Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - might be too seedy for innocent children.  But hey, who were they kidding considering where we live?  The women in the windows surely piqued our fascination and wonderment with "Why?".  But as a thirteen year old peering into the unfortunate life and living conditions of Anne Frank - who herself wrote her published journal on the cusp of teenhood - it felt like the right time for us to visit Amsterdam.

For me, Amsterdam came with the added fulfillment of tasting the Indonesian food that many claim is better if not just as good as that found in the archipelago.  Alas, we missed our flight and had to compress our itinerary.  But save for missing out on the oldest Indonesian restaurant called Sama Sebo, our remaining two days centered around nothing but Indonesian food and not much of a bite of anything Dutch.

We tried Restaurant Blauw which was slightly out of the city center and nestled in a well-to-do (or so the driver told us) neighborhood.   Think a quieter Notting Hill.  The place was packed and even though we had a reservation and were on time, we had to wait a full 90 minutes.  As a tourist, I wanted to soak in the atmosphere with a Heineken but was suggested a Bintang beer.  The Dutch waitress explained that Bintang began in Indonesia with technology from Heineken.  

We were greeted with a mini fete when the plethora of bowls arrived.  So this was rijsttafel.  Proudly, I explained to my kids that the Chinese New Year tok panjang originated from the concept of rijsttafel. The food was worth the wait.  Maybe we were hungry, not just then but after a long time of not having had good, spicy Asian food - the food of my childhood laced with the spices I grew up with.  This was not garam masala, bird's eye chili or kaffir leaves but the candlenuts, coriander, star anise, cumin, lengkuaskunyitassam and lemongrass, and long red chilis of my youth.  And it felt and tasted good.  When the Indonesian waitress came over with a complimentary bowl of keropok fish crackers, my kids' eyes lit up.  Yes, these were the crunchy munchies we would stock up when we went to Singapore to visit Kong Kong.  And the ones I would lug back from Asia Mart if I shopped in Chinatown.

The next day, I wanted to try a fusion sample of how the Dutch would incorporate Indonesian cuisine into their local diet.  Hence, I ordered the Indonesian pancake filled with "chicken, onions, mushrooms and leek in an Indonesian peanut sauce, served on a bed of bean sprouts with crispy onions, prawn crackers and a green salad" at the Pancake Bakery.  I was not disappointed by the substantial meal, made all the more delicious with an accompanying beer.  (It was our second consecutive day there, not too far off from the Anne Frank House.  It seemed so bewildering that the Franks could hide in a place that seems so central, or perhaps, Prinsengracht now seems so much more central thanks to Anne Frank.).

Our concierge, whose parents are actually from Indonesia and have some Dutch relations, reaffirmed that we had to dine at Blue Pepper.  The chef is considered a living legend and her cooking takes a different angle from the traditional style.  I was intrigued and wanted to taste what a contemporary version of rendang and soto ayam would be like.  The servings were presented clean and minimalist.  The service was excellent.  On her way out to a waiting cab, the chef Sonja Pereira, paused to greet us.  She simply reminded me of an elegant lady who exuded colonial nostalgia, a romantic representation of the descendants of a time when the Dutch once ruled the Indonesian islands.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Chicken Run

When my kids were younger, they loved this claymation movie called "Chicken Run". It was a very cute movie with chicken characters with names like Rocky and Ginger. The chickens were trying to avoid getting slaughtered and hatched a plan to escape their chicken coop, a la concentration camp style - which was the inspiration for the movie.  Sadly, I never paid my full attention and probably, had never seen it in its entirety.  Later on, my sister gave me a whole bag of stuffed toys that she had collected from a McDonald's Happy Meal promotion.  I was just about to give away them away, when upon inspecting the toys, realized that they resembled the entire cast of the movie.  I've since kept them because they formed a very special part of my children's lives.

I too have my own chicken memory.  My mother bought me two little chicks at a time when I was learning about the growth cycle of chicks in Science class.  The chicks grew up in our backyard, only to be threatened by the street cat.  My mother therefore gave the chicks to our housekeeper to raise.  "Hanky and Panky", as I called them, grew big and sturdy and obviously very fleshy.  They were later served up as my chicken curry for Chinese New Year.  I was traumatized and went on a chicken strike for a few months - a rite of passage for many tweens.

There are two chicken recipes that I tried this past week that are worth jotting down.

Buffalo Wings were served up for Super Bowl Sunday, albeit my take with Lingham's Chili Sauce.  (Adapted from "The Joy of Cooking").

1 1/2 pounds of chicken wings, cut into 2 pieces at the joint.

1/2 cup of plain flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon Old Spice seasoning

Set an oven ay 350 degrees F.

Coat the wings in the mixture of flour and seasonings.

Heat up a wok or deep frying pot, add enough corn oil and heat.  Add wings to the hot oil - a single layer will do.  Fry for about 10 minutes.  Transfer the cooked wings to a baking tray and leave it in the oven to warm.

Meanwhile, to prepare the sauce, combine in a saucepan over low heat:

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce, such as Cholula or Tabasco

1/2 cup of Lingham's Chili Sauce

1/4 cup of Heinz ketchup

Remove the wings from the oven and arrange on a platter.  Drizzle the sauce over the wings before serving, tossing to coat gently.

Last night, I prepared Grilled Chicken from "The Aleppo Cookbook" - a city so much in the news and a heartache to watch it get destroyed by war.

Marinate the night before,

2 pounds of chicken thighs, make deep cuts through the skin and flesh

9 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon salt

The day of, remove the chicken an hour before cooking.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F, place the chicken in one layer in a baking pan and cook for 45 minutes.  In the last 10 minutes, you could turn up the oven temperature to 300 degrees F to finish off.

Serve with boiled potatoes.  (I also added cauliflower to the tray of baking chicken, tossed in the remaining marinade, about halfway into the cooking.)


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Victoria Sponge Cake

My first memories of strawberries - me as a child sitting in the supermarket trolley as my sister wheeled me around the aisles of the old Tay Buan Guan.  Then she picked up a punnet of strawberries.  A fresh and sweet whiff - a scent I'll always remember - not to be confused with the saccharine smells associated with the Strawberry Shortcake character.

I've always fancied the Victoria Sponge cake and was enticed by an attractive food shot in 'Mary Berry's Complete Cookbook'.  (She of the 'Great British Bake Off").  So I made the cake today, my way.

Cake Ingredients
6 ounces soft butter
6 ounces sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
6 ounces self- raising flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Strawberry jam
2 cups heavy cream, whipped until thick
Strawberries, sliced to decorate
Sugar for sprinkling

Grease a 9 inch tin (or two 7-inch tins) and line with parchment paper.
Set oven at 350 degrees F (or 325 degrees F convection).

Whisk the butter and sugar, followed by one egg at a time.  Add the vanilla essence.  Continue at high speed until the mixture is pale, smooth and thick.

Sift the self-raising flour and baking powder.
Fold in the flour and baking powder.

Pour the cake mixture into the tin (or divide between the two 7-inch tins).  Bake in the oven for 25 minutes.  Remove and leave to cool.

Peel off the parchment paper.  Spread the strawberry jam, followed by the whipped cream.  Decorate with sliced strawberries and sprinkle some sugar on top.  (If you are working with two 7-
inch halves, spread the jam and half of the whipped cream on top of one sponge, top with some strawberries slices.  Place the other sponge on top, press down, then spread the remaining jam and whipped cream on the top layer of the second sponge, followed by the remaining sliced strawberries and sprinkled sugar.)   

Thursday, January 19, 2017

An Italian-American dinner

Everytime I watch a movie or TV show where there is a scene of an Italian American family dinner, I would be so mesmerized.  I would be the outsider looking in, imagining an intimate Sunday dinner where Tony Manero or Tony Soprano would be smacked by Mamma for pinching some cold cuts, the same Mamma who would later come out with a big dish full of baked ziti, and a bowl of luscious meat gravy.  This past weekend, I was the insider for a change - after 20 years of living in America.

Mamma Pasqualina in this case is 81 years old.  An immigrant from southern Italy, her husband and her acquired a hardy home that came with the ideal cold basement cellar for storing her home-made sausages, pressed wine and bottles of sauces.  There were rows of glass bottles, arranged with metal pots and trays hand carried from Italy, no less.

The moment we stepped into her home that snowy afternoon, the table scene itself and the awaiting plates of food evoked the words from this book "Elodia Rigante's Italian Immigrant Cooking".

Note the cross stitch embroidery. 
".....it was customary for the younger generation of American-born Italians to go to their parents' home for dinner on Sundays.  During those dinners, there was always a lot of talk, and a lot of laughter.  Many important matters were discussed, usually with a great amount of passion!  Much of the conversation took place in Italian - and I watched the old-timers tell jokes and laugh until they cried.  Or sometimes, they would talk politics, getting louder and louder and poking the air with their hands for emphasis!  They would talk about work, about food, about the family.  Those weekly get-togethers served an important cultural purpose in our lives - the family bonds were kept tight."

We experienced every single one of these moments that night.  Laughing at my husband for secretly eating up the torrone nougat at home while I accused everyone else of stealing it.  Listening to her talk about her childhood in Italy, and then about her grandchildren.  Or for that matter, about her listening to the Pope's sermon every weekend and following the news on the Italian cable channel.

It is worth noting that Sunday dinner is a misnomer.  It tends to start around 2pm and ends at 8pm, staggered by appetizers, then something hot off the oven, followed by a pause to clean up and then a preparation of cappuccino to go with the dessert.  It's all supposed to be very relaxing.

A proud grandmother, Mamma placed several photo frames of her children and various grandchildren, at different ages, on the shelves and walls in each and every room.  Like my mother, she too had more than one kitchen.  There were a serving kitchen beside the dining area; a work kitchen in the basement to knead her pasta, bake her crunchy Dead Man's Bones (something like biscotti) and taralli rings, and the cellar with a large wooden wine press to squeeze out the last of the fermented grapes.  And Mamma was particularly meticulous to a fault.  Everything was spick and span.

She served us dinner on pristine white linen with cross stitch embroidery done by herself for her wedding trousseau.  And of course, my kids, husband and I stained it with our gravy.

Mamma also taught herself to cook - like my mother.  She felt the need to learn to do so for pure survival.  Living in a small town atop a hill, the concept of a restaurant or supermarket was unheard of.  One lived off the slaughtered pig and learnt to make do with what the pig offered, every part of it.

Meat gravy with meatballs, sausages and ox tail.  

She taught me a few tips.  "Don't fry the meatballs".  Plop them into the gravy so that the meatballs soak up the sauce. If you sear the outside of the meatballs, you would essentially seal them off.  "Tiramisu only takes 20 minutes to assemble".  Hers was the creamiest and as my kids exclaimed, "Out of this world".  The savoiardi lady fingers need to be soaked in Italian coffee and then layered with egg-drenched mascarpone cheese.  Restaurant versions are often more watery because they line the lady fingers on the inner sides of the tray and pour the cheese on the inside.

I sometimes judge the success of a meal by how much my son eats.  He gave a double thumbs up seal of approval by finishing all of his large bowl of baked ziti, and helping himself to a second portion of tiramisu.

We only hope that Mamma will invite us once again soon.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

My mother's kitchen and mine

Today is Mothers' Day.  Recently, a few of my daughters' friends (through their mothers) purchased the cookbook and earmarked what they wanted to cook.  If it had not been for my mother, there might not have been a cookbook.  In particular, if there not been a kitchen such as hers - an atmosphere of love, warmth, busyness, chatter, friendship, family - there would not have been the memories and content for the book.

So here goes….

"The cacophony of chatting, laughter, scolding, temper flares, hollering amidst a range of intonations and volumes is very characteristic of a Nonya's kitchen and dining table.  Many old houses in Singapore had two kitchens.  In our old house, my mother's passions as a cook meant that we divided our kitchen into three parts, not just two.  The kitchen closest to the center of the house, with its cabinets, was where we had our daily meals.  We ate at the dining table lined with clear plastic to catch all the food spills.  To prevent flies and geckos, if any, from attacking our food, we had dome-shaped food covers made of rattan which we placed over plates of food kept at room temperature.  We also had a more formal extendible dining table outside the living room area, which was reserved for grand occasions such as Chinese New Year.  In this particular kitchen, my mother also had a refrigerator where she kept jugs of chilled boiled water, medicine, picnic ham, butter, jam, snacks and fruits.  It was the 'lightweight' fridge.  

In one of the cabinets, my mother stored a variety of canned food such as condensed milk, baked beans, corned beef, luncheon meat, sardines and fruit cocktail.  Her experience during the war years when food was in short supply led her to stock up on food throughout her life.  

The middle kitchen was indoors but it had a continuous open vent, curtained by a wire mesh and plastic sheath, along the length of the back wall to let out the cooking fumes.  The middle kitchen had several wooden plank shelves and drawers to contain her baking trays, Nonya cake moulds, tiffin carriers, and other times which needed more protection from outdoor dust.  A few shelves were set aside for my mother's appliances.  She bought a number in her lifetime as she was always on a quest to find the best blender and mixer.  They were neatly covered in plastic sheets and it was a chore to take the heavy machines out just to use them!  My mother also installed a second refrigerator for meats, vegetables and vacuum-sealed plastic bags of spice pastes.  This refrigerator played an especially important role during Chinese New Year because it could hold all the food we needed to serve over many days.  My mother also had her prep table here on which she chopped and sliced.  It was positioned close to the utility ink, knives, measuring tools and a cabinet full of spices and sauces.  

The third kitchen was outdoors and because this open kitchen could be seen from the road, it was a perennial eyesore for my neighbors even though my mother tried to hide her pots and pans behind rattan chick blinds and tarpaulin.  Such was the extent to which her hobby of collecting kitchen manifested itself.  My mother installed another huge rack to store army-sized pots and pans and heavy items such as the mortar and pestle.  Here, she would set up the portable charcoal stove to boil her kueh chang.  During the season, the 'shed' because steamy and oily with the boilers going at full strength and the dumplings strung along bamboo poles waiting to be cooked.  We had a wash area to do our laundry as well as slaughter the occasional chicken from the nearby kampong village.  The outdoor kitchen also featured a large water dragon pot about three feet tall.  This distinctive jar was carried over from the pre-war days when water had to be drawn from a well.  It was placed here to collect rainwater.  This was once again a result of my mother's experience during the war years, to ensure that we had a constant supply of water if there was ever a shortage."

I myself have been especially busy and distracted with a home renovation.  Some would say, it is a "high class problem" to begin with.  The constant grumbling and conversation topic of fancy moms.  Not least because it is an expensive venture that sets one back by quite a bit, which begs the question, "Why did I even bother?"

I think if my mother had been alive, she would have been quite thrilled at the prospect of designing every little detail of a new kitchen and would have relished the process of investigating and selecting the latest ovens, sinks and refrigerator.   She might not have liked the actual outcome of a galley kitchen with a slanted marble counter, without the outdoor space to air off her aromatic simmering spices, and charcoal stoves holding large pots of gravy.  But she would have been proud that the legacy of a cacophonous kitchen with people coming and going, the fridge doors opening, the fire glowing and the guests lingering around, continues….Happy Mothers' Day.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Graves of my Forefathers

November 1 is All Saints' Day.  It is a popular time for the French to visit New York.  As a French friend once joked, "We'd rather shop on Fifth Avenue than sweep our ancestors' graves."  Halloween itself has its roots originating from these few days which in religious terms, are meant to be a time of remembrance of the dearly departed.  But in modern history, Halloween has become the ghoulish festival of dress-up.  Innocent toddler costumes, sexy Goth, carved-out pumpkins, bar-hopping, trick-or-treating, and midnight cemetery tours.

Back in Singapore, there continues to be a debate about the fate of the Bukit Brown Cemetery.  This is a cemetery of 100,000 graves, once considered the largest Chinese cemetery outside of Singapore.
Check out www.bukitbrown.com or www.bukitbrown.org.

This past Friday, the Peranakan Museum conducted a talk about the history of Bukit Brown.  For my family, the cemetery takes on a lot of significance.  Several members of my father's and mother's families, going five generations back, are buried there.  They are sprawled throughout the large piece of land.  For many prominent Peranakan families, for some reason which I have yet to understand (I missed the talk, for sure.), the cemetery became the place to rest in perpetual peace.  In fact, the Cheang Hong Lim family members were reburied there from their original private graveyard off Alexandra Road.

The government has earmarked part of Bukit Brown for a four-lane highway extension, with longer-term plans to turn it into prime real estate in a few decades. Loyal 'Brownies' - volunteer guides who are passionate about history and heritage, advocate turning this into a protected monument site. Read Tan Chuan-Jin's reflections, written when he was Minister of State for National Development.

Yet, descendants like me aren't more involved for various reasons. We are not proficient in the Chinese language or culture of our ancestors after years of creating our own Peranakan identity.  Many of us have converted to Christianity, hence we no longer observe the traditions of ancestral worship, let alone clean up the graves.  Ironically, we hold on to the superstitions of our ancestors and would rather not have anything to do with claiming exhumed bodies, leaving it to the migrant workers to do so.  So while the ministry involved tries to contact us, many decline responsibility.

Swept up in the controversy, I made a personal visit to a few of these graves back in March, 2013. Anything funereal is not my scene….and the warning of snakes in the lush undergrowth made me think twice.  (I have such a phobia of snakes that I decided not to attend a recent Mexican event commemorating the "Day of the Dead" because there was a snake charmer.)  That misty morning in March, Chew Keng Kiat, my tour guide, proudly declared that he had never encountered a snake during his jaunts.  My sisters did not want to tag along as expected.  Eew. Why visit a cemetery if you can avoid it?  "And you, Sharon, of all people?",  "Aren't you always scared of ghosts and spirits?"  
Well, I guess my interest in family history overrode my lifelong fear of the dark arts.  

I arranged for another friend to join us to make it a merrier, noisier crowd.  Always good to be loudmouths among the sleeping dead.  First stop was Gan Eng Seng who buried himself among his wife and several adopted sons, along with a special plot for his faithful servant.  It was quite a large compound and pretty well kept. Keng Kiat later explained that the students of the Gan Eng Seng School made a trip on every Founder's Day to pay homage.  They probably tidied the place up.  

Gan Eng Seng's tomb

Cheang Hong Lim was tucked all the way back, to the point that his large grave was a literal stone's throw away from a luxurious bungalow off Andrew Road.  Imagine sunning yourself by the pool and knowing that Mr. Cheang is lurking at you from the backyard.  After all, he had several wives.  

Cheang Hong Lim's grave 
Us - the descendants of
two enemies who sued each other.
Right behind his tombstone was the grave of his nemesis - a man who had sued him many times over the opium business.  Funnily enough, the person I had invited to join us was the man's descendant.  So we laughed it off that the two old men ended up together.  

Tombstones tell a lot.  Recently, my family visited Arlington Cemetery in DC and I was anticipating a boring tour.  Lo and behold, my children gleaned many facts from those tombstones - the age of the soldier when he died, his religion, the names of his wife or children buried with him, perhaps an infant baby.  Similarly, the Bukit Brown tombstones detailed the names of sons, the number of wives, the date of birth and death according to the year of the Chinese emperor's reign, his official ranking and titles (if he had any).  The origin of his township in China.  

I was fascinated.  If I had scored a double A for the Chinese language back in school, I would have been recording and translating my family genealogy right there on the spot.  Besides, the cemetery planning was probably filled with references to geomancy, symbolism, and

Illustration of a typical tomb from a history book published before 1910. 

architectural details unknown to the laymen like me but meaningful for learning the Chinese culture.

This all begs the question of the future of such a historically rich gravesite - that memorializes the immigrant story of early Singaporeans.  I hope that one day, UNESCO will recognize it as a World Heritage Site.  If one has visited any of these sites elsewhere in the world, you know that the Botanic Gardens has little to compel when compared with Bukit Brown.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sarong Kebaya

Sarong Kebaya: attire consisting of see-through blouse (kebaya) worn with a sarong skirt.

Right after my mother celebrated her 70th birthday, we made a trip to Penang.  Apart from trying out the "two sisters' char kway teow", my most vivid recollection of that trip was of my father, sister, aunt and I standing in the sweltering equatorial heat for three hours while my mother sat in a cramped seamstress shop with a tailor to discuss kebaya patterns.  That was the highlight of her trip and was her hidden agenda.  Sweating away, I was not very happy to say the least.  I grumbled and quarreled with my mother about her selfish ways.

Made by the Penang tailor. 
Unknown to me until very recently, this tailor was a national artisan and a UNESCO cultural award winner.  My mother, sadly enough, died only a few months after the Penang trip and was dressed in one of those kebayas she had spent much time and money commissioning from this tailor.  "Aiyee!  Sayang!", my female relatives might exclaim if they knew these facts about the tailor.  Then again, in the end, my mother remained the sartorial queen as she arrived in heaven, dressed to the nines.

Lim Swee Kim - the famous kebaya maker in Penang.
The sarong kebaya is the epitome of elegance for a Nonya, if worn with proper decorum.  I am not a fan of the new wave - when the kebaya is worn as a jacket over a flimsy camisole, or paired with jeans.  For that matter, the vibrant colors can be so jarring at times that I often wish the ladies who dress up would co-ordinate their colors so that they collectively look like a fragrant bouquet of flowers.

Not too long ago, there was a comprehensive exhibition at the Peranakan Museum about sarong kebayas.  An accompanying book by the curator, Peter Lee, was launched this year, a heavy tome that I had to leave behind in Singapore due to excess baggage.  I have yet to read it more carefully.  My take is that for the most part of its early history, the kebaya that a Nonya wore was far simpler.  Essentially a white top to pair with the busy pattern of Pekalongan batik.

It was probably with the advent of the Singer sewing machine that the stitched embroidery became more nuanced, with floral motifs, animals, birds, made of varying thread types and colors.  An expert tailor will take a novice through the lessons about the gauge of the thread thickness, how to manipulate the machine and edge those swirls and curls.

I labeled my mother "the original Madonna, she with her pointy bra".  Indeed, my mother had a Triumph corset bra which she would don before she put on her blouse and fastened with her heirloom kerosang brooch.  Preceding any wedding banquet, the bedroom would have full-blast airconditioning while my nimble fingers would be called upon to fix the hooks and eyes of the corset bra.  She would be perspiring and dabbing her make-up with tissue while I squeezed her into her lingerie.  I always marveled at how someone so proper like mother, had no inhibitions parading among hundreds of wedding guests in a see-through blouse and a lacy, pointy bra.

My mother and her obsession with kebayas seemed to be a concoction that caused occasional arguments between her and me.  She took great pains to customize a confectionery pink kebaya to wear to my Singapore wedding.  Her mutterings about the "peacock" befuddled me and I did not realize that she was referring to the pair of peacocks that would anchor the left and right corner edges of her blouse.  I never took a close look or appreciated the details of the kebaya on the night of my wedding banquet and I suspect, it was much to her utter disappointment.  Wistful about my actions after her death, I stashed that particular kebaya and brought it back with me to New York as a tangible remnant of her life.  The peacock's images grace the content pages of my cookbook, memorialized in honor of my mother's excitement for my wedding.  Ironically, for all the passion that she had for kebayas, she left behind fewer than ten blouses.  They were costly to begin with.

If only my mother was still alive to teach us the art of discerning a top notch kebaya from a common one.  We can only critique them according to how 'halus' (refined) the stitching is but then again, what makes for refinement exactly?  Besides, the material is meant to be voile, not cotton as is frequently presented in kebaya tops these days.  Apart from the Penang tailor, my mother was very fond of Benjamin Seck, whom she 'discovered' when he started out sewing in a small shop in Frankel Estate.  I would suggest St. Francis (Benjamin's label) although many customers shop at Rumah Bebe and Kim Choo as well.  One very recent addition is a small pop-up store in Suntec City (opposite Din Tai Fung) where I found some admirable floral patterns.  The lady gets her stock from Malacca.

Recently, a few family members and I attended the Peranakan Ball.  I personally have never worn a sarong kebaya.  While I consider it the attire of my heritage and self-identity, I am possibly scarred by memories of my mother and her see-through blouse and pointy bra.  Instead, I wore my Shanghai Tang qipao for the umpteenth time, pretending to channel Maggie Cheung all the while acknowledging that I pass off more so as a mamasan for my nieces.  What encouraged me was the excitement among my nieces and daughter of putting together their individual sarong kebaya outfits.  And what encouraged them was an affirmation from President Tony Tan who exhorted them to keep the tradition alive by continuing to wear the attire in the future.  

My nieces and daughter with President Tony Tan and Mrs. Mary Tan.
Three good books exist.  My favorite is Datin Endon's book if only to look at the beautiful patterns and quality of each kebaya.

1. The Nonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume, Datin Seri Endon Mahmood
2. Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion in an Interconnected World 1500 -1950, by Peter Lee
3. Timeless Peranakan Legacy: The Antique Sarong Kebaya Collection of Peter Wee, by Noelle Tan

Monday, September 14, 2015

Gorgeous Cakes

This past Saturday, I threw a birthday party for my son.  The highlight for me was his birthday cake - a buttercream football field complete with green turf; and a Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet made of sugar gumpaste.  My son quipped that the bakers got it wrong….the Steelers logo should only be on one side of the helmet unlike other American football teams.

3-dimensional celebration cakes are a big business.  Google my name 'Sharon Wee' and chances are, you will encounter the more famous Sharon Wee - the cake decorator based in Australia, with a cookbook to boot.

In my mother's time, her Malay/Arab friends were renowned for their decorated cakes, especially the tiered marzipan wedding cake which they would make for their relatives' weddings.  One particular wedding featured a long banquet table showcasing several creations.  The cake which always stood out for me was a fondant rotary telephone.  So fascinated, I then often gazed at my sister's book which had colorful pictures of similar cakes.

From Cupcake Cafe, popular with the publishing crowd. 
Now, I am tempted to sign up for a cake decorating course.  New York has its fair share of talented bakers and cake artists.  A favorite for me is the floral cake - nothing more brilliant than a bouquet of beautifully-sculpted, colorful yet creamy flowers hiding a delicious chocolate cake.

Many years ago,  I sought an emerging cake artist to customize a pug dog for my friend's 30th birthday.  Her respiratory illness meant that she could not own her dream dog, so I came up with the idea of an edible version.  After much discussion with the artist over cake flavors and fillings, plus color photos of cute pug dogs for reference, the artist priced out the cake at US$650.  I almost gagged and blurted out, "What??  How much is a real dog?"  The artist took great pains to explain the number of days it would take to craft the floppy ears and curly tail, not forgetting the spray paint of the tan and black coat.  I gave in.  The dog cake made my friend's night and was mentioned in the eulogy for her three months later.  A small price to pay for a friend's eternal happiness.  The cake artist has gone on to become very successful.

A few of my friends in Singapore have now taken up this cake decorating hobby seriously - one has even gone into business.  Check out Serendipity Cakes by Yvonne Chan.
How lovely.  If this is a way to light up any child's face, this painstaking passion brings tremendous joy to the baker as well.

Recommended books:

1. 'Bake and Decorate' by Fiona Cairns
2. Le Cordon Bleu Dessert Techniques
3. 'The Art of the Cake' by Mich Turner


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Muslim friends and southern Spain

The ceiling of La Mezquita, Cordoba.
A few days ago, Muslims celebrated Eid.  Our Afghan driver ferried us to JFK airport while supping his wife's home-cooked food, apologizing profusely for the aroma in the car and explaining that he was breaking his fast and that otherwise, he would not have eaten at all.  While I stopped over in Dubai, the muezzin call to prayer reminded me that that was perhaps an important moment, 8pm in the evening and the last breaking of the fast signifying the end of Ramadan.  By the time I arrived in Singapore, the Malay immigration officer was only too glad to change shift and return home, lontong beckoning at the doorstep.

Growing up, I was surrounded by my mother's Muslim friends.  They made the most delectable cakes and practiced the most gracious hospitality.  My father, on the other hand, worked with Muslim chauffeurs and restaurant owners; and played football with Malays from his workplace and neighborhood.  Many of these family friends were Arab - or 'Ah Rub' as they pronounced it.  The very word conjured exotic images of Ali Baba's cave, the movie I watched at the beach club called "The Thief of Baghdad" and the newsreels of handsome Sheikh Yamani negotiating oil prices in the 1970s.

Sadly, in this day and age, the word 'Arab' almost seems like a dirty one, connoting the terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers and a dreadful nightmare of hijackers lurking around in your airplane.  This is especially reminded when you visit the new 9/11 Museum.  The depiction of Al-Qaeda almost scares you.  And these days, you are greeted almost daily by morning headlines screaming "ISIS" and such.

The famous arches of the mosque in Cordoba. 

A ceiling in the Alhambra.

Real Alcazar, Seville where Games of Thrones was filmed.

The pool in the Real Alcazar, Seville.

Yet, I must not forget that for every rotten apple in the barrel, there are many Muslim friends I still hold dear, descending from a rich heritage manifested in food, architecture, literature and history (violent or romantic or both).  My family recently made a trip to southern Spain and I remain mesmerized by the symmetry and geometry displayed by the mosaics, wood panelling and window lattice frames, strictly adhering to the Islamic command not to create any images of God.  The floral scent emanating from the Alhambra promises me of what heaven will be like, that the real heaven would surely exceed what I could already sense in those lovely gardens in Granada created to be 'heaven on earth'.   And the Nasrid cuisine - a small taste of it one night - evoked murtabak and soup kambing and reminded me of the Muslim influence that spread across the world,  that reached our doorstep many generations ago and culminated in the very friendships my parents made and which I would like to continue to keep.

Generalife, the garden in the Alhambra.

Indonesia in Amsterdam

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