that calls out whether in restaurant or at home, though wine can be drunk with lunch and dinner, beer is often the best accompaniment for a Singaporean meal.Nevertheless, wine drinking in recent times has become popular with the younger and much travelled Singaporeans.

Singapore has traditionally imported its wines from France, Germany and Italy. And since signing free trade with many countries around the world, it has taken even more wines from the less well-known producing countries such as Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece and Chile.
Although much have been said about the rules on storing, serving and drinking by many wine connoisseurs, on how to treat wine and when to serve it to their best advantage, it is not set in stone and they can be changed to suit individual tastes.
I once heard someone’s remark “life is too short to drink cheap wine and money is too short to buy them”. It may be true, in a philosophical and economical sense. But the price of wine no longer reflects the quality of the product. For many Singaporeans, it was taken for granted that imported French wines would command the highest prices, but now many vineyards from well known districts in Australia command equally high prices. A bottle of Penfolds Grange Shiraz 1953 is priced at $17,000 and on sale at Dan Murphy our local liquor outlet. It is bottled by Australia's most famous winery, which began life with humble beginnings in the early 1950s and has become the icon it is today.
However, at the lower end of the scale are many palatable wines to be had at a moderate price. Just follow the advice of the wine merchant and anyone wishing to learn more about wine should sample as many as possible whenever there is a wine tasting offer at the store. If a good discount can be obtained on a case of new vintage release, it might turn out to be a sound investment.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oh! There's A Bevy of Naked Ladies in My Garden...

This morning we were greeted by a bevy of naked ladies in our garden. Blushing pink and scented with the most delightful perfume, they had been waiting eagerly to be invited into our home as if it’s the most natural thing for us to do. Of course it was the most natural thing to do. Besides we had just heard a storm warning in today’s morning news and Sydney and the Blue Mountain and its surroundings had been lashed with cyclonic rain and unprecedented flash flooding this summer. How could we leave these damsels out in the open to face the impending storm? Anyone would have done the same thing and invite them into their home without a second thought. They are gently ushered into the living room so that we can introduce them to anyone who comes to visit us for the next few days.

Here’s the introduction.

Our naked ladies are also known as Amaryllis belladonna plants and bulbs. Our pink flowering Amaryllis Belladonna is a particularly attractive form which bears a cluster of 4 to 12 funnel-shaped flowers at the end of their stalks and like its white relative will reach a height of about 75cm. The pinkish fragrant flowers appear on a bare stalk without the foliage, hence the name (Belladonna actually means beautiful lady).

Late in spring, long leaves appear, then die back down to the bulb. The bulb produces clusters of fragrant 75mm long trumpet shaped flowers ranging from white to pinkish in colour in mid-summer to autumn.

The naked ladies are easy to please and do not mind if they have not been pampered while growing in the garden. The cultivation of Amaryllis belladonna requires very little attention. Amaryllis belladonna can be grown from seed or from clumps of bulbs divided from the mother bulb during the dormant period. The bulbs must be planted with their necks at soil level. The belladonna can either be grown in large pots in the veranda using a very porous soil mix or grown in a sunny position in the garden. You will be rewarded and enjoy the gorgeous annual visit these damsels provide for your garden or home.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Old Chengku (Batu Lesong) has joined Celebrity Chefs

To think of my mother’s kitchen is to remember the ever present sight of the grey granite mortar with its heavy pestle sitting in the corner of the kitchen floor, waiting faithfully to pound the mounds of fresh or rehydrated chillies, ginger, fresh turmeric, galangal, shallot and garlic on a daily basis.
Long before it was used by many Western celebrity chefs and featured prominently on a modern kitchen bench, the granite mortar and pestles have been used by generations in Singapore and its neighboring countries to make curry pastes and to grind produce and spices. It was the original food grinder used by our parents and their generations before. Many older Singaporeans would steadfastly defend that the fine flavors produced from foods ground in a granite mortar and pestle are far superior to the flavors of foods ground in a metal-bladed blender. Although, it is an indispensible kitchen tool to prepare a good chilli sambal, it is still an ancient skill to be acquired; the end result very much depends on the user as the grinding time and pressure of the pestle has be adjusted accordingly during the process. The true quality of a Nonya family’s meal depended on the hand grinding skill on its sambal paste, hence the old Nonya saying “one can judge a new daughter-in-law’s cooking skill by tasting her sambal.”
In order to keep the flavour of the food pure and provide years of service in the household kitchen, a properly cleaned granite mortar and pestle has to be maintained. Granite is especially prone to staining when exposed to acidic and oily foods.
Simply rinse the mortar and pestle in warm water immediately after use and clean it with an abrasive dish sponge to remove any stubborn food residue left behind. Rinse again and dry the mortar and pestle with a clean cloth before putting away.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Foul-Mouthed Imported Garlic...

Without a doubt, foul mouthing imported garlic is not only valid but justified for those who are concerned with food miles (that is, how far food has travelled and the amount of carbon produced in the process); it is also a concern for those who want to consume fewer chemicals. It is a known fact that garlic is usually treated with growth retardants and other chemicals when it is brought into Australia.

Unfortunately, the local garlic industry is relatively small and labour intensive, imports make up a large percentage of the garlic consumed in Australia.
There are no better reasons why I have started planting garlic in my backyard. Firstly, it is relatively easy to grow and highly rewarding task. Also, growing your own garlic means you get to eat a fresh, organic product from your own backyard, reduce the carbon footprint and one that hasn’t been imported.

I have been waiting patiently to harvest my first crop of home-grown garlic which I have planted at the end of last autumn. Autumn is the best time to grow this aromatic bulb and an essential ingredient in Chinese stir- fry but before planting it’s important to prepare the soil. Garlic prefers alkaline and hates acidic soil, so you might need to rake in some dolomite into the garden beds.
It seems ages for the bulbs to grow but I have pulled out some plants to check on the bulbs as the foliage has die down in recent days. I think I have to be patient just now and wait for another couple of days before I harvest them.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Singaporean tables manners, Please.

At the dinner table last night, I was temporarily lost for words after my son asked me why I always emphasize on our guests to eat the rice and vegetables even there are meat and other dishes on the table. I soon realized that he is referring to the usage of the Hokkien dialect “chiak png (吃飯) and “chiak chye” (吃菜);as a form of respect to invite our elders and guests who are present to partake the meal at the table.

“Rice” ( png 飯) and “vegetables” (chye 菜) are the two main categories into which the older Singaporean Chinese divide all meal. Rice is the basis of every normal family meal, without which most Singaporeans especially the older generations do not feel properly fed. I can still remember the look on my late mother’s face when I told her we were having a sandwich for lunch, when she came to Sydney to visit us for the first time. To my mother, a meal without rice was merely a snack and not a proper meal. Her meal was consisted primarily of rice. It was only rice that was able to give its substance and worth. It was her staple and was still far more central to her diet than the daily bread of the west, ever was. ‘Vegetables‘(chye 菜) was the word my mother used for everything else, including meat and fish. Whatever “vegetables” were present that accompanied the rice, no matter how delicious, it was merely accompaniment that offered texture flavour to the somewhat bland but important staple. “It only added dimensions for the palate but rice filled your stomach! “ she used to say in disdain and chided at anyone in her hungry brood, who ever dared to complain about the frugal portion of food she served in hard times and when household money was scarce.

With most Singaporean family meals, all dishes are set in the middle of the table beside the rice, which is usually spooned onto a rice bowl or plate as the meal begins. Unlike the west, there is no sequence when eating a meal. You may start from a hot curry to stir- fry vegetables then some pungent sambal or pickled chillies, relieved by a drink of water. Although there are few constraints at the table, one of the few is that you do not take too much or too great a variety at one time. It is only bad-mannered to load too much onto the plate – it doesn’t matter if you are dying of hunger at that time. At a Singaporean table, do what the Singaporeans do, take a little of one type at a time, and mix with some rice. When that is finished, a different food is taken to be mixed with the rice. Happily, however there are no constraints on the number of times one can return to the dish but rather a sign that one appreciated the tasty food. But please leave the last piece of morsel on the dish for the host and said “chiak chye” in return.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sorry, this sea cumcumber recipe is relegated to the history book...

My wife and I were equally surprised when we saw a sea cucumber on sale sign at the local Chinese fishmonger’s shop window, while we were shopping for the Chinese New Year’s celebration. We entered the shop for a closer look and found a hand written price tag of $19.99 a kilo floating among the rehydrated and slimy looking slugs. I thought it was a bit pricy but many other shoppers thought otherwise and the price definitely did not deter a mob of eager customers trying to buy them. I had mixed feelings about preparing this traditional dish for my family to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year. My main concern was not the displayed price of the sea cucumber but rather the fact that it was derived from the overexploitation of sea cucumber stocks in many parts of the world. I can still remember how plentiful and easily available sea cucumber was when I was in Papua New Guinea. Fishing for sea cucumber in Papua New Guinea was mainly carried out by free diving from canoes or dugouts crewed by 2-3 fishermen or by hand collection along reefs at low tide. Once collected, the animal was gutted.They are dried for preservation purposes and had to be rehydrated by boiling and soaking in water for several days. They are mainly used as an ingredient in Chinese cuisine soups or stews and renowned for its slippery, glutinous texture.
Should I continue to serve this traditional dish or send it to the sin bin, together with the infamous shark fin and be relegated to the history books?
I wonder how long before the sea cucumbers come under the same attack from conservation groups as there are growing international efforts to ban the shark fin soup; a traditional but increasingly controversial Chinese dish from the table for good. It is reported in the papers that Hong Kong-based Peninsula and Shangri-La hotel groups have taken shark fin soup off their menus. In Singapore this month, its largest supermarket chain, NTUC FairPrice, will cease sales of shark fin products in March. Cold Storage, another chain with several outlets in Singapore, banned it from its stores there last year.
Did I buy the sea cucumber? Yes I did, but for the last time as I have relegated this recipe to the history book.

Steamed Sea Cucumber with Meatballs Recipe


1 large sea cucumber
3 slices ginger
1 stalk spring onion
200 g oyster mushroom sliced
1 tbsp rice wine or dry sherry
2 cup water
Minced Pork 350g
1 tsp. Sesame oil
1 Tbsp soya sauce
1 egg
2 tbsp cornstarch
3 tbsp dried sole fish, toasted over low heat until fragrant and grind to powder. If unavailable, use bonito stock powder.
1 tsp Salt
¼ tsp Pepper

Heat wok and add 1 tbsp oil, stir fry ginger and spring onion until fragrant. Add water and wine and put in sea cucumber and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Drain sea cucumber and set aside to cool. In the meantime, mix minced pork with grounded sole fish or bonito stock powder, cornstarch, egg, sesame oil, salt and pepper to form a paste. Stuff the meat paste inside the sea cucumber and secure the filling with a piece of string. Make remaining meat paste into meat balls. Place the sea cucumber, meat balls and sliced oyster mushroom with a cup of water and soya sauce and sesame oil in a plate and steamed for 20 minute and until the meat balls are cooked. Carefully remove the steamed and meatballs onto a deep serving plate. Pour the liquid from the steamed sea cucumber into a sauce pan and bring to boil. Add 1 tbsp cornflour to thicken over a low heat to make a sauce. Pour sauce over the steamed sea cucumber and meatballs and serve.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese New Year is not just another Public Holiday...

Today marks the beginning of the Chinese lunar New Year, my family and I would like to send our best wishes to all friends and relatives and especially to our grand nephew Matteo in Switzerland, who is the newest addition of our tribe.

Chinese New Year which is better known as Chun Jie (spring festival) in China remains steep in tradition and is the most important festival on the Chinese calendar. And with good reason. Chinese New Year like spring season which symbolises the beginning of the year, and offers another fresh start in one’s life. In the same way that spring ushers a new season of growth and vitality in Mother Nature’s world, it heralds fresh hopes for happiness and prosperity among us.

While many modern Singaporeans, Chinese New Year are just another public holiday but with the hassle of organising family reunion dinners, visits to friends and relatives, exchange of gifts and ang pows (lucky monies) to the elders, young and unmarried members of the family. Personally, I would like to think Chinese New Year celebration as a time for reaffirming family and kinship ties and serves to remind us of the important position the family as a unit, occupies in our modern society.
The Chinese New Year is so deep rooted that train tickets are a prized commodity in China at this time of the year with virtually the whole country rushing home to be with their family in time for the celebration which is celebrated over a period of 15 days which begin today. For millions of Chinese migrant workers, the Chinese New Year is the only chance they get all year to go home and see their family. Such was the importance of the celebration that the biggest of human migration in the world had happened in China in the past few days. In the context of modern day Singapore, where there is no great distance to travel it would not be a big ask to visit family elders to show their appreciation and demonstration of love and respect that binds family members together. Kong Hee Huat Chye!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Home Entertainment Is A thing of the Past in Singapore...

Holding a luncheon or dinner at home for friends and relatives to celebrate a birthday or first moon celebration to announce the arrival of a new baby is becoming a thing of the past in modern Singapore. Without a doubt, the hassle of food preparation and the cleaning-up afterwards have contributed to the demise of home entertaining. Even for those people, who likes home entertaining, very often will have their food ordered and prepared from the numerous caterers or even takeaway form their favourite hawker stalls. In recent times, I have noticed that many Singaporean families have also started to follow the popular trend of holding their traditional Chinese New Year’s eve reunion dinner at hotels and restaurants.

Having a reception at home may appear to be a formidable task for most Singaporeans, but it has several advantages which make the idea well considering. The main advantage, of course, is that it saves a great deal of money and in addition, the food can be better or at least more original than that supplied by most catering companies and hotels for these functions. Looking back, it’s the home entertainment times around our house that stand out in my memory, the times when it was as if a magical spell had been cast where usually there was a frightfully austere daily life of my childhood when job was scare for my father to bring enough money to feed his large family. The makan time is coming! I could tell. The grown-ups were talking about food preparation. It might be an occasion for someone‘s birthday or a very important feast day for an ancestral anniversary or better still, a Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner.

Home entertainment, however, requires some planning. First the number of people coming (allow at least two or three extra uninvited guests that your guests may bring along) and enough room for the reception to be held – it is necessary to allow at least 1 sq. metre per person. Remember, too that some furniture e, such as tables for food and drinks and chair for the young and elderly guests is essential. We are lucky to have a veranda to place a buffet table and a lawn for the guest to move around. Tableware can be a problem and it is best borrowed from friends but we solve it by having inexpensive disposable plastic sets and eliminate washing up. Of course, asking our guests to bring a plate (potluck) help to add more varieties of food on the buffet table.
With a bit of planning, a makan session with friends and relatives held in familiar surroundings of our home, imaginatively transformed with auspicious Chinese characters and chun lian (spring couplets) bought from Chinatown in Sydney will make the coming Chinese New Year for my family and friends to enjoy and remember.

Incidentally, we have decided to extend our invitation to some Singaporeans students and new migrants who may have to spend their New Year’s Eve alone for the first time away from home to come and join our family and friends for the celebration of the Year of the Dragon.