Monday 31 January 2011

Kek Lok Si Temple

During my day trip to Penang, I managed to visit the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia - the Kek Lok Si Temple, aka, Temple of Supreme Bliss.

Panoramic view from the temple.

It was indeed blissful when I got there on a Friday afternoon. Though it was my third visit, the temple has changed a lot over the years. This temple, staggered on the hillside overlooking the town of Ayer Itam, has been around since 1890, so it is a must-see when you're in Penang.

It was my good fortune to visit during this period when the corridors of the massive complex are strung with colourful red and yellow new year lanterns. It gets even more impressive at night when all 10,000 lanterns and 230,000 decorative light bulbs are lighted up for the Chinese New Year festivities.

The latest attraction is the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion which was consecrated on 6 December 2009. The pavilion, supported by granite pillars with ornate carvings, is equivalent to the height of a 20-storey building!

Sunday 30 January 2011

Penang food

Penang hawker food is so legendary that tourists are known to flock there just for the best char kuay teow, oyster omelette, laksa, curry noodles, prawn mee, rojak, popiah, loh bak and chendol.

Though I had only several hours in Penang, I was determined to eat my fill. Luckily my lovely client was more than happy to oblige.

For breakfast, she brought me to a famous loh bak stall.

Besides loh bak (meat roll wrapped in beancurd skin), the stall also sells deep fried fish, cuttlefish and shrimp fritters, served with 2 dipping sauces - chilli and a starchy sauce flavoured with spices.

This loh bak combo was just the side dish. We each had a plate of char kuay teow.

This was a special order, cooked using duck eggs which made the dish extra aromatic and delicious!

My host is really funny. Two hours after breakfast, she asked if I was ready for lunch. While I don't normally take lunch, I just couldn't pass up this opportunity to sample more Penang food.

I had wanted to eat the famous prawn mee soup and fruit rojak but the few good stalls that we went to were closed. Finally we had to settle for this one nearby.

The spicy broth, made using prawn shells and heads, was rich and flavourful. The prawn mee here is slightly different from the ones served in Singapore.

Our order came with hardboiled egg, small boiled prawns, roast pork and a big spoonful of chilli sauce.

Alas, there was no fruit rojak or chendol (pandan-flavored noodles, shaved ice, red beans in coconut milk and palm sugar syrup) stall in sight. So I ordered ice kachang instead.

I left for the airport after lunch to catch the evening flight back to Singapore. I wish I had more time to try a larger variety of hawker food. Some of the best stalls are found along Gurney Drive, a popular seafront promenade that only comes alive at night. Looks like I have to come back to Penang some time soon, with my fellow foodies so we can eat up a storm.

Baking cookies

Chinese New Year is only 4 days away and I feel so unprepared. I haven't bought any goodies yet. I was holding back the purchase thinking that I could find loads of authentic cookies in Penang.

Alas, I didn't even come across one single bakery. Besides, I was there to attend a meeting, not to shop. So I came back with nothing.

I'm very fussy when it comes to the cookies that I buy. Since I only indulge in such high-calorie treats once a year, I might as well eat the really good ones.

It rained all day today and I was in no mood to go out shopping , so I stayed home and baked cookies instead.

Peanut cookie is one of the easiest to make. The recipe calls for simple ingredients like peanuts, icing sugar, flour and cooking oil. I didn't even have to pull out my weighing scale. Everything was measured in my trusty old measuring cup. I shaped the dough into small flattened balls using my fingers.

The cookies are ready after 15 minutes in the oven.

I made a batch of almond cookies too using the same recipe. Simply replace the ground peanuts with almond. It actually tastes better than the peanut cookie.

This will be all that I'm baking. I'll have to get the rest from the bakery.

Thursday 27 January 2011

I am back!

I got a little distracted after running the business for close to a decade. Last year, I sorta took a sabbatical year to explore other opportunities, leaving my staff to handle most of the day to day activities at work.

It was an eventful year filled with excitement. For the first time in my life, I was dealing with preschool kids and avid gardeners. One thing led to another, kids knew me as Ms Greenfingers. I made my appearance at school carnivals, bazaars and garden shows. I even found time to volunteer at a school garden.

As the year came to a close, I found myself at the crossroads. While the new business was fun, it wasn't very profitable. Instead of mucking around, why don't I put my passion back into my core business, the one that has been keeping us alive and well all these years.

When I started the business ten years ago, it was my life, my everything. I stayed up all night emailing customers in USA and dreamed of shipping containers in my sleep. The sight of a brand new container would make my heart beat faster. I traveled across the world to meet customers and attend trade shows.

Then as life got comfortable, complacency set in. I wasn't quite as earnest anymore. The industry became more competitive as new players surfaced. Then there was the financial crisis which brought the maritime industry to its knees. That was when I began looking elsewhere. The grass is always greener on the other side.

This year, I decided to put my energy back into the container business again. I should harness my sound reputation and strength to grow the company instead of exploring the unknown.

Instead of sitting in the comforts of my office, there will be more travels to visit customers and vendors near and far. The timing is quite right as the kids are more independent now.

I'll be flying to Penang tomorrow to visit a client. It has been 15 years since my last trip to Penang Island, also known as "Pearl of the Orient". While I'm eager to meet my customer, I'm just as keen to see how much the island has changed over the years. And of course, I can't wait to eat all the famous Penang specialties - char kway teow, prawn mee soup, rojak, chendol, hokkien mee....

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Not a Tiger Mum

I brought some new clothes home for my mum yesterday. Like an excited little girl, she tried them on quickly and stood before the mirror. Her smile turned into a frown. "It has nothing to do with the clothes, it's just difficult to look good at my age."

"You look fine mum!"

To me, she is always beautiful. Sure there are days when she can look so gaunt from her ill health, but in my eyes, she's the sweet old mum with a girlish face, albeit now lined with age.

Then we settled down for a chat, an activity that we both enjoy immensely. When I updated her on the kids' progress in school, she suddenly exclaimed, "Imagine if you were a Tiger Mother like Amy Chua, YK would surely excel in school. He can even be a doctor!"

Well, I'm not sure about that. You see, I can never be a Tiger Mother. First of all, my kids aren't exactly cute little cubs that I can push around. It's not easy at all to replicate Amy's teaching methods (not that I agree that her methods are correct). It takes a hell lot of discipline and sacrifice on her part to raise her 'perfect' cubs.

I've always believe in giving my kids space. Instead of making them sit for hours practising the piano or math papers, we were out chasing butterflies and building sandcastles. While my best friend's kids were reciting the multiplication table, mine were breeding caterpillars and shrimps. Though we are best friends, our priorities are quite different.

Today her kids are doing very well academically. Thanks to their parents, they are very accomplished. They scuba dive and ski, and even though they are excellent swimmers, they're still taking lessons (for more than 10 years already) under a national coach.

When we were on a vacation in Thailand, one of her sons refused to go scuba diving. He was moody and wanted to stay on board with us. Maybe he was feeling a little seasick like us but after much persuasion and pep talk, he donned his scuba gear reluctantly and went into the water.

My kids felt sorry for him and were relieved that I've not given them that kind of pressure. Sometimes I wonder if I had started them on the right path. I have been told that I'm too lax with my kids and that my old methods no longer work in today's competitive environment. I'm surrounded by too many Tiger Mummies in Singapore!

In a way, I am glad my kids are already in their teens. While they aren't exactly the smartest kids in school, they are good in other things. One thing for sure, the passion for their hobbies has pushed them to acquire a lot more knowledge outside the school textbook.

Such knowledge and experience might not help them score marks in school, but will surely come in handy in the school of life. And that is ultimately what matters most.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Nepalese food

We met up with Chris & wife in Little India thinking we were eating at Muthu's Curry but they had something else in mind - Nepalese food.

It sounds so cliche but I can only associate Nepal with Mt Everest, the Gurkha and a dumpling called momo.

The owner of this restaurant must know how limited my knowledge of Nepal is, so he named his restaurant Everest.

And he adorned the walls with the Gurkha symbol.

When it was time to order food, we gave the momo (fried or steamed) a miss. We were all quite curious what a typical Nepalese meal is like, so Chris ordered a bit of everything.

A basket of papadum accompanied by a very spicy mint sauce arrived at our table. Do they eat the papadum too?

We were very fascinated with the cutlery and utensils. The plate was quite heavy. It could have been made from brass.

The teapot was so pretty, we went around Little India in search of a similar one after dinner. We couldn't find any.

If you ask me what Nepalese food is like, I would say it is rather similar to Northern Indian cuisine. I am generalising here of course. I know how peeved my friend from Bangladesh gets when one compares his cuisine with Indian food. I hope my Nepalese readers will forgive me.

Most of the dishes , from meat to lentils and vegetables, were cooked in a curry gravy and eaten with bread (naan, chappati etc) or rice.

Chris went a little overboard with the ordering. We had chicken, mutton, fish, cauliflower, potatoes, chick peas, spiced rice and naan. They were all cooked in a rich curry sauce, so we were pretty stuffed before dinner was over.

Instead of dessert, we had the special Nepalese milk tea with a hint of spice in it.

The weather was perfect for an after-dinner stroll around Little India. Just the night before, the streets were packed with worshippers and spectators out celebrating Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community on the full moon in the month of Thai (January/Feb).

The moon was exceptionally gorgeous on Friday night, and the streets were unusually quiet and peaceful.

Thursday 20 January 2011

The big pickle dream

So, I peer into the fridge and look at my big glass bowl of achar everyday. The thing about achar is, it tastes better with age. I know YK has been peeling open the cling film to steal some for tasting

I think it's just perfect and I bet he thinks so too, though he says, "It's good, but a little too spicy."

My colleague came by the other night and YK quickly suggested, "Aren't you going to give Aunty LT a jar of achar?"

But of course! That same night, I started dreaming the big achar dream. Maybe I can set up a small shop to sell my achar. It can be quite profitable as the cost of raw materials is low. But I can't sell nothing but achar in a shop. Maybe I can rope in my Korean friend to make kimchi. We can specialise in pickles, chutney, spices and salad dressings! We can be the spice girls!

This morning I finally bottled up the achar. I thought there was enough to feed an army but I was quite wrong. I couldn't even fill up half a dozen bottles. At first I thought I could even send some to my friends, but I guess there isn't enough to go around.

There is hope. If I decide to open the achar shop, I will need lots of practice. That's when I need many guinea pigs.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Achar - done!

The Koreans have their kimchi and the Nonyas have their achar. I like both, so I'm making achar for the first time today.

You don't have to be an excellent cook to know how to make achar but let me warn you first, it is alot of work! I spent the entire night cutting up 4 cucumbers, 4 carrots, one head of cauliflower and half a cabbage into small pieces.

After blanching the cut pieces in a bubbling vinegary solution, I ended up with a huge basin of vegetables!

Then I peeled two dozen shallots, a knob of ginger and tumeric, chopped everything up and pounded into a paste (using the pestle and mortar) the old fashioned way. YK walked in and remarked that I look like a Nonya, hovering over the stove with my hair in a bun. Here's what the gravy made using the ground paste, vinegar, sugar and salt, looks like after cooking.

Finally, mix ground peanuts, sesame seeds, vegetables and gravy in a big glass bowl. Leave in the fridge for several days. I have made enough to feed an army. I'll give some away to my family.

After slaving away for hours, it had better be good.

Sunday 16 January 2011

What a feast!

My younger brother invited us over to his new house for dinner last night. He has recently moved to the same development as our older brother, so both families get together often. I'm feeling rather left out all because we're living so far away.

I'll be quite happy to move to their neck of the woods but my kids insist that the East is where they belong. They've grown up in the East and are reluctant to live anywhere else.

Being a fantastic cook, my younger brother whipped up some of his signature dishes. He's quite a perfectionist who makes everything from scratch and selects only the best cuts of meat and the freshest ingredients.

The beef stew (bottom left) was cooked to perfection. Knowing how his daughters love Korean style beef bulgogi, he made a hot-plate version (bottom right) as well.

For those who do not like beef, he cooked a large pot of the Peranakan favourite babi ponteh (below), a pork stew.

Other dishes like the steamed fish and lotus root/arrowhead soup were nutritious and delicious. There were other vegetable dishes too.

I prepared a pomelo salad and steamed ngoh hiang (meat & shrimp rolls).

For dessert, we had 2 kinds of ice cream, 3 varieties of chocolate and many beautiful cupcakes.

Chowmahalla Palace

During our week in Hyderabad, some of the places we visited include the Mecca Mosque, the Charminar (the icon of Hyderabad), Sufi Shrine, Bi...