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!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Reality TV at the US embassy

[Warning: long post, no pictures, no food.]

You learn a lot, just by sitting and listening.

I had brought a book with me when I went to the US embassy for my visa interview last week. It was clearly stated on the website that it was going to be a long-drawn out process, and I didn’t want to be caught with nothing to do and staring aimlessly (and suspiciously) all over the place.

First, there is the hassle of queuing up and getting through security checkpoints. Yes, there are two checkpoints, less than 20 metres apart, demonstrating either (1) the embassy’s total lack of confidence in the first checkpoint; or (2) its faith in the ability of Malaysians to magically sprout dangerous materials in the 20 second walk from one checkpoint to the other; or (3) the dogged and bureaucratic adherence to recommendations by an overpaid security consultant firm helmed by the husband of the second cousin of a Senior Government Official in charge of worldwide embassy security (Malaysians can totally identify with the third scenario).

Once I jumped though the hoops, parted the curtains and entered the holy of holies – the Waiting Room – out came the book, which was a welcome distraction. After two chapters, I was commanded into the Interview Room, where my fingerprints were taken and I was asked to hold a black board up to my chin with my name scrawled on it in white chalk (okay, that last bit was from CSI).

I was then told to wait with 30 others to be called to any one of the four counters to be interviewed. So I settled into a chair and broke out the book, but before I could finish the first sentence of the new chapter, an American voice boomed out (with the aid of amplification) through one of the counters:

“How much do you earn?”

I stopped reading.

“Fourteen-five,” a short man in a dark blue suit favoured by senior government servant-types said confidently.

Hmm, doing well for yourself, Tuan Pengarah*, I thought. He had to speak up too, since a thick glass wall separated him from his interviewer, and Tuan Pengarah did not have the help of a microphone to make himself heard across the partition. I realised that in the small cramped room, we were all going to be privy to some of the more interesting conversations in Malaysia (well, technically, on an island of US soil in Malaysia). No secrets here!

*Honourable Director

There were all sorts of folks in the room – tourists, businesswomen/men, and students mainly. Most of the interviews were short (10 minutes) but the questions were pointed and designed to sniff out fake stories.

One lady was a middle manager on the way to the US to support some clients. Perky, confident, voluble and very well versed in business-jargon gobbledegook, she was asked what she would be doing, exactly, in the US.

“Well, [deep breath] oursupportsysteminvolvesmeetingoutclient’sneedsbyand

“Okay, okay,” interrupted the frazzled Mr. Young Interviewer, after three minutes of this soliloquy that seemed to be gaining speed instead of coming to a resolution. “You haven’t said what you’ll be doing, exactly.”

“Well, [deep breath] weprovidetheplanningsourcingandorganisationalcapabilitiesforthisspecific

“How much do you earn?” Mr. Young Interviewer apparently has given up.

Perky Manager’s voice drops, oh, four decibels, as she tries, vainly, to hide personal details (she’s married, has three kids, has no relatives in the US, her parents are retired, she went to school in Malaysia) from the rest of us. “Four thousand five,” she almost whispers.

Another middle manager-type, this time from a technical background, let on that he earned eight-plus. Moral of the story? If you don’t qualify under affirmative action policies that open doors to cushy civil service jobs, getting an engineering degree is better than a business degree in the long run!

One elderly Malay Malaysian couple was applying for a visa to attend their son’s graduation. “My wife doesn’t speak much English,” Malay Gentleman told Mr. Older Interviewer, who chatted with them in a jocular fashion. He even cracked a joke at the end, to which Malay Lady tittered a little.

“So, you do understand English, huh?” smiled Mr. Older Interviewer. “You’re pulling my leg here. Well, I’m sure you’ll understand this phrase – ‘Your visa’s been approved.’ Have a good day.” That was nice of him.

Students get different treatments depending on which schools they got into. When I applied for an earlier visa many years back, one meek Chinese Malaysian girl who was going to Ohio State got such a long grilling that she almost crumbled before our very eyes. This time round, another young Chinese Malaysian lass underwent the same sort of interrogation. Her crime? Having a university in Iowa accept her.

Why Iowa? What’s the advantage of studying there? Are you going to return when you graduate? How are your working-class parents going to pay for it? Are you sure you won’t spend more time working than studying? Are you going to return home? Where else did you apply? Any other acceptances? Why not study locally? Are you going to return home?

It was sad thing to witness. This is reality TV, but with real consequences, not hammed up acting for TV cameras. Many such parents who don’t earn a lot of money bust their guts to send their kids overseas because local university education is not an option due to the quota system. Some of these kids are from rural areas and being interrogated by a stern American bent on sniffing out potential overstayers must have been a harrowing experience. Not all of them get their visas approved. It’s so different if your parents are well to do, give you a good education, and you get accepted into one of the Ivies.

There was one preppy Chinese Malaysian lady who spoke with a distinct English accent, who had an English husband, and who obviously has lived abroad for some time. She wanted to visit a friend in Texas.

“How do you know the friend?” asked Another Young Interviewer.

“Through the internet,” she replied.

Oh no, I thought. Totally wrong answer. Internet friendships are so no-no. It just smells of mail-order brides. Didn’t matter that you spoke with a posh accent and have a foreign husband – you’re going to get the fifth degree. And so she did, getting the grilling that all could see was coming (When did she marry? How did she meet her husband? Any kids? Job? Salary? Who is this friend? Any pictures? And on and on and on.)

Exasperated, she snapped: “Well, I could have told you we went to school together and you would have been none the wiser.” Oooh, spunky!!! And I think she got the visa.

You couldn’t help but be self-conscious, overhearing all these conversations. But surprisingly, once it got to my turn, I ended up totally focused on the interview and forgot that everyone could hear my answers. Perhaps it is because you face the interviewer and your back is to the rest of the room, so you don’t see them. Maybe it’s because of the way the panels on your left and right cushion your voice around you, so that it sounds intimate, instead of an echo that wafts across the room. Anyway, by the time my interview was over and I turned around, I realised the room had thinned considerably, so I didn’t have a full house for Episode #274 of My Life.

The interview itself went smoothly. Madam Interviewer was extremely courteous, and even worked with me when we realised I didn’t bring one document – she asked me a series of questions to satisfy that those conditions were met.

As I left the air-conditioned embassy and walked into the spiky, muggy mid-afternoon KL air, I clutched my visa approval thankfully and realised that even though I didn’t make much progress beyond the first line of Chapter 3 of my book, I was much the wiser about the secret lives (and salaries) of a small group of my compatriots.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Lor mee, comfort noodles

Mum made the quintessential Hokkien noodles lor mee for lunch yesterday… what a treat! Lor mee is a simple soup noodle dish in a thick-ish broth that is easy to cook and a staple fare in traditional Hokkien families. It is less well known than the dark fried Hokkien mee that KL is famous for, although a self-respecting fried Hokkien mee stall would serve lor mee, too.

The basic ingredients are garlic, pork, prawns, thick yellow noodles, whatever vegetable you can get your hands on (we used spinach this time round), eggs and black vinegar. Cut the pork into small strips and marinate with a little soy sauce and tapioca flour (or arrowroot flour if you prefer). De-shell the prawns. Beat up the eggs (we used two for the five of us).

Put a little oil (or, a lot of oil, if you are cavalier) into a heated big pot or wok, and cook the prawns. Remove prawns and then throw in come chopped garlic and the prawns shells and sauté until the combo smells heavenly and you’re reaching for some snacks to stay your hunger pangs.

Add in the desired amount of water (depends on how many people you are cooking for) and boil. Mum adds anchovies too to the soup to give it extra oomph. Add salt to taste.

After the soup has boiled and simmered for a while (oh, anything from 5-15 minutes, depending on how rushed you are), remove the prawn shells from the soup (use a sift) and then throw in the big fat yellow noodles and the pork, and bring to boil again, cooking for a couple of minutes. At this stage you might want to add a thickening mixture of tapioca flour dissolved into a little water. This gives the soup its dense, smooth character. Then throw in the vegetables (spinach cooks very quickly) and the cooked prawns, and simmer for another minute or so. Turn off the heat and stir the beaten eggs in evenly. Viola!

We eat lor mee with a couple of standard accompaniments. The first is fried diced shallots and ewe poke (or itsy bitsy pieces of lard). Mmmmmm, larrrrd.

The other is a combo of super hot chilli padi (Thai chillies), chopped garlic and soy sauce. Spicing the noodles up with some Southeast Asian heat marks the inevitable evolution of a community’s culture as it moves away from the motherland and assimilates and takes root in its new (chilli-eating) home.

The ingredient that makes the dish distinctive, though, is a generous helping of black vinegar. And not just any vinegar, mind you. Purists will insist on eng choon lao chor (in pinyin, yongchoon laocu, 永春老醋). This aged vinegar is one of the most well known products from Eng Choon/Yong Chun, an area in China’s Hokkien/Fujian province known also for its Mandarin oranges. I managed to sample both at its source over 10 years ago when visiting my grandfather’s ancestral village there. That was so gooood.

Don’t skimp on the vinegar – get in a good two tablespoon-full (at least) for the invigorating kick!

Why, you might ask (or you might not) are there no precise measurements for the instructions above? Well, I don’t pretend to be running a recipe site. And secondly, have you ever tried getting precise measurements from your Mum, especially if she’s been a homemaker all her life and doing this with her eyes closed?

Me: How much noodles are you using, Ma?
Mum: Depends. Are you hungry? [Yes, I was, so she added noodles!]
Me: And how much water did you put in?
Mum: Usually just short of the rim of the wok should be enough.
Me: And the pork?
Mum: I’m using a portion from a piece I bought the other day.

Hope that was helpful for you, too ☺

Friday, May 30, 2008

Our future holiday destination?

The Borobudur, in all its festive glory during Vesak Day, must be a sight to behold indeed! Full story from The Star. Don't know if we can ever swing it, since May is not usually a vacation season for us, but for sure we are going here this December or January to visit Siti :)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gandhi fusion

UPDATE: Just realised that The Star covered the opening of Gandhi's Vegetarian Corner's latest location. I think his old joint is more charming!

When there are so many different cultures living side by side in Malaysia, there is bound to be some borrowing, adaptation and assimilation. Not enough, by some accounts, since the government of the day continues to cling on tenaciously to the racial divide and rule tactics of the colonial authorities. But where seepages occur and people start living across ethnic and religious lines, it is indeed a thing of beauty, and often, very delicious!

And so, we come to Gandhi. No, not the great man of history, but the vegetarian restaurant tucked by the side of a parking lot in Brickfields (Kuala Lumpur). Well, this was as of a month ago, since they were supposed to have moved (directions below) on May 1, so this post is a tribute to a humble lil’ shack where my family and I enjoyed many a wonderful meal.

Mr. Gandhi (yes, that is his name) has a simple operation. His shack opens into a parking lot, with tables and chairs strewn all over under his zinc roof (too hot to open for lunch) or beneath the stars, side by side with the car you just parked. The man himself is poised over a wok by one side, with the menu pasted on the board behind him.

You choose your food either by reading the menu and pointing to it, or peering into Mr. Gandhi’s wok and asking him what he’s cooking, or stealing furtive glances/staring rudely at what other patrons are eating and pointing at those dishes. Nobody really minds, since everyone’s in good spirits (vegetarians are like that, except blood throwing, fur hating PETA folks).

What is distinctive about this joint is that Mr. Gandhi has fused successfully Indian and Chinese vegetarian worlds. He caters to the Chinese vegetarian predeliction for faux meat made with soy or wheat products – note the presence of ‘chicken’, ‘mutton’, ‘fish’ and so on, on the menu.

But he cooks the dishes with a zesty Indian sensibility – the spices making the dishes sing in ways that elude regular Chinese vegetarian places.

Yet, what makes us go back again and again to Gandhi's Vegetarian Corner is also his warm and welcoming smile, his winning personality…

… and his near-perfect Cantonese! Word is that he learnt his trade in a Chinese restaurant, and picked up the lingo along the way. We love watching him catch new Chinese customers unawares by launching into full throttle idiomatic dialect. You can see an initial wave of confusion in their faces, followed amusement and a grin that lingers for a fair bit.

The décor is appropriately eclectic (rojak is a word we’d use). There is a row of Buddha images keeping watch over the historical Gandhi in black and white.

On another wall are extracts from the famous Tamil teachings on living an ethical life (doing the right thing), cheek by jowl with somewhat more irreverent Irish quips on drinking the right thing(s).

And of course, there’s a small Hindu altar by the fridge. As you can see, this is not white tablecloth dining!

Our favourites from the menu are invariably the spicier stuff. The ‘fish’ curry is highly recommended (the family guzzled it down before I whipped out the camera) – the curry smooth and perfectly balanced. We once had their assam ‘prawns’ which was quite the winner – the wheat-made ‘prawns’ doing a respectable imitation of the original while the sauce was again well-balance between sourness, spiciness and savouriness.

The fried ‘chicken wings’ is not merely amusing – the coiled soy sheets are deliciously unputdownable.

But the best dish I feel is this blog’s namesake – the stir-fried petai with tomatoes and a slightly spicy sauce. Getting good petai is a hit or miss affair – sometimes the pods are too old, too bland, too small. On the day of this picture, the petai was plump and had deep flavours that suggested the plant had led a good life in some secondary forest along the spine of the country.

Our other favourites are regular ingredients cooked simply and without fuss. The lady’s fingers with dried chillies…

… and brinjals with potatoes are both regulars at our table.

Mr. Gandhi manages to vary the spice mix so that his sauces never slide into generic anonymity.

The restaurant was to have moved to a more proper space nearby on the first of this month.

Here’s the close up map. We’ll be there this weekend!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Quick and easy BBQ primer

What are the key ingredients to a successful home barbeque? Start off with some skewers, soaked in water, so they don't burn when you put them on the grill. Get a medley of vegetables (kinda like a ratatouille over an open flame).

Many folks like beef, which taste great paired with a juicy, lighter partner like pineapples.


... and pork chops are winners ...

... especially if they end up looking like this! Mmmmmm.

It's not all meat and seafood though. Get some brinjals ready.

Sweet potatoes and corn are always popular.

Start up the fire and get them buggers over the flame.

Arranging them neatly means you're sensitive to the wants and needs of amateur photographers the world over.

Get the oil ready, and baste occasionally.

Trot out the fish, if you have any. We had sole the other night.

Other key ingredients are a free-flow of wine, a group of hungry people, and a reason to celebrate – in our case, a friend's successful kidney transplant.

Oh, I forgot, you should also always have a Jack Russel or two handy, for all the bones etc.

Saves on the cleaning up!