Sunday, August 24, 2008


It's been awhile, and that's because of the whirlwind of acitivities associated with moving some 9,000 miles from Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, to Berkeley, California, via Singapore and Madison. Along the way, J and I spent many wonderful moments with family and friends (often over a great meal), and endured some back-breaking flights, but there was beauty even in those, especially when we flew over the Bay Area salt flats (below), just before landing in San Francisco.

Stay tuned. More to come.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

My Alfa and I

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

[Updated, more grammatically conventional version.]

My first set of wheels was an Alfa Romeo 33. I had always been enamoured with Italian cars for their racing history, gorgeous styling and the wonderful sound of their engines. Well, not all Italian cars, actually. I thought Ferraris to be fatally wounded by their price – they may be wonderful machines, but too often they become symbols (or accessories) of wealth and power, or wee willy compensators.

Alfas, on the other hand, were a working man’s Ferrari. Sure, you can get some boy racers from the marque, but Alfa Romeo also produced saloon cars that were often the refuge for a regular guy on a budget and with family to support, but with a stirring in their soul for some romance on the road. Owning the early Alfas was certainly a labour of love and required infinite patience, for it started to rust the moment it left the factory, and you were liable to set off the windshield wipers when you flipped the signal stalk, so clueless were the Italians when it came to electrical stuff.

But when you stepped on the accelerator, the sweet sound of the boxer engine transported one away from the bills waiting to be paid, grocery shopping that needed to be done, or kids that needed to be picked up from day-care. The throaty roar was a product of necessity – Alfas, like other Italian makes, were constructed to tackle the hilly terrain with aplomb, and for that you needed incredible grip and lots of low down torque to whizz up those steep, bendy climbs.

My midnight blue, 1.7-litre 33 was already seven years’ old when I laid eyes on it. It belonged to a colleague, who was way over his head juggling a mortgage, car repayments, wife, kids and girlfriend on a salary that could realistically handle only three of the above. I tried to temper my glee when he handed me the keys, aware of the pain he must have been going through in having to give up this automotive mistress of his… but, looking back, I guess I didn’t try very hard, to be honest.

The 33 always brought a smile to my face when I got behind the wheel.

It was quick, nimble, and a whole lot of fun to motor around town and across the country. It was also the car in which J and I went for many long drives, talking and sharing our lives, or just listening to music in silence as the cool night slipped by.

The good times were not to last, though. On its 10th year, just months before I would have had to give it up as I was leaving for the US, the 33 vowed not to accept the ignominy of a wrecker’s ball, and decided to go out on her own terms - in a blaze of glory.

One morning, on my way to work, a driver behind me started flashing his headlights furiously. What (TF), I wondered, was the idiot doing? I was just toodling along, minding my own business, and this guy wants to Schumacher me in heavy traffic? It took a couple of seconds before I realised what was happening. Smoke was coming out of the engine compartment, and it had been escaping under the car to the back for all to see, except me.

I pulled quickly to the side, by which time the first flames were beginning to lick out of the front. I managed to save my bag and laptop, and sat on the grass verge in a daze watching part of my life go up in smoke.

Everything else that came after – repairs, insurance and all the nitty-gritty death arrangements – went by in a blur. I never did say a proper goodbye and was not not even collected enough to take pictures or pull out a badge for keepsakes.

Thankfully, John (who owned a Lancia at one time, so he was entirely sympathetic) was at the funeral and had a camera handy. And when he sent me these pictures recently, it gave me a chance for closure, seven years on.

So, goodbye, my 33. RIP.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Gathering around a hot pot

This was our steamboat feast last night, ostensibly to mark the Duan Wu Jie, but really, do we need an excuse to get together to pig out?

Just an hour before dinner, Mum and Second Sis were busy with the last minute addition to the menu – home-grown lady’s fingers (okra) stuffed with Mum’s home-made fish paste. She prepared seven – one each.

Hey, we only have so many okra plants in our garden, you know.

Anyway, there aren’t many pictures of the event because the photographer was too hungry, and no camera’s image stablelizer feature can compensate for the shakes and shudders induced by a fiercely growling stomach.

But thankfully, steamboat dinners are a regular event at home, and we had one similar one on the third day of Chinese New Year. Although it was for five instead of seven, we had the usual mainstays of our meal. Pork…

… prawns, seasoned with a healthy dose of grated ginger …

… squid …

… and savoury tofu, cut into small pieces.

Other mainstays are a variety of vegetables, some sort of noodles, and beancurd wraps and beancurd balls stuffed with fish paste (yong foo chook and yong tau pok), pictured in the previous post. Essential to the meal are dips, which add flavour and zing to the food. We usually have three or four different types of dips around, one of them a spicy chilli sauce.

We use a Thai charcoal steamboat pot that’s not too big, which is good, as that means not too much soup will evaporate during the continuous boiling during dinner.

Brother usually takes care of starting the fire. He heats pieces of charcoal over a gas stove, and when they are sufficiently hot enough, he transfers them into the pot, which is placed in out bathroom, and proceeds to coax them into a high enough heat, with the aid of a hair dryer.

Then, the pot – with its raging charcoal and some soup that’s already gurgling away – is transferred gingerly to the table.

We fill the pot with more soup (vegetables, an old chicken and Chinese herbs boiled over many hours under Mum’s watchful gaze), add a bit of wolfberries (gei zhee) and the yong foo zhook and yong tau pok, and let it come to a boil.

Then we all dig in and eat away, always making sure to make space around the table for the Leftover Brigade.

When I’m away and I think of family dinners, I always invariably have a picture of this hot pot in the centre of our old round table, with all the fresh goodies waiting to be cooked, and everyone digging into a communal pot, serving food to others.

It is much more than just a meal, for it has a strong social element to it. So it is not surprising then that we’ve tried to replicate it some 9,000 miles away from home, among friends!

The fish balls and meat balls might have been store bought; ditto the fish paste (although we did the stuffing of the foo zhook and tau pok ourselves). The pot might have been a bit too big, running on a portable gas stove. But it was all good! We made the soup from scratch, like Mum, and the thinly sliced beef was from a Korean market and quite heavenly. We ate slowly, savoured the many bottles of wine at our disposal, and let the pot and conversation warm up a cool February night.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bak zhang, steamboat and other seasonal goodies

Today (Sunday June 8, 2008) is the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which is the Duan Wu Jie (端午节), also known as Dragon Boat Festival. For many, the occasion is marked chiefly by the making and eating of zhang (zongzi, 粽子) – glutinous rice and a variety of stuffing wrapped in bamboo leaves, and then steamed or boiled.

The quick and dirty history behind the festival is as follows. Upright Chinese scholar quits corrupt government. Wanders the country getting in touch with the people and writing beautiful poetry. Country’s capital falls to barbarians; scholar depressed; commits suicide by drowning as a form of protest against inept government (that’s what happens when you can’t join the opposition and contest in elections). People distraught. They throw glutinous rice into river so that bad creatures won’t eat dead scholar, under the theory that fragrant rice is better than rotting flesh. So, nowadays we eat bak zhang to remember this upright scholar. Well, actually, we eat them because they ARE YUMMY.

Anyway, for the full history behind the festival (and why folks race dragon boats during this festival), there’s always the most accurate, reliable and up-to-date onlinepedia in the world ☺.

I was going to write this very long post on the adventure of asking Mum to teach me how to make bak zhang, and the whole time-consuming process, but, sorry J, I got lazy. Basically, preparing the ingredients was not a problem; wrapping the bak zhang, however, proved too much for me. I just couldn’t get my fingers and hands dancing nimbly enough to produce a self-respecting version that has a semblance of some pointy corners, or learn how to tie them up properly to withstand the boiling. I was also so slow that in the time I took to make six, mum finished 30.

Most of mine turned out like the worst kind of politicians – shapeless, slippery and totally disintegrating when subjected to heat. Only two of my six survived the watery inquisition. Ancient scholar would have been fish feed if he had to depend on me.

There are today a gazillion varieties of savoury and sweet zhang on the market, but we eat a very simple version of the savoury bak zhang, with pork…

… oysters and chestnuts.

We have in the past added mushrooms, and most classic recipes for the savoury type will call for some (or all) of the following ingredients – Chinese sausage, salted eggs, dried shrimp and boiled peanuts. But our preference follows our family’s more stripped down taste buds.

We are also having a family dinner tonight to mark the occasion – a steamboat (or hot pot, or da pin low as the Cantonese call it) feast for seven. Mum started making her fish paste yesterday …

… so we’ll have homemade bean curd sheets and beancurd balls stuffed with fish paste (yong foo zhok and yong tau pok, below) as well as the usual assortment of seafood, pork, home-grown vegetables and noodles.

Sis is bringing frog’s legs and pork kidney to liven things up. It’s not quite the season, but San Francisco Bay Area Dungeness crabs would have been perfect!

I now have to go to the gym to train for tonight’s food fest!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


How much do durians cost in Tokyo?

That's 4,000 yen, baby, yen. Each. 一個。Yup. That's roughly 40 you ass dollars. Uh-huh. A hundred and twenty ringgit Malaysia. And folks here are complaining that the Balik Pulau specials are costing a wee bit more this durian season. I've been paying around RM9 a kilo for one of those beautiful Udang Merah (Red Prawn) varieties, and forking out the dough with a smile!

But if you have too much dosh to know what to do with (or you're a Premiership footballer), you can always fly to Shinjuku and get that 4,500 yen baby peeking at you from the background of the pix. Bet you it's one of the uniformly sweet Thai ones with no character and depth!