Tuesday, July 27

Just Peachy

My work experience has predominantly been in asset management and I have been fortunate enough to work in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong. What I have learned about asset management folks all over the world is that timing is everything. You have to time it right to buy the share or bond low and sell it high. You don't want to lose out on any opportunity and hence, by nature, most asset managers are kia su.

Kia su, kia said with a nasal tone, is a Singaporean expression with Chinese roots that means "afraid to lose." Every Singaporean is born with it or at the very least instilled with with it by osmosis whilst growing up in Singapore. I have had to sheepishly explain this to my friends in the US when we get to restaurants, bars or cinemas with free seating, and all of a sudden they see me run to the best table or seats, like a woman possessed, leaving them trailing behind. My American husband has grown to understand this and simply rolls his eyes and says, "aiyoh, soooo kia suuuu!"

I see the element of kia su-ness in action at my workplace once or twice a year when the law firm that we work with sends in a box of peaches from Georgia. The peaches are always left in the kitchen followed by a mass email from the receptionist: "The box of peaches from Blah, Blah and Blah Law Firm is in the kitchen. Please help yourselves." At which point, you see a significant number of people simultaneously rise very deliberately from their seats, trying very hard not to seem desperate for these peaches. Everyone makes a beeline for the kitchen and the box is emptied out in a matter of minutes.

But you have to understand that these peaches are to die for. They arrive in the best condition, individually held in place by an egg-carton-like green foam, beautiful and perfect. The skin is smooth and fuzzy as a baby's cheek, in tones of mauve and coral, and the scent indicates the ideal state of ripeness. I like to slice them at work, to save myself from slurping the juices over the trash can next to my desk and I savour each and every slice.

Don't worry, I have once again not forgotten the mandate of a food blog, so here is a recipe I would like to share with you. Cut the peaches in half, pit them and grill them. As soon as they come off the grill, smother in a mixture of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon and enjoy while hot! Personally, I prefer the original - fresh peaches.


Wednesday, July 21

Emerging from the Straits

So, my sister Cinnamon complained on Facebook the other day that she’s been waiting to hear about my recent trip to Singapore and all the food experiences I had there. Rewind a few weeks, and a telephone conversation between us had me telling her about my latest idea for the blog and her saying she wanted to hear all about Singaporean food instead. I mulled over this, but nothing came, and I didn’t write.

I was thinking the other morning (after seeing her Facebook post) about why it is that I don’t feel drawn to writing about my Singapore food experiences. It’s unusual for me to feel that way, because I usually see Singapore as a, to use my sister’s words, Food Mecca. Hey, I usually see it as a Mecca for almost everything. Every time I fly to Singapore on the world’s best airline, it’s as if I’m going on a pilgrimage - I go to pay respects to the origin of me, my home, my family, the food I love, the warmth... all the things that England doesn’t have and can’t give me. Rewind a little more (okay, a lot more), and we have me first coming to the UK to go to boarding school (not because my parents didn’t love me – it was my crazy idea!). I remember after one of my trips home for the Christmas break, I brought back in my schoolgirl suitcase a box of Singaporean Kleenex and I cried into it for two weeks. Yes, I really missed home.

Forward back to the present day. Things seem to have changed, and I noticed it more than ever this time around. I am one of these people who feel a permanent sense of displacement. I’ve lived my entire adult life in a country that I can’t fully call my own (much as I have wanted to, the tabloid-induced xenophobia makes it very difficult for me to feel accepted…). But when I’m in Singapore, I’m definitely not a ‘local’. My messed up accent betrays other influences and my approach to life isn’t safe enough. The country where our parents were born isn’t a candidate for a real ‘home’ either, as I’ve never lived there. Don’t get me wrong – I completely appreciate how flexible I am and how global an outlook I have thanks to my own and my family's varied experiences. But when it comes to the question of where I feel at home, I can’t put a pin on a map. Even if you gave me more than one pin, I couldn’t put two of them close enough to each other to feel good about it.

And so, in Singapore, which I used to look at as a beautiful paradise full of all things wonderful that cheered my heart, I didn’t feel the same this time. And that’s why I haven’t been able to write about the food – no longer did I feel that Singapore had the best food to offer me, or even the comfort food I wanted. Over the past year, I’ve built a system here in London that’s custom-tailored to my health needs, and I missed it. So much of the food I ate in Singapore (outside home) didn’t make me feel good anymore. It made me feel heavy, sluggish and over-stimulated. So often I had the feeling that it was oily, packed with white carbs, made from ingredients that weren’t of the best quality and thrown together really quickly. I knew then that it was over. The connection I’d clung onto since my school days had been severed. And I realized that, even if the broader British Isles don’t yet qualify for the title, this little flat here in London was maybe, just maybe, becoming home. Somewhere in the aftermath of the avalanche, a small blossom peeks out of the snow...

Monday, July 19

Remember Modigliani

A few months ago, I sat next to the CEO of an economic consulting group on a flight from Boston to D.C. I was in the middle of our Spring break and had to fly to Boston on some work just for a day. I really enjoyed talking to the CEO, a woman in her forties with a twinkle in her eye. We talked about many things including the restaurants my family and I had tried in D.C. and her favorite chocolate restaurant - Co Co Sala, where she frequented with her teenage daughters. We also talked about her work, which was economic consulting to governments around the world, specifically on policy implementation. The flight was short, and before we parted ways I asked her what her secret to her success was. "Don't sweat the small stuff. Things might change, colleagues might grab a responsibility from you or even send unwanted ones your way. Don't make a big deal out of such events. Just go with the flow and keep moving forward."

I was reminded of her advice at the Toledo Museum of Art last week. We were in a quaint town on Lake Erie visiting a close friend, Kohlrabi, and her family. The children had a great time, swimming and boating in the lake and my husband and I had a very restful vacation. Kohlrabi understood how starved I was for art and one day whisked me away to the museum which was an hour away and dropped me off while running errands. I went to the East Wing and gorged on all the modern art on offer - large canvases splashed across with paint. Before making it back to my pickup location at the appointed time, I felt the need to pay my respects to the Impressionists, who had originally drawn me to the world of art many years ago. As I stood and stared at the Modigliani painting of Paul Guillaume, I was surprised to see that this piece of perfection encompassed many lines and blotches of imperfection. I was stunned. I am so glad Modigliani did not sweat the small stuff and carried on to finish the portrait.

"Wait! I thought this is a food blog!" ask my new readers. Well, that evening, I roasted some pork using a recipe I had seen on the foodnetwork by Anne Burrell - roasted pork with chunky apple sauce, as a gesture of thanks for my hosts. I had bought a huge hunk of pork roast, larger than usual and covered it with a pesto of herbs, chilli flakes, garlic and olive oil. Since it was their holiday home, there was no meat thermometer at hand. Worrying about cooking the pork through, I unfortunately overcooked it. As we sat down to eat it and my fork cut though the meat, my face fell. It was a disaster!!! Kohlrabi turned to me and sweetly said, "remember Modigliani. The flavors are wonderful and the sauce delectable. Yes, the meat may be 10% overcooked, but it is far better than you think. Small imperfections, yet overall a masterpiece. That is what this meal is."

Thank you, Modigliani. More importantly, thank you Kohlrabi, for your friendship and for the wonderful week in Ohio.


Monday, July 12

Service with a smile

My mother taught her four girls to be kind to everyone. She taught us to be friendly and respectful to all, from window cleaner to tycoon. "Don't just say 'yes, 2 packets of peanuts,' say 'yes, Uncle, two packets of peanuts, please' and for goodness sake say it with a smile! You are never too good to give a nice smile to people." A typical sermon after a purchase from a kachang puteh stall. The heart is tender, with or without money.

So, I travel to Massachusetts once a month for work. I usually stay at the same Marriott for a night or two, and I order the same food. Teriyaki Salmon Salad for dinner and Egg White Spinach Frittata for breakfast. I always have the same servers for my room service. Khajida from Ethiopia, who is always so excited to see me, never hesitating to tell me how I have gotten too dark as it must be the tennis, or I look so tired, am I not getting enough rest. Once I ordered the apple crumble a couple of hours later, and as I sheepishly opened the door, she said it is okay as I hardly ever order it. It was then that I found out that my order of pizza two months ago had shocked the entire kitchen and they were all wondering what had happened. Then there is Steve who brings my breakfast. The poor man shaves his head every six months as his mother goes through bouts of chemo. He always sweetly says the same thing as I open the door, "I knew it was your order! The cappuccino with the foil!" The Marriott does a pretty decent cappuccino, but they cover it with cellophane, and it arrives half melted into the coffee. I worry about consuming plastic - you know, cancer and all, so I always make a request for it to be covered with foil instead.

I have the same happy relationship with the taxi service that we have that ferries our team between the airport and the hotel. It is a Pakistani father-son team: Asif and Ahmed, a gentlemanly pair who are always on time. It turns out that the son is a criminal lawyer back home and the father a middle-school teacher of history and Islamic studies. They have farmland, houses and goats waiting for their annual trip. The father talks to me about Pakistani politics and the son about his 7-year old and Hindi movie star gossip. The one topic I talk to both father and son separately is that of food. It seems that the father is the expert at making roti and the son biriyani. I learned from the father that you make the dough, knead it, and put it on the pan until it is half cooked and stick the tava in the oven for it to rise for it to get the naan-like look and consistency. Genius. The son is not as keen to share recipes, he just likes to tell me how good he is.

Last Thursday, as I got into the taxi, exhausted after three long days in Massachusetts, Ahmed said, "We have organized for you to have biriyani. Can we make a stop close to the airport to pick it up?" He then calls to confirm, adds an order of kebabs and naan and away we go. I nervously set the plastic bag through security check, but thankfully, the food gods were on my side. I managed to have one of the kebabs with my routine beer at the bar before boarding the plane. The lamb kebab was hot, spicy, fluffy, with flecks of fresh coriander - the best I had ever had. The waitress smiled and turned a blind eye to her regular customer as I waved to her with a kebab sticking out of my mouth. I managed to hold back from devouring the whole thing before getting back to Charlotte. My husband and I enjoyed a lovely dinner of a gesture of kindness and friendship.

Doesn't hurt to smile, indeed.


Sunday, July 4

Monster Mint

I have a bed spilling over with mint. I planted it between the koi pond and the wall and it is flanked on either side by the wisteria and the deck, so that it is well contained. To those who have not dealt with mint in their gardens before, be warned that it can be pretty invasive. Without boundaries, you will be mowing the mint with your lawn. I thank my lovely neighbor for sharing this broad-leaved monster mint that can even sprout roots if you set a cut bunch in a glass of water for a couple of weeks.

The mint bed adds to my peace when I feed the koi, sipping my morning latte. I take the extra five minutes after the kids have left for school, before my shower to get ready for work. I love seeing it grow in profusion. I don't think my husband understands this zen element of the mint when he curses and swears at them when he wades amidst them to clean out the external pond filter, which is hidden under the deck. To keep the peace at home, I regularly make as many things with mint over the weekends.

I must admit, I first planted the mint so that my mother can make biriyani, which requires lots of deep fried mint, and my mother-in-law can make mint chutney, that goes well with the vegetable cutlets she makes. Since neither visits us often enough, I have discovered Moroccan Mint Tea. It's an easy recipe that is very satisfying. The recipe is for hot tea, but I followed the advice of a sweet Malaysian friend of mine, who was visiting on a hot day - how about making it an iced tea?

Moroccan Iced Tea
8 sprigs fresh mint
3 tsp green tea (matcha)
3 Tbsp brown sugar (of course)
4 cups boiling water
Brew for 4-6 minutes and strain onto crushed ice and garnish with more mint.

Put your hat on, relax on your lounge chair in the backyard, and sip slowly.

Happy 4th of July!


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