Monthly Archives: October 2013

FOOD – Five fabulous spices

I’m back from Penang where I had a good time with my girlfriends even though we split up and did different things. The problem I now have is deciding what to post because Penang is so delightful for – R&R (one friend was permanently parked on a deckchair by the beach or pool); good food (be belly smart, dress in loose clothes); and friendly locals.

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To start, let’s look at something small – Chinese five-spice powder. The helpful proprietor of a restaurant we dined in recommended the Pok Oy Thong brand – the best in Penang and probably the region. We scoured the Pulau Tikus market and checked a grocer or two. One market stallholder advised us to go to the source – an old Chinese medical hall (Kedai Ubat Cina Pok Oy Thong, 365B Lebuh Chulia).

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Five-spice powder varies in ingredients, but most use more than five spices. The Pok Oy Thong version contains finely ground cinnamon, aniseed, star anise, lime peel, cloves, coriander seeds, nutmeg, rice and pepper. Apparently, the number five relates to the elements – earth, water, wood, metal and fire, indicating how spices are good for the constitution. And also to the five flavours – sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty – that are present in any five-spice powder. Potent and appetizing, it’s an inexpensive way to enliven everything from roasts to stews.

The fragrance hit me from five shops away. Be led by your nose to the Pok Oy Thong shop and buy extra packs for friends (who will be very thankful). The price as at end October 2013 is RM4. This photo from http://greenheart-ch.blogspot.sg/2010/06/penang-pok-oy-thong-5-spice-powder.html is obviously older but the packaging has not changed. The manicured man at the shop gives it a six-month shelf life, but bottled and refrigerated, it will likely keep longer.

So, now you have your five-spice powder, try making one of Penang’s famous Nonya dishes – Loh Bak aka Ngoh Hiang in Singapore – meat rolls that are surefire winners as cocktail finger food or dinner side dish. Some years ago, my friend Marina’s good friend, Penangite Queenie Khoo, cooked a few dishes for us, including Loh Bak. The main difference between the Penang and Singapore five-spice meat roll is mince in the Singapore version and meat strips and egg in Penang Loh Bak. Here is Queenie’s recipe (photo by Bernard Koh).

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LOH BAK

1 kg meat (pork or chicken), cut into strips or shredded

10 water chestnuts, diced

6 garlic cloves, chopped

You’ll also need:

Light soya sauce, cornflour, salt, sugar, pepper, five-spice powder, coriander leaves, spring onion, egg, beancurd skin.

 

Optional extras:

Pickled radish, chilli sauce and sesame seeds

Method

  1. Marinate meat in 7 tablespoons cornflour, mixed with ½ cup water, 5 teaspoons light soya sauce, pinch of salt, sugar, pepper, five-spice powder and garlic.
  2. Cover in a bowl and refrigerate overnight.
  3. When ready to fry, add water chestnuts, chopped coriander leaves, spring onion and beaten egg.
  4. Roll up in beancurd skin. Seal with cornflour mixed with water.
  5. Deep-fry and serve immediately.
  6. Garnish with pickled radish and chilli sauce. Toast sesame seeds and sprinkle over Loh Bak and chilli sauce.
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TRAVEL – Malta teasers

Way off the beaten track? A challenge to reach? Dangerous even? My friend, intrepid travel writer, Tan Chung Lee will get there.

Bitten by the travel bug early in life, the galloping grandma is still traversing the globe in search of adventure and to discover yet another corner of the world she hasn’t visited.  Compared to Rwanda and Inner Mongolia, Malta seems tame, but like many of Chung Lee’s choice destinations, it is rich in history and scenic splendour. 

Text and photos by Tan Chung Lee

 

Malta one of Mdina's mediaeval churches ed
One of Mdina’s mediaeval churches

 

For an island archipelago that is small – 300 square km or less than half the size of Singapore – Malta is mighty in many other ways.

It is safe, steeped in history and cultural heritage, boasts breath-taking natural beauty – on land, water and even underwater – a whole host of stunning architectural attractions, great Mediterranean cuisine focused on fresh seafood and herbs and winning wines to boot. Above all, its friendly people and leisurely pace of life all add up to make for a relaxing and rewarding holiday.

Malta stunning view of the Xlendi seaside resort in Gozo ed
Stunning view of the Xlendi seaside resort in Gozo

Situated smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has had a chequered history – all due to its strategic position which made it a prized possession for various powers. The Arabs, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Knights of St John, French and British all left their mark – in the language, cuisine, architecture, cultural make up and even physical appearance of the Maltese. The result is an island with a charm all of its own.

Even before the empire builders arrived, Malta was home to an ancient civilisation dating back to 3000 BC which left behind enormous Neolithic temples scattered across the archipelago, seven of which are World Heritage Sites.

There are, in all, three islands – Malta itself, the smaller, more pristine Gozo and sandwiched between them, tiny Comino.

Malta Azure Window on Gozo's Dwejra coast and reflections in the Blue Grotto ed
Azure Window on Gozo’s Dwejra coast and reflections in the Blue Grotto

The main island of Malta boasts spectacular architecture. It is antiquated in every way – from its massive forts, exquisite palaces and imposing churches to sprawling gardens, watch towers and aqueducts left behind mainly by the Knights of St John of Crusader fame who ruled Malta for 250 years.

Its walled capital city of Valletta and its gorgeous surroundings are best seen on a boat cruise around its appropriately named Grand Harbour or from the waterfront promenade of its neighbouring town, Sliema.  A stroll through Valletta’s steep and narrow streets flanked by handsome Italianate buildings is equally delightful.

Gozo dazzles with its unspoilt natural beauty, especially along its coastline, from the Azure Window carved out of a rocky headland to its Inland Sea, a lagoon connected to the ocean through a tunnel. It’s an island that is a magnet for hikers with its many picturesque trails and it has many attractive bays offering good swimming, diving and snorkelling.

The least developed island of Comino with only four inhabitants and one hotel draws hordes of day trippers lured by the crystal clear waters of its Blue Lagoon.

Religion plays an important part in Maltese life. It was in Malta that the apostle St Paul was believed to have been shipwrecked in AD 60 and it was thanks to him that the islanders, then under the Romans, were converted to Christianity. And wherever you go throughout the archipelago, you will see elegant Baroque church domes dominating the skyline, creating a picture-postcard effect that will be etched in your mind long after your vacation is over.

Malta boat from tunnel of Dwejra's Inland Sea in Gozo ed
Boat from tunnel of Dwejra’s Inland Sea in Gozo

Getting there

Malta is well served from most European cities, especially in summer, the peak tourist season when charter flights abound. From Singapore, the shortest routing to Malta is on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.

Getting around

There is an extensive public bus network on Malta and Gozo serving most towns. Fares are cheap. Malta also has a water taxi service and frequent ferries connect Malta, Gozo and Comino.

When to go

With mild winters, Malta is a year-round destination. Summer can, however, be hot and crowded with accommodation prices peaking, although it is ‘festa’ time in many towns with celebrations of their patron saint. Spring is best for hiking when the countryside is a carpet of wild flowers in bloom and the temperature is in the pleasant lower range of 20 degrees Celsius. Autumn is also a good season as water temperatures are still warm enough for swimming and snorkelling.

WELLNESS – Here comes the sun, and it’s not alright

I’m looking forward to a break in Penang with my girlfriends next weekend. We’ll be staying at the Golden Sands Hotel right on the beach which sounds fabulous but with my hyper-pigmentation, it means taking cover under umbrella and beach hat, and avoiding the outdoors at high noon.

 

I’ve been using Heliocare sunblock on my face for a couple of years, but it’s too precious to slather all over my arms and any other exposed skin, so I will have to shop for sunblock for the body. The problem is finding something effective and not icky-greasy. A safer option is sunblock that works from inside. Heliocare has a supplement, but the bother is going to a clinic to buy it (check the distributor’s website for addresses – www.neoasia.com.sg)

 

Sun damage is often not taken seriously until it shows up as blotches and wrinkles, and by then you need to be prepared to spend a fair it of money to repair it. The problem with topical sunblock as Dr Victor Wee of Kin Mun Clinic says, “We have found that direct sunlight will go through the best sunblock in the world”, so how do we protect our skin I asked Dr Wee? (The good doctor obviously takes good care of his skin – he’s a father of 3, and a grandfather of 13!)

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When buying sun protection products, what should we look out for? How do we know what will work?

When buying sun protection products, try to get one with a good SPF, preferably SPF 50 plus. Be careful of sunscreens that are too oily and that can clog pores especially if you are acne prone.

I know that everyone recommends SPF 30. However to get this level in the lab we have to slap on a certain thickness which is not realistic

So I would personally recommend the use of Heliocare SPF 65 sunblock which will give you a protection of at least SPF 30. I personally use a non-oily base and apply it often in a day without worrying about blocking my pores.

 

Are there foods that will help protect against sun damage, and repair damaged skin? How much or how often would we need to consume these?

Eating fatty fish such as salmon, cherries, pomegranates, and drinking green tea help protect against sun damage because of the antioxidants they contain. However, more importantly, one should avoid direct sunlight, using a hat or umbrella, especially in hot countries like Singapore.

 

On a supplement like the Heliocare Pure White Radiance whitening supplement, how long can people expect to wait before seeing results?

From our experience, results are seen after a period of 3 months, but some patients actually see an improvement in uneven skin tone after a month. Lightening and brightening of skin is also reported after a month. The supplement is halal certified, so it’s suitable for all.

What is the advantage of Fernblock v the ingredients used in most commercial sun blocks?

 

Dr Thomas Fitzpatrick, discovered that Fernblock can prevent as well as lighten pigmentation, and to stimulate collagen and elastin, thus having the ability to firm up aging skin.

 

How high should we go with SPF? Some friends say their doctors put them on SPF 90.

For outdoor sports even higher than that would be good provided it suits your skin. For golfers and joggers I use SPF 100! Again for the same reason that nobody slaps the required thickness of sunblock.

I also remind patients that no matter what claims are made on the duration of effectiveness, studies show that after 2 hours we need a fresh layer of sunblock again. So on holiday, jogging or golfing just have to reapply every 2 hours; plus of course your hat to cut off direct sun on your face.

TRAVEL – Bacchanalian break

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Hwee Hwee Laurence reports from south-west France:

October is the time for les vendanges or grape harvest.  The wine of this southwest region of France is classified under the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) Cahors and is a dark- red, almost black wine.  The vineyards of AOC Cahors are found around the city of Cahors and along the banks of the River Lot. Grape harvest is always an important and festive time and when we hear, in the distance, the familiar whrr-whrr-whrring of the grape-harvest machine, we always pray for good weather for the farmers to complete their harvest.

The vineyard behind our house belongs to the family Grialou of the Domaine du Buis.  This is a totally family-owned and -worked farm which also rears cows.  When the Grialou family is here trimming or inspecting the vines, I always make it a point to bake a cake and invite them for a cup of tea.

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Domaine du Buis harvests its grapes by machine.  Of course, it is not as romantic as harvesting by hand, but nevertheless very impressive.   Usually, the vines are trimmed for one last time before the harvest to get rid of excess leaves and to leave the bunches of grapes hanging clear.  At harvest-time, the machine passes over each row of vines and literally sucks up the grapes.   The grapes (juice and all) are then emptied into a truck and brought back to the domaine to be processed.  After the harvest, our garden and the land around always smells strongly of wine due to the crushed grapes and spilt grape juice.

There are many other domaines within walking distance of our house but the one I like best is Château la Gineste.  The owners, Ghislaine and Gérard Dega, are very friendly people who allow me complete freedom to bring my Singapore or overseas visitors to oohh and aaahh over their beautifully-kept château and vineyards, and of course, to indulge in a session of wine-tasting. Their vineyards are pesticide-free and grapes for their best wine (Grand Secret) are hand-harvested.  The majority of their wines are aged for about sixteen months in oak barrels.  Hand-harvesting is a family affair – sometimes relatives come from far and wide to help.  Workers laugh and chat while harvesting, and look forward to the truck (to collect the grapes) bringing them some sustenance of dried sausage and baguettes.

After the harvest, October continues to be a busy month for the wine-producers, with grapes to be pressed and juice stored for fermentation.  After things have quietened down, the  domaines often host a feast for family and friends, rather like Thanksgiving in America.

As I look out of my window, the now-silent vineyards are slowing turning gold.  Soon the leaves will drop, making a nice rustling sound as they are blown by the wind, and the bare but sturdy vines will remind me that, before long, winter will be upon us.

BOOKS – The write effort

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When Anthony Koh plunged into full-time freelance journalism, it was a leap of faith. He did not start off at a publishing house – the usual route for journalists in Singapore, and he had no real experience in chasing stories or identifying news points.

What he did have was gumption and an innate sense of how to attract readers. So, Anthony offered story ideas and miscellaneous musings willy-nilly until he got his first bite – from me. What he wrote about I cannot recall, but his persistence led to more writing assignments and his bohemian writer-for-hire lifestyle.

Now, Anthony has started his very own book business, catering specially to the writing community. It’s a very brave move in a country more focused on economic growth and material wealth. When he temped in a bookstore, he realised how a bookstore business can be suicidal because of rental.

“The idea of Booktique grew out of my frustration at the lack of books on writing at major bookstores, and that the limited stock is too general or too expensive. After I started ordering books for Booktique, I realised why. A local distributor told me this: our writers’ market is small, hence, bookstores resist stocking up books on writing.  This in turn deters distributors from ordering more titles from their overseas publishers.  This is where Booktique comes in.”

 The first Booktique fair is tomorrow at Caffe Parlet, 17 Eng Hoon Street, #01-04, 5pm-9pm. 

What started you writing? It’s a tough road not seen as a serious career unless you get established as a columnist or author (whose books actually sell).

I have loved writing since I was a child, but it was only in my early 20s that I took writing seriously. I contributed articles to The Straits Times and when one of them that I wrote about former TV actor, James Lye was published, I read it over and over again. The thrill of seeing my writing in print was beyond words. But that phase passed and I continued from one day job to another. It was only in 2007 that I quit to become a full-time freelance writer.

My friends said I was crazy; I had an established corporate career but I had neither a writing portfolio nor any connection to the publishing industry. I was not discouraged. I wrote many articles and one day, I sold one of them to NTUC Media. 

That was how my writing career started.  This is my sixth year and I’m really thankful for the regular assignments from various publications.

You started as an entertainment writer but moved into other genres. Why and what have you learnt from doing so?

Actually, I didn’t set out to become an entertainment writer. I have always wanted to write about issues close to my heart. For example, lessons about life. But it just happened that after I did an entertainment story, I received more assignments to interview celebrities.  Today, it has become my area of specialisation.

While it is good to specialise in a particular genre, it is more practical to write widely as the magazine market in Singapore is small.  More importantly, I discovered that I don’t have to know everything about an unfamiliar subject to write about it.  In a way, I learnt more about how to research. Now, I write both lifestyle and current affairs stories. I’ve even done copywriting for a book!

You shared your reasons for starting Booktique. You really think there are enough wannabe writers who need a niche supplier? 

Booktique is Singapore’s first book retail company for writers. By that, I mean we sell books mostly on writing and writers and encourage reading of literary works. I would think that these needs have to be accessible even though writers remain a small group.

To me, accessibility also means affordability. That’s why I buy cheap and pass the savings to my customers. Books are cultural products; you can’t really price them with a business mindset. George Whitman, founder of Shakespeare and Company said: “Give what you can, take what you need.” This is the philosophy that I follow in running Booktique.

Right now, I’m constantly looking for unique venues to host our book fairs. The long term plan is to build a small but purposeful bookstore for writers. I strongly believe that writers should have more books to help them in their writing and to motivate them along their writing journey.

Singaporeans don’t seem to be readers like in the West or Japan where so many – in parks, in trains – have their noses buried in books. We don’t appear to have a reading culture because people are distracted by mass media, social media, shopping … and so our writing skills are lacking. Do you think the reading segment is unlikely to grow but it’s still worth providing for the small reading core?

On hindsight, I would think that those distractions you mentioned do more than just rob us of our time to read; they sink us deeper and deeper into our existing capitalistic society. Sure, we will read. However, if we only read to enrich our life but not our soul, the reading culture becomes questionable.  

Although bookstore businesses are gloomy worldwide, I find it worthwhile to provide an additional platform in the market for new writers and I mean writers, not the average readers. Besides enjoying a good book, they also read to learn.  For aspiring novelists, they would support a bookstore that genuinely supports them. In this aspect, Booktique sells the books of lesser known authors at our book fair and don’t take a cut from the sales of their books. Call me a maverick bookseller but it takes a writer to know the plight of another writer.

Have you made new friends/acquaintances since starting Booktique? Who are the customers – students, writers, office workers?

Yes I have met authors and like-minded people who are supportive of the local writing scene. The Writers Club has been especially helpful since I started Booktique. Thanks Jamie!

Booktique is set up for aspiring writers (young and old), students attending writing courses and professional writers.  As we also sell award-winning fiction and special edition classic literature, we hope to attract readers of literary novels and bibliophiles.  

Will you have a website for orders?

Booktique now has few selected titles in our online shop (booktique.weebly.com) but it is not fully operational. I think the whole point of a bookstore for writers is for people to mingle and be inspired by the books and each other. To a certain extent, Booktique aspires to be a bookstore like our Shakespeare & Company. Even the latter is launching an online store. So I’m not sure if I will follow suit once the bookstore is built.

TRAVEL – Unspoilt Uzbekistan

I have friends who travel to places most of us only read about. I’ll be introducing them in my blog because for unadventurous folks like me, it’s an opportunity to go on a magic carpet ride to distant lands like Timbuktu (no kidding!).

If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track, let my Singaporean gal-pals lead you to fabulous places they’ve visited on their own madcap getaways or for work trips.

For instance, my friend, well-known chef and cookbook author, Devagi Sanmugam was in Uzbekistan a couple of months ago.  Bet you’re trying to figure out where it is as Devagi was when she was invited by the World Association of Chefs, under the Train the Trainer’s program to teach Asian cuisine to chefs there.

Devagi says,

“Part of the trip was sponsored by the Association of Cooks of Uzbekistan and International Centre of Uzbek Culinary Art.  I was there for 10 days and I taught the following cuisines:  Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian, Filipino, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese and also Street Foods of Asia.  I also went to the Uzbekistan Airways Catering centre to train the chefs there and eventually, I also developed a number of recipes for the first class passengers of Uzbekistan Airways.”

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Devagi (centre) in the colourful traditional Uzbek outfit

 

UZBEKISTAN, WHERE?

 

Uzbekistan is in Central Europe and South of Russia. It was formerly part of the Soviet Union. The immediate neighbouring countries are Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.  Uzbekistan was part of the Silk Road and famous personalities whom I have read about in my History lessons example Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great have been here.  Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country making it difficult to access to the open sea and the surrounding countries have to access to the sea too!  There are only two rivers,  and quite a large part of the country is desert. Apparently, the summers are intensely hot, and winter can be as cold as -20°C.  I was there at the end of autumn, and it was still hot – about 35°C.

Their main industries are liquefied gas, gold, cotton, fruit,vegetables and poultry farming, and textile manufacturing.

VISAS & CURRENCY

 

Before you get your air tickets, apply for a Visa. It is about USD65 for a 15-day visa, and it takes about 2 days to process.  It is not as easy as one would think – you must go and pay for a Visa at HSBC bank, take the receipt with you to the embassy and then wait for about 10 minutes for a visa. When you enter the country, you must fill up 2 forms and declare how much in foreign currency you are bringing in.  The customs will retain one of the forms, and when you are leaving the country you will have to fill up another form and hand it over along with Form 2. Basically, they need to know how much money is entering and leaving their country!

You cannot change your Singapore dollars to Uzbekistan Som in Singapore or Malaysia.  You will have to change Singapore dollars to US dollars and change it to Uzbekistan currency when you arrive.  You get a 35-40 percent better rate if you change the currency at some “black market” shops – grocer, baker, or anyone except an authorized money changer.  Anyone in Uzbekistan will tell you where the nearest black market currency exchange person is!  At the time, I was there I got 1,724.52 Uzbekistan Som for SGD1!!  Can you imagine how much money I had to carry around for changing SGD300?!

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Market stall with enamel ware

 

 MUST-SEES & MUST-BUYS

Uzbekistan has many famous monuments, museums, naturally spectacular and beautiful landscapes, tombs, mosques with beautiful minarets, palaces, ski resorts,  and other places of interest.  Those who enjoy mountain trekking will love Uzbekistan – there are many trekking expeditions, camel riding, camping out in deserts etc. There are also winter activities like snowboarding and paragliding if you go during winter

The tour guides have many entertaining and fascinating stories.  I found transport and food cheap too.  The streets of Tashkent are extremely clean and green!  I also found the area safe; there are always policemen around!  The people are friendly and full of warm hospitality and helpful even if many of them don’t speak English.

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Plov being cooked

 

The best part of my trip to any country is a visit to the local market! I think a visit to the market can give you a glimpse of the roots of a community and their customs and the memories of places I visited are preserved.  I visited the famous Chorsu (Eski Juva) Bazaar in Tashkent. I enjoyed the smell, the colours, the noises and everything in the market; it was a treat to the senses. People were selling their products on makeshift tables or wooden boxes; from vans and even on prams!  Many displayed their products on the ground.

This bazaar is supposed to be the oldest and biggest in not only Uzbekistan but also in the whole of Central Asia.  I was told by my guide that the market was founded in the 2nd century B.C.  The bazaar area has seven towering domes under which are the activities of the busy market. More than 60 over types of spices and herbs were on sale, and the smell of spices just enveloped me as I walked into the market.  There was the fruit market where some of the local farmers were selling grapes, pomegranates, apples, unusually large watermelons and honey dew melons, large peaches, apricots, prunes, persimmons, yellow figs and many other fruits. I found these fruits about sixty percent cheaper than those sold in Singapore.  I spent about 6 hours in the market, and it was not enough and I did not see all!

I found many fascinating things to get in Tashkent.  But then luckily for me my luggage was already heavy with presents from the host; therefore, I was not tempted to buy everything I fancied.  Most of the souvenirs are hand made by women in the deeper parts of Uzbekistan like Samarkand and Bukhara.  Making ceramics is an ancient art in Uzbekistan.  I came across so many designs and shapes, and what is particularly interesting are the kosa eating bowls.  These hand-made bowls look like peacock feathers. Uzbek jewellery pieces can be worn as well as used as a decorative ornament –some of it is so chunky that you can frame it up. There are very delicate wooden boxes to purchase.  There are of course carpets and more carpets as well as tapestries and wall hangings.  Do not forget to bring home some traditional Uzbek bread, Non.

EXOTIC FOODS
Uzbek cuisine is highly traditional, and recipes that may be hundreds of years old are still used.  For example, the national dish is Plov (we call it pilau or pilaf), and it is served at weddings and any other celebrations. People still cook it with mutton fat!  The rice is cooked with yellow and orange carrot, pea, quince, meat, dried apricots, pumpkin and many other vegetables.  It is a tradition for men to cook the plov, and it is usually cooked in a deep cast-iron pot (kazan).  Bread is relished like it is sacred. The most common bread is non, a round bread, and it is available everywhere.  The breads are baked in clay ovens called thandir (it is like the Indian clay oven tandoor). The non is  fluffy, light and and addictive. It’s got a glossy crust and an open, airy crumb and when it’s piping hot, it’s delicious without butter or anything.  Some savoury snacks like the Samsa is actually another form of the Indian samosa; Manti is a steamed mutton or beef dumpling that resembles a Chinese steamed dumpling; Lagman is a thick soup with hand-made noodles.  There are also some Korean, Indian and European restaurants.

WHAT TOURISTS WANT

Uzbekistan is a terrific place for people to travel to.  However, personally I think there should be more English speaking tour guides; more non-Uzbek cuisine restaurants and Uzbek restaurants should offer healthier food (less oil/fat and more vegetable options); perhaps offer Uzbek bread making course (I am sure everyone who visits Uzbekistan would want to learn how to make those yummy breads); create tours to fruits orchards; offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation in traditional homes.

COMMUNITY – Smells like Christmas

The Skyve Wine Bistro (Singapore) was dressed like a classroom for delinquents with padded benches and a (drinking) bar for hopeless cases. The Body Shop staff looked like they’d dug up their school uniforms (but with manicured nails, they too looked delinquent), and Linda the MC could have passed off for the School of Rock principal, both stern and comic in her glasses.

To make matters more confusing, the scents of cranberry and spices, carols and festive lights added to the feeling we’d walked into a Christmas tableau in mid-October, and Baby Jesus would soon make an appearance along with a lamb or two.

Yes, it is that time of the year when hoteliers and retailers compete for media attention to publicise their wares. And how I love the whole shebang!

It’s my favourite season when the shopping district turns into fairyland and we are done with appraisals (not yet, but soon-soon). In Singapore, the tropical heat wavers, surrendering to stormy weather but we know it will soon be over and January will shine bright and red in preparation for the Chinese New Year. So, let’s savour this time of fake snow and Asian boy Santas. As they say, it’s the feeling that counts.

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Of course, the thought counts most, so I do like how The Body Shop assuages the guilt of spending money on those who have everything they need. The Body Shop supports Community Fair Trade, buying from small farmers of the Third World – loofahs from Honduras; cocoa butter from Ghana; paper products from Nepal; soapstone oil burners from North India; and wooden massagers, accessories and cosmetics bags from South India.

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When we buy something from their Christmas range, our purchase contributes towards the School Project – £200,000 will go towards building five schools – one each in the countries mentioned. We take education for granted whereas going to school is an opportunity prized in many parts of the world.

What’s one school you might think when so many more are needed? I think every bit counts and in a snowballing effect, every child educated will in some way, return something to their homeland.

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Best of all, you get something pretty and practical, exclusive to the Christmas season and that will look really good under the tree. And if you wear make-up which I don’t, I hear their smoky eye palette and BB cream glide right on.

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LIFE – No Medicine Cures What Happiness Cannot

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month in case anyone’s not aware. Hwee Hwee Laurence just went for her annual gynae check last week because she’s been on tamoxifen for 5 years after chemo.

Gleefully, she writes, ‘Found uterus not normal, so now have been scheduled to go for D&C and hysterocopy – hah hah whoopie!  I feel like just taking the whole bloody thing out and get it over with.’

Atta girl ! That’s the spirit ! Cancer is not something to trivialise but it does force us to pull up and look at our life as Hwee Hwee did. I feel very blessed having friends like her, and I wish my friend mentioned in my earlier post could meet her but with the latter in Singapore and Hwee Hwee in France, we’ll have to wait for the twain to meet.

Hwee Hwee recalls :

What did I do when I discovered that I had breast cancer?  I cried.  Then I cried some more.  People will tell you – Don’t cry; it’ll do you no good.  But it will do you good.  It is only after a long crying that you will be able to blow your nose, look around you appraisingly, then ask – Now what?!  And that’s when you’ll get up and go deal with cancer in whatever way it has to be dealt with.

In a way, if cancer was to happen to anyone, I was glad it was me and not others in my family.  I help my husband in our own business and therefore have a flexible work schedule; the social security that my husband contributes to (something like the Singapore CPF except that it goes into a common pool) covers me even though I am not a French citizen.  It makes a world of a difference to be able to concentrate on getting treatment without worrying about bankrupting my family.  Each time I went for my chemotherapy session, I reminded myself that it cost a lot of money and I psyched myself up positively so that it would be half the battle won.  I am thankful for this adopted country of mine and I pray that the French people will be united and not abuse such medical privileges that they are lucky enough to have.  And I hope that, in any small way, I may be able to bring a little kindness and happiness to the people I am now living amongst.

One thing I learnt early during this period was that cancer does not exempt you from other problems of life.  After the initial diagnosis and shock, I was determined to concentrate on going through chemotherapy and getting well.  But it is naïve to think that the world waits for you while you get well.  Around you, life goes on – your husband, children or even yourself might get ill, have problems at work, school or in relationships;  there will be family members or things around the home that need your attention.  Once, in the midst of such ‘additional’ problems, I complained – this is so unfair, isn’t it enough that I have cancer? – before understanding that all this is simply life carrying on its normal way.  The opposite is true, too, that having cancer and undergoing treatment do not mean you should exempt yourself from enjoying life’s little pleasures – my children and I read and laughed together, I seduced my husband whenever I felt well enough, I went out with friends or invited them over.  Life, in its normal way, was a great reassurance during this time, not just to me, but also those close to me.

If you were to ask me what is one thing that has made this illness all worth it, I would answer without hesitation – my mother.  My mother used to worry a lot.  She had an unhappy marriage, and in a way, it made her always worry about her children’s marriages. Any small (or big) quarrel she got to know about was enough to make her worry.  She used to lament that life was better when we were kids, that even though her friends consider her lucky that her children are all grown up, married and settled down, she now has to worry for us, our husbands and our children.  It used to drive me crazy to hear such lamentations, and to wonder when she would ever learn to live life as it is and be joyful about it.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the biggest stresses I had was how to tell my mother without facing another flood of lamentations which I neither have the energy nor patience to listen to.  In the end, it was my younger sister who told her and to our surprise, she took the news in good stride.  Throughout this time, my mother slowly learnt to give up her burdens and worries.  She learnt not to worry when there is nothing she can do, and what she can do, she does dedicatedly and cheerfully.  During her visit here when I was undergoing chemotherapy, she cooked up a storm, enjoyed being with the grandsons and we all had a great reunion.  There was not a single lamentation of Why so unlucky? or Why did this happen?  The only thing she said to me concerning my illness was, “Mummy is praying for you and a mother’s prayer is very powerful.”  I keep that always in my heart and it is a lesson for me to do the same for my own children.

Some months after I finished chemo and radiation therapies and having started on long-term medication, I suffered from depression, something that I had never experienced (or had much patience for, in others) before.  I saw everything in a negative light, I thought the worst of everyone and almost everything that my husband said or did irritated me.  During one brief ‘good’ moment, I thought how ironical it was that I went through so much trouble to get well only to arrive at this point where I did not care whether I live or die.  But even in the terrible depths of such feelings, I was blessed with two things.  First, my husband, despite being at the receiving end of my misplaced anger, never once retaliated but instead continued to show me kindness.  And it was this kindness that finally broke through and brought me back to normality.  And second, having been there and experienced it, I now understand better and have compassion for others who suffer from depression.

I do not know whether I will live past the next 5 or 10 years, but I do know that these last few years, strange as it might sound, have been one of the happiest periods of my life.

Dear readers, in a book by Nobel Prize Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there is a phrase that says, “No medicine cures what happiness cannot.”  I have that, and that is what I wish for you, too – happiness, and an abundance of it.

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LIFE – Breast friends forever

We’ve been friends since we were 8 years old. We celebrated our birthdays and took our sons to the zoo for elephant rides to give ourselves a bit of time-out. I watched her battle depression when her husband died, and just as the cloud seemed to lift, she found a lump in her breast a few months ago. The diagnosis – metaplastic sarcomatoid carcinoma (combination of metaplastic carcinoma and spindle cell carcinoma) – a particularly aggressive cancer that went from Stage 1 to Stage 3 in four months.

The lump has been removed but the cancer has not been eradicated, and while her doctors say that neither chemo nor radiation will do much good, they are still starting her on radiation in a week’s time.

Her two older children, sisters and friends are too distraught to think straight. She wants to go ahead with a party she’s planned, but they insist she should “rest”. It annoys her no end. She is already experiencing fatigue but with some planning, and the food and cleaning taken care of by a helper and her sisters, she thinks the party should go on because it might be her last.

She says she is not afraid to die. What she fears is pain and the high cost of treatment.

How do we show we care without suffocating the person? How can we help at a time like this?  Despite many friends and acquaintances being struck by various ailments from the dreaded cancer to rheumatoid arthritis, I am still a klutz at showing support. I have kicked myself black-and-blue for being insensitive eg for sounding breezy as if they will surely recover. But at the time, I thought being positive was the right attitude. Now, I’m not so sure.

At the other extreme, I just listen with no idea what to say. It might appear I don’t care when I am actually afraid I might cry.

So, I checked http://www.cancer.net/ and picked up pointers that I’m comfortable with. My own take –

  • One of the first things to hold back on is sharing well-meaning advice. It seems everyone knows some therapy or healer or fantastic supplement we can’t wait to foist on our sick friend. The intention is good, but might be unwelcome. You can mention it but take the cue from your friend. No interest? Move on.
  • Also, ring and enquire after their health, chat about general things and let them know you are thinking of them, but don’t insist on visiting if your friend doesn’t sound keen to see you. And don’t be offended.
  • Offer to run errands and rally friends around to share chores if your friend needs help. Practical assistance is more useful than just talking.

More useful advice:

Avoid saying

  • I know just how you feel.
  • You need to talk.
  • I know just what you should do.
  • I feel helpless.
  • I don’t know how you manage.
  • I’m sure you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t worry.
  • How much time do the doctors give you?
  • How long do you have?
  • Let me know what I can do. (Instead, offer specific ways you can help or other things you can provide if they need it.)

Show support with something simple like cooking and bringing over a meal for your friend (after checking dietary preferences) or accompanying him/her on a walk. It’s really the little things that make a difference.

MOMENTS – Mud Turtles and Other Fabulous Creatures

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Schoolchildren in Singapore get a holiday on the first Friday of October – it’s Children’s Day, and over in France, Hwee Hwee Laurence reminds herself to let her boys be boys because all too soon in just a few years, they will leave idyllic village life for boarding school and the path to adulthood.

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“Looking out of the window while at the kitchen sink, I see Yves, my younger son furtively pouring water onto a mound of clay earth in the backyard.  Furtively, because he knows I am a stickler for cleanliness, and muddied clothes and dirty fingernails will surely get a holler from me.  He looks up at the kitchen window and I duck, and now it is my turn to peep furtively to see what he will do next.  He sets a big flat stone on the ground and starts patting the wet clay onto the stone, obviously making a sculpture of some sort.  Soon, he is too engrossed to remember to watch out for me.  His elder brother, Rémi comes along and of course, anything so deliciously dirty is most attractive.  And soon, both of them are squatting between ferrying and pouring more water and patting wet earth into mud turtles and other fabulous creatures.

Their father walks past and they show him what they have done.  I see the three of them glance towards the kitchen window and I duck again.  I hear their father tell them it is very nice, but be sure to clean their hands real well when they enter the house or they know what mummy will say.

Or do they?

I have made up my mind that I will not say anything about muddy clothes and dirty hands.  I will kiss their mud-spattered faces and say that I am proud of my little artists.  I will look at their mud turtles and remind myself that the time for childhood and its fantastically fabulous creatures is much more transient than most parents realize.  And I will enjoy it with them.”

Cornflakes Marshmallow Crispies

(This is something kids can make easily.  My boys make it whenever their basketball club has a match on home-ground and the home-team has to provide snacks after the game.)

375g cornflakes (or rice crispies)

200g marshmallows (colour or flavour does not matter)

25g butter

 

Lightly grease a (approx. 33 X 25 cm) deep-sided baking dish or glass dish and the bottom of a flat ladle (eg. rice cooker ladle).  Set aside.

 

In a large pot over medium fire, melt the butter, then add marshmallows and stir well until marshmallows have melted.  Do not let marshmallows burn.

 

Lower the heat and add cornflakes.

 

Toss cornflakes in butter and marshmallows until well-coated and starting to stick together.

 

Pour mixture into baking dish. Use the ladle to press the mixture down firmly until it is well-compacted.  Leave to cool.

 

Using a sharp knife, cut the cornflakes crispies into squares.  Store in airtight container if there are leftovers (not likely!).