mercredi, mars 11, 2015

Glutinous Rice Balls (汤圆): the last night of the Chinese Lunar New Year


Every year, across countries in Asia where glutinous rice balls are consumed on auspicious occasions,  one often reads about some kid or elderly choking to death on a ball. Yet, the asian love for all things round continues and I couldn't keep out the sound of the salesgirls promoting their glutinous rice balls in Carrefour in the week leading to the end of CNY, nor could I stop receiving (on social media) all sorts of well wishes for 元宵 - also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day.

I guess the folklore of lovers reuniting under the full moon is irresistible for the Chinese and the fact that you could play with the characters/symbols and come out with all kinds of wishes for fullness, wealth etc make it a sure hit with the superstitious. However, the occasion is not celebrated the same way everywhere in the Chinese world and the way one would eat a glutinous rice ball would also differ according to local customs or taste.

I remember that when I was a kid, mum would roll her own glutinous rice balls and they would be plain, white and red, and served in a sweetened soup. Of course the Gods and ancestors would always get to try them first, but I loved them and didn't mind having the leftovers :-).

Then the age of the industrially-produced frozen glutinous rice balls arrived and we would have them stuffed with sesame paste, peanuts or red bean paste. From the look of things the Chinese where I am are now at this stage because almost every person I questioned about the rice balls was not making his own. Quite a pity since we all know now that it is best to avoid consuming industrially produced food products wherever possible, plus glutinous rice balls are probably one of the easiest things to make on one's own.  

In Shanghai, the Chinese also eat savoury meat-filled glutinous rice balls which are not something I am used to. And according to my driver Zong, what matters to them is the filling (whether sweet or savoury) and not much attention is usually paid to the soup. In fact, they usually just serve their precious glutinous rice balls in hot water.

CNY 2015

I will not bother to blog the recipe since I've done so about 5 years ago. For this year's yuanxiao, I made 3 types of glutinous rice balls: rose and pandanus flavoured, as well as plain white balls stuffed with salted duck egg yolk. The soup was a simple brown sugar with ginger and pandanus leaves solution. If using Taikoo's ginger brown sugar, use it sparingly and combine with normal white sugar as the former is very very strong.

I made each kid eat just one glutinous rice ball for the occasion as they are not at all into it (I guess it's an acquired taste) while I gobbled down the rest. I thought it made a good occasion for teaching them about some of the Chinese customs while we are still living in China.  

mercredi, février 25, 2015

Three Mornings at Willing Hearts : Feeding the Needy in Singapore

Eldest Son cooking rice @Willing Hearts

The Young Adult has/had CAS (Community, Action, Service) obligations to fulfil as part of his IB (International Baccalaureate) Diploma and as usual was lacking behind. Mum had to come to the rescue and it was fortunate that a charity food kitchen like Willing Hearts exists in Singapore. Anybody is welcome to help out though they prefer volunteers to turn up before sunrise and if possible stay till at least lunch time.

Fate was kind to us because my parents' flat happened to be a short taxi ride away from the food kitchen (at Genting Lane, though they have since moved to bigger premises in Jalan Ubi). It was still tough having to wake the boy up very early during his vacation, but he was keen to clock enough charity hours for CAS so he was pretty cooperative.

Willing Hearts at 6am

We arrived at the industrial building when it was still dark and quiet and I decided to stay and help out too since I have always wanted to serve in a food kitchen. I guess one is also more motivated when one knows that one would be helping one's own countrymen, especially senior citizens for whom I have a tender spot.

There were many stations at which one could choose to help out, from washing and cooking rice, to washing and preparing vegetables and meat, to cooking, packing, delivering the food etc. The YA started out cooking rice and being the dyspraxic child that he is, spent the rest of his 3 mornings there cooking rice. I started out cooking rice too, but quickly decided that I wanted to see something else and ended up helping to pack the food which was more interesting because it was different depending on what they had in the pantry and who it was meant for. Needless to say I also tasted a bit of what I was packing to see what the recipients were in for. There was this fried rice with dried shrimp (from a can) that was actually quite tasty though I thought it didn't look appetising (looks can be deceiving).

Cooking rice for thousands of people

We were there from Sunday till Tuesday (in July 2014) and got to see the changing demography of the volunteers. In the week, the food kitchen could usually depend on a vibrant, efficient and fierce group of tai tais that included both locals and expats. They would bark out orders and move really quickly because they have been doing this almost every day for a number of years now. On weekends, there will be mainly corporate volunteers, students and working individuals who feel a need to offer occasional help. Then, there are a few people who turn up every day rain or shine, including Tony Tay the retiree who started the kitchen and an electrical engineer (in red T-shirt) who helps out every morning before he goes to work!

Volunteers at work; Tony the founder is the guy in dark blue T-shirt looking at his phone

The thing that bothers me is that people think that there are only needy people in developing countries. There are needy people in all societies and the ones that live in relatively rich countries are often forgotten or ignored because they are not so visible. When we were there, the food kitchen was churning out meals for more than 4000 people each time, mostly for the elderly and the underprivileged, regardless of race or religion (the kitchen doesn't serve pork or lard). I heard that they now offer dental and TCM services as well in their new premises.

It was nearly lunch time when we were done!

Tony said that the YA should accompany one of their vans when they go around delivering the packed lunches and that he would surely find meaning in what he had been doing. I was certainly tempted to take him up on it if we were not already busy with other more personal obligations. The Willing Hearts would definitely be a stop for us now when we visit Singapore, CAS or no CAS. I am keen to see their new kitchen and hope that my other children will also find understanding if they had the chance to (physically) serve others less fortunate than themselves. Meanwhile, if you were hesitating about whether to help out or not, please go ahead and do it at least once. Just being commanded by the tai tai army would be an experience in itself!   

mardi, février 24, 2015

Banana Bread (could have been gluten-free but wasn't)

Banana Bread

We went hiking in Hong Kong over the CNY holidays and left whatever food we couldn't clear out before leaving to their own fates. Among the stuff were 2 bananas that turned black on the outside, but remained surprisingly firm and white on the inside. I am no expert in bananas so I can't dissertate about why these bananas were not rotting on the inside, nor could I tell you if the race and cultivation methods had anything to do with that, but ripe bananas certainly do tend to reveal a primitive desire in me to cook or bake them.

I have baked a number of banana cakes and brownies in my life, and I am always ready to try something new. In recent times I've been reading quite a bit about the use of alternative grains in cooking and baking, and I've seen with my own eyes how ladies who couldn't eat gluten tend to be really skinny. Unfortunately I love my wheat and know that it would be torture to resist the pasta, fresh loaves and cakes, so I have been toying with the idea of reducing processed wheat flour with small amounts of alternative "healthier" flours. On this day, I found almond meal, organic chickpea (besan) and wheat flours in my pantry, so I used them. I've run out of wholemeal wheat flour, and would have loved to use it too if I had any on hand.

With this Year of the Goat, we started our 5th year as expats in Shanghai. This would be our longest expatriation ever in one country, and while we welcome it as the children are attending good international schools, the Hub still has lots to accomplish in his current position and I enjoy being chauffeur-driven, there are moments when I feel tired of living in this expat bubble and wished I could be somewhere where I could plant a few trees, choose my own tiles for the bathroom, build my own kitchen and meet more people who lead "normal" lives. As I do my morning walks, I often spend time renovating my own place in my head, and they come in all sizes, from tiny to moderately big though never too big as I still do not think I'll want to hire full-time domestic help.

If you have been an expat for as long as I have been, and in so many different places, you would have met all sorts of people. There are people with whom you could enjoy existentialist, metaphysical and/or XXX discussions and debates, but with most people, you will have to keep relations at the how are you and I love you levels. When I first arrived in Paris to study politics at Sciences Po, I often wondered what's with the French and their love for talk shows where they discussed and debated everything to death; then I spent a few months in Rochester, NY, where I noticed that most people looked at life in black and white, where you had to constantly put yourself in one camp or another. That horrified me, for I couldn't understand why a land of liberty could produce so many people with such limited views, and with such an overpowering sense of good versus evil when the gun is so freely wielded by people both "good" and "bad". Just as I had romantic fantasies about Arab oil sheikhs that dispersed at my first contacts with a few North Africans, I dropped my American Dream and returned to Europe, to the Brits with their sense of humour, the French for their lack of, the Germans for being there to make sure that everybody toes the line, the Italians for being such a mess but for making the best pasta and ceramics...the list goes on for the Continent is as big and diverse as it is old.

Here in Shanghai, with such a very big expat population, you amplify the contacts you have with people from all over the world. And you have what I didn't have in the other expat communities I lived in: Charity Galas and loads of charity-related events. China, I guess, has both the world's second largest number of billionaires as well as gigantic pockets of people who need help. Help that they seem not to be getting from their billionaires, nor from their government that taxes people like us 50% of our income at its source. So it's more or less left to the many warm-hearted locals, expats and international schools here to carry out year-round fundraising, combine that with the IB requiring their students to do charity as part of their learning and Diploma, and you will be doing charity in one way or another here, both directly and indirectly.

Recently, a friend reacted to a Wechat discussion a group of mums from the school were having about charity overdose. She posted a few thoughts on Facebook about how people who travelled a few times a year complained about donating 10 rmb here and there (e.g. during charity drives at school); that some mums complained about being solicited to help out at school while others did their part without complaining. As I have mentioned earlier, it's a friend that I like and respect, so I resisted the temptation to point out in her FB posting that what she wrote couldn't logically hold much water as there was too much hyperbole in it. How could people who could afford to travel a few times a year not want to pay 10 rmb to help out a few poor Chinese kids? Surely the issue runs deeper than that and if a few hundred, even thousand rmb a year could help save your soul and your conscience who wouldn't go for it willingly? Unfortunately, if you take it at such a minimised angle, it made those who dared to complain about charity drive attrition, or how our kids only look upon charity as taking money from mummy to give to the school, look really bad. Still, as I've always said to those who would listen, only you yourself know what you think and have done, so no problem there. Least you think I'm speaking behind her back, I will bring this up with her face to face another time.

Speaking of travel, most expats I know do travel a lot, some more comfortably than others. There are expats whose companies (usually American) offer them generous travel allowances that may pay for business class air tickets, hotel accommodation and even car rentals, there are expats whose companies only offer an annual ticket home (and if you are like us it's only for economy class) and there are others who get nothing. So 4/5 times when we travel, it's out of our own pocket, it's a choice we make that usually requires sacrifices on our part e.g. the Young Adult has nothing saved towards his college education. But even when I was earning peanuts as a young graduate I've always managed to save enough to travel each year, so it doesn't matter if I couldn't afford luxury travel, I'm happy just to continue seeing the world and experience life beyond the usual with whatever means we have at hand. And if 10rmb here and there could make me feel better about this indulgence, it wouldn't be too much to give away. If only things are so simple...

Helping out at school is another expat-related issue. Back in those days when my kids went to public schools in France, the only people you ever get to see if you should go to school were a few grandparents and nannies at the school gate (usually closed during school hours). Most mothers worked and the schools only asked you to turn up if there was an issue with your child. When our children first attended an international school in Italy, I had my first PTA contact and ended up spending almost 4 years in the school itself. Certes, I made great friends among the other mothers who helped out and I entered into some friction with the School Principal because of my big mouth (but since then we understand and respect each other, don't we?), but I literally lived with the school and the other expats. Arriving in Shanghai, I saw that the situation was similar, though as the schools are bigger and the population bigger too, you wouldn't get the same sense of community as you would back in Modena. I decided that discretion would be the better part of valour and kept a low profile most of the time, helping out whenever I could or felt like it, and most of the time I would turn up to help without having put my name down for it - so that nobody would remember me if they were looking for "volunteers" later on!

Besides helping out in the classrooms, parents are often required to help out in charity-related events often driven by the school, its Student Council and/or its PTA, from baking goodies for sale to organising the charity galas etc. I have given much thought in the past few years to this, but came up with no obvious resolution about my personal involvement at this moment. When I was a teenager, I spent 6 years of my life as a volunteer with the elderly in a neighbourhood social service centre. We were hands-on charity workers and had to come out with time and effort beyond time for studies or work. We had a camaraderie with our fellow volunteers and a connection with the senior citizens we worked for that money wouldn't be able to buy. It's like studying about humanitarian effort at University and learning about how just providing funds could do more harm than good. At the same time, without funds, charity effort on the ground cannot be sustained. So it's a combination of different effort at different levels; you have to admire and thank those people who, by hook or by crook, raise the funds to feed your charity labour and the fund raisers are glad that there is a good reason for them to give money for.

In Shanghai, many expat mums leave behind their jobs (at least temporarily especially for the first timers) in their own countries and arrive in an environment like the school which, I suspect, gave them a sense of belonging and purpose. I'm sure they sincerely feel compassion for the Chinese children, orphans etc they are helping to raise funds for, but looking from the angle of a former volunteer, it's relatively glamorous work attending meetings (and from what I heard, a lot of politicking and egos flying around most of the time in them), baking cupcakes, charming shops to donate prizes...But it's important to have someone do it and we should be grateful that they did what they did because they didn't have to in the first place. Then other expats could find a nice dress to wear to a gala, make a few bids in the silent auctions and send more money to a few charitable organisations. Everyone has a place in this karma-generating enterprise and we can only hope that those who really need the money and help get the majority of all of that.

Do I sound negative or positive or do you really need to figure it all so very clearly? What happened to the Banana Bread? I blog this recipe for my Bulgarian friend ES (still living in Modena) who asked for it and hope that she will like it.

Banana Bread :

1½ cup all purpose wheat flour (could replace ½ cup with wholemeal)
½ cup organic chickpea flour
½ cup almond meal
1 tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 ripe bananas mashed
½ cup brown sugar (can also be ginger-spiced) 
½ cup olive oil (preferably light-flavoured)
1½ tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup water
½ cup walnuts or pecan nuts chopped and optional

20x10x10 cm loaf tin oiled and floured

The method : 

Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.

Mix dry ingredients (e.g. flours, baking soda, salt and cinnamon) together in a large bowl.

In another large bowl mash the bananas and combine with the sugar, olive oil and vanilla to a smooth consistency.

Slowly mix in the dry ingredients adding the water as you go along.

Stir in the chopped nuts if you are using them.

Pour into the loaf tin and bake for an hour.

With maple syrup

This loaf is best eaten warm, but I enjoy heating it up slice after slice a day or 2 later and eating it with maple syrup or nutella.  

dimanche, février 01, 2015

Waffle (a second recipe)


I have a yeast-based waffle recipe in my archives that dates back to 2010. It's pretty classic except that it requires quite a bit of sitting time and there are days when I may be in a bit of a hurry. That's when a baking powder-based waffle recipe comes in handy, especially on this day when, in exchange for a few stingy kisses from my hormone-fired female teenager, I had to prepare a round of waffles for breakfast.

I also used a different iron for these waffles, giving them deeper indents which allow them to collect more sugar, honey or maple syrup.

Waffles (makes 8-10) :

300g all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 eggs beaten
125g butter (unsalted or salted, melted)
400ml milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract or
1 tbsp orange blossom water/grand marnier/rum (optional)

Mix the dry ingredients together. Make a well in the middle and beat in the eggs.

Stir in the milk and mix well to get a smooth batter.

Stir in the melted butter and extra flavouring if you choose to use it.

Let the batter sit for at least 20 minutes.

Heat up your waffle iron and butter it. Pour in the batter and cook. Hub likes his waffles not too cooked while I like mine very cooked, so basically adjust the cooking time according to your taste.

The waffles are light and fluffy, though with this recipe, in terms of quantity, I can't really feed my always-hungry family of 5. I had to double the quantity in order to give everyone at least 3 waffles each.

Serve with maple syrup, icing sugar, honey, jam, ice cream, whipped cream or enjoy them plain!

jeudi, janvier 29, 2015

Larb (Thai/Laotian Minced Meat Salad)

Larb - a portion

Hub almost never travelled when he was working at Ferrari Spa. in Maranello, but Shanghai is an altogether different story. As the company in China grew under his management, his travels also increased. First it was just to Wuhu (Anhui) where their first plant was located; then he started going to Foshan (Guangdong) when he set up their second plant; then to Wuhan (Hubei) where they have started a joint-venture with the Chinese. Outside China, he flies regularly to Penang having taken over the company's Malaysian operations and a few months ago, he also started to go to Yokohama when he was given the Japan operations. Not to forget occasional trips to Europe to either Stuttgart or Milan for meetings with HQ.

Life is busy and I imagine, stressful. Fortunately, after a learning stint at INSEAD in Singapore last March, he came back not only a better business leader, but also a man more determined to keep healthy knowing that his current lifestyle is not the most ideal. He started working out regularly and eating better, insisting that I prepare salads and make sure that we have fruit at home. For many households that would be normal fare, but I'm not fond of fruit and vegetables so my WW3 pantry had lots of food but nothing too green or leafy.

I'm now really fat because since Hub is often away, I could continue eating whatever rubbish I fancy. But I do make an effort when he is home for dinner. Since he currently has a thing for cabbage (for its calorie-burning qualities), I made him Larb last evening when he flew back from a 3-day trip to Foshan.

Larb is a salad sometimes served in Thai restaurants and I was told that it is popular in the north of the country near Laos. In fact, it is actually more of a Laotian dish, but you will agree that there are more Thai than Laotian restaurants outside the region.

Basically it is minced meat (e.g. pork, beef, chicken, duck) served with fresh herbs and dressed in a fish sauce, lime juice dressing. And eaten wrapped in cabbage leaves. Very often I would find raw French beans on the plate as well, but I dislike this vegetable raw so you wouldn't find it in my version of Larb.

Larb :

The meat filling :

2 tbsp light olive oil or vegetable oil
400g fresh ground pork, beef or chicken
2 tbsp onions chopped
3 cloves garlic chopped
half a stalk of lemongrass bashed
red chilli sliced
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce
pepper to taste

The dressing :

2 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp hot water
red chilli sliced
1 kaffir lime leaf shredded
half a stalk of lemongrass bashed
2 tbsp fish sauce
juice of 1 lemon or 2 large limes

The garnishing :

2 shallots or half a small red onion finely sliced
a handful of fresh basil, mint and coriander leaves chopped
cabbage leaves

Method :

Wash your cabbage (you can use iceberg if you prefer your leaves tender and crisp, but the normal cabbage holds the meat and sauce better) and decorate a serving plate with it.

Wash, drain and chop the fresh herbs and set aside in a bowl.

Slice the shallots or red onions, set aside.

Prepare the dressing by dissolving the sugar in hot water and infusing the solution with the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and chilli. Add fish sauce and lime juice and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (more for the taste than for the temperature).

In a frying pan, add 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil (I have an almost odourless light olive oil so I used it) and fry the onions, garlic and lemongrass till fragrant. Add the chilli and sugar and let it cook for a little while before adding the minced meat. I used organic black pig (pork) for this dish. 

Stir fry to mix well and when the meat is almost cooked through, stir in the fish sauce and soy sauce. Add pepper to taste. 

When the meat is cooked (beef could be eaten rare but not chicken or pork), turn off the heat. Add the raw shallots/red onions and the chopped fresh herbs. Mix well and then stir in the dressing.

Larb can be eaten warm or chilled. Scoop some of the meat onto a cabbage leaf and enjoy.

lundi, janvier 26, 2015

Wuzhen (乌镇) with the Parents

Dad and mum in Wuzhen

I wonder sometimes if the parents regretted our growing up. Because, on those evenings when I hugged my youngest child as he slept next to me (which he does when Hub is away), I always wished that I could immortalise the moment in time and not let it slip away. But of course, children grow up and we should be thankful that they do so, only I couldn't stop myself feeling sad that soon I will have no more babies to hug and kiss, nor will I have anyone calling me "mummy" in the cutest of voices followed by the tenderest of hugs.

This, I guess, is middle age. Your babies are growing up really quickly and your parents are visibly ageing and exhibiting various health hiccups. It is not exactly the most gay period in a person's life, yet at the same time, if you have played your cards right, you should be most comfortable in your 40s in both material and mobility.

I love you all, my Babies, and I hope that you will never have cause to doubt or forget this in your lives. Just like I know that my parents love me and I am thankful for that.

The parents came for a short visit last October. I last saw them in Singapore in July and August, but we were so often out of the house doing some activity or traveling around the region that I felt frustrated about not seeing them as much as I would have liked to. Therefore I invited them to come stay 11 days with me in Shanghai, so that I may bring them out a little, cook for them, be with them.

Wuzhen when you arrive by boat and a map of the town

Mum's bow legs seemed to be getting from bad to worse. Climbing and walking long distances were definitely out of the question, and it was fortunate we did the bulk of our Shanghai sights 3 years ago when they first came to visit, and this time I have 2 drivers so we always had someone to drive us around. With the kids at school, we had to look for a trip that could be done in the day which would be interesting enough for everyone. Mum had already visited Zhujiajiao, Suzhou and Qibao, while I last brought MIL to Tongli near Suzhou, so we were more or less left with Wuzhen which is near enough to Shanghai.

Wuzhen by day

I've always wanted to visit Wuzhen (乌镇) and when mum said that she would like to do so too, I got Driver Ju to drive us there. Ideally, one should spend the night as Wuzhen is divided into 2 sections that are a small distance (about 1km) away from each other, with one section that is smaller but older and the other larger, newer and cleaner - hence there would be quite a bit to visit and discover. But we have to return home to the children and dad was going to go on a short trip to the South the day after to visit his relatives.

Many stone bridges

Pretty covered wooden bridges and grand stone doors

We chose to do the bigger and newer part of Wuzhen. It was clean, organised, with only one smelly tofu stall (at least we only saw one). Once you enter the walled village/town, you could choose to get on a boat that will bring you across to the main part of the sights and from there you navigate between lanes and bridges, duck in and out of courtyards, shops, eateries, museums...

Nice wood and stone work and very clean too
I found the old water village really pretty. We were lucky to be there when there were few tourists and the weather was nice which made the outing very pleasant. We made our way slowly around (often with dad looking out for mum and holding her elbow etc), buying little snacks to share and taste, and lunch was in a small restaurant specialising in healthy cuisine that was part of the Wuzhen Clubhouse. Thinking about this I get all emotional because I really miss my parents, 19 years make up a long time to be away from home and the family...

Streets, library/bookstore, courtyards
Wuzhen is part of Tongxiang in Zhejiang Province, about 2 hours by car from Shanghai. It is  divided into sections where different crafts and trades are displayed, and is known for its stone pathways, stone bridges and wooden carvings. The restaurants that were situated along the canal were tempting as the idea of lunching with a view of the water, old houses and bridges was enticing, but healthy should be more important when you have 2 senior citizens and the only "health" restaurant around was smack in the middle of 2 lanes.

The healthy lunch at the Wuzhen Club restaurant

When I visited the tiny shoe (for bound feet) museum alone, mum spent her time trying on cloth shoes (normal sized, of course) as dad glared at her from the side wondering if she was about to make another "unnecessary" purchase. It was quite funny catching this scene as I walked out of the museum, and I had to employ quite a bit of diplomacy to diffuse the situation and make both sides happy. Well, mum couldn't find the colour she wanted in her size and I knew of another shop (in Wuzhen itself) that sold the same shoes for half the price (online), so I told mum she would get what she wanted when we return home and in the meantime we should just move on. (Thank goodness we managed as promised the next day!)

Cloth shoes shop outside the lily shoes museum; mum with her new cloth shoes

People dining by the water
There were quite a number of little inns in the bigger town (and many looked pretty charming, like in the gungfu movies). I was told by Driver Ju that it should get more crowded later on in the day as most tourists usually start with the smaller town and finish with the bigger one, eventually spending the night in the latter. I should return with the Hub and kids another day, maybe spend the night there too. I'm sure we would love the romantic feel of this ancient village at night, especially if we should manage to dine in a little restaurant by the water...(I've not given up on the idea, of course)

A number of the traditional trades were displayed in the old town, from wine making to blue cloth production, hand-sewn cloth shoes, traditional sweets etc. One of the things about being middle aged is that I have lost my penchant for buying souvenirs everywhere I go; when you have spent a few decades accumulating souvenirs that you have nowhere (else) to store/display and that you will most probably have no use for whatsoever once you've acquired them, you learn (eventually) to stop buying them. I just make sure I spend my money on decent accommodation, comfortable and safe means of transportation, good food, interesting experiences and a good guidebook when I travel nowadays.

Blue cloth maker, rice cake seller, soy sauce shop

I have also stopped buying gifts to distribute to friends, family and neighbours. It is futile spending precious time trying to hunt down a suitable gift for everyone when the goal is to visit. Besides, most people travel quite a lot nowadays so there is no need to share (or show off) your trips like before. Parents were of course from another era, and you could see that they really needed to buy something (usually edible) to bring back; it reminded me of the time we travelled to Perth when I was 12 and dad literally filled up a suitcase with Cadbury chocolate to bring back to everyone else who couldn't go on the trip. I myself brought back huge boxes of Turkish lokum to share with my 140 colleagues in MND HQ back in 1995, and that seemed like light years away now.

By the water

There are so many more places near Shanghai, not to mention in China, that I have not visited because we are so afraid of the crowds. It is a pity, of course, but unless you haven't heard of or been in one of those notorious crushes, you wouldn't be so foolish as to brave going anywhere when the Chinese themselves are on holiday. Paralysis is personified on those occasions and wave of humanity has true meaning then. OK, maybe I exaggerate, and I am definitely making excuses for not having visited much of China. Maybe in 2015 and 2016 I will plan more short trips on long weekends: Beijing, Nanjing, Lijiang, Jiuzhaigou, Chengdu...?

I have however noted, in the past 4 years, that the Chinese are traveling more and more both within China and out of the country. Many of my Chinese friends have husbands who used to earn 10 000 rmb a month up to about 10 years ago, after which they started seeing salary increases of between 10 and 30% annually and today the same guys are earning between 100 000 and 200 000 rmb per month! If they were based in Shanghai and had had the foresight to invest in real estate, then their wealth would have doubled, tripled and more. Even the average Chinese in Shanghai wouldn't have done too badly as I often discover. Many would have seen their old family homes bought over by property developers and given cash and/or new flats in exchange. They would earn pretty decent salaries today and since the majority would only have one child, life is usually comfortable. The old lady pulling out weeds in our garden has a son who owns 2 large cars that he rents out to foreigners and she is only working because she loves being out in the open and having something to do. And where our villas and garden stand today, her house and fields used to stand.

Parents in Wuzhen (I think I look more like dad)
Back to Wuzhen, it was definitely worth a visit and I hope that the parents had enjoyed it. Hopefully after Ma has had both legs operated on she would be able to walk better and we could go on other visits in the years to come.

I do not know how many more years we are going to stay in Shanghai, and therefore how much opportunity I  still have to discover Northeast Asia. However, for those of you who know me, I try to make the most of my time wherever I am whether I would be there 6 months or 6 years. My only constraints are time and cash, and in these recent days, the drastic devaluation of the Euro is definitely not making things easy for us. Greece may not be the only one who needs to battle against austerity soon. 


lundi, janvier 19, 2015

Noir: Dining in the Dark, Ho Chi Minh City

Noir - Dining in the Dark

More than 6 months ago, we were asked if we (as in Hub and The Teenager) would like to take part in a friendly golf tournament in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to be held just before the New Year. That was a couple of months after our trip to Hanoi (during CNY), so we were obviously quite destined for Vietnam in 2014. 

My only problem with visiting Vietnam is the cost of the visas. I do not need one with my Singapore passport, but it's 440 rmb for a single entry for the Hub and the kids. Considering that each trip there lasted between 4 and 8 days, I found paying for 2 rounds of visas in the same year a little painful.  

Anyway, we booked 2 rooms at the 5-star Sofitel Saigon Plaza with its famous rooftop pool and once again, it wasn't really my idea as I usually prefer boutique hotels. But the organiser of the above-mentioned golf tournament pre-paid for his rooms and informed us after, that we were expected to do the same so that we could all be together. In other words, I didn't really have a choice.

Fortunately, apart from 3 first nights of lights that refused to be switched off (my mother would tell you the room was haunted), the hotel was comfortable and well-situated, so I had no reason to complain about it. Plus, I found out that Vietnam had an interesting rule about prostitution in such hotels: a member of our group (a divorcee) came back one evening with a Vietnamese girl of questionable reputation and was discovered by the hotel manager himself who informed him that he would only be allowed to bring her in if she happened to be a guest of the hotel (which would involve paying for another room on the spot in her name). Guy, I heard, is like a sailor with certain habits at every port of call; needless to say, with all his ECAs he ended up last in the golf tournament.

Once again, I digress. I was out to blog about a restaurant we dined in in HCMC (among many others, but that will have to wait) named Noir - Dining in the Dark. We like to go local at different levels when we travel and while I could possibly eat Pho Bo Tai every day, I was also keen to try something new and dining in the dark was something I had yet to try at that time. It's not at all unique to Vietnam, but I had not been to one anywhere before.

I had expected the kids to reject the idea when I first suggested it; they were reticent, but were at the same time curious enough to want to give it a try. Our greatest problem probably is the fact that we are very picky eaters and you do not know what you are going to eat when you dine at Noir. Then, out of politeness, I asked our group of friends if they would like to join us and they all said pourquoi pas?

We arrived in a renovated old house with pretty floor tiles one evening at 8pm. With those French people's habit of having aperitif before dinner, we had to dine late every evening when we were in HCMC, not to forget eat and drink way too much. I would have preferred to eat at 7pm latest, but once again I wasn't asked my opinion.

One of the owners G coming out of the bar

We were a group of 10. You were served cocktails (not very tasty) and asked to choose between a western and asian menu (with no idea what's going to be in it exactly). Then you had to blindfold yourself and attempt a simple game where you return to your childhood and have to match wooden objects according to their shapes and place them on a tray (see picture of the group next to us doing just that). During the meal, the food would be served in 5 containers set on a tray, this being a foretaste of what you would need to do once you are in the totally dark dining room.

Totally dark. It seemed that a few members of my entourage had only just realised that we were going to eat in total darkness. It wouldn't be diplomatic on my part to suggest that there was a bit of panique à bord, but one or two of them started to act really weird. He's one of those tall, commanding, very disciplined (military background), successful sort; he called one of the restaurant owners T over and asked if T could guarantee that he would not dirty his clothes during the meal...(!) 

Our neighbours playing the pre-dinner game
T was taken back, I guess, and didn't give a tactful enough answer and we could almost see a volcano about to erupt in front of us. Now friend said he didn't want to dine there because of T's bad attitude! Fortunately, friend's usually quiet wife decided for once that she would take things into her hands and just dragged him out of the restaurant. So we ended up 8 to dine.

You have to surrender all of your watches and mobile phones before the meal so that nothing that could produce light would be introduced into the dining room. Second friend, as we would discover later on, didn't surrender his watch and I would spend the whole evening being irritated by this light moving around opposite me. What's with these macho, strong, successful types and their weird reaction to being in total darkness? Are they afraid of not being in control?

The dining room was on the first floor and we were greeted at its entrance by 2 visually-impaired waiters. Our waiter was called Vinh and he spoke beautifully-accented and clear English and I couldn't help thinking that he must have very good hearing to have picked up such a crisp accent.

Vinh guided us to our side of the table and placed us in front of our chairs. The room was totally dark except for 4 red dots at four corners of the room. People tend to talk loudly in the dark for some reason so we could hear the other diners giggling or talking more loudly than usual as we tried to settle in.

It wasn't that difficult trying to take stock of one's space because the table setting was kept simple and we each had a glass, a fork and a spoon. I could feel both edges of my table so I knew it wasn't big and that if I kept feeling my way inwards from the sides I'll be able to find my cutlery etc. Personally, I felt quite liberated at the initial loss of my sight; I felt light, at one with my universe. 

When you cannot see, it's important to listen more and I wished my fellow diners could be calmer. Unfortunately, one was cold and kept screaming for the aircon to be switched off, another had a watch shining through the meal and Baby Girl played the zombie and refused to use her hands to find anything or eat anything (so I ate up her entire western dinner on top of my asian one!). The Teenager (actually since October last year he's an adult, so we will call him The Young Adult after these words) was surprisingly calm and compliant, eating his dinner quietly and joining in the talk with a few jokes here and there, while Baby Boy talked too loudly, but managed to try a bit of the food in front of him after Vinh assured him that it wasn't fish. Hub started to criticise the food, do you think it's gourmet? Don't you think it's too cold? Sight is really very important in food appreciation...

Sight is indeed very important in food appreciation, which is why Japanese food is very much appreciated and admired. Taste probably starts with our eyes, followed by smell (which somehow wasn't pronounced during the meal), by the actual tasting and in this case, if I may say so, by touch; because I stopped trying to use my cutlery, preferring to feel my food before I ate it and I found that it worked quite well.

One fear I had though was the possibility of everyone around me crashing their glasses and spilling their drinks on me. I had no idea why they were always loudly trying to find their glasses when the glass wasn't normally going to move elsewhere if you've put it back on your right above the cutlery. My lemongrass soda was delicious, by the way.

The reception hall
At the end of our dinner, Vinh guided us out of the dining room, warning us to keep our eyes on the ground so as not to be disoriented when we see light again. I must say that at this point, I was happy to leave the darkness as it was starting to be very tiring keeping the eyes open in the dark, in fact, it would be advisable to shut them from time to time in order to rest them.

I was also feeling sad, thinking that while we would be able to welcome light into our lives again, Vinh and his colleagues would remain in the dark.

As I had suspected, our chairs were acrylic (Philippe Starck to be exact) and our tables square and not very big. The 8 of us were sitting in 2 rows of 4 facing each other. G showed us what our meal looked like on an iPad, and we probably only guessed half of what we ate right. Everyone agreed that it was an experience to try at least once in our lives, though probably not too often as we do prefer to be able to see what we are eating. Finally, I wouldn't advise eating in the dark for a large group. With no other distractions around, it's a good opportunity to go all philosophical on your partner or kids, or at least become a better listener than usual. It was trying trying to get everyone to speak in turns or figuring out who said what from where etc.