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 (Creativity, 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!