Sunday, January 30

An Asian Food Excursion in Charlotte

I have a foodie friend across the street. A lovely Japanese lady, foodnamed Chirashi-zushi (CZ). Like me, she grew up in Asia, spent a considerable amount of her youth in Europe and somehow ended up in the States married to an American. Most of our meetings are spent over food and we always end up talking quite animatedly about tastes, recipes and ingredients. Having spent 10 more years in Charlotte than I have, she knows a lot more about good Asian restaurants and grocery stores. After many months of saying that we were going to go Asian grocery shopping together, we finally did it last weekend with our children. Our husbands politely declined to join us, not sharing our giddy enthusiasm for Asian groceries. Here are the highlights of that food excursion:

1. Met at Tin-Tin Asian Buffet in Ballantyne (50 mins South of Davidson) for lunch
I have never seen this array of food anywhere: sushi, dim sum, noodles soup, steamed shrimp, craw fish, steamed fish with soy and ginger, Malaysian curries, roasted pork, Thai desserts....I could go on and on. They even had my favorite sweet bean curd that I love from my Singapore days! The children enjoyed it very much as they were empowered to eat what they wanted, when they wanted. I only had one rule for them: waste not, want not.

2. Hatoya, a specialist Japanese grocery store in Pineville (10 mins West of Tin-Tin)
As soon as we stepped in, "Konnichiwa!" I felt as if I was transported back to Japan. It is owned and manned by a Japanese couple who speak very little English. CZ introduced me very cordially to the owners as someone who had lived in Japan and I smiled and nodded. I was given a little cup of tea and the shopping began. I had come prepared with a list and I made sure I got the basics: mirin, sake, vinegar, miso, nato and Japanese pickles. CZ helped me along with her quiet yet firm sense of a Japanese mother with my purchases suggesting good brands and encouraging me to get the instant broth to mix the miso in, even though I had been taught to make it from scratch with bonito flakes and seaweed (kombo) in Japan. Japanese women don't say "no!" nor do they say "don't". When I pointed to a Japanese rice cooker that I wanted to purchase, she very gently said, "we're going to Super G next. They have much more variety."

3. Super G (25 mins East of Hatoya on Independence)
This place completely floored me! It is a huge supermarket, bigger than Harris Teeter and holds only INTERNATIONAL PRODUCE!!! Korean Kim Chi? Neh! Mexican Habaneros? Si! Indian curry powder? Aaama, dee! The quantities of fresh produce was astounding. Not a piddly box of limp green chillies but an entire legion of them in a bright and shiny row! Gleaming fresh fish laid out in piles like handbags at Saks 5th Avenue. They even scaled and gutted them right in front of you! It literally was like being back in Tekka market.

Five hours and 100 miles later, CZ and I drove our tired children back. They too were happy as they had run up and down the grocery stores playing catch. Korean grandmas don't mind this as much. Mine were also looking forward to Japanese gummies, Poky sticks (OK POKY!) and a box of Turkish Delight in the trunk of the car. It was a happy day, searching for the things we loved and took for granted in our childhood. And I got my Japanese rice cooker. Chirashi-zushi was right, and I was very thankful for having her as a friend across the street.


Saturday, January 29

Endings and Beginnings

Assuming it’s not too late to ring in the new year (hey, it’s still January), happy 2011 everyone! So, I hope you guys had nice holidays. Mine sure were tumultuous. I know it can seem like the new year’s just an arbitrary point at which we humans decide that the Earth has completed another round of the Sun. But December, amazingly, was a month of endings for me – it was as if the Universe was determined to shake out all the old baggage it didn’t want me to carry into 2011 – and January has been a month of new beginnings.

I have so many things to share with you guys. Honestly, I have a list of at least 20 things to talk to you about, so I’m going to get cracking. The first is a discovery I made in my local bookshop: the latest book from Jamie Oliver (provider of perfect roast chickens and emancipation for undergrads boiling canned beans). Called Jamie's 30-Minute Meals, each recipe provides step-by-step instructions to preparing a full sit-down meal in half an hour. My first attempt consisted of tray-baked chicken with pancetta, mashed potatoes, an out-of-this-world creamed spinach, and a strawberry drink-dessert. The next time I tried a sausage ragú with penne, a zesty chicory salad, and a batch of mini frangipane tarts. Admittedly each meal took me an hour, but I was still impressed at what a short time that was to have made so many dishes in.

And everything tasted great. Having tried a fair few of his recipes now, I’m starting to realise what Jamie’s genius consists of – he has an instinctive feel for ingredients and where they can take a dish, and by combining just 3 or 4 flavours, he creates something really special. For example, the creamed spinach is flavoured with just spring onion, garlic, thyme and nutmeg, but those 4 things elevated the simple spinach and cream to a whole new level. The other major hit was the frangipane tart, with which we ended the wholesome penne and salad meal. Who knew that almond, orange zest and vanilla paste could become something of such heavenly, fragrant warmth.

‘Making a difference’ is one of the topics that’s often on my mind. So, I wanted to say: thanks, Jamie, for making such a difference to my new year, and for showing me that endings don’t always have to be sour and that some can be sweet and fantastically frangipane.



Thursday, January 27

Sunday, January 9

My New Year's Resolution and the Concept of Incrementalism

As Truffle was busy traveling across Europe and India, I was busy taking a break in Davidson, NC. Not having my long 40 minute commute to and from work, I did not have time to think nor structure any posts for the blog. However, my family and I had a wonderful Christmas/New Year's break by staying at home and meeting up with friends. Not having the luxury of family close-by, we celebrated the holidays with our friends, who are our family here.

Look at some of our Davidson, NC highlights!

Gingerbread cookies shared with friends who came for dinner on Christmas day. Crispy on day one, evolving into the right texture with strong hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and all spice (Nigella Lawson, FoodNetwork):

Truffled roast beef sandwiches enjoyed between Christmas and New Year before heading out to shop with Artichoke Dip. Warm pink slices of roast beef dressed with truffle butter (couldn't find that, so mixed truffle oil with butter), arugula and shaved parmesan (Ina Gartner, Foodnetwork):

New Year's Eve Dinner shared with some friends and colleagues at home. Jamaican Jerk Chicken, plantain dumplings and corn porridge (Tyler Florence, er, yep, Foodnetwork. Hey, what can I say, I love their recipes!):

What I have realized is with this blog is that I am not a bad cook. But, I have not always this good. In fact, in my early 20s, I was a terrible cook. Even earlier, as a Singaporean spoilt-brat teenager at university in England, I did not even know how to heat up a can of baked beans. One day, sick of hall food, I braved making myself some baked beans on toast. I took the can of baked beans to the Staircase A kitchen, opened it and put it in the pan. Turned the stove on and looked at the pot. I had to turn to the Malaysian girl next to me, who was a regular in that kitchen with her red chilies and blacchan, and ask, "how do you know when it is hot?" "Er, give it a few minutes until the sauce starts bubbling." Not bad for that teenager to evolve into this chef, appreciated by family and friends, eh?

What this reminds me is an important concept I use in my life - that of incrementalism. I coined the word when I was overwhelmed by the Economics Tripos at university. The first year, I burned out with bursts of hard work. Second year, I partied with the best. The third, I came up with incrementalism and worked a little all the way through to get my 2-I.

I have incrementalism to thank for my cooking skills and I think about it a lot for my career. I took more than four years off when we had children and it ended up denting my career quite a fair bit. Not worries! I have another 30 years and I am going to slowly but surely crawl past those who got the head start when I took a break.

I am also going to use that concept to fulfill my New Year's Resolution for 2011. I want to complete a 5K with ease. I am not a runner and am going to train over the next three months slowly but surely. I am going to run a 5K on April 2nd in honor of someone I know who is suffering from liposarcoma and is raising money for Sarcoma research at Sloan Kettering. Please join me. Here is more information on the 5K.

I am glad that I remembered this concept at the start of the new year, as I embark on projects big and small, both personal and work related. I want to remind myself that we can achieve much, however daunting, by taking small steps consistently with a firm will. Anyone climbed Mount Thirumalai to reach the temple of Thirupathi in Andhra Pradesh, India? It takes 4-6 hours depending on oldest in your climbing group and the first half is pretty hard with steep stone steps. But you just have to keep taking that next step, have some faith in the powers that be, and enjoy the scenic views and the lime sodas as you climb your way to the top. Keep pushing your way forward, take a few short breaks, but you can do it. The destination is always worth it.

Happy New Year.

Love and best wishes,


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