Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thanksgiving

It's that turkey time of the year in America. It's taken me a decade and a half and now, I am finally resigned to having my once-a-year-big-bird in November instead of at Christmastime.

Probably because I did not grow up here, I'm not always loyal to the traditions. That of watching the Macy's parade, having turkey at 4pm, then settling in to burp and fall asleep in front of a football game on TV. In fact, I whisk my family off to Europe every few years - it's the perfect four-day long weekend devoid of airport chaos because most travelers are heading to the domestic terminals instead.

Yet, Thanksgiving is a time for gathering and is a cherished moment for me for one particular reason. It brings out the warmest welcome in America because we invite or get invited to celebrate this festive holiday that unites all Americans. Whether it is the tailor from Turkmenistan, the driver from Afghanistan or the nanny from Honduras, almost everyone will be joyfully sitting down to a family dinner of turkey with all its trimmings.

In my first year here, I trooped along with the church's singles fellowship to a home in Teaneck, New Jersey. In fact, whenever we drive by Teaneck, I would reminisce about my first Thanksgiving. I had been invited by a lovely Lebanese couple who generously took in the singles with no nearby relatives. It's a constant theme year after year. We throw open our home to others, come one come all, so that no one has to be alone that night. My husband and I have, over the years, invited friends over for fellowship and dinner. This year, we have added on a family newly arrived from Sweden and another family from New Mexico by way of England. And to illustrate how transient it can all be, we may never be in touch with those we once broke bread with for years to come. I don't think I would recognize half the girls I rode in the car with back in 1996, but that is not to say I would ever forget that one truly enjoyable evening around a warm fireplace.

I take pride in cooking the meal but have given up on apple pie. Comes to show, I am never going to be a true-blue American because I fail so miserably with that one all-American dish. My recipes vary from year to year, mostly from the free booklet that Williams- Sonoma distributes annually, as well as the November issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit...alas, those publications are no longer the way they used to be. I must say my favorite recipe has always been the turkey with butter seasoned with maple syrup and coriander.

Friends offer to bring something. One year, a friend was tasked with bringing the seasonal cinnamon ice cream from Haagen-Dazs. He took my instructions "Enough for 20" so seriously that he came the night before hauling an industrial-sized canister of ice cream - we had to clear out the freezer to squeeze the tub in.

Shopping for groceries during this mad rush allows one to witness the quirky, cantankerous Seinfeld characters in the city. Many years ago, I shopped at Fairways on the Upper West Side the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Crazy shoppers were having trolley wars and fighting for the elevators, yelling at one another with their pseudo-intellectual sarcastic remarks. Then, there is always the debate about what type of turkey.....free range? (tough and gamey)....organic? ($5 per pound, but is organic gonna save my health just one night?)....frozen Butterball (cheap and still quite good). Each time I select the bird, I would inevitably recall my childhood. My father once drove home with a boxed up live Christmas turkey and let him go in the backyard. The turkey squawked and gurgled the whole night, my mother had to isolate him in the bathroom at the back, only to have the bird dirty the entire floor with 'wet mud', whatever it was.

Yet for all my years of roasting a turkey, I have only done this once for my father. The following year, he exclaimed that my sister's new concept of deep-fried turkey was more impressive. Back to roasting, my sister gave me a fool-proof tip which I use to this day, "Bacon on the breast and butter under the armpits." Puzzled friends would say, "Um, excuse me?" Sounds raunchy but it will give you a moist bird.

Happy Thanksgiving.



Friday, November 18, 2011

The Descendants

We finally got a chance to catch a movie and watched 'The Descendants' in a jam packed theater, a block away from those crazy Occupy Wall Street protesters milling about Union Square. At the last moment, I chose it over Leonardo Di Caprio's cross dressing homage to J. Edgar Hoover, although I had been looking forward to seeing Leo once again after having spotted him in the flesh back in July at the Mandarin Oriental.

'The Descendants' is a two thumbs up movie - albeit a bit slow, causing my husband to check his Blackberry in the dark and getting a well deserved whack from me. It is a social drama/ comedy, a relatively new genre which in this case, lets you laugh and cry in the midst of a story involving infidelity, living will, 'DNR', squabbling entitled cousins and rude children who curse like sailors. The storyline is unusual and fascinating. I will not spoil it for readers. George Clooney is the lead character and authenticates his role looking every bit the over-the-hill graying father that his ex Elisabetta described him to be, not your imagined suave charmer that he usually is.

In one scene, Clooney as Matt King, meets up with his cousins. They are the descendants of a sprawling family attempting to cash in on a lucrative parcel of pristine land handed down by their ancestor, a Hawaiian princess. The cousins come to the boardroom dressed in Hawaiian shirts, bermuda shorts and sandals. This particular scene reminded me of my own father. Since the late 70s, my father's attire of choice has been similar to the King cousins', whether he is attending a family outing, visiting the doctor or celebrating his 80th birthday. His first few Hawaiian shirts were souvenir gifts from my sister after her vacation to the islands. He had never travelled to Hawaii until 2002 when I took him there to recover emotionally after my mother's death.

The movie also reminded me of another situation currently in the news. Lately, my sisters have been updating me about the Singapore government's plans to widen a major road by relocating the Bukit Brown cemetery. There has been much opposition and regret expressed about this proposal because the most illustrious pioneers in Singapore's history are buried there. It so happens that I have at least two ancestors buried there - Cheang Hong Lim, Cheang Jim Chuan and Gan Eng Seng. Yes, I can proudly lay claim to be descended from the lord of the opium syndicate in Southeast Asia - Cheang Hong Lim.

My sisters cautioned that I should not write to the authorities in case they come after us to bear the responsibilities of exhuming the bodies. Interestingly, the commotion surrounding this controversy has brought distant relatives out of the woodwork - people whom we have never heard of but who lay equal claim to be descendants of Cheang Hong Lim. I guess it is a revelation because we seldom thought of who these cousins were, let alone the fact that they exist. After all, my mother's maiden name was Cheang and I guess the situation was analagous to us seeing her as a Windsor and discounting all the Armstrong-Jones relatives out there.

One sister went digging further into the family history and expressed regret that Cheang Hong Lim's sons took sides, squabbled and sued over property, eventually auctioning off valuable tracts of land in what is now Singapore's prime District 10.

Pondering on a movie plot and true family stories of my own, I guess tonight's movie was not so fictional after all.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Barber to the President





Today in Singapore, there is a presidential election of 'historic proportion' (as Obama has said of Hurricane Irene). It also marks the retirement of the current President S R Nathan.

President Nathan is known for many good things - for his humble demeanor and his friendliness among others. My father got to know him when the two kept bumping into each at the beach each morning. They even appeared in the Straits Times together. When my father stopped going for his morning bike and swim routine, President Nathan wrote to check on how he was doing. And the two shared the same barber.

New Star along East Coast Road has been famous for a while, especially now as the barber to the outgoing President Nathan and many other MPs. It's like the Singapore equivalent of Caswell-Massey...which supplied cologne and after-shave products to George Washington and JFK.

The Indian barber has been a fixture in my neighborhood for as long as I can remember. My dad and my brother-in-law have been going to him for years. Lately, my husband has become a loyal client as well. Whenever he arrives from New York in the early morning, he would make his way to New Star by 9am. New Star has overtaken Zam Zam murtabak as his must-do activity. We joked with the barber that we loved him so much, we even bought a new apartment down the street just to be closer to him.

I don't know his name even though he has been featured a few times in the media. For the longest time, we assumed that he only spoke Tamil or Malay...my sister once spoke to him in pidgin Malay, only to get a reply in fluent English, much to her embarrassment. He is always well turned out in his crisp white long-sleeved shirt and belted grey pants. He has sons who have white collar jobs of their own. And a retinue of fellow Indian barbers who now seem younger - perhaps he is grooming (excuse the pun) a new generation to take over. More soberly, he has this small table right in the middle of his saloon. It has a glass top under which there are all these little passport photos of men. One day, the barber simply told me "These men all worked for me....they have died." Hmmm.......

I can understand why so many men and their little sons go back to him faithfully. (My son is not used to the buzzer. He screamed high heavens.) The cut is affordable, especially when men's hair need frequent trimming. Yet, the atmosphere is an enjoyable step back in time. It's a living museum, dotted with fixtures that these expats would desperately die for but which the barber wisely would never sell. The Rediffusion, the springy barber chairs, the various lotion pumps and the giant glass jar with the antiseptic to treat the combs.

For many years, the barber had been on the north side of the road, tucked in a traditional shophouse that matched his interior. He was booted out in favor of a smelly durian vendor. But no worries, the barber simply moved across the road to a new building because he had cleverly saved up and purchased a storefront many years back. Such a testament to the scrimp and save wisdom of immigrants like him.

He must be in his 70s at least, but we hope to see more of him. Along with my retired Hokkien mee hawker, he is part of what makes it so comfortable when I come home to Singapore.



Sunday, July 31, 2011

My favorite hawker has retired!


Last night, I went to the Lagoon Food Center to buy dinner. I was going to get my usual suspects - oyster omelette (o luak), Hokkien mee, satay.....Alas, when I got to the Hokkien mee stall, it was closed!

Thankfully, the hawker had not died. That was honestly, my first reaction. Apparently, he had sold off his stall and retired. His neighbor joked that he had taken his money and "gone to Hawaii". In a way, I was glad that on my last trip, I had actually taken a photograph of him and had made the effort to chat a bit more than my "Hello Uncle, $8 da bao". I told him that I lived abroad, came back to visit my dad and would make a beeline to have some of his fried noodles. He was flattered and said "I guessed so...."

He was really sweet, always gave me more prawns and I suspect, a tad more than the usual $8 amount.

Yes, there are others who sell the same Hokkien mee all over Singapore. Lately, my sister had been taking me to Changi Airport Terminal 3 for lunch and there is a pretty good stall there too. But it's kind of sentimental for me when one of my must-do's upon my return home is suddenly not there anymore. I hope that he is enjoying his retirement. Perhaps he might be invited to be a Food Ambassador for Singapore....and our paths might cross again.



Saturday, April 9, 2011

Maldives - Close to Paradise






Ever since I was 12, I dreamt of going to the Maldives. I was mesmerized then by the Singapore Airlines print ad of a person sitting in the middle of nowhere, in clear blue shallow waters a drive away from the shore.

Two weeks ago, I fulfilled my wish by going there. We arrived late at night in Male, and were transported by a fancy motorboat to our resort which was 40 minutes away. Traveling in pitch darkness, guided by the stars, I could not help but reminisce about one similar sojourn 21 years ago. I had followed fellow undergrads on a low-budget trip to Tioman. We took a van from Singapore to Johor and then rode a boat to the island. The difference at that point was that the fisherman boat seemed questionable and we could have easily capsized and drowned. Kudos then for bravery, kudos now for being able to afford a more luxurious form of travel.

When morning came, all my mental images of the atoll came to life. Indeed, the Maldives is a pretty slice of heaven on earth. There stood beneath me fine white sand, above me the clear blue sky and before me, a small island fringed by palms. I could walk knee deep in seawater and still see my pedicured toes while black striped angelfish swam near my shins in curiosity. The island that our resort was on felt like a private wonderland. After all, it was the size of two street blocks in Manhattan.

Wow, I had to ride a dhoni sailboat to get to the spa located on its very own island. This was a first for me. How more spoilt could I get as I lay face down on the massage table, to be able to see through the glass window set into the floorboard and watch schools of fish swim beneath me. When I did yoga the next morning, lying face up at the sky, it was a hard choice between gazing at the morning moon on my left and the palm fronds on my right.

And oh, the marine life. Each subsequent snorkeling excursion got progressively fancier. Bigger, brighter coral reefs teemed with neon-striped fish and the signature blue surgeonfish. Nosey batfish swam up close and personal, big parrotfish gazed at me and little "Nemos" danced about writhing sea anemones. It was quite a magical underwater world. On our second daytrip, a dozen dolphins swam alongside our boat. Intelligent creatures as they are, they entertained us with their water ballet. Our last snorkeling adventure was a shark safari. As twenty of us trailed the biologist, we caught a glimpse of two sharks darting in nonchalance below us phalanx of sightseers.

All was not lost on us that future generations deserve to experience this same joy. We sponsored a coral frame whereby our family tied bits of living coral to an iron frame and sent it out to sea with our blessings. We will monitor its growth with periodic online photos.
We ended our holiday with a sunset kayaking treat, a maiden voyage for our children.

Even as I left the island in darkness once more, my eyes could not close to rest. The visual feast had not ended yet. The glittering constellation of stars beckoned for attention. I just had to grasp the sight of shooting stars.

The dream trip had come true.....the Maldives was everything I imagined it to be. I vowed that I would return again.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review of "Cooking for the President"

"Cooking for the President" is a new cookbook that was 20 odd years in the making. It is an epic project comprising 544 pages. The book, a labor of love by the daughter of our former President Wee Kim Wee is a must-have. I finally got to see this definitive guide which was launched at the end of 2010. It is the Nonya cook's Larousse Gastronomique/Escoffier all rolled into one. The glossary and measurements appendix would look like the papers for the Cambridge A Levels Chemistry exams. So thorough is it that the glossary has photos of the various types of fish normally chosen by Nonyas for their dishes, plus the butcher cuts for the different meats. More interestingly, the cookbook covers a wide range of little known home dishes - those that as a child, I would see on the dinner table from time to time but now have no inkling how to cook them because they were never recorded. They were the simple whip-up's that a Nonya housewife of old invariably knew how to concoct almost instinctively.

The food photos were all shot by the author - the President's daughter and they are the better ones out there. Kudos to her persistence because creating this mammoth cookbook is no mean feat. As an aspiring cookbook writer myself, I only wish I had her discipline and faith in God and I console myself with the fact that she is much older and more experienced than me. (See blog entry "Why and How I Wrote 'Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen'").

President Wee was a most beloved figure and was the pride of our Peranakan community. He was the first ethnically Chinese president in Singapore and a Baba, underscoring once again the influence that Babas had in the political establishments in Southeast Asia. (Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Tan Cheng Lock and our current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to name a few.) Mrs. Wee was well known for her Nonya food which she served at open houses in the embassies that President Wee helmed during his years as a diplomat.

It is a sweet tribute to a much-loved and esteemed couple, made all the more special that at 94, Mrs. Wee's dreams of putting her recipes to print for future generations were realized. The cookbook is indeed a curatorial piece of culinary history.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Nixon's Chinese Banquet















I have often said that my last meal on earth should be a ten-course Chinese banquet. I love banquets. I associate it with my favorite dishes, weddings, birthday parties, Chinese towkays, company parties, China, fine restaurants, makeshift party tents, yum seng cheers - in short, happiness and joy.

Our friend's father, Michael Tong, owns Shun Lee Palace - the famous Chinese restaurant in New York. In 1972, President Nixon made the historic trip to China. During this visit, he was entertained at a banquet hosted by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People. This being an age before the Internet and cable news, Mr. Tong relied on a telex of the menu sent over during the course of the actual banquet. With New York time lagging behind by 12 hours, Mr. Tong and his team of chefs had an entire morning and afternoon to source and replicate the banquet, in time to serve it to his clientele that very night. This brilliant marketing idea served him well, it established his restaurant's reputation.

This year, Mr. Tong once again presented the menu in conjunction with the Met Opera's debut of 'Nixon in China'. The banquet was available for only 2 tables a week with a minimum of 10 persons per table. We recruited our foodie friends to join us for this banquet. The menu was as follows:

1. Cold Dishes of
i. Smoked Carp,
ii. Mock Ham,
iii. Cantonese Roast Pork,
iv. Cucumber Slices,
v. Drunken Chicken,
vi. Two Flavor Sausage,
vii. Vegetarian Duck,
viii. Three Colored Eggs (Thousand Year Old Eggs, Salted Duck Eggs and Boiled Chicken Eggs combined and steamed together and presented in thin rectangular slices).

2. Shark's Fin Soup

Hot Dishes of
3. Pearl Baby Shrimp
4. Fish Filet in Zao (a rice wine)
5. Steamed Chicken served with coconut gravy in a banana leaf wrapper, accompanied by seafood spring roll
6. Peking Duck
7. Wok fried and stewed prawns, accompanied by plum blossom dumplings
8. Lion's Head with Vegetables
9.
i. Black Mushrooms with Mustard Greens
ii. Dan Dan Noodles
iii. Peking Fried Rice
10. Desserts of
i. Almond Cream
ii. Red Bean Crepe
iii. Glutinous rice
iv. Sweet Pea Pudding

The dinner was technically presented as 10 courses. But I deliberately added the Roman numerals to convey to readers that we felt as if we were fed 23 dishes.

We started dinner with an explanation of the Nixon visit, then brought up the recent New York Times article. In it, reporters who were present at the actual banquet in Beijing recollected that the maotai wine was very strong and the table manners were bad. Lots of cigarette smoking, use of the same chopstick ends from mouth to table dish. We joked that we would do the same.

The presentation for each dish was reminiscent of those Chinese food-porn cookbooks I lauded in another blog entry - the beautiful and often colorful layout of food on a platter. This evoked the Chinese banquet of the 70s, not in a bad way. My husband and I have often lamented the time warp in which Chinese restaurants in America exists - circa the time the chef left Asia. And we have enviously stood by watching all the innovative creations cropping up in the chic Chinese restaurants back in Singapore and Hong Kong. But the Shun Lee banquet reminded us of what was noble, elegant and good about the cuisine when it could be as refined as what we consumed on Friday.

The fish filet in rice wine was velvety in texture, the smooth rice wine flavor coming through crystal clear on the palate. It made for a very memorable dish. My husband and I reminded our friend that the original banquet did include shark's fin soup, which her father left out when he replicated the dinner for the American clientele. We bamboozled her into a corner, stressing that the table of foodies were suckers for the soup which we had on average once in seven years. True enough, her gracious father incorporated it back into the menu for us. The manager elaborated that with stricter controls on the endangered list of food items, shark's fin cost $1,500 for 2 Kg these days. As we sipped (or rather swallowed the soup in chunks and whole), we felt utterly guilty. For a start, the soup bowl was deep and contained enough 'fin' to make one feel one had just chewed off a dorsal fin. It was the heartiest shark's fin soup we ever had and would probably satisfy our craving for another decade.

During the course of the dinner, we had a lively conversation that ranged from skiing, Nescafe bottles in China, Tiananmen, private school benefit auctions, fallout drama at a Thai restaurant, color blindness and John Galliano. In between, we kept going to the bathroom, almost as if we were Romans digesting by barfing. The banquet lasted three hours and when in good company, we did not realize that time passed so quickly. We were so full though, and wanted time out now and then. We imagined that at the actual banquet, the guests would have intervals, first with speeches, then Chinese dancers, some singing, followed by the American side playing jazz, perhaps a ping pong table to the side to expend some energy. A good time was had by one and all. Imagine if that had been the atmosphere back in Beijing in 1972, it said a lot for the subsequent thaw in diplomatic relations. Banquets can do wonders.

Personally, I have had dinner at the Great Hall of the People twice - a privilege that in this mommy self-absorption phase, I forget easily. The first was a Christian mission trip whereby someone had finnagled a welcome dinner by State party officials. The specifications were as follows - no mention of God, no Christian songs, no singing or praising to Jesus. Yet, the officials overlooked the piano rendition of 'Amazing Grace', humming the tune and tapping their feet to the melody instead. The second occasion was to celebrate the opening of the chocolate factory that my company had built in the short spate of nine months - a proud achievement considering the red tape involved. It all seems so long ago - the 1990s. My last link to the China of my two year stay there is my white cat, Meow Meow. As long as he is alive, I still feel a 'tangible' connection...only Meow Meow and I share something about China that the rest in the household do not.

When dinner ended,, I came home, collapsed in bed, tummy full. I felt contented and thought to myself, "It's okay if I don't live to see tomorrow. That was indeed the kind of Chinese banquet that could well be my last meal."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Golden Agar Jelly Recipe

So not a tech expert, it took me a while to figure out the pageview stats. The most visited page on my blog is an entry back in February 2010 titled "Golden Agar Agar and my Nonya Grandaunt". I assume that most readers googled 'Nonya Golden Agar Agar' and stumbled on my blog.

Here is the recipe:

Ingredients
60g agar agar strips (or agar agar powder)
7 cups water (1 cup being 225ml)
500 g rock sugar
1 teaspoon rose syrup
White sugar according to taste
1 teaspoon yellow coloring
1/4 teaspoon red coloring (approx)

Method
Cut the agar agar strips into 8cm pieces. Rinse. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add agar strips (alternatively, the agar agar powder) and rock sugar. Stir continuously, then lower heat to a simmer. Skim the surface to remove froth. Simmer for at least 3 hours until the syrup thickens.

To test for doneness, scoop some syrup and if it hardens in the ladle, it is likely to start setting into jelly. Add the rose syrup, taste and adjust the level of sweetness by stirring in white sugar if needed.

Add the drops of yellow coloring first. Then add a few drops of rose syrup, stirring and adding enough, until you achieve a golden hue.

Pour jelly into the mould which in turn is placed in a baking tray filled with water. (To deter ants from climbing in). Let the jelly harden at room temperature.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Cookies for Sale - then and now

My daughter is a new Brownie. The girls' movement is called Girl Scouts in the US and each time, I slip up and say "Girl Guides", as they are called in Singapore. I was in NCC (National Cadet Corps) and while it is somewhat of a 'betrayal' to sign her up for Brownies, I still find a uniformed girls' group a healthy distraction which fosters team spirit and instills a sense of mission.

As a new Brownie, my daughter had to sell Girl Scout cookies (I am still taking orders!). It was an opportunity for me to coach her in her sales skills, leveraging my training at M&M/Mars. My daughter would become the third generation salesperson in my family - my dad having been a popular sales manager at Fraser and Neave. Before her selling stint, my husband and I prepped her in her arithmetic to ensure that she did not embarrass herself at his hedge fund - thus diminishing any hope of interning there someday. We practiced multiplication and addition relentlessly before we paraded her out to the trading desk. After hawking her cookie order sheet for three hours straight and earning $800 on her own, the poor girl fell asleep in the cab on the way home.

In all this time, I could not help but reminisce about my mother's cookies season. In a previous generation, during the weeks leading up to Christmas and Chinese New Year, housewives like my mother used their time to bake and sell. It was a 'cottage industry' that sprung up and took a life of its on during this period, just like the Girl Scout cookies season.

Every year, about eight weeks before Chinese New Year, my mother baked cookies and sold them to friends and regular customers. She took down orders when her friends phoned her for a chitchat, she penciled them into an old exercise book and summed up the bill in her head.

All year round, these same clientele would collect empty Marie biscuit and Ovaltine tins, and Horlicks bottles. These containers would be sent over to our home to be recycled by my mother. She would soak and rinse them to remove the labels, then use them to store her product. During her baking season, she would wake up at 4am every morning to take the blocks of Buttercup butter out of our second refrigerator, to thaw them on the dining table. These sat alongside the stack of square cardboard trays of brown eggs. By 4pm, the aroma of freshly baked cookies would waft through the entire corner block of our street, Yarrow Gardens.

My mother produced a range of biscuits - cashew cookies, almond cookies, those with names such as Daisies, Dominoes, Cat's Tongues and Cheeselets. She made the traditional Kueh Bangkit and the madeleine-like Kueh Bolu. But she 'outsourced' the more complicated Kueh Belanda loveletters. The most popular item that she made were her pineapple tarts. She took several days to jam fresh pineapples, pricking her fingers several times in due course. My mother possessed a large and deep brass cauldron that was used to simmer the pineapple. The contact with the brass helped the jam achieve the deep golden hue. Family members and friends came by to snip the tart pastry. The old-fashioned tarts were actually not tarts as we know them...they were ovoid in shape with a fine tip at one end. The ladies used manicure scissors to snip the surface to achieve little needle-like pinches. It left one to imagine that they were pineapples - which they were meant to be. Someone once remarked that they looked like porcupines. Because the snipping was so tedious and laborious, my mother did fewer and fewer of these "porcupine tarts" as she got older. The snipping just worsened the unforgiving arthritis affecting the older helpers.

As a child, I had to arrange the cookies in each bottle. Each layer was lined with specially cut out rounds of tracing paper. The bottles were sealed with white masking tape and labeled by pencil. My mother also cut out intricate designs using red paper, which she then glued to the top of each lid. The various orders were assembled into sturdy brown paper bags and she would never fail to throw in a small free bottle of cookies. She was so generous with her giveaways that I often wondered if she baked for profit or for sheer love.

My mother had a clear time table as to when to make certain items and in what order. The cookies came first, followed by pickles, the tarts and then the cakes. I suspect this was to preserve the freshness of the goods accordingly.

My mother used to nag at all of us daughters for not bothering to learn the tricks of her trade. In fact, she was right. By the time she died, we had no idea how to operate the precious Baby Belling oven which was only used to bake Kueh Lapis Spekkoek. The oven must have given up on us and decided to blow itself out one Chinese New Year morning, perhaps as a stern reminder of how much we had neglected it during that baking season.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Jerusalem




The Parents League invited me to write another article for them. I wrote this one night after listening to Christmas carols. It was recently published in the PL newsletter. We loved our trip so much that it was the theme for our Christmas card this year and it generated many curious questions. For those of you thinking of places to go to for Spring Break.....

Here's the article:

Acquaintances had mixed reactions when they heard that we were contemplating a trip to Jerusalem. Their reaction often depended on their own personal experiences in relation to the many years of political strife that has afflicted this region in the Middle East. Some were descended from refugees who had to leave after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. Yet others were thrilled that we were visiting, these either celebrated their Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall or themselves grew up there.

Before we left for our trip, we made sure to prepare our little children, ages three and six, for the biblical places they were about to visit. We took out our children’s bible. We contrasted the page that depicted the Nativity scene with an actual photo from the Eyewitness guide of the modern day Church of the Nativity, to emphasize that it had been many years since the manger was last there and that in its place was a concrete floor with a large star insert.

On a more practical note, it is wiser to visit Jerusalem in the fall and spring season. When we visited, we were on the cusp of spring entering summer and were subject to some scorching heat when we made our daytrips. We also made sure to bring ‘respectable’ attire for visiting places of worship – skirts below the knees for ladies, pants an even better bet.

We were advised to get in touch with a tour guide before we arrived in Jerusalem, particularly if we wanted to make our way to Bethlehem. The latter city, known as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is a mere half an hour’s ride by car. These days, it is part of the Palestinian Authority and is walled up and has its own security and immigration checkpoints. The guide, a Palestinian Christian, met us at our hotel and drove us into Bethlehem. Because he does this on a frequent basis, he was able to get us through the checkpoints with relative ease.

The famous Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, is possibly the size of the fountain courtyard in Lincoln Center. It is helpful to get a guide who can explain the sites and the history behind them. For a start, many would wonder if these sites are the exact biblical locations. We were told that Constantine’s mother, Helena, instructed that monumental churches be built over these locations a few hundred years after Christ’s death. These locations – for example, of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and entombment - were based on oral accounts handed down through the generations.

We also visited the Shepherds’ Field and were able to address an age-old question. If indeed the weather was cold, how could these shepherds possibly be out on the slopes in the middle of the night to witness angels singing to them? Surely Christmas did not take place during the winter. We were then told that the shepherds built caves set into the slopes of the hills and in which they kept warm with fire. Hence, Christmas could still very well have taken place in the winter.

We based our three-day itinerary centered on our familiarity with the characters and stories from the biblical New Testament. In that, we visited the birthplace and crucifixion site of Jesus, the Shepherds’ Field, the Garden of Gethsemane, Mary’s home and the Stations of the Cross. Yet, we were so intrigued by the richness of this small geographical area and vowed that we would revisit Jerusalem once again after we familiarized ourselves with stories from the Old Testament, particularly about King David.

We experienced the celebrations at the Western Wall on a Sabbath evening and were filled with awe at the coming together of a small slice of the Jewish Diaspora, literally with their chairs and shofar. We also learnt about the observance of the Sabbath in a very practical way – the fact that food is often served cold on a Saturday evening because cooking is not allowed until after sundown. And talking about food, it soon became very apparent that this was indeed a “Land of Milk and Honey” judging by an abundance of fresh and colorful food, glorious sunshine and beauty.

We could also hear the muezzins’ call ringing through the Old City, reminding us that this was indeed a land shared not only by Christians and Jews but also by Muslims as well. We were sensitive to the political landscape and sought to understand the coexistence and the tension that persists in some form or another among the three communities. This was most apparent in the fact that the old city, still walled after all these years, are divided into the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Christian and the Armenian.

Personally for me, a busy mother rushing around New York City, I felt that I could finally fathom the current international affairs by seeing firsthand the epicenter right here in Jerusalem.

Because of the threat of terrorism, airport security is taken very seriously. The hotel suggested that we obtain the services of an airport facilitator who would greet us on arrival at the tarmac and clear us through immigration, answering any difficult questions that the officers might have. We also decided to retain such services upon our departure and at the end, felt that it worthwhile to do so. We had not expected, on our way out, to be grilled about places we had visited, whom we might have met, what souvenirs we had bought and the manner by which we had picked or purchased them.

By having experienced this land for ourselves, we emerged the richer for having visited a fabled area that has captured the imagination and passion of people for thousands of years, where blood, sweat and tears illustrate the tremendous love that different religions and cultures have for this land…and which possibly is also the root of why they fight over it in the first place. We are now more cognizant of the various peoples who call Jerusalem home, if not now, at least once upon a time. We can relate to the stories we read in the bible and put in perspective the scale of the Temple once built by King Solomon, and the beauty and ironically peaceful landscape of the Mount of Olives. Visiting this land, called Holy by three of the world’s most influential religions, is a lifetime’s opportunity not to be missed.

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