Dear Gordon Ramsay

You’ve just completed the battle against the hawker heroes of Singapore, and you won one out of three segments. I am mighty proud of you.

You see, Singaporeans are madly in love and passionate about our food culture. The fact that we could easily nominate and vote for our favourite hawker already proves that about us. We know where the good food is, and we go to them.

We may have different favourites though. Some like stall A for its rice as every grain is individual and flavourful, some like stall B for its moistness. In any case, we’ve at least tried enough to have a long discussion when asked for recommendations on where to go and what to eat.

In addition to that pressure, over the years, our taste buds have not evolved much. We stick with traditions, and we have food shows on the hunt for old hawkers that have since moved locations. We liked them as they were, and I don’t forsee any changes to our comfort food in the near future. That is why, till today, although we’ve gotten richer and can afford fancy gastronomic prices, our lovely comfort food is still typically presented in a plate with just the right amount of lovely slices of chicken, a couple of strips of cucumber, maybe a little parsley leaves – nothing more. Any extras could be well deemed as “made for tourists”.

I greatly admire that you’ve taken up this challenge, and have been such a gentleman about it. In fact, I’ve admired you for some time. You’re easily inspiring.

When I spent some time in France on an exchange semester, it all started off with instant noodles, canned ravioli and pre-made taboulé. It was the first time I was living on my own, away from hawkers, away from my parents. I thought cooking was a chore.

And then I started watching Hell’s Kitchen. My, you were insane on it, but you inspired me. I began experimenting more and more in the kitchen. I looked at different types of meats and sauces. I started to add flavour to my food, like the juice of a lemon, or herbs, or sprinkling cheese on it. I looked forward to cooking. Granted, I was still no chef, I was happy with my experiments. Still, I thought you were kind of an arse of guy.

Then I watched Kitchen Nightmares, The F Word and MasterChef. I’ll admit that I’m wrong – you are a wonderful guy. And now with the Hawker Heroes challenge, you were placed against Singapore but you’ve shown all of your niceties in the way you’ve spoken about our cuisine.

At the end of the day, I just want to give you a pat on the back, and tell you that you’ve done a really good job. Here’s hoping to some day meet you in person.

Cheers,
SH

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ein leckeres Dessert mit Himbeeren (a yummy dessert with raspberries)

On the week I was in France, S had to work a grand total of 2 days in the week, which was perfect. At the end of the day, we were happy to tell each other about our day in person. (We have a love-hate relationship with Skype.)

I had an interesting day. It involved some other guy’s privates. But that’s a story for another day.

So we had to make dinner (we ate in a restaurant perhaps only once that week, but also a bar, a cafe, etc). We flipped through the recipe book, made a note of the ingredients, added what we wanted for the impending road trip to the grocery list, plus what he wanted in his fridge to feel homely, voila, it was an exhaustive list.

He drove us out to a different commune, Labège, where they had a mall with a huge supermarket. And to our delight (as it was late), it was open till rather late. As we went down a third of the grocery list, they made an announcement that the store was closing. We ended up splitting the list and making a dash for the items (think Amazing Race), and meeting back in the center. I wrote the list so I knew what was on there, but he started popping meringues into our shopping carts, and was frantically looking for frozen raspberries.

I: Why do we need raspberries and meringues?
S: For dessert.
I: What are we making?
S: (with glee) It’s a surprise.

But after we found the raspberries, I had an idea of what he was going to make. (I had it at his parents’ last year, and it was so damn yummy.)

That was a long intro to the dessert, I’m sorry. I’ve no idea what it is called but it’s the easiest thing to make, and I’ve no picture of it – neither can I find it online.

What you need are:

  • Frozen raspberries
  • Meringues, crushed to the consistency of coarse sugar
  • Whipped cream (S did it with crème fraîche and vanilla sugar, mixed with a hand mixer)
  • Chocolate chips as toppings, optional
  • a large glass bowl, preferably see-through (so people can see the layers)

So in the bowl, fill a good layer of frozen raspberries, then shower it with the crushed meringue pieces, then a layer of cream, and top it with chocolate chips. Put it in the fridge for half an hour and it’s perfect for eating.

What we find is that if you take it out (and it melts) and you put it back into the fridge – the next time you take it out, you won’t taste the crunchy tiny meringue bits anymore as they’re probably melted. Still it’s amazing.

What I love is the sweetness of the meringue and chocolate chips and the sourness of the raspberries. And I love raspberries.

Is this not the simplest dessert to make or what?!

Unfortunately when I wanted to replicate it here, meringue couldn’t be found and a bag of raspberries tinier than what we got costs S$14. No, thank you.

Happy eating!

Dune du Pilat

Last week I had several firsts while visiting S. As always, every visit is perfect and there is just so much memory I would love to hold on to for as long as I can.

One of my favourite memory was when we were doing a road trip to Dune du Pilat. The thing is, S plans our road trips and we never figure out where we’re going until we’re about to leave. This trip was planned strictly within a week from departure.

When I arrived, we weren’t sure what we were doing yet. We only started to plan the route on Wednesday, before leaving on Thursday. Seeing that we booked accommodation before leaving, that was already pretty amazing.

And all I had known was that we would spend our Thursday night in Bordeaux and Friday night in Bayonne. I have no clue what else. When we left Bordeaux (which I figured is the next prettiest French city after Paris), we headed to Dune du Pilat. What a magical place that is. I guess the name should’ve given it away, but I had zero expectations whatsoever. To me, that was just a name of a french place.

We took ages to arrive there – there was a gigantic traffic jam as the entire French population headed there because of the public holidays. There was even a rare sight of an ass of a driver cutting in the line of the cars, which made S attempt to turn the car into a batmobile. It’s a good thing he doesn’t drive in Singapore.

While inching forward slowly and getting bored of the radio, we noticed a bunch of restless kids in the car in front of us. One of the boys would occasionally turn around to look at us. After some time, S and the boy built a connection. S began making funny faces while the boy imitated it to his siblings. It was the funniest and cutest thing to watch. Then a good song came on the radio and we both started dancing, and the boy started to dance too. We wondered if they were listening to the same tune!

Eventually we got tired of inching forward bit by bit and parked the car by the side of the road to walk. This built the anticipation further, and by goly wow, we walked quite a distance to get to this magical place – la Dune du Pilat.

Apparently it’s the tallest sand dune in Europe, and it shifts every year due to the waves crashing onto the shore. It’s 108 metres above sea level, which I climbed on the pure sand with slight difficulty. There was a stretch of staircase clearly made for tourists and we took the sand path next to it. S later taught me that it was easier to step on areas that were already marked by footprints.

When we got to the top, we had an amazing view of the sea, and mind you it was a perfect blue sky this day – the second of the week. We were greeted by cold winds, and we were well underdressed (he in a T-shirt and shorts, me in a cotton dress, and notice how the others were dressed in the picture below). So S sat down and happily made space for me, then wrapped us both with the towel as we laid in the sun enjoying the view. There were paragliders, kiteflyers, couples, families, friends, tourists, etc. It was paradise.

view from the top

Then came the fun part – S brought me to the crest of the dune and said we had to sprint down to descend. I have a slight fear of heights, and this (see below) is basically what you see off the edge of the dune. I was terrified by how steep it was, and fascinated by how people ran down quickly. It also mortified me when I saw people tumbling down but wait a second – they all looked like they were having fun.

view from edge of the crest
view from edge of the crest

So we did it on a count of 3. S sprinted down like it was just a playground for him. My run turned into a jog, which turned into purposeful falls. I slowly realized falling on these soft sand was no problem at all. When I got to the base where S waited patiently, we couldn’t take our eyes off the others who were hopping down, somersaulting, running, sliding, etc. They were couples, kids, families, parents, teenagers, the whole gang.

Finally we peeled our eyes off them and decided to do it again. This time we took the easy way up – the stairs. We got to the top, appreciated one last view from the top, then we ran down. S still went much faster than I did. But I was braver this time. I took large strides, I ran and I ran until I got to the bottom and had to hang on to S to stop the momentum. I was high on adrenaline. It was amazing.

This place was amazing. And it was just one amazing part of the amazing week.

the slope of the dune
the slope of the dune

der Wiederbeginn (restart)

So the good news is you didn’t hear from me within 24 hours of the previous post.

With the help of some truly amazing people and a lot of luck, I got on the plane, I had an amazing trip, I got home.

It was truly yet another amazing trip. Today someone asked me two difficult questions: where I was and what I liked most about the trip.

Bearing in mind I had landed at the airport about 2.5hours before I stepped into the office, I had not much interest in making small talk yet. But these questions were tough to answer.

To the first question – where was I? I was mostly in Toulouse, but in between, I was in a bunch of small towns I had never heard of prior to this. Basically S picked me up from the airport, and I saw nothing of Paris. We drove south to Créteil to visit a lovely family with the loveliest, most mischievous looking little 19-month-old. He was my perfect entertainment as I drifted in and out of concentration for the french conversation going on. Tee hee.

Then S drove west to Jouy-en-Josas where he is due to officially graduate in June – but at the campus I bumped into someone I knew and he didn’t know anybody. Hooray! I’m an international celebrity! Haha, I kid. We also took some walks around a cave, castle and haunted house. Obviously he’s spent a lot of time wandering about while living there for a year.

Then we went south to Orléans, where we crashed for the night (we were Hotel Formule 1 hopping) and it began to snow. My tropical heart was racing!

The next day, we left without really seeing the city center of Orléans, but we headed southwest to Chambord to have a look at the castle. It was pretty, snowy and darn cold. We were freezing walking in and out of the rooms of the castle, just hopping to spot a fire place like at the ground floor. Then it was east to Blois to stay for the night.

The next day, we headed southwest to Chenonceaux, and in a slight press for time, we just went as south as possible till it was getting late. So we stopped by Limoges for the night. I was happy to get off the highway because between these two cities, the highways were extremely hilly to say the least. I felt the pressure in my ears, S had to constantly switch between the light intensities of the car.

Finally the next day we had to go all the way south to Toulouse as we had to meet some people by noon. Whoa, what a ride. We spent most days there, except on Saturday where we headed southeast to Carcassonne.

That sums up where I’ve been. What was my favourite? This was truly the toughest one.

Was it seeing the snowy white countryside while driving, or passing by vineyards and green grasslands down south? Was it making friends with a horse just because? Was it watching awesome sunsets, and gazing at the starry night sky from the car? Was it visiting the fancy palaces and their gardens or being at the casino for the first time? Was it eating an awesome meal at l’Entrecôte or watching a movie with my beau?

Or was it taking long breakfasts in the sun, reading and having good discussions? Doing Sudoku puzzles that appear in the papers together like retirees? Watching him get his OCD on while he S-ifies his new house? (I’m not kidding when I say it’s ten times more comfortable when he puts his spin on it.) Or putting together a meal together and washing the dishes while occasionally pausing to satisfy our dancing feet? Or taking long walks with a coke in one hand? Or being our usual silly selves just because we can, whenever we can? Or being able to hold his hand while he drives down the street, and we put good music on? Or just being there and waking up each morning to see the sheepish grin on his face as I say “guten Morgen”?

Tough call, tough call.

Right now I’m going to sleep my jetlag off while wallowing in self-pity for having to be alone tonight, and for indefinite nights to come… it’s like we hit the restart button as this routine starts all over again. Scheiße.

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die Unsicherheit (the uncertainty)

I had the luxury of waiting to see if I can get confirmed on a flight today.

Oh – and I’m still waiting. The flight is at midnight, and it’s driving me absolutely bonkers. Let me explain.

S is going to drive from him little village in Germany to a cheap hotel near Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport. That would take almost 8 hours but considering that it snowed last night, it should take a little longer.

He will then stay the night and (hopefully) wake up at the ungodly hour that I (hopefully) arrive in the next day.

He is leaving in 60 minutes.

I’ve no idea if I can get on the flight yet due to some weird circumstances. And I’ve to head home in a few minutes to pack (haha – suddenly packing for flights have become an activity to rush through a few hours before, regardless of the destination, duration of travel, temperature of destination, etc). And I’ve to head to the airport to wait it out.

I’ve no idea if I can get on. I’ve about four hours to find out. He’s on his way. I’m sick to my stomach with worry. He has no worries.

If you hear from me again within 24 hours, I’ve probably failed and it would be a good time to send me best wishes and good jokes.

If not, YIPPEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

der Regen (the rain)

Today was one of those days I felt deprived of fresh air.

Yesterday I discovered that if I put work onto a laptop that had no internet connectivity (goodbye IM, emails, and the telephone), and sat outside of my office under some shade, with no air conditioning, just fresh air and light breeze, I’m extremely productive.

As a result, I had wanted to do the same today during those trying hours of post-lunch pre-end-of-work-day. But as soon as I got to the lobby, it poured. I trudged back into the office reluctantly and settled down into my oversized but overfilled cubicle.

So when I was finally sick of pimping up some neverending presentation slides, I decided to leave for the day. I was in flats and I was getting rid of some PMS blues, so I was happy to skip getting a lift from a colleague and walked on my own. So commenced a 15minute walk to the bus stop. I felt a few spatters, others got their umbrella ready while I thought mmm I wouldn’t mind walking in a drizzle, it’s nature’s way of saying hi, I missed you today.

Then the drizzle got heavier, droplets colluded and soon flushed down as an insane downpour. As I got closer to the bus stop, I decided I didn’t want to take the bus. I was enjoying the walk. It was just me, my umbrella and my flats that filled like a fish could survive in it, squeaking with every step I made. Rain-related songs filled by head and I belted it out it’s rai-ai-aining, it’s rai-ai-aining, gotta find a way to get away get away… and somewhere along the lines of won’t blame it on myself… yeah, blame it on the weatherman…

20 minutes into walking, I was trying to avoid standing too close to the edge of the road. I was shielding from both the rain and the splashes from cars swishing past puddles. I went on to belt out feels like I’m walking in the rain, I find myself trying to wash away the pain…

Then it got lighter, and I tried to take a few short cuts by cutting across residential estates. 30 minutes into walking, I finally found my way out of them – it was a maze. I was starting to feel like I’ve been walking for a while. My head decided to make a switch of playlists and I was singing and I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more, just to be that man that walks 1000 miles to fall down at your door. And the finale 45 minutes into walking – but you know I’d walk a thousand miles if I could hold you… tonight.

Cue end of under-the-umbrella musical. Thanks, rain.

That last apt song aside, so far what I do know is: I’ll be seeing S next, next Saturday! Where are we meeting? I’m not sure yet. In which country would that be? I don’t know yet. When will he arrive? Ich weiß es nicht. How will he arrive? Kein Ahnung. All I know is, I’ll be seeing him next, next Saturday and I have 20 euros in my wallet. Hooray!!!

Weekend in Paris

I could really whine about a lot of things, e.g. about returning, about leaving the boy of my dreams at the airport, about having to leave on a sunny day when it was cloudy all the while I was there, about the trip being too short… but I won’t.

Instead, I will write about how it was being in Paris for the 3rd time in 4 years. (We had a grand dinner to attend and it was amazing, but more on that next time.) And hold your gasps but I think Paris is losing its magic for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Paris is magical, gorgeous, and all great things I loved about it. In fact, I’ve met countless extremely friendly Parisiens this trip – more than I’ve ever met, bursting that snobbish stereotype again. S couldn’t help but point out that every single time we approached someone, they always answered with a greeting Bonjour first. One lady couldn’t help us, and ended up approaching someone else on our behalf. When a bunch of gypsies targeted and surrounded a Chinese girl minding her own business, a French guy leapt in to help her get out of their ambush, then left her. Even the service standards in restaurants have risen! (Or maybe cos we went to less touristy spots.) I think Parisiens evolved to be really wonderful beings!

And to get in the mood, on the plane ride there, I watched Midnight in Paris again. It reminded me of how gorgeous Paris is in the rain, and how great its streets are. And it was well depicted in that show.

However, time and time again, I forget the ugly side of Paris – the sense of uneasiness when I arrived during the wee hours and it was still dark, and an immigrant would loiter near the train station ticket machines as though waiting to attack, or how some people looked dodgy on the trains, how some places stank, how there was dog poo everywhere, how buskers would hang out on the train trying to get some money, how gypsies waited to ambush tourists, how beggars were all around and some even distributing cards on the train that was telling of their sob story about having kids to feed and no job, etc. I knew all of these things before, and it always strikes me that ah, I’ve forgotten those things whenever I return.

Their bakeries are still heavenly, and it makes me smile whenever I was in one. I still yearn to cycle on the streets of Paris but was intimidated by the cars. Everything was also insanely expensive, which made me think Paris isn’t liveable unless I was rich. But it would make a wonderful annual (or so) vacation spot.

It was still immensely romantic. We could wait for the RER and have a perfect view of the Eiffel sparkling on the hour. But I guess in this trip, I started to see the improbability of me living in Paris and so it lost its magic. I guess my love for living in a new city is now lying further east of Paris.

But I had a brilliant time, and in fact, we didn’t do too many touristy things (apart from visiting the Eiffel and Sacre Coeur, and people-watching at a cafe), and the spots that were less stereotypically Parisien was even more memorable for me. Then again, it could’ve been the company that makes everything wonderful. I can’t tell anymore.

But my gosh, a nice walk in the Bois de Boulogne was possibly the highlight for me. We watched ducks and watched leaves fall as the wind blew against the yellowish-red leaves on the tree, leaving it half bare. Because S is extremely nice to strangers, we also managed to smuggle in to a makeshift tent for a huge circus, so we were standing a metre from gigantic horses we made conversations with and two metres away from an elephant and admired as it swayed from side to side chewing on hay.

Gosh that was amazing. Gosh I sound like I’m 60 years old, grey haired and enjoying the countryside.

Die Städte vermisse ich (the cities I miss)

I came across a good read this morning: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/how-to-miss-another-city/

Wow, I can definitely relate. It’s not just about being envious that someone is visiting the city that I adore, but I grow fiercely defensive of it and of my experience in it.

The whole idea of others having a negative viewpoint of that city, or of them thinking that they’ve combed the city and done all things worthy of their time is just unimaginable.

The belief that their experience will never come close is always there.

I think that has been Paris, and now Berlin, for me. My two favourite cities in the world remain the same after 3 years. I’ve visited both twice now, and I’ve never dared to say much about Berlin because I spent a grand total of a weekend there previously. But I had already made up my mind that it was a place I could imagine living in.

Almost 3 years later, I returned for a closer look, and it is new on my radar of places I will fiercely defend and believe that my experience was better than yours. Even if you saw everything that I’ve seen, and ate everything that I’ve eaten, and more.

Sounds ridiculous? Perhaps.

But it’s never just about the sightseeing and eating, is it? It’s about how you lived, walked, breathed while you were there; Who you were with, what you did, who you met…

Trust me, Paris and Berlin, I will return to you again.

Paris, je vais revenir encore!

So, it appears that I may be heading back to my favourite city in the world…again!

This has gotten my head spinning the past few days, going crazy with excitement. Partly because it’s a holiday, partly because it’s Paris, and partly because of who I’ll be there with. It’ll probably just be a short visit this time round (I had no intention to go there at first, but since the particular airline doesn’t fly to the particular city directly…) – But every time I’m there, I try to do something new that I haven’t already done. And as you’d imagine, I’ve to do more research this time round…

So far, I’ve got these…

  • rent a bike to cycle around
  • visit more traditional cafés
  • hop over to Canal Saint-Martin for a picnic

I want to put the catacombs on the list too but I don’t know if I’ve enough guts to put myself through that. Hmmm…

I wonder if anyone has suggestions for less of the tourist must-do/see things (i.e. Louvre, Eiffel, Champs Elysees) I should do but may have missed out on the previous trips?

Well, and for the remaining cities, I don’t think I need to do any planning at all. 😀

Misunderstood

This is just me but I get really frustrated when something, someone or somewhere I love is misunderstood. And for some reason, some of my friends really fear travelling to Europe. Most have a misconception about my dear (vive la) France too! These are the common reasons:

1. Pickpockets

Well, hey, I don’t blame anyone for worrying about this issue when we’re from Singapore. For heaven’s sake, we take everywhere to be our home. In school, we leave our bags open and our laptops beneath them to reserve seats. In trains, we hold onto our iPhones and play our ass off without worrying that someone’s gonna snatch it and bolt. In crowded streets, we walk around with our bags unzipped. Of course anywhere is more “dangerous”.

I think I’m getting arrogant about this because I escaped Europe unscathed for half a year. My closest encounter was having my bag unzipped while in a souvenir shop of a chapel after some old man allegedly bumped into me. Thankfully nothing happened. Oh, and a couple of boys were cycling really slowly down the street. When approaching a corner, they sped up and snatched the mobile phone of the lady in front of us. Creepy.

But I was really thankful and these things taught me a lot. If you’re in a dodgy town, don’t show off any blings – iPhones included. Don’t leave anything valuable in your pockets because they will be gone before you realise it. Just have one bag, with one big zip and guard the zip like hell. Also if you look nervous the whole time, duh people know you’ve got something worth guarding! Ladies got it easy cos with shoulder bags, they can keep it as close to their bodies as possible. And don’t get distracted by gypsies and kids, … basically anyone. It isn’t Singapore where you smile to people on the streets because they may be your friend’s friend’s friend. It is also unlikely that anyone would ask you for help at the ATM and enter their passcodes in front of you. (Yes that happened today, and in Singapore, nobody deems that as dubious.)

2. Service Quality

In France especially, their trade union works like hell to gain that power. They’ve got that French Revolution too, as a “success” story to show that they can do anything they please, for their rights. If you were working in a place where it doesn’t matter if you perform well at work, you’ll get paid anyway and nobody will dare to fire you – how many of you would honestly say you’d still put in your 100% all the time? The only reason we do is because we’ve got it drilled in our heads that if we don’t deliver, we’re out. (Not to say it’s a bad thing at all.)

Hence, generally speaking, most of them don’t give a shit about your money. Their people don’t like sales staff bugging them either. Neither do I like them bugging me and following my every step around the store. I like being left alone. But heck, over here, we have the mindset drilled into us that customers are king. If I don’t like you, I complain, and you’re going down. But there, nobody cares. Nobody cares if you’re gonna buy, nobody cares if you like the store, nobody cares if you like the hostel, especially if you’re paying such a low rate for accommodation. So don’t expect service quality. They’re not being rude, it’s understandable!

3. Language

Especially in France, tourists think locals are snobbish. They’re arrogant, they only care about their language, and they don’t want/like to speak to you if you speak in English. How many of you can honestly say if a foreigner from e.g. PRC or India speaks to you in their native accent, you would respond with a smile and struggle on with the language?

Hell to the no.

I would maintain my English until I realise they suck in English more than I suck in (e.g.) Mandarin, so then I’ll struggle with Mandarin. Otherwise I’m just embarrassing myself, in my home land. Likewise, their primary language is French. Their pride in their language is enormous it’ll put all our Singlish shame, well, to shame. They think their English suck so why should they try to speak in English to you? (Also see point #2.)

Hence if you struggled in their language, you’re showing respect. And now that they know you suck in French more than they suck in English, they’re more willing to speak it. (And most of them don’t really suck in English, it’s just their accent!)

Conclusion

If you go with a preconceived notion that they’re gonna be mean to you, you probably are gonna do something that encouraged that. E.g. Hmm let me see if it’s right, do they hate English-speaking people? Then proceed to babble away. D’oh.

If you go expecting to be treated like king, well you’re not. Because they thrive mostly on internal tourism, unlike us in Singapore where we worship the ground tourists walk on.

And if you go expecting to be robbed/pickpocketed, you probably are gonna walk around weirdly and attract more attention than you need.

So if you wanna do like the Romans do, pretend you’re local. Walk around like you know that place (read: don’t hold on to your map 24/7!) and when approaching people, ask nicely in their language. Show some respect! Don’t expect all you expect in Singapore everywhere you go.

Disclaimer: This could change greatly if something horrible happened to me while I’m there in summer. But hell yes, I’m gonna act like I’m from there.