Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kevin works his chemistry at Blu restaurant

As part of what we are now calling The Long Goodbye - our lengthy and protracted exit from Singapore which is being conducted at the languid pace befitting such a tropical location - we're doing the rounds of our favourite restaurants. Last night we decided to return to Blu. We've never visited mid-week before so I called first to check that Chef Kevin Cherkas himself would be cooking. After a brisk walk up the hill to the restaurant - it's just far enough to make you grateful for the air conditioning as the exotically dressed doormen whoosh open the huge doors leading to the marbled lobby - we were ready to sample a couple of martinis, purely in the interests of stimulating the appetite, of course!

Once seated Kevin soon made an appearance, as cheerful and exuberant as ever. Don't you envy people who get a kick out of their jobs? His enthusiasm for the food, the preparation, for every detail makes you appreciate the amount of thought and inspiration that goes into every morsel which emerges from his kitchen. And one of the best parts? He has the waiting staff sample all the dishes as well, so when you ask the waiter how the Foie Creme Caramel is prepared, he can tell you. It's is one of my pet peeves that the staff at some restaurants don't understand how the dishes are made and what they taste like. By contrast our waiter was full of information, even stopping himself halfway through his speech about the starters by declaring "sorry, I'm talking to much"

"No" we encouraged, "go on! Tell us more!"

My creme caramel was served in a pot-bellied shot glass. A layer of liquid caramel infused with roasted thyme leaves and lavender was topped with a foie gras mousse and capped by paper made of...something yummy (almost tricked Kevin into telling us how he did it but he caught himself at the last minute) was paired with hubby's fabulous brie served with black truffle.

We both opted for The Egg Came First entree, an egg cooked in the shell at 73 degrees for eleven minute, then cracked into a pan and fried briefly on both sides, topped with "crumbs made of all things yummy" and served in a roasted onion broth studded with onion marmalade. Sheer bliss.

Hubby chose a melt-in-the-mouth wagyu steak while I decided to break with habit and order salmon. Normally I don't because it's easy to cook delicious salmon at home so why bother in your favourite restaurant? - but I'm glad I did. The waiter presented me with a wide bowl cradling a plastic wrapped parcel which looked like a money bag. "We didn't know when your birthday was so we thought we'd just give you this now" he smiled, snipping the top off the bag with scissors to allow the most incredible puff of aroma to waft into my face. Woodsmoke, salmon, truffles...the mix was intoxicating and the dish was absolutely divine.
Dessert was lovely but the highlight was yet to come. Kevin bounced up again to tell us that he had a surprise for us, an item not on the menu but which he liked to prepare sometimes and which he'd like us to try. A large insulated pot containing liquid nitrogen was placed on the table, the heavy super-chilled condensation slowly swirling around the top. He disappeared, then returned with two little white pots just a little bigger than egg cups filled with a creamy chocolate liquid. Standing up in each one was a skewered marshmallow-type confection. Following his instructions we plunged the skewers into the nitrogen, causing it to pop and crackle loudly, and counted to ten together...then "quick pop them into your mouths!"
Well you only live once so we did! It was an amazing sensation, and fortunately not at all like having your taste buds killed by frostbite which is what I had feared. First a crackle of frozen chocolate, then a chewy marshmallowy sensation, then sheer bliss of something creamy. Hmmmmm...I don't know what it was but chemistry lessons were never like this when I was at school!

It sounds like a feast but the portions are not huge so you don't over-stuff yourself. We walked outside onto the terrace to enjoy our coffee looking at the lights of Singapore city. We are really, really going to miss this place when we leave. Surely we must be able to squeeze in another visit before we go...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Every cloud...

Well it seems that we now have somewhere to live so we're officially no longer homeless. The movers will come next Thursday and pack up our stuff, and we'll move into a serviced apartment for the final few weeks (?) that we will live in Singapore. In some ways it's actually a relief, to finally be doing something rather than having sit and wait for a date to be set. The place we're moving to is quite comfortable and I think the kids will love the fact that there is a new swimming pool, a playground, and lots of kids living in the condo. Plus packing our stuff up now while we're all here is a much more attractive option than having to do it alone if hubby is out at sea. So despite the stress it might turn out to be a smoother exit from here than we'd anticipated.

I can just here my father saying one of his favourite quips: "As the undertaker said, every shroud has a silver lining..."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Looking On The Bright Side

I've always felt it helps to have a positive outlook on life. They say that positive people get sick less often, recover faster when they do, and generally lead happier lives so that's something good we can always strive to. However sometimes it can mask the way you really feel about something. When I was speaking to a friend lately she said something that really stuck in my mind. "But you sound like you're always having a great time and it's a bit of a piss off".
Flicking back through my blog entries I can see she is absolutely right. It seems that I only ever write about the interesting, funny, or enjoyably unusual things that happen in our lives. Partly this is out of respect for the country and culture where we are, of course, only guests. Partly it's because I suppose I have an in-built resistance to sharing the depressing, mundane, annoying and downright shitty moments, days or events that happen to us. Who wants to read about when I've had a bad day? If you've gone to the effort to read this blog, why should you be subjected to bad news? And largely it's because it takes a very conscious effort to make the most of an ex-pat assignment. The main reason for assignments failing is not because the employee (in this case hubby) doesn't like the job but because his/her family doesn't adjust. Stories of failed assignments because the spouse hates the country or the kids can't adjust are common and you have to put in 100% from day one to make damn sure you won't become one of the those.
Truth be told there are many less than fabulous moments to living an ex-pat life. Our families are far, far away, as are all the long term friendships we treasure so dearly. Nothing reminds me quite how far away they all are than a week when the kids have been driving me utterly bat-shit and I long to be able to drop them with a grandparent for a day (or even better, overnight!) and get some breathing space. They've also become quite clingy since we've lived here, especially Carl (4 1/2 years) who has grown up to expect that Mum will be there all day, every day, and becomes extremely jealous of anyone with whom I have a conversation of more than ten minutes.
We also don't know how long this posting in Singapore is going to last. Originally we were told 14 months, 16 tops. Now two years and two months down the track our apartment lease has expired, our landlord decided to pitch us out by the end of the month and we are, for all intents and purposes, homeless as of 1 November. Whether we find somewhere we can live week-by-week, perhaps month-by-month, until we finally leave remains to be seen but I can assure you it's extremely stressful. Worst case scenario is that the kids and I will have to leave the country without hubby, for God knows how long. Nothing sharpens your focus like the prospect of having your family split up.
Meanwhile there are other issues clamouring for our attention. My rabbits, long and lovingly looked after by my good friend Liesbeth, need to be rehomed and that is a challenge from the other side of the planet. Fortunately more good friends have stepped up to help me out (a whole team in fact, thanks a million!) and the problem has been solved.
We've got an empty house sitting waiting for us, gardens that need caring for, a job I can't fill and for which I still can't give a firm starting date, schools that are wondering what the hell we are doing with our kids and not to mention the removal company which rings me every week to demand "don't you have a date yet???"
My Dutch driving licence has expired and I swear if I have to go through that whole Dutch driving test experience again I'm going to drive straight over the top of the next 'ambtenaar' I meet.
Every second phone call ends up with a long and repetitive conversation about whether we are or aren't leaving soon. We can't plan any holiday or time off or even buy tickets to a show because we don't know which country we will be living in next month. Friends organising a party? Sounds great, but don't count on us, we may not live here by then. Christmas with family, what a great idea, but which country will we be in by then? When we leave our apartment for alternative accommodation such as a serviced apartment in two weeks time we can't even ship our belongings home because of the way the law works: if we don't leave the country, neither can our stuff. Endless streams of paperwork follow us wherever we go, folders four inches thick of documents and paper trails must be lugged along wherever we move. Have you got copies of all your documents, have you backed up every important email, letter and certificate in your life not once, but twice plus made hard copies in case something goes wrong like we've had to? Ever wondered what it's like trying to pay taxes for two people in two countries and have you any idea how much paper work children entail? Can you imagine the frustration and dozens of hours of work involved when your health insurance company makes an enormous cock up and refuses to pay any of your family's health care bills for eight months like ours did, and you have to sort it our from the other side of the planet? How do you get your car serviced? What happens when a tree in your garden falls over and how should you respond when complete strangers email you asking if they can live in your empty house?
At the end of the day it's been a great experience and we wouldn't have missed it for the world, but no, it's not all plain sailing, it's not all fun, and it's not all easy. It's just life, intensified by a factor of ten. With an equatorial twist.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pasir Ris Gets A Facelift

Recently we revisited Pasir Ris Park, which has always been one of my personal favourites although we haven't been there for ages. In Singaporean terms it's quite far away from us: about 25 minutes in the car on the east coast of the island.

The park is well established which means it's lovely and shady with hundreds of mature trees providing shelter from the sun. Being on the coast means there's often a sea breeze to help cool us down as well. The last time I went with the kids was about 6 months ago when there was a lot of building going on. I guess that's what put me off going back until last Sunday when we jumped in the car and headed down there, the main attraction (we thought) being the bicycle hire place. Niels is craving bike riding since our trip back to Holland in August when he got a new bike, and there are fairly limited opportunities in this busy city state.

On arrival we figured the best plan would be to let the kids play in the playground first to let off some steam then tackle the bike riding. What a pleasant surprise we got! The playground has been massively expanded with all manner of activities for kids, from toddlers to more adventurous 10-12 year olds. The original existing equipment such as the flying foxes and climbing frame have been moved around and lots of exciting new stuff added like climbing nets, a wobbly bridge, obstacle courses, a maze and a play area for the littlies.

The kids went crazy and for the next hour or so hubby and I were more or less redundant, sitting on tree roots swatting at marauding ants and occasionally topping the kids up with water. They quickly made friends with a bunch of local kids and were racing around enjoying themselves with the unselfconscious abandon that only children can achieve.

Finally they seemed to be slowing down a bit so we headed to the bike rental place and picked up three bikes in pretty good condition for about $15 for two hours. The park is perfect for cycling because it's completely flat and there are loads of paths to choose from. The size of the park and it's long, thin shape mean you can happily cycle for 20 minutes or so before having to make choices about where to go next. You can even join a park connector which will lead you to other parks in the area, by-passing roads and traffic. We stopped at the mangrove swamps so the kids could run up the observation tower and look for birds, and again at the end of the cycle way (behind Wild Wild Wet) to look at all the ships in the marina. Then it was back towards the main part of the park again. When they'd finally had enough we had lunch at the very basic Chinese seafood restaurant there, filling up on seafood fried rice and lemon chicken. As is typical in Singapore, the food was tasty, cheap and perfectly safe and we washed it all down with icy mugs of fresh lime juice. Feeling like we needed a sleep we could only shake our heads in disbelief as the boys raced off to the playground again. Hubby succumbed to the heat and his full tummy and crashed out on the grass for a while until it was time to go. Wiping away the sweat dripping from their red-flushed faces we bundled the kids into the car, turned up the air-con and headed home. Pasir Ris Park has moved firmly to the top of our favourite parks list and we can all recommend it if you have kids of any age, if you fancy jumping on a bike for a relaxing ride, or even if you are one of those mad people who enjoys jogging and are looking for plenty of pretty, shady space to run around in. Just don't trip over the sleeping Papa's.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Octoberfest Hits Singapore

Yes even these tropical climes are not immune to the beer-swilling, sausage-scoffing, singing and dancing party zone that is the Octoberfest. Last year we attended an event downtown, which was where I first glimpsed - and lusted for - the iPhone. This year however we really did it in style. We'd seen a huge temporary pavilion being constructed across the road from the kids school at the Swiss Club, and it turned out this was the venue for this year's Octoberfest.
With very little encouragement indeed we secured a couple of tickets together with some friends and set off on Saturday 4th.
Nothing about last years event has prepared me for how much fun this one would be. Having attended the real beerfest in Munich it's hard to be impressed by an imitation, but the Swiss Club did a damn fine job.

The tent was huge, with over 2,000 people seated and still plenty of room to move about and dance. The 10-piece oom-pah-pah band was superb, keeping the crowd singing, cheering and dancing, and they played almost non-stop from 8-11 pm. The crowd was on its feet, and in fact on the tables, the entire time.
And then there was the food! A sumptuous feast of various German sausages, pork knuckles, sauerkraut, red cabbage, potato salads and lots of stuff I didn't recognise, plus the highlight was a spit-roasted ox.

The beer was Erdinger, one of our perpetual favourites from back home, and we could conveniently buy large dispensers to fill all the steins on the table at our leisure. For some reason they always seemed to be nearly empty...
One of the nice things about the night was the number of locals who attended. I had expected that only Europeans would really be interested but at least half the people were Singaporeans, and they really went all-out to dress the part.

It was a fantastic night, and when we left at about 11:30 the party was still going strong. Wondering how on earth we would ever get home we found a never-ending queue of taxis waiting to whisk us off - all Mercedes, of course.
If you're in Singapore this time next year I strongly recommend grabbing your lederhosen and trying out the Octoberfest at the Swiss Club, you'll have a blast!

Friday, October 10, 2008

More Wet Market Wonders from Tiong Bahru

I had such a good visit to the Tiong Bahru wet market this week. As I've said many times it's just the best place to get fresh fish, pork, flowers, vegetables and prawns. However I'm branching out into more experimental local cuisine which requires me to tackle the tofu and dried goods sellers in the market too. Here I'm at a distinct disadvantage because with fruit and veges, you simply fill up the little baskets with whatever you want, hand it over, then pay. Likewise with fish I can point to what I want, indicate how I want it cleaned with 90% accuracy using hand signals, and my prawn seller speaks good English. However the dried good stalls are for the most part manned by an older generation of Chinese who speak a minimum of English so it's down to hand signals and imaginative pronunciation of ingredients.

I've been inspired by a great little cook book I picked up recently called Simple Treats written by Lisa Yam. She looks exactly like the ideal Chinese grandmother in the book, preparing delicious food using simple yet tasty recipes which are all accompanied by a question and answer session between her and her Filipino domestic help, Ah Ling. It's a friendly chatty kind of book and the dishes look sumptuous.

Fortunately I took the book with me as it's written in both Mandarin and English. I made the rounds of the stands asking for "Chouzhou Sa Cha sauce please. ChouZHOU Sa-Cha? CHOUzhou Sa CHA?" until giving in and showing the recipe to a wizened little lady nearly hidden behind fragrant piles of dried prawn, jelly fish, and pickled cabbage. "Huh?" was the invariable response as they would bend forward to try and read the Mandarin text in the dim light. When I got lucky their faces would light up "Ahhhh! Yes! Chouzhou Sa Cha sauce, I have, can, can!"

Then it was off to the tofu seller who passed the recipe around the neighbouring stall holders until one young enough to read without glasses was able to make out the Mandarin text for bean curd sheets. Each time, without fail, they would tell me slowly and clearly the proper name for what I was looking for and each time I would repeat it carefully, silently despairing of ever remembering any of these words by the time I got home.

I needed a bizarre vegetable called luffa, which looks like a cross bet wen a cucumber and an instrument of war, and there was a lively discussion amongst the vendors what I meant until one old lady silenced the chatter by scornfully rattling off a string of Mandarin at the men gathered round - obviously berating them for being completely useless - before producing one with a triumphant smile and a flourish from a tub full of the upended beasties. The men's' mutterings were clearly running along the lines of "well if the Ang Moh* had said LUffa instead of luFFA we would have understood the first time..."

So I'm well armed with my bean curd, by red dates, dried prawns, soy bean paste, red dates and Chouzhou Sa Cha. My luffa is chilling in the fridge until tomorrow and my bottle of Shaoxing wine is keeping my Pu Ning bean sauce company in the cupboard. My lily buds and lotus root are ready to go so with a bit of luck and lots of help from Lisa Yam we'll be eating even better than ever this week.
*Ang moh literally translates as red haired but is the term used to described Caucasians. I'm sure they've also got a name which translates as "that stupid white chick who thinks she can cook Chinese food, what a joke lah!"

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Bollywood Champion

Last night we had a great evening out with a large part of the crew from hubby's work. We had a delicious meal at Aangan restaurant, which put on a buffet of Indian and Bangladeshi food. While the food was wonderful, the speeches interesting and the belly dancing distracting for some, the undisputed highlight of the evening had to be 'I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt' Alex who not only took part in a dancing competition but threw himself into it with a gusto which resulted in his and Martje's undisputed victory. As he later said "If you're going to compete you may as well win." Too right mate.

Enjoy the video, which he has kindly agreed to let me publish here. Ladies, sorry but he's a married man.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Big News ladies; A Good Hairdresser Has Been Found!

Now this posting is going to seem utterly, totally trivial to those of you who don't live here, so feel free to skip it. For any ex-pat ladies however, it's big news, so stick with me!
About six weeks ago my hairdresser, a wonderfully skilled woman from New Zealand, left Singapore to start a new life in Australia. She left behind a grieving clientele convinced they would never have a decent haircut in Singapore again. Perhaps I should explain. When you are a Caucasian based in Asia getting a haircut is an issue fraught with tension, tears, and usually loads of money. Plainly put, our hair is different to Asian hair. Their hair apparently contains a lot more protein so it is stronger, glossier and thicker,'s always straight. To compound the problem of having Caucasian hair throw curls into the equation and lets just say there are plenty of stories of inexperienced hairdressers just about having to reach for the clippers to hide their mistakes. There are a few businesses catering specifically for the ex-pat market, and as one of my friends told me the other day, she wouldn't have minded paying the $300 + if her dye job had been half-way decent!
The reason I know my Kiwi hairdresser has been gone six weeks is that I need my hair cut every 5 weeks or it's just a puff ball of fluff. Curly hair frizzes in the high humidity of the tropics. Go too long without a hair cut or forget your styling lotion and by lunch time it looks like you've stuck your tongue in a wall socket. So by today, I was DESPERATE.
Before defecting to Oz my hairdresser had mentioned a chop-shop in town which had been recommended to her, so with no other choice, off I headed to Centrepoint shopping mall on Orchard Rd. At 10.30 they were just open and the place was deserted. Yes, I could get my hair cut right away, Angie had cut Ang Moh hair before. I briefly considered asking how much this was going to cost - a large glossy salon on Orchard Rd wouldn't be cheap - but swallowed my words, as I was really past thinking up a Plan B by now. Once seated the assistant, who himself sported a startling spiky cut streaked with bleached highlights, said he'd wash my hair first. OK, so far so good. However instead of leading me away to a basin he tucked a square of plastic over the collar of my blouse, draped a small towel over my shoulders then proceeded to drop a large dollop of shampoo directly onto my head. What??? Next he picked up a plastic squeezy bottle - just like the ketchup bottles you see at cafes - and squeezed warm water onto the top of my head in a steady stream while vigorously massaging the shampoo into a thick foam. He kept massaging and adding water, massaging and adding water...I was sure that at any moment I'd be drenched but he put away the bottle and went to work briskly working up a foam on top of my head, gradually bringing in more and more dry hair until finally my whole head was covered. He then proceeded to give me a ten minute scalp massage and the most thorough cleaning my hair has ever had. Not a single drop or bubble dripped off my head and by the end I looked like a snow cone, my head completely encased in a warm mass of white foam. Then it was off to the wash basins and a thorough rinse followed by another scalp massage. Bliss.
Back in the chair, Angie appeared. All 20 kilos of her. I explained what I wanted - just recreate the asymmetrical cut I've got, while she ahh-haad and nodded.
Finally she said "Ok. Unnerstand, can do. I never do this one before, but is ok." Now be honest, how many of you would have run for the door at that stage?
She then picked up a pair of thinning scissors - a new approach for me - and attacked my hair with a speed I've only seen back in New Zealand shearing sheds. As she progressed Angie became more and more excited, like an artist at her easel. "Yes! Yes!" she started to exclaim whenver she made a final adjustment. "Sorry, I very fussy, very fussy!" she kept saying and I was thinking "what more could a client wish for?"
I won't bore you with the details but less than an hour after I'd walked into the salon, I was out again with the perfect hair cut, i.e. exactly what I wanted! Brilliantly done, very professional. Pulling out my wallet I thought "here we go, brace yourself Joanne..."
The cashier murmured the price and I thought oh, $57, that's not bad. "No Ma'am, that's $37" she corrected me. What?? Unbelievable, an incredibly well priced and professional hair cut, no drama no tears...and no last minute clippers. My day just can't get any better. I should go and buy a lottery ticket.
So girls, if you want a good cut go to Jantzen Salon, #02-22 Centrepoint, Orchard Road, and make sure you ask for Angie; she works every day except Friday. The phone number is 65138805. And no they didn't pay me to promote them but they deserve it. Just don't book in for five weeks time because that's when I'll be back...

Friday, October 03, 2008

I'm Not As Think As You Drunk I Am

The crime: Gathering of The Squiffy Sailor Club
Scene of the crime: Harrys @ Boat Quay
All I can say is that I'm glad I was the one standing behind the camera! And that it was a great night.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Blowing Your Own Horn

Here's a pic of Carl taken a couple of months ago which I'd chucked into my 'to use' folder on the desktop and forgotten about.

Talk about blowing your own horn...

...and a couple more for the family (taken at the wonderful West Coast Park) so you can see what he looks like these days.