Sunday, October 24

In Search of Hmong

Have you seen the movie The Gran Torino? Prince Charming and I watched it on DVD recently and it brought out a number of mixed emotions from me. Shock, disbelief, joy, and confusion. For those who haven't seen it before, it is about a grumpy old man (Clint Eastwood) living in a neighborhood in Detroit that has been taken over by the Hmong community. Shock and disbelief because of the economic implosion that has taken place in Detroit and the brutality of gang warfare. Joy because Clint's neighbors essentially win him over with scrumptious Hmong food. They talk about roast duck, chicken dumplings, soups, spring rolls, fresh basil and chili sauces. The food looks fantastic in the movie and I really wanted to try some.

I was confused because folks usually turn to me for answers on all things Asian and in this case all things South East Asian. So, when Prince Charming turned to me and said, "where are the Hmong from?" my answer was, "I don't have a clue..." Well, the characters in the movie inform us that they were mainly from Laos, Vietnam and some parts of China. Hey, I'm Singaporean, why had I not known about them before? Is this what neighboring Malaysians mean by Singaporeans being arrogant about our successes that we go around calling Singapore the Switzerland of the East and looking to the West while ignoring our own Asian brethren? Growing up in Singapore, if we did not go to India to visit relatives, we would fly to Australia, Europe or the States. We did go to Malaysia a couple of times and school mates did go to Thailand, but no one went to Laos nor Vietnam.

Thinking more about it, I realize now that it was because Laos and Vietnam are communist countries and there was a certain amount of filtering that took place in Singapore before any form of media reached the common man. Before I go any further, I have to declare that I am one of the biggest fans of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP. When I first left for Cambridge almost 20 years ago, I had lofty dreams of returning to Singapore to work for the government and to join the PAP. I wanted to join the Monetary Authority of Singapore and be involved in policy making. My dissertation was on how the Central Provident Fund of Singapore formed the foundation of Singapore's success by enabling the investment of huge sums of capital funneled from forced savings of its people back into Singaporean industry and its infrastructure. In addition to developing the economy driving it from its third world status in the '60s, when it was at the same stage of development as Indonesia or the Philippines, to where it is now - a gleaming metropolis with flashy cars and shiny sky-scrapers. It is now the center for finance, health and education for South-East Asia. No easy feat for any developing nation. However, this was possible only because Lee Kuan Yew ruled with an iron fist. The communists in the 1960s were crushed and detainment without trial was used openly. Singapore was routinely featured in Amnesty International articles in the 1980s and there was always this underground whispering of human rights violations.

A few days after watching the movie, I had my annual medical exam. I was sent to the lab to have some blood drawn and the technician walked up to me. He looked Chinese and I looked at his name tag which was filled with THs, PHs, OAs, and NHs. I was excited! Could he be Hmong? Like the folks in the movie? I asked him what his ethnicity was as I hate asking people where they are from. He could have been born in California, right? He didn't understand my question and the guy sitting next to me piped in "she wants to know where you're from!" Laos. "Laos? Are you Hmong?" He wasn't. He explained to me that the Hmong are tribal people from the mountains and he was just from Laos. The conversation quickly turned to food and he explained to me that Lao food is very similar to Thai food, due, of course, to the proximity. He said it is also very spicy and chucked that it's the chili that keeps him skinny. I wanted to say that there are many fat Indians who eat very spicy food but felt that it wouldn't add much to the conversation. At that point, my fellow patient who was also having his blood drawn jumped into the conversation once again and asked when he moved to the States. His face twisted into tough memories and he told us that he moved here in 1979. He had to swim across the Mekong river in the dark of the night to escape to Thailand from the communists. He explained that when the communists said that wanted to meet the men of the family to discuss issues about the community, they would invite them into a room and shoot them in the head. He and his father were called one day, and that night they escaped. I reckon Lee Kuan Yew knew a thing or two about communists those days and I am thankful to him.

Anyway, I have been searching for Hmong recipes as I really want to try some. Do you know of a good recipe you'd like to share? There are quite a few out there on the World Wide Web. How about we use the next 10 days to try some out? I would love to hear from you about your thoughts on Hmong cuisine, Laos, or even Lee Kuan Yew.

Sincerely yours,

Wednesday, October 13

Keep on Running

Sorry, folks. I’ve been awol again. Much has been happening in Truffle Land, and I don’t know where the last two weeks have gone! The above photograph is just to say: how fat is this asparagus?!

Our younger sister (for today, I’ll call her Rice Krispie) ran her first ever half-marathon over the weekend. The Royal Parks Half-Marathon took runners from the south side of Hyde Park, through Green Park, along the Thames, and finally back to Hyde Park to loop it a few times. Meanwhile, supporters like us were ourselves racing through the park to see our runners at pre-arranged mile markers, or hanging out in the festival area. Someone had said something about there being a climbing wall, but all we could see was one food stand after another. One of our friends pointed out that all the organic food shops were empty, while the sausage and bacon butty stands had at least 30 people queuing outside each one. I shook my head sadly as I bit into my deep-fried churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

But seriously, the topic of fitness and healthy eating is one that’s close to my heart. After I quit the unhealthy lifestyle of corporate law last year, I started taking fitness pretty seriously. I set aside more time to work out, but I also started reversing the damage done on the nutrition front. I’m sure many of you are familiar with what most people eat in the corporate world: basically, whatever’s available when you’ve been released from your desk to feed! Now, London is many things, but I wouldn’t describe it as the health food capital of the world. (Remember that queue for sausages and bacon I was telling you about?) So, when you’re hungry and you can’t face yet another refrigerated sandwich or limp salad, most of the options you’re left with consist of fried saturated fats and a carb fest (with vegetables, if any, drowned in a roasting tin). By the end of my time as a lawyer, my suits were getting so tight I was finding it hard to breathe! (To be fair, my suits weren’t the only reason I was feeling suffocated…)

In the process of my search for health and fitness, I came across an excellent book that I’d like to share with you. The great thing about this book is that it’s not pushing another one of those faddy diets (which I’ve never trusted). It’s written by a couple of doctors, and it tells you straight up how your body works on the food, metabolism and weight management fronts. The key premise is that your body is your ally, and (if treated right) it will naturally head towards its healthiest playing weight and shape. If, however, you get in its way by putting a lot of artificial, processed and unhealthy foods into your system, you upset its chemical/hormonal balance and unhappiness ensues.

The first part of the book takes you through a body 101: e.g., how the liver processes fats, which hormones tell your brain that you’re full, which ones tell you to keep eating, what chemicals trigger these hormones, why certain foods (e.g., refined carbs and high-fructose corn syrup) are so bad for you (and, crucially, how eating some of it makes your body crave more). It was only after reading this book that I realised how dependent on our chemicals we are. (It makes sense, really, given that we’re biological organisms. So often, I forget that and think of myself as some kind of walking cardboard box inhabited by a mind.) Two really interesting things I learned from the book: (1) it’s not completely accurate to think of healthy eating as being just about willpower. What you want to eat is determined by the cocktail of chemicals and hormones in your body (which is, in turn, determined by what you put into it). If we’ve been off-track for a long time, then pitting your willpower against your body’s impulses (i.e., millions of years of evolution) is like holding your breath under water – you can do it for a while, but at some point you need air. (2) Eating healthy fats is actually an important part of weight loss and maintenance, because the presence of fats in the intestine triggers the “I’m full” signal in your brain. This is why people on fat-free diets are always hungry (and at breaking point).

In the next section, the doctors give you a meal plan (with recipes) which aims to ‘reset your factory settings’, so that your body craves healthy foods and heads towards its ideal weight. Now you understand why I was craving vegetables in that London restaurant! My personal experience of this meal plan has been great. The recipes are pretty quick to make and they taste really good. After about a month, I felt the plan needed some supplementing, because I’m a pretty active person and I wasn’t getting enough energy. But I kept to the principles of lots of veg, wholegrains and sufficient Omega fats.

The book’s called You On a Diet: The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management, and it’s by Dr Mehmet Oz (of Oprah fame) and Dr Michael Roizen. Even if you're not looking to work on your physical fitness, I think the book's a good place to equip yourself with information on how your body works.

As usual, please don’t do anything without your doctor’s advice, blah, blah, blah. If in any doubt, please see my disclaimer at the end of this post.



Sunday, October 10

Dear Manana Mama...

...THANK YOU for your comment and your recipe for Chicken Schnitzel last week. I tried it yesterday and it was a hit! My children were so tickled that they were being served Schnitzel for dinner that my five-year old sang the song "My Favorite Things" five times before she settled down at the table.

I could not, however, find Spike Seasoning, so I made a few modifications. With a little bit of research on the net, the following is what I ended up doing:

-3 pieces chicken breast, marinated in lemon juice, fat trimmed and cut into halves. I wrapped it in paper towels and bashed the heck out of it
-beat 2 eggs with salt and pepper
-1 cup Italian bread crumbs and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, a couple of rounds in the food processor
-dip chicken into egg mixture and bread crumb mixture
-fry 2 pieces at a time on medium heat with 2 Tbsp oil for three minutes on each side (Truffle, this is the secret to cooking chicken breast perfectly. I've never managed to get it right before, so remember this tip!)
-keep pieces warm in the oven
-slosh some white wine in the same frying pan, add 1/2 cup chicken broth, salt and pepper, chopped up cilantro and bring to simmer. Turn off and add a little bit of cream and 1 tsp flour to thicken.

Serve chicken with sauce on the side with sliced potatoes and micro-waved broccoli and listen to children sing "My Favorite Things" with huge smiles on their faces.

The next day, I had some extra Schnitzel left. So, I made some Laksa from an instant spice past package my mother had brought from Singapore. I sliced up the Schnitzel and placed it on top of the spicy noodles which were sitting in their curried soup. My eight-year old understood my sense of humor and laughed his head off at the sight of the Singaporean interpretation of Schnitzel with noodles.


Tuesday, October 5

My Favorite Things

As a working mom, I cherish the evening rituals I have with my children. It morphs over time, but it generally includes reading to my five-year old, the question "Have you brushed your teeth?" multiple times to both children, the rubbing of little backs and the humming of an old lullaby - the words of which I do not remember. Recently, however, an additional step has been added and that is the loud, energetic, and hardly sleep-inducing rendition of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music by my children. I am always laughing out loud during these times.

Truffle used to watch The Sound of Music over and over again as a child and we all used to sing the songs together. We too belted out My Favorite Things, without knowing what Schnitzel with Noodles were, nor that Apple Strudels were apple-filled pastries. For all we knew, they were mushroomy noodles and some intricate apple dessert that was beyond the imagination. What do you expect for a 10-year old Singaporean girl in the 1980s who ate mee pok for lunch everyday?

I was so enamored by this song and intrigued by these dishes that these Austrians ate. Back when I was a final year student at Cambridge, I had very studiously declared that I was going to stay on in college during the Easter break to get some extra revision done. My father was busy with his cashew business and was exploring exporting urea from Russia. He was going to be flying back from Moscow and suggested that I meet him in Vienna for a long weekend. I was very happy to have such a break and I booked my flight with his credit card, flew in to Vienna, took the train and booked myself into the Hilton. Unfortunately, my father's flight was stuck in Ukraine and he didn't make it to Vienna until the end of our planned stay. So, I took it upon myself to have a full weekend despite the aberration to our original plan. I visited Vienna' many beautiful museums, parks and churches by myself and ate Mozart Kugeln in my hotel room. I also made it a point to try out the local fare, with Schnitzel mit Nudeln at the top of my list. I must admit, I was a little disappointed to be served deep fried beef (yes, yes, veal) on top of pasta. It tasted much better in the song.

In any case, I want my readers to know, as a girl who grew up in Singapore in the '70s and '80s, what my favorite things are:

Raindrops on orchids and lashes on puppies
White plastic kettles and loose cotton T-shirts
Large shopping bags from Robinsons
These are a few of my favorite things

Cream colored retrievers and oyster egg omelets
Botanic Gardens and Charsiew with noodles
Japanese koi that swim gracefully
These are a few of my favorite things

Girls in gold Cheongsams with silvery hairbands
Soft sand that stay on my feet and ankles
Heavy wet monsoons that cool the city
These are a few of my favorite things

When my child cries
When my back hurts
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad

Would love to hear about your favorite things....



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