Sunday, March 29, 2009

All Day Earth Hour

I've just come back from 3 nights in a "jungle" camp along the Kinabatangan river, near Sabah's east coast. The riverine forest connecting a series of reserves along the river is all that remains of the original rainforest. Since vast areas of the rainforest are now replaced by oil palm plantations, the wildlife is squeezed into the green corridor along the river.

Not good for the animals, but it makes for fantastic wildlife viewing. I saw orangutans each morning, Borneo's endemic proboscis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, a crocodile, lots of gorgeous birds including hornbills and jewel-bright kingfishers, plus lots of "small stuff". Oh, and the nightly phenomenon of dozens and dozens of flying foxes leaving their daily roost and flying over the river to spend the night foraging.

The local people living in the upper reaches of the river observe Earth Hour all the time; no electricity here. But there are still fish in the river, and plenty of water for doing the laundry at the usual floating pontoon near the river bank.

My photos aren't that great — wildlife photography is not easy, especially when animals seem to like a strong back light. You can scarcely use a fill flash on an orangutan way up a tree about 30 metres away!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bemused by Blogger

In the past, whenever I tried to load photos, they appeared as several lines of gobbledygook (text) which I could move around at will — more or less — but now they appear as an image and don't seem to be able to be moved around on the page. Thus, my big hunk of shin got cut off in my last posting. I realise now that I had my setting at Edit Html instead of Compose, so I'll know next time. But because I'm stubborn, I'm posting the photo again.

Doing it Both Ways

It's been ages since I posted a recipe, but to be honest, I haven't been very enthusiastic about food lately. I did, however, recently come across some local shin beef that inspired me to compare classic French and Chinese recipes for this cut.

We rarely eat beef here, as the imported meat is expensive and the local stuff really tough (even the "fillet") and lacking in flavour. However, an Australian acquaintance who's a specialist in abbatoirs and cattle has gone into a venture here, fattening up the beasts before slaughtering them in his own place. This means we can sometimes find cuts of meat that are never imported, such as a huge chunk of shin with the marrow-stuffed bone still in. There was so much of it that I used half for a Pot au Feu and the remainder for Chinese braised beef.

The Pot au Feu was tasty, but dare I say, a tad dull, even when eaten Provencal-style with capers, cornichons and mustard. Maybe we just missed the spices and sauces used in most Asian cuisines, and much preferred the Chinese recipe. Perhaps the secret ingredient that gave the meat a rich, deep flavour is red fermented bean curd, tiny squares of bean curd fermented with red rice and salt that packs a powerful punch and is used only as a seasoning. I've seen it referred to as Chinese Stilton, but that gives no idea of its heady tang. Incidentally, the bean curd keeps indefinitely on the shelf, and locally, is often served as a condiment with rice porridge or congee. Yummmmm.

Here, then, is the beef recipe.
750 g brisket or shin beef, cut in large cubes
1 tablespoon oil
2-3 thin slices ginger
2 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
2 spring onions, cut in 8-cm lengths
3 dried chillies, halved lengthways
1 1/2 tablespoons fermented red bean curd, mashed
1 1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 whole star anise
2 cups (500 ml) good chicken or beef stock
1 1/2 tablespoons crushed rock sugar
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons (30 ml) Shaohsing rice wine
lots of freshly ground black pepper

Blanch the beef in boiling salted water for 15 minutes, drain meat and discard the water.
Heat oil in a wok and when starting to smoke, add beef and stir-fry until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, spring onion and chillies and stir-fry another 2-3 minutes. Lower the heat, add fermented bean curd, hoisin sauce and star anise, stirring to mix well. Add all the sauce ingredients, bring to the boil, then cover, lower the heat and simmer for 2 hours or so until the meat is really tender. Even better if cooled, fat removed and gently reheated.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Learning Curve

Please be patient with me. I've never bothered learning how to do a proper hyperlink to a website (as is obvious from yesterday's debacle). Now I'm going to see if this works.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


perhaps this will work?

the correct link (I hope)

For some reason, my cut and paste of the Sydney Morning Herald feature was abbreviated. The one above should work.

On the List!

I was browsing through the Sydney Morning Herald on-line this morning — as one does when one should be working — and caught side of food-writer Jill Dupleix's list of the 50 best recipes she's ever cooked. To my surprise, there was my Singapore Laksa.
(check it out at

The recipe is in the new edition (2007) of my Singapore Food; it's a lot of work but obviously I'm not the only one who thinks the effort is well worthwhile.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Doing the Maths

There's something about the fragrance of passion fruit that really makes me delirious. And it's one of the few foods which, in my opinion, taste just as heavenly as they smell. The morbid and heavily Christian Spanish, on discovering the fruit in South America, gave it the name passion fruit as the flower reminded them of the passion of Christ. Well, you figure it out. I'm not interested.

I promised to bring a dessert to our Danish neighbours' home the other night, as they kindly invited me up for dinner and to watch a couple of documentaries they were involved in (conservation of turtles and whale sharks in Southeast Asia).

I took them a passion fruit Quatres Quarts ("four fourths") which I'm told is rather like the English pound cake. I'm not great at baking (I leave that to my daughter) but I seem to have a knack with this easy basic cake, made as follows (this one's for you, Lene):

3 eggs
plain flour, sugar and butter
1 1/2 teaspoons sifted baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2-1 teaspoon vanilla
2-3 tablespoons passion fruit pulp (or other flavouring such as grated lemon zest)

Weigh the eggs (mine usually total around 180 g) and set aside. Weigh an equal amount of flour, sugar and butter. Blend the sugar and butter until smooth (I do this in my food processor fitted with a plastic blade, since I don't have a proper cake mixer), beat in the eggs, salt and vanilla, then pulse several times to mix in the passion fruit. Put in a greased cake tin lined with non-stick baking paper and bake at around 180 degrees C until cooked, around 45-50 minutes, depending on how wide your tin is. Turn out and cool on a rack. Eat with gentle sighs and start planning where to plant your own passion fruit vine.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gifts from the Sea

I know I've written about seaweed on this blog before, but I can't help going on about the stuff. This "vegetarian caviar" deserves to be on the menus of finest restaurants, though the fact that it's difficult to keep would be a deterrent. The local Bajau tribe put a leaf or two from a tree that grows in coastal swamps with the seaweed to help keep it plump and fresh. It seems to me that it should keep a day or so if stored in seawater, but I never get to test the theory as we eat it almost immediately.

To my delight, Jok En (visiting us from Rome) found some seaweed in the Filipino night market here in Kota Kinabalu, so I trimmed the grape-like bunches off the stems, rinsed them and tossed them with lime juice, shredded young ginger, sliced shallots and a bit of tomato. Such an explosion of flavour in every mouthful!

Another gift from the sea is yellow-fin tuna, quite abundant and inexpensive here. I bought some in the Kudat fish market for RM12 a kilo (about US$3.50)from the fish seller who managed to conduct a conversation on his mobile phone while cutting off a thick slice.

I kept some of it for pan-frying (dipping it first in Dukkah spice and nut mix) and the rest went into a vaguely Asian tuna carpaccio, made as follows:

1/2 cup (125 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup (60 ml) lime or lemon juice
4-6 teaspoons fish sauce (depends how salty you like it
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
400 g sashimi-quality fresh tuna, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaf

Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, fish sauce and black pepper in a small bowl, whisking to blend. Pour half of the dressing onto a flat plate large enough to hold tuna slices in one layer. Arrange the tuna on top of the dressing, then spoon the remaining dressing over the top. Cover the plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate 20-30 minutes. Transfer the tuna slices to a serving plate, sprinkling with fresh coriander leaf.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Chicken and the Egg

I just spoke on the phone with my grand-daughter, who was busy eating chicken pie for dinner. “Was it bought or made by mummy?” I asked. “Mummy never buys things, she makes always them herself” came the indignant reply. We’re one step before (or after) the chicken, as we’re having egg curry this evening, together with Indian pilau, a couple of vegetable dishes and yoghurt. Coincidentally, the on-line version of the Telegraph has a feature on eggs this weekend, called “Ova Easy”. I promise you a simple, great-tasting recipe, without saturated coconut milk and without a cringe-making header.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 small-medium onions (preferably red), fairly finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
2.5 cm ginger, grated or very finely chopped
3 teaspoons coriander powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2-1 teaspoon chilli powder
4 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced
salt and black pepper
1/2 cup hot water
6 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and halved lengthways
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
fresh coriander leaf to garnish

Heat the oil in a pan and gently stir-fry the onions, garlic and ginger until soft and starting to turn golden. Add the coriander, turmeric and chilli, stir-fry for 1 minute, then put in the tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Cook uncovered, stirring from time to time, for 5 minutes. Add the water, cover and simmer until the gravy thickens and everything is really soft. Add the eggs and heat through, sprinkle over the garam masala (not essential) and serve with rice and other dishes.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Missing Moth

Guess Who Came to Dinner?

Last night, I was getting ready for dinner at home with my oldest friend, Jok En, whom I met way back in 1968, and her Italian husband, Sandro. As I walked past our low table, I noticed this cute little fellow, who obliging let me photograph him before jumping out to the verandah where he sat on one of the uprights of a dining chair, as if waiting to join us for dinner.

Later, Jok En found a moth on the floor, sadly dead but still beautiful. How lucky we are to have such visitors!

Friday, February 06, 2009

You Can Go Back continues

I don't know what happened with my last post, text left out and photos on top of each other. Here's the missing text and photos:

Up in the far north of NZ, we were pleasantly surprised by glorious beaches (virtually deserted, even in peak holiday season), old Maori co mmunities along huge Hokianga estuary on the west coast and pretty little towns where I’m happy to see the old grocer shops of my childhood, Four Square, still exist as small supermarkets.

We loved the tannin-stained lake the locals (understandably) call Coca Cola Lake, just inland from the endless Tokara Beach.
Perhaps one of the reasons we enjoyed ourselves so much is that we didn’t spend any time at all in a city. And that we spent most of our time surrounded by family. So what’s to disappoint?

You CAN Go Back

The last time I'd been in the Marlborough Sounds in the far north of New Zealand's South Island was when I was six! Even though that’s more than half a century ago, I had several very clear memories and wondered how I'd react when we went there for a
family holiday at the end of December. I've always believed you should "never go back"

to avoid disappointment. But to my delight, this part of NZ didn’t disappoint. How could it with such a pristine, clean environment, where everyone seemed to genuinely care about conservation? Where it was so easy to swim with wild dolphins, watch seals sunning themselves on a beach and see Oystercatchers with their chicks?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Letting it all hang out

I spend a lot of time in my kitchen. I love to cook and equally, I love to gaze through my “window” (no glass, just security bars) at our ancient mango tree which attracts brilliant little birds such as flowerpeckers, sunbirds and tailor birds.
If the super-trim, minimalist kitchens installed in the new homes of my sister, Jillian, and sister-in-law, Ilona, are anything to go by, my 50-year old kitchen is (not surprisingly) hopelessly out of date. I was stunned to use drawers that slide back effortlessly on rollers, and to have loads of bench space. But although Jillian’s kitchen has a small walk-in pantry where everything is arranged on shelves so you can see at a glance what you’ve got, everything else in both kitchens is hidden away. Not in old-fashioned cupboards where you can fling open the door and see several shelves of stuff, but in those whisper-quiet sliding drawers.
Want a coffee cup? Pull out a drawer. A mixing spoon or a large ceramic platter, a grater or a glass? They’re all in those damn drawers! And as each drawer holds only a fairly small amount (and I could never remember of what), I kept going from one to the other in search of the elusive item.

I have decided that I really appreciate aspects of my tiny old kitchen (apart from its bird-watching opportunities). I enjoy seeing what I want hanging up there, whether it’s my bamboo ginger grater or an antique brass draining spoon with the original owner’s name engraved on the handle.

It gives me great pleasure to see my copper pots hanging on the wall (even if they do need a shine), and it gives me a sense of continuity to be cooking traditional Asian dishes with the various coconut spoons or clay pots that would have been used when my kitchen was new.
As a Timorese friend once remarked, my kitchen is “seperti dapu nenek-ku” (it’s just like my grandmother’s kitchen).

Friday, January 23, 2009

On Holiday with My Family & Other Animals

The Land of the Long White Cloud (aka New Zealand) surprised us during our holiday with three glorious weeks of sunny weather, one of which we spent surrounded by family at lovely Furneaux Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds (at the tip of the South Island).

We took advantage of the sole drizzly day by having poker lessons from the Master (James) and 8 year-old Phoebe proved to be a real whizz! Our week together slipped by with bush walks (I'd forgotten how gorgeous the NZ native forest can be), dips in the freezing sea or under a waterfall for the foolhardy, kayaking, tennis, trying to decide which is the best Kiwi beer and — for Tiffany — hours spent conquering a horrendously difficult jigsaw puzzle.

New Year's Eve marked a special occasion for Mon Capitaine and me: the 25th anniversary of our meeting at the Singapore Yacht Club. Although the evening's celebrations didn't go quite as planned, we decided we each definitely want to "sign up for the next 25 years", as Jean-Francois put it.

I promise that my next posting will be about "other animals" and places rather than solely focussed on my family. But it was so special to be with them again that I want to see them all up here on my blog (Tiff hates being photographed, hence her limited presence here).