Sunday, June 20

Only the Best

I have four rosemary shrubs in the backyard, in four different micro-climates. When snipping a few branches for cooking, I always go to the same two that are in the sun the most - the ones that have managed to produce the highest quality of the aromatic oils that impart that distinctive Mediterranean flavor to meats.

I learned the importance of quality from my father, who has always believed in buying, selling, and living the best. As a young man, he was ambitious and always looked up and never down. He transformed my grandfather's small Indian spice store in Singapore into an international distribution company. He started by importing Indian food products - pickles, curry powders, and pappadams, and distributed it within Singapore and Malaysia. His ventures in distribution also took him to Paris and Sydney at one point. He always demanded the best ingredients in the products he distributed. He would purchase dals wholesale for the pappadam maker in India. He made sure the highest quality chillies were ground for the curry powder that was produced for his brand. I will never forget manning a stall in a trading convention with my mother and some of their employees as a teenager. It had been an okay day, but, when my father stopped by in the evening, sales just skyrocketed as he opened jars of the curry powder to passers-by and simply said, "smell the quality."

In the 1990s, his business expanded into wholesale trading of raw cashew nuts from Africa to India. I spent that summer with him, the summer his father, who had broken his own boundaries by leaving India to seek his fortune in Singapore, died. Traveling around Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Tanzania with him, I learned how to tell the quality of raw cashew in the shell by shaking them, how to light up peeled cashew up with a lighter to discern its quality by the color of the flame. I also learned about the importance of third-party quality certification. The biggest one at that time (probably still is now) was a Swiss company called SGS, which would send in a team, carry out the appropriate testing procedures and issue you a certificate that you carried with you to the bank, the shipping company, and all the way to the buyer. I don't know how the Swiss do it, but the world always wants to turn to them for all products and metrics of quality.

I'd like to think that his perception of quality transcended many levels. The year I was applying for universities in the UK, I visited a UK university fair in Singapore and spoke to many admissions folks. I came back pleased with my work and with my short list for Economics departments and showed it to my father. He looked at it carefully and said, "but why do you not have Oxford nor Cambridge on this list?" I said, "because there is no chance of me getting in, Paaa!" His response? "I know you better than you know yourself. I've met many and I know just how intelligent you are. Just apply, and let's see if you get in. But I know you will."

Happy Father's Day, Appa. Thank you for believing in me.


Tuesday, June 8


Some of you may remember that my husband and I were in Tokyo for my birthday earlier this year. I had this leaflet from that trip - it's a mini-catalogue of all the little sweet treats on offer at Joel Robuchon's Marunouchi boutique (honest, it's called La Boutique de Joel Robuchon). What really struck me about the leaflet was that traditional French pastries (which you'd normally imagine being carried in hand-made baskets held against the hips of Commercy maidens frolicking in valleys) were all cutesied up and packaged, wagashi-style, in finely calligraphied wrappers and boxes. Here, I thought, was a fusion of French confection, Japanese daintiness and Anglo-Saxon commerce, all boxed up and ready to go. Many people might think all this globalisation is a recent phenomenon - gone are the days when madeleines were from France, wagashi were from Japan and only the Protestants practised Capitalism. But does that neat, bite-sized categorisation tell the whole story? I think not.

So, now we will finally tell you the story we promised, about Brazil, the chili and India. In the age of discovery in Europe, the Portuguese were great travellers and traders, sending voyages to the East and West. Although the Europeans got slightly distracted by the jewels and precious metals they came across on these voyages, initially (at least) one aim was to find spices. The Portuguese had been travelling to India since 1498, when Vasco da Gama first established a sea route to the Sub Continent. By the 1520s/1530s (please don't hang me on the dates), there were Portuguese trading posts all along the coastline on the Bay of Bengal. Before this, people all along that coast (and inland) used only pepper to spice things up (food-wise). But the Portuguese brought a number of things with them from the New World, amongst these the red chili from Brazil. In the 5 centuries since then, the red chili has edged pepper out as the fiery spice of choice, and pepper-based dishes have been relegated to the side lines. The methods and ingredients of Indian cuisine are incredibly varied across the length and breadth of the country, but ask any Indian what identifies their food and sets it apart, and you will be told it's the chili. So what do we call the chili in India? Is it a 'Brazilian' immigrant? A foreign invader? Is it 'Indian'?

And here I'm reminded of people who ask me where I'm from. When I say "I'm from Singapore", I sometimes get a look of disbelief and the classic follow-up "But where are you originally from?" If only I had the time to tell each of them, patiently, the story of the humble red chili...



Tuesday, June 1

A spoonful of sugar

The humble sugar has been abused in the recent past and continues to be downtrodden in the West. A South Asian native, it has been vilified and pilloried as the cause of diabetes, heart disease and obese Americans. Sugar is not to blame, but our self control.

I was brought up adding a spoonful of sugar to most drinks- chocolate milk, coffee, tea. I could never get into artificial sweeteners even in the fattest of times, due to its metallic aftertaste as well as the thought of adding chemicals to my beverage. Having been introduced to brown sugar in its multiple forms, in particular muscovado and demerera, by a Lebanese French friend, I am in the habit of having nothing but brown sugar in my kitchen. I learnt that a spoonful of muscovado can be a delicious topping to a bowl of yogurt and sliced banana. The wonderful thing about these soft brown sugars is that they actually have lower caloric values than an equivalent amount of white sugar due to the higher amounts of minerals, molasses and water content. Molasses, also known as treacle, is what is left when the sugar is removed from sugar cane juice and is quite conveniently high in iron and calcium.

A couple of weeks ago, my Ohioan cousins from my mother's side came to visit. As an expression of my affection for them, I wanted to serve lunch purely from recipes from my mother's side of the family, and so I made the following: spiced meatballs (grandmother/mother's recipe), family-style chicken curry, sauteed potatoes, and my mother's cousin's spinach recipe, all served with rice and pappadoms. This cousin of my mother, a lovely lady who always wears lots of jewelry with her big smile, has actually published a recipe book - in Tamil.

I read the spinach recipe very slowly that day (as I can only read Tamil very slowly) and it seemed to say to boil the following in a small amount of water:

2 packs frozen spinach
10 peeled whole shallots
2 cloves unpeeled garlic
2 green chillies
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of salt

After 10 minutes or so, fish out one or both chillies and blend. Too easy to be true? Well, it really was delicious! The amazing thing about it was that even after a couple of hours, the blended spinach remained as green as a bed of crushed emeralds.

I found out the next day that a spoonful of sugar has traditionally been added in cooking through history to retain the beautiful color of vegetables. This simple ingredient can be a wonderful addition to your life - in moderation of course.



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