Friday, April 4, 2008

We remember

Today is Qing Ming, the day for honouring and remembering the departed members of one’s family by visiting their graves, cleaning them and offering prayers. As it is not a public holiday in Malaysia, most Chinese families observe the ritual on one of the weekends around the actual day.

Every year, we make a short trip to the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. Last Sunday was no different, as Dad and my siblings woke up early to join many families making a trip first to the market to buy roast pig and other delicious food to be offered to their ancestors, before heading to the many cemeteries around Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. We also bought vegetarian food for Grandma. It is usually a full family affair, although Mum has not made the trip these past few years ever since her mobility became somewhat restricted.

I was to have gone along too except that a severe bout of diarrhoea the night before confined me to bed. I have no problems whatsoever taking some part in these festivals, even though I observe a different faith from my family members. After all, much of the festivals and rituals that make up the Chinese way of life are not strictly religious but cultural. In fact, it is difficult to separate the elements of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism that make up a traditional Chinese way of life that is closely rooted to farming and the land as well as the changing of the seasons. I actually enjoy these family rituals – they remind us of the ties that are important and enduring.

When my parents were younger, we would all troop off to our grandparents’ grave on Qing Ming to find it, and all other graves, overgrown with chest-high lalang. Clearing it would be quite an effort since lalang is a particularly stubborn weed. As Mum and Dad grew older, and to spare them that onerous task, we began observing a two-step Qing Ming – Brother (and sometimes Dad) going a couple of weeks before Qing Ming to do most of the grunt work, leaving a token patch of weeds for clearing on the day itself.

I joined Brother early last month for the Step 1 big clean-up. It is relatively easy to find where our grandparents are resting – their plot is close to a frangipani tree.

When we got to the site…

… we found it in pretty good condition – no lalang, no mounds of rain-carried earth all over the concrete floors, no armies of ants making the many cracks and crevices their home! Still, we broke out the heavy equipment…

… to give the plot a good sweep. The wimpy weeds were cleared in a jiffy, and before we knew it, we were done.

Brother lit up a couple of bunches of joss sticks and placed them in front of Ah Ma and Ah Kong, before we left.

When J and I were in Kyoto a couple of weeks ago, we spent a very pleasant day strolling through the incredibly beautiful Kodaiji (temple) grounds. While tourists like us were breathing in the zen calm, the locals were visiting the adjacent cemetery and paying their respects to their loved ones. These were some of the most beautiful resting places I have encountered.

A much larger section of the cemetery is on a hill slope overlooking the city.

Family members first stop at the entrance to pick up a bucket, a scoop and some water.

Pouring water gently over the tombstones symbolises purification. The tombstones are then elegantly dressed with pretty flowers.

The plots may be tightly packed together…

… but the clean lines of individual tombstones and orderliness of the whole cemetery …

... evoked a sense of serenity and space instead of claustrophobia.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Going green

My parents, both almost 80 years old, are leading the recycling and sustainability charge at home. Because of their natural thriftiness, everything has always been used for as long as possible, and sometimes even longer. (Handles fallen off those cheap red plastic buckets? No problem, there’s always raffia string.)

Every piece of paper and plastic bottle is recycled; rinsing water from the washing machine fill up three pails every morning, to be used for light flushing in the toilets; rainwater runs into huge vats to nourish the plants on dry days; whatever fresh food that can be composted is composted; and whatever leftovers that might normally be thrown away, well, we have five dogs.

In the old days, we always had fruit trees in the garden – one, sometimes two mango trees; a rambutan tree; a few papaya trees; a jambu tree once; and the ever-present lime (kalamansi) tree. Except for the lime tree, the others are no longer with us, replaced by all sorts of vegetables sprouting around the garden (long view, above). When you grow your own vegetables, you know you’re eating the freshest organic stuff money cannot buy.

Next to the driveway (below) is where we start the tour of our little farm, which by the way, is sustained largely by Second Sis, while Dad does his fair share of watering (and cutting the grass, and handyman work around the house and garden, after a day at the office – he’s 79 this year).

This is our little grove of ladies fingers, or okra. Standing chest high, it is a handsome plot that is a stout testament to Second Sis’ work.

Mum likes to make her own fish paste from scratch, and stuffing our own okra with it for a meal of yong tau foo is one of our favourite dinners.

At the back of the garden, near the clothesline, is this little plot (below).

Dominating this patch is your run of the mill bayam, or in Cantonese, yin choy. I love the Wikipedia entry for this vegetable since it tells us what this humble mainstay of Chinese cooking is called, and how it is used, in other cultures. I’d love to see the look on my neighbourhood restaurant owner’s face if I ever asked for a plate of ching chow (lightly stir fried) biteku teku!

Nestled among the bayam is the newest addition to our garden – a chilli plant that grew from seeds bought in Bangkok.

We were prepared to be patient with this plant, not being familiar with its characteristics. We have some experience growing these types of fiery hot tiny chillies – our mainstay plant has been with us for decades, and at one time grew to a height of about five feet, spanning six feet across, and when fruiting, was a riot of little red and orange dots.

But this Thai import has green fruit, and, more surprisingly started fruiting before the plant reached two feet high! And the chillies are relatively big, about a couple of inches (5-6 cm) long. They are as fiery as our old red faithful (below), and much bigger. Mum still prefers our veteran chilli as it has deeper and more varied flavours. The new green addition may not be as complex in taste, but packs a burst of freshness, to go with the heat. Now, we just mix and match the two at the dinner table, young and old. The old faithful, by the way, is stationed in the middle of the garden and still giving good service.

At the far end of this back plot, and in other parts of the garden, we grow a red-stalked creeper (below), called the Ceylonese spinach, or in Cantonese, saan choy (the name is more prosaic in Hokkien, simply ang chai, or red vegetable).

There’s a green-stemmed version, but that, understandably, is less visually appealing! This vegetable is supposedly a little diuretic, and thus good for cleansing the intestines and general human plumbing maintenance. But really, it tastes great, especially cooked in soup with some salted eggs thrown in. J really loves this veg for its velvety texture! I tried to take a picture of them creeping up the fence in the back plot, but failed because, burp, we had it for dinner last night!

We have a couple of other vegetables – one is sweet potato, which we grow not for the potatoes, but for the leaves (below), which are tender and flavourful, especially stir-fried with a light touch.

This quick growing patch is threatening to take over the whole garden if we don’t stop it (meaning, eat it) soon!

The other plant grown for its edible leaves is a variety of mustard that is known in Hokkien as kor ber chye, or bitter-stemmed vegetable (below). The bitterness is mild, and the veg stands up to vigourous cooking.

We grow two varieties of lime here.

The kalamansi (above) for its fruit…

… and the kaffir for its leaves. Some of the herbs sprouting here and there are:

Sweet basil

Pandan leaves.

Mint (left) and chives. The chives do look a bit unruly, like Cyndi Lauper’s hair dyed green, but they do produce the most delicate and beautiful flower (below), no?

Coming out to play on cosplay street

We didn’t just eat, eat, and eat in Tokyo and Kyoto, you know. There was much to see, and anyway, there were always going to be a few hours in between meals, yeah? ☺

Some of those were spent in Harajuku, gawking at the youngsters dressed in their best cosplay outfits strolling down Takeshita Dori… well, not quite strolling, since the street was sardine packed that Sunday. The costumes ranged from the weird to the predictable – predictable only because so much had been written about them – like the Little Bo Peep costume, and the Maid.

On the Harajuku bridge leading to the Meiji Shrine, another favourite spot to catch cosplay, quite a number of those in funky outfits seemed a little shy, preferring to stand by the side and let their audience gawk as they walked by. One Miss, though, was not going to be a wallflower (no, that’s not a costume) that day.

The Maid With The Lollipop was standing smack in the centre of human traffic, drawing a huge crowd of admirers. The moment anyone whips out a camera, Miss MWTL bends a knee and strikes a pose, and there were many with cameras! Not content with just taking a picture, most of the tourists wanted to have a picture taken, too, with our young star.

Way to get into a lot of folks’ holiday pictures!!

If you weren’t the touristy type, and were feeling a bit down walking pass the madhouse scramble, do not worry. Help was at hand, for just a little to the left of this Maid, were another group of idealistic young ones who believed tha a little TLC would go a long way to solving the world’s problems.

Yes, folks, free hugs for everyone…

I should have waylaid the two ‘customers’ (with backpacks) and asked if they felt better after the hugs. After all, these weren’t the ‘Oh hello, how are you, haven’t seen you in a while’ wrap around the shoulders with a quick release type of hugs. These were the full bodied type that people who have just broken up/quarrelled with the boss/lost a pet need; ones that usually end up in someone having a good cry, type of hug. (By the way, what’s with the black and white stripped socks? They feel prison-y.)

Anyway, our favourite guy on the bridge was The Portrait Artist (can I call him Portart, like, you know, cosplay is from costume play, and Pokemon is from Pocket Monster?).

Mr. Portart draws these small kawaii caricatures that look something like this…

(You’ll have to turn your computer screen upside down, or stand on your head, to get the right orientation.)

One subject was a young and very attractive couple, who took their place like the others, kneeling in front of Mr. Portart.

Mr. Portart picks up a brown marker, grabs a tube and squishes a bit of paint on the marker, mixing colours. He then wipes of whatever excess colour on his right thigh (talk about well-worn jeans!), all the while rocking back and forth to a funky beat bellowing out of his yellow boombox.

I love the contrast between the brown face and the girl’s blonde hair and green eyes, rendered large and innocent.

He then takes out a few more tubes of paint…

… and sprinkles a bit of blue and green sky on his canvas …

… before adding a touch of orangey, yellowy rays of the sun, peeking through. Like fairy dust. Kinda neat, huh?

Anyway, the Sunday we were there was also St. Patrick’s Day, and Omotesando was awash in green.

I think they look more ridiculous than the cosplay girls, no?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ouchi oishii!!!

By our third day in Japan, I was getting antsy. We had had Okinawan food (noodles, stir fry, tempura), tonkatsu, kushiyaki and teppanyaki, with some wonderful strawberries thrown in, but we hadn’t sunk our teeth into any sushi or sashimi yet. Hello? Have we got our priorities right, I was thinking (sometimes aloud, to J)?

I mean, we are in Japan, after all, where the freshest of seafood is supposed to pass through its famed Tsukiji market, from wriggling prawns…

… to clams and shellfish of all shapes and sizes.

But the star of the show has to be the tuna shipped in from all over the world, fetching the highest prices in the auctions...

before being carted away by the middlemen to their stalls in the market itself to be butchered (with deft force)…

… into manageable chunks ready for chefs, fishmongers and other retailers to purchase.

We did eventually have our fill of fresh raw seafood, from specialty spots like Isegen and Hakarime (raw anko and anago prepared in many creative ways), to sushi restaurants ranging from the pricey to mid-level, to even the humble bento boxes we picked up at Kyoto train station for our Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo (the quality of the latter belying its affordability).

The highlight for me was Sushi Ouchi, which we visited on our last night in Tokyo. The Shibuya restaurant is all about organic food and sustainability, right from its inception in 1983, before those concepts became hip and politically correct. The restaurant’s popularity with visitors increased after it was featured in a Japan Times profile in 2005. What’s not to like, when master Ouchi Hisashi is strict when it comes to choosing what to serve – “fish caught from the wild; rice from organic farms; naturally brewed rice vinegar, shoyu, miso and mirin; sea salt sun-dried in old-style saltpans; and fertilized eggs from free-range chickens”, according to the article.

This is a tightly run establishment – Ouchi-san had only two helpers, as far as we could tell, and the English speaking one attended to us. The waiter was unfailingly helpful and courteous, even though he became increasingly busy as the Saturday night crowd drifted in. He handed us our menu and apologised for his inferior linguistic skills. We smiled a little, since his apology was delivered in flawless English! (Anyway, a common language or the lack of, was never a problem in Tokyo and Kyoto.)

You need not blow a fortune here – set sushi meals begin at 2,100 yen and range up to a 10,000 yen omakase set that had both a sashimi and sushi platter. Our sushi platter came artfully placed on very impressive bowl.

I asked J what she remembered of her experience:
“I remember:

The beautiful pottery the sashimi and sushi were served in and that were stacked high behind the sushi chef.
The small size of the pieces.
The loosely-packed sushi (really meant for fingers).
The perfect seasoning of the fish.
AJI!!!! Horse mackerel -- never thought I'd like something more than toro. Absolutely no fishy smell, lush and oily texture, smooth as butter.
The neighborhoody feel of the place, given the people that were there.

Can we go back?”
We had asked the chef if we could have otoro with our set (if it wasn’t already part of it). The fatty portion of the tuna belly did not disappoint – J was in closed-eye ecstasy – but, as she says above, we were swept away by the aji, and not surprisingly, we had seconds!!! She also liked the place because it was “not trendy at all, and the prices don't reflect a premium”.

Yes, we can go back. ☺

Sushi Ouchi
2-8-4 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 3407-3543.
Open: Noon - 1.30 pm; 5-11.30 pm.
Time Out Tokyo city guide (copyright 2007) says it is open every day; the (2005) Japan Times article says it is closed Sundays and holidays