Saturday, September 4, 2010

East Coast girl through and through - Katong, that is













We're wrapping up and flying back to the Home of the Yankees pretty soon. I anticipate that I might end up a blog slug for a while as I settle back in and resuscitate all our activities after a long summer. My daughter will have less than 24 hours after touchdown before she starts school. When I get back, I'll probably want to bite into a nice big burger or even better, the kind of juicy flavorful steak that one can only find in the USA. Yup....this is the environment I'll be returning to which makes it not much fodder for the kind of articles I could churn out about Singapore. But I will endeavor to update on The Project. We tried to fly back earlier but hoards of students bound for the East Coast are filling up SQ flights to JFK. I'm one of those East Coast folks too...and I've realized for quite some time that I've been an East Coast girl through and through. There in the US and here, right home in Katong. I would not trade both for anywhere else.

I came home at 2pm today to a home of a starving sister, kids and Dad. I was tasked with buying lunch and I stealthily sneaked out to Joo Chiat. My sister suspected that I was up to some no-good. True enough, I was happily snapping away photos of Koon Seng Road houses and forgot the time. Katong Joo Chiat, as opposed to Katong Siglap or Katong Tanjong Katong is to distinguish it from the former (further east and where we live) and the latter (large home like those in Branksome Road). Well, that's how my mother used to differentiate the various parts of what is amorphously Katong.

Joo Chiat, most recently associated with karaoke bars and other nocturnal activities, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Its next reincarnation is supposedly Peranakan Town - a joint preservation effort by the Joo Chiat Community Club and the Peranakan Association. For me, I associate Joo Chiat with my mother's regular furniture supplier (Teong Theng), the bicycle shop from where all our bikes came from, Tay Buan Guan supermarket for Easter eggs and chicken pie, bek-chia (trishaw) rides in the sweltering heat. 318 Joo Chiat Road was also the last residence of my mother's father whom my sisters called 'Ah Kong Katong'. And Joo Chiat, yum yum, was the REAL place to get opau - fried bean curd stuffed with all sorts, i.e. cut up fishballs and boiled egg, minced pork and other delicious stuff I never really cared to identify but gobbled down anyway. It still costs S$1 per opau, quite a bargain I must say. The REAL opau man, by the way, is in the southeast corner of Joo Chiat junction.

I bought my food from Glory today. Located between the Joo Chiat junction and Tembeling Road, Glory is now situated at what used to be S.M. Majeed, a fabric store. My mother bought swaths of blue cloth to make my KC uniforms. She tailored them 'haute couture' for me so much so that I could tell which pinafore was mine just by its slip hemming. Next to the store, in the alley, was a man who sold this red drink with gelatinous seeds which resembled toads' eggs. (It's in The Cookbook.) Sometimes, we would grab some buns from the Red House Bakery or go through an alleyway shortcut to Tay Buan Guan.

Today, I took lots of photos of the houses along Koon Seng Road. I had done a similar photo session of houses along Emerald Hill and noticed a difference. The houses along Koon Seng Road were more colorful in their vibrant pastel shades. It probably denotes the liveliness and gaiety of the community. Imagine all those bibiks in their baju panjang, chewing sireh and passing by in their bek-chias....that's what I witnessed many years ago.

Enough of waxing lyrical about all things nostalgic for now, here are photos to savor.
And here's hola to New York with updates of different sorts.



















Friday, September 3, 2010

Charming Changi, Rustic Ubin





My kids' loving godma Angele (NOT a typo) is my go-to person for ideas to 'edutain' my restless monsters. Last Wednesday was a school holiday in Singapore, being Teacher's Day.
Both of us, with four kids in tow, hopped on the public bus No.2 through old Changi. With sprawling grounds that once housed the colonial British military, Changi still retains the essence of an era that no longer exists. A quick travel through it brings to mind what life must have been like when the soldiers lived there and Singapore was still a colony. It's a slice of important history and of all the places I love in Singapore, I truly sincerely hope that the government will preserve the area for generations to experience.
The area is significant for my family for several reasons:
- In the 60s, my older sisters would drive there to buy fresh coconut drinks, fish or just picnic.
- In the 50s and 60s, my family spent weekends and Christmases at a bungalow in Loyang. The beach was reclaimed and the structure and its surroundings were later steamrolled to make way for the airport runways.
- My family would constantly preface every nostalgic moment about Changi with "Poor Sharon, she wasn't born yet and she missed those good old days".

Never mind. While a few of them were living in London in the 70s, my neighbors Aunty Paddy and Uncle Chou would take me, along with their charges, to their Changi Swimming Club on Friday nights. It was a precursor to what my own sister does with my kids today, bringing them to swim at one of the clubs. Back then, the adults played tombola while the kids swam in the pool, had dinner of fried rice smothered with ketchup, and then watched movies in the open-air hall which jutted out into the sea. With seawaves calling in the background, I saw 'The Pink Panther' and 'The Thief of Baghdad' there. When 'Jaws' came out, the kids either wanted very badly to swim in the dark sea thereafter, or run as far away as possible from the beach. Cowardly me was the latter, of course.

We also passed through the famous Changi prison now quadrupled in size but still retaining the old watchtowers with antique search beams. I speculate that this is probably where my addictive Polar curry puffs and chicken pies are made by prisoners. Angele and I also talked about the spooky old Changi Hospital which has since been left empty and derelict. Back in the 70s, even while driving past the well-lit building with its long-stemmed ceiling fans and open-air wards set on a hilltop, one could feel the isolation and grimness of this outpost. It was the military hospital for the British, and was apparently used as a torture site during the Japanese Occupation. No prizes for guessing what supposedly comes after in the paranormal sphere.

The bus ride eventually led us to our destination - Changi Point Ferry Terminal. A ten minute wait to gather twelve passengers enabled us to take a rickety bumboat across the sea. A short ten minutes later and we landed at Pulau Ubin.

Ubin is a good example of the government's effort to preserve something old after a frenzy of building everything new. Yet, there's nothing contrived about this place. There is still lush rainforest and sprinkles of old kampong houses with authentic residents to boot.
The way to the mangrove swamp was to hike or bike there - or in our case, haggle with a van driver for a round trip, in the process receiving stares from nature lovers for polluting hallowed grounds. We strolled on the boardwalk through the swamp. I'm no fan of snakes (only reason why I've never made it to Africa though I am a big animal lover), and was jumpy that one would greet me. Thankfully, they gave me a pass. But by the time we got to the seaside jetty, the breeze and lull of the sea made for a thankfulness that we had come all this way. And for me, a disbelief that this was a cheap and equally good alternative to The Datai in Langkawi. My mind was racing to think up of an eco-resort one could potentially build on Ubin.

Ubin was a highlight for me when I was 14. As part of the National Cadet Corps, we were required to attend the Outward Bound School. We learnt how to tie the ends of the legs of pants to make an emergency floating device if stranded at sea. I learnt to sail. Most memorable is the exercise where we were shuffled down a manhole, only to get stuck in the middle of the dark tunnel because the OBS instructors had sent down another team to the manhole on the other end. The objective was overcoming panic, the fear of darkness and confined space.

We ended our trip with lunch at the seafood restaurant not too far from the jetty. The restaurant was a throwback to the old Punggol seafood stalls in the 70s, with natural sea breeze and sunlight filtering in, amidst upright plastic tanks of fish and crab.

The excursion was one that my father would have done in a heartbeat ten years ago with his posse of old retirees. A bus ride, a cheap boatride and a leisurely outing to an environment of their youth. Ange and I were very satisfied with our day's activity and so were the kids. They may not have exhibited any form of epiphanous insight but I'm sure they will recall the adventure with fondness sometime later.

The next day, Ange and I met up with an old KC friend for breakfast. We got a kick out of taking a drive to see the old Changi Hospital, up close.








Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Golden Agar Agar and my Nonya grandaunt


My Koh Poh Beng Neo (Koh Poh is the term for grandaunt, Beng Neo her very Nonya name) is one of the old relatives I had interviewed for my project. Sadly, she passed away two years ago. The reason I bring her up is because of the agar agar recipe I tested last week, which I will detail as well.

Whenever Chinese New Year rolled around, Koh Poh was one of the most important relatives whom we had to visit. She was a grande dame within the extended family and particularly for me, the closest I had to a grandparent considering that all of mine were not alive when I was born. There were three things I did whenever we visited:
i) it was absolutely customary to 'soja' (kneel before her) to wish her "Panjang panjang omor" (which literally means 'long life'). She lived into her 90s so all such blessings work indeed.
ii)mill around the dining room to gaze at her wedding photo
iii) partake of her signature golden agar agar

Koh Poh got married at around sixteen years old. I believe that she was matchmade. Yet, while she in many ways embodied the old-fashioned Nonya in her traditional garb, her patois and her manners, she was also modern. She attended a girls' school, played the piano and swing-danced. She spoke and wrote English fairly well. I even tried to get her to dance at my wedding but by then, she had downed more than her fair share of Courvoisier. She once came in her sarong kebaya to swoop away into a taxi the Pekingnese puppy that I had dognapped. To me, she was a most elegant lady and I am glad to have known her.

Here is an excerpt from the manuscript:

This agar jelly often came in the shape of a rabbit or a fish. The classic moulds were white porcelain containers made in England which over time, bore the vintage fine gray crack lines.

Koh Poh’s secret in the early days was to apparently use rainwater collected in large dragon pots. She said that rainwater produced the clearest and hence most exquisite jelly. Sometimes, crushed egg shells would be added while cooking the agar agar to gather up the froth from the surface. The shells would clarify the jelly in the same way that consomm√© is prepared.

To produce the golden color, the jelly syrup was boiled in a brass pot, just like the way pineapple tart filling was cooked in the same type of pot to achieve its golden shade. Nowadays, there is skepticism in using brass pots, so a large non-brass pot would have to make do. To produce the golden sheen these days, you will need to use food coloring.

The longer you keep the jelly, the more "crunchy" it gets. In fact, the Nonyas would sun the jelly for a few days. It could then store without refrigeration and still be served several months old.


So what was the outcome of my tested recipe? My mother was right - I can be too impulsive. Without the benefit of a brass pot, I had to make do with food coloring and alas, I added too much red and yellow drops at the same time and produced a beautiful orange "koi carp" jelly as opposed to the golden classic. The lesson I learnt - "Add a few drops of yellow coloring first and then sparingly, add drops of red coloring until you achieve a golden hue. Stir."

See recipe in 17 February 2011 entry.

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 ...