Archives for the month of: September, 2013

raindrops

It’s been a funny old week and I’ve hummed and ha’ed about what to write – how to say what I’m thinking without sounding like I’m sitting in judgement. I’m just watching and making sense of my tiny space on this planet. I don’t have any answers. To give you an idea of where this is going, this is a short sentence that Dom read somewhere – it says a lot about life, particularly about life here in Singapore.

People buy things they don’t need
With money they don’t have
To impress people that don’t care.

During these turbulent times and when things got tough financially, people stopped and thought about how they lived and what their priorities were. Around us in the UK, some carried on with their head in the sand refusing to contemplate any shift in lifestyle; some realised they lived under huge economic fragility but were happy to take the risk; some (us included) took a deep breath and changed some habits.

I read and Dom and I talked and we changed as a family, gently. There are some powerful sources of inspiration out there and it helped me to adjust my view of the world. I particularly enjoyed this one http://www.becomingminimalist.com.

Having experienced a shift in how we lived in the UK, it is quite an eye-opener to come to Singapore and discover just how much one small place can consume. From the billions of plastic bags to the endless ebb and flow of shopping mall after shopping mall, is it a commercial paradise or a place where the pursuit of pleasure has overtaken the search for happiness?

That instant hit of pleasure when we buy something, how long does it last? How long does it take before we desire something new?

If you have a window in your day, pour yourself a drink and watch this

What are your thoughts?

I am still looking, changing, adapting and reading and trying to find my way. The journey to finding happiness has been described as like being on a very turbulent flight through grey cloud and suddenly, just for a moment, you break through the cloud and fly in the clear blue sky above marvelling at the wonder of it. (www.getsomeheadspace.com)

Right now in my life? It’s very, very turbulent.

moon_festival2

It’s another Chinese lunar festival here in Singapore. On Saturday I asked a taxi driver why there were lanterns strung up everywhere and he simply said ‘It’s the mid-autumn festival’. ‘And the tradition of giving mooncakes?’ I asked. ‘Because….’ he said with a little shrug. ‘It’s like the festival of the hungry ghost’. Can’t be, I thought, last I heard the ghosts had checked back in to the underworld.

Ned and Millie have both been tasting mooncakes at school and yet neither of them seemed to have touched on the stories behind it. The cakes are incredibly calorific – sweet and dense and traditionally made with lard and full of red lotus paste – that would explain it.

With Millie at home poorly she was in need of a new story and I wanted to know – why a mooncake?

I think my love of stories has come down from my father. His bedtime stories were legendary. His version of Beowulf was not for kids of a delicate disposition. It’s not a cheery tale. He always gave a spin on a story which is what made them so fantastic to me – Rumpelstiltskin was done over by the princess. They had a binding contract and she broke it. Jack used his beanstalk for greed and serial burglary on an unsuspecting ogre. By the time I was old enough to still want him to weave a tale but had grown too old for fairy stories, he would tell us about battles and rebellions over the dinner table and so I give you two versions of the Moon Festival – one for my father and one for me. If my parents weren’t 16,000 miles away they would have a mooncake too.*

chang e<

For my dad

In the 14th Century the Mongolians had invaded China and set up a ruling force – the tyrannical Yuan dynasty. The Han Chinese set about planning their revolt but were crushed from every side. But there was one man who had enough cunning and dared to mastermind the rebellion. Liu Fu Tong was the secret rebel leader who sold a story to the puppet Emperor that the people would make small, intricately designed golden cakes full of lotus paste in honour of their Mongolian rulers. These would be given out by the people on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month – the moon festival; the night that the moon is at its brightest; the autumn equinox. The Mongolians had no desire to join the people and eat these crude peasant cakes but as a token of patronising generosity they allowed the people to pass them to each other. Stamped on the bottom of each cake were the details of the rebellion and they were passed freely amongst the masses. As one, on a night where the moon shone down like daylight, the Han Chinese rose up, defeated their invaders and threw the Mongols out of China. Every year since, mooncakes are given to family and friends in gratitude to the moon and Liu Fu Tong.

For me

Once upon a time there were ten suns that spun around the earth. One fateful day they aligned over China and their heat scorched the earth and killed the crops. The Emperor summoned his best archer Hou Yi to shoot down the nine extra suns. Hou Yi obeyed and his arrows saved the people and the cooling rains came from behind the suns. The gentle Goddess of the Western Heavens went to Hou Yi from where she was hiding from the heat and gave him a gift of thanks – an elixir of eternal life. But Hou Yi had a beautiful wife whom he wanted to stay with on earth. He had no desire to live forever alone. They made a pact that they would share the potion at the end of their mortal life and go to the heavens together for eternity. Now Hou Yi’s fame spread far and wide and soon apprentice archers came to him. One of them was a man called Feng Meng. Feng Meng knew the rumour about this elixir and desired it with all his heart. On the longest night, Hou Yi took his apprentices hunting. Sneaking away from the pack Feng Meng made his way to Hou Yi’s home. His wife – Chang-e – had spied him as he came out of the shadows and into the bright light of the moon. She took the elixir from its hiding place. Confronted by Feng Meng, Chang-e drank the potion. Hou Yi didn’t trust Feng Meng and when he discovered he was missing, he rushed back to his home. As he rode into his courtyard he was in time to witness Chang-e begin to float to the heavens. She didn’t want to leave Hou Yi so she prayed to the Goddess to allow her to stay with him. The Goddess answered and allowed Chang-e to float only to the moon. There she can still be seen on the 15th day of the 8th month – on the longest night – dancing intricate patterns on the surface of the moon. The patterns she makes are put on the mooncakes in her honour.

archer

*As with all good myths and legends, there are an abundance of versions. These two are my interpretations and written here for Millie and Ned. All inaccuracies, historical fudging and mis-myth quotations are all my own.

It’s been a quiet week after the swamps last week. There is sports day, clubs starting, friends to play with and friends to be made.

I have also had my first foray into the world of asian cooking. The lovely Aly from Bangkok has been my teacher. There is nothing like learning to cook from a real-life person. One of the things I love about food is being able to conjure up events, times and people in my head as I eat. Minx makes her chilli with baked beans and bacon (it’s amazing), Dom makes the best guacamole. Every time I eat them I am with that person, even when I’m not. Aly completely understands this. She was brought up in Bangkok and when she was small her parents would often travel or entertain. Her nanny came from the ‘countryside’ in Thailand so would cook simple regional food for herself and Aly. Food is a comfort blanket the world over.

When I go home I am going to start Food Story Night. You take it in turns for a friend to teach you how to cook a meal their way, a recipe that means something to them. Food and a story, my two favourite things.

So we went to Aly’s favourite place to eat Thai food. If you are in Singapore, I’m talking about the Golden Mile shopping complex off the Nicoll Highway.

Aly orders a selection of dishes for us to try – roast chicken, papaya salad with prawns and another vermicelli noodle salad dish and sticky rice. Before the food comes, the lady running the place puts down a tray of raw cabbage and two small plastic bags. Okaaaay. The plastic bag contained the sticky rice – it wasn’t so much sticky as welded. You prise pieces of rice out of the bag and dunk it in the sauce. After the first mouthful I discovered what the raw cabbage is for. It takes the heat out of your mouth if the food is too spicy. That really works and I ate a fair old bit of raw cabbage with this meal. Aly said that she would order her favourite childhood meal – black spider crabs – but she could guarantee I wouldn’t like it. She’s right, it was a spicy, salty, fishy burn-your-tongue-off-why-would-you-eat-this kind of a taste.

Thai meal with Aly

Then it was time to do ingredients. I got carried away in the supermarket and bought this…

Thai food shopping

I had pandan leaves, thai basil, baby aubergines, thai curry paste, fish sauce, chilli sauce and other stuff….and I should have labelled the bottles in English as now I’m a bit unsure…

I’m still trialling recipes so will share some later but here’s my discovery so far. Chinese food has a trinity of flavours as a base note for most of the food – garlic, ginger and soy. The Thai food that Aly is teaching me to cook has a different base note – garlic, lemongrass and chilli. Fresh and sour. Chalk and cheese.

I’m learning a whole different approach to food. When examining the coriander our conversation went like this:

Aly: …The roots of the coriander are used to flavour Tom Yum Soup.

Me: You mean the stalks.

Aly: No, the roots. Why would you eat the stalks, they’re bitter.

Me: Because Jamie Oliver told me to.

Aly: No, just… No.

And so, I discovered in that moment why in Singapore you always buy your coriander looking like this..

coriander

Love it.

stepping stones

Let’s get out of the city today; out of the chaos and the noise, the chatter and the fumes.

I had to get some peace and didn’t know if you could find it in Singapore. I was given a tiny taste at the Pasir Ris park where if you can escape the play park, the bicycles, micro scooters, stables and pony rides there is a mangrove swamp. Not a big one, but a mangrove swamp all the same. This fair island was once nearly all swamp and that is very, very hard to believe at times.

And escape I did. Up to the North West of this tiny island and the Kranji Farms and the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. It’s impossible to describe how strange this landscape is to girl from Kent but it is how I imagine the world to be if the dinosaurs were still roaming. The swamp is tidal which probably explains this:

mangrove swamp

And it has a quiet, eerie sound with all the birds and insects that makes you feel like you’re abandoned alone.

ghostly mangrovee

But then, if you open your eyes, you see that life is bursting in these dark, dank swamps – crabs of all shapes and sizes, fish like needles and mudskipper alien frogs. Then you start to notice the flora and fauna. It’s a haunting, magical place.

flowers in the swamp

pinprick flowers

Then, it breaks to give you wide lakes with flying fish. They are surprisingly inelegant and sort of plop in the water. Plop, it’s a good word.

mangrove reflections

Then, who should wander up to see what the fuss was about but this enormous bad boy. A water monitor lizard. Totally pre-historic with a scaly giant lizard body and a snakes head. Honestly, you couldn’t make him up. And no, they don’t run off when you startle them.

monitor lizard 1

monitor lizard

Then I saw a sign warning you about the crocodiles. Ok, monitor lizards I’m ok with but crocs.. hmmm… time to go.

The next stop was Bollywood Veggies. Go, you won’t regret it, just get on a bus, get in a car and GO. Everything about this place is an antidote to life in Singapore. It’s an organic farm and the biggest producer of bananas in Singapore. But this place is no straightforward, run-of-the-mill farm. As we walked in we were greeted by Tony – a Welsh gent of a certain vintage and a host of information and chat about the place. Then, Ivy arrived. Ivy and her husband own and manage Bollywood Veggies. She is a hurricane of a woman. I don’t know much about chakras but if you were to find Ivy’s it would be fire and lava. You can feel the heat of her energy as she strides past you (talking, always talking… very loudly). She tells Tony there are a group from a hospital here to talk about planting a sustainable garden. ‘At last’ she declares ‘they see that they can have a garden to eat. Wonderful’ and off she goes like a tornado.

butterfly dreams

Planted on permaculture principles of keeping layers of plants in harmony with each other, it is beautiful. Ten acres of clever planting and brimming with birds and butterflies. Can you tell how much I loved it? I truly did. More than a garden, more than a farm, Ivy and her husband are true philanthropists. They employ staff with physical disabilities and my companion for the day has read May’s book ‘Scaling Walls’ about her life. I hope Singapore embraces the message from Bollywood Veggies and takes it to her heart.

bollywood gardens1

lilies

Read about it here http://www.bollywoodveggies.com

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