Stories, Travel

Reflections on China

Prior to the Ninja Turtle’s visit to China, she had certain preconceptions about the place. Having only visited the country once – and this was way back in 1999, on a primary school trip to Beijing – her knowledge of China was vague at best. Sure, she knew the country had made progress in leaps and bounds, but when one is stuck with the memories of a public schooling system with too many hyper-disciplined, super-enthusiastic students crammed into a tiny classroom fighting to answer every single math question, and public toilets in a brand new state library with no doors on the cubicles, it’s hard to know just what to anticipate.

First and foremost, the infrastructure is pretty well established. There are certainly a lot more cars than bicycles on the roads now, which also explains the constant curtain of grey that hangs on the horizon. Let’s just say those aren’t rain clouds.

Since it has been over 10 years since the Ninja Turtle has lived in a Mandarin-speaking environment, her confidence was initially shaky. Sure, she occasionally speaks Mandarin with Mother and Papa Turtle, but mainland Chinese will very quickly point out that the Chinese diaspora speak bastardised versions of proper Mandarin.

This is especially so in Singapore, where the people arguably speak a creole. What some people take pride in as bilingualism is in fact, generally a substandard ability to faintly grasp two languages just enough to get by. To the Singaporean-Chinese ear, mainland Chinese speakers have a very strong accent when speaking in Mandarin.

After a day or two however, the Ninja Turtle got accustomed (thanks perhaps in part to her 4 years of Chinese-school education… yes yes, she went to a Chinese-education school, no need to point and laugh hysterically). She even got complimented on her Mandarin skills by a few people, which is not so different from when the French back in France compliment her for speaking English really well…

Another pre-trip concern was the food. Shameful confession of the week: the Ninja Turtle loves food, but food doesn’t always love the Ninja Turtle. This is especially the case in Singapore, where the Ninja Turtle lives like royalty – she eats a plethora of exciting dishes in food courts, hawker centres, restaurants, and inevitably, spends a lot of time the following day sitting on the throne… So there were questions as to just how well her guts could handle food in China (Mother Turtle could offer no real helpful advice in this area) and also, whether she’d get used to the taste.

A quick word on the standards of service in China: it is AMAZING, and the Turtle isn’t just measuring this against shoddy French service standards. The hotel staff were almost creepily efficient at their job, and it took the Ninja Turtle until the end of her stay to appreciate and get used to it. On day one, she requested a quiet corner, and was given a very comprehensive explanation of how buffet breakfasts worked while shown to her table.

Ironically, when she asked where the coffee machine was, she was told that the coffee would be brought to her table. Now the Turtle likes her coffee in a very particular way, so she said no worries, she could serve herself, it was a buffet after all. The service staff gave her a very injured look, as if the Turtle had challenged her very purpose of existence by cheerily suggesting self-service at a buffet breakfast. A few back-and-forths of insisting who would get the coffee later, the Turtle relented.

Day Two onwards, everyone on the team seemed to know everything. She was greeted warmly each morning, no repeating her room number, automatically shown to a quiet corner, served her coffee and glass of water, and checked upon every 15 minutes to see if the meal was up to standard, and the coffee topped up like magic. As she left, she was waved off by no less than 5 people, wishing her a pleasant day. It felt like these wait staff were customer service angels, and the hotel restaurant Customer Service Heaven.

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There was one thing the Ninja Turtle was looking forward to in China, but sadly, it did not eventuate. Not often does the Turtle visit a new city and not take the opportunity to run in it, exploring the sights. Sadly, the quality of the air was enough to make this asthmatic Turtle think the better of it. After all, running is meant to improve one’s health, not compromise it. And truly, it’s not fun at all when one is wheezing like Darth Vader after 500m.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she's ever used in her life.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she’s ever used in her life.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water. It was the one and only time on her trip she feigned complete ignorance of the language and pretended she didn’t understand a damn word that was being yelled in her face.

So there you have it, some reflections of China. A vibrant and exciting country that’s straddling two worlds – developing and developed – with most of its ancient history and culture still thankfully preserved despite the Maoist regime, and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses driving its domestic consumer spending (although that is probably still peanuts in the grand scheme of its economic growth). Five days isn’t enough to go by, but this simply means one thing: the Ninja Turtle will definitely be returning to China for more.

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Food, Travel

Sonic the Hedgehog’s Birthday Food Tour

Last weekend, the Ninja Turtle got to spend a few days with her best friend from Australia, Sonic the Hedgehog. He’d taken a few days off work and was initially planning to go to Bali for the weekend, but of course, the Ninja Turtle found that idea most absurd and offensive – go to Bali while she was in Singapore? And sit alone on the beach, crying into a cocktail as he turned another year older? No way. He was coming over to Singapore instead, and they were going to eat themselves stupid.

Dressed for the tropical heat, Mother Turtle takes a quick snap of the duo getting ready to hit the town.

Dressed for the tropical heat, Mother Turtle takes a quick snap of the duo getting ready to hit the town.

The duo’s first stop for the day was Marina Bay, where the DBS Regatta was going on for the SEA Games. According to hearsay, there was an urban beach with food, music and stuff, so they thought they’d go check things out.

There it was!

There it was! It’s hard to tell from the overcast skies but they got there at midday, when it was stinking hot, and time for some grub.

Sonic the Hedgehog burning some calories pre-emptively...

Sonic the Hedgehog burning some calories pre-emptively…

While the Ninja Turtle is too lazy to do more than recline on a deck chair at the urban beach.

While the Ninja Turtle is too lazy to do more than recline on a deck chair at the urban beach.

First meal of the trip: beef and chicken satay, beef teriyaki nachos and Caesar salad, with half a pint of beer and a glass of prosecco. $58 (yeah, it was a tourist trap).

First meal of the trip: beef and chicken satay, beef teriyaki nachos and Caesar salad, with half a pint of beer and a glass of prosecco. $58 (yeah, it was a tourist trap).

A quick walk to see the Gardens by the Bay, which was still incomplete the last time Sonic the Hedgehog visited Singapore...

A quick walk to see the Gardens by the Bay, which was still incomplete the last time Sonic the Hedgehog visited Singapore…

Before jumping on the MRT to Clarke Quay for the next round of drinks.

Before jumping on the MRT to Clarke Quay for the next round of drinks.

Sonic had a Singapore Sling and later, a pint of Stella, while the Turtle went with a Merlot and later, a whisky. Second round of price gouge.

Sonic had a Singapore Sling and later, a pint of Stella, while the Turtle went with a Merlot and later, a whisky. Second round of price gouge.

Dinner was a meal at the Holland Village hawker centre. Sonic tried beef hor fun for the first time.

Dinner was a meal at the Holland Village hawker centre. Sonic tried beef hor fun for the first time.

Day two started with very good intentions of repairing the previous day’s damage…

The Ninja Turtle fixed Sonic the Hedgehog one of her famous fruit platter breakfasts. This one had persimmon, starfruit and roseapple, with plain yogurt, chia seeds and honey.

The Ninja Turtle fixed Sonic the Hedgehog one of her famous fruit platter breakfasts. This one had persimmon, starfruit and roseapple, with plain yogurt, chia seeds and honey.

Better yet, Mother Turtle managed to find mangosteens! It's been years since the Ninja Turtle had last eaten one of these things.

Better yet, Mother Turtle managed to find mangosteens! It’s been years since the Ninja Turtle had last eaten one of these things.

But then of course, they paid a visit to the Ninja Turtle's other best friend the Krazy Kow, and all good intentions were discarded with an evening of food debauchery.

But then of course, they paid a visit to the Ninja Turtle’s other best friend the Krazy Kow, and all good intentions were discarded with an evening of food debauchery.

How to host a quiet Sunday evening chez soi:

1. Find a crazy friend (someone like the Ninja Turtle).

2. Make sure crazy friend is armed with another crazy friend (someone like Sonic the Hedgehog).

3. Let them rudely rock up to your home while you’re still out, armed with two bottles of red wine and some lethal-for-the-waistline snacks like chilli lime soy chips and mixed nuts.

4. Get your boyfriend to stop by for baguette on the way over, because you need a vehicle for the olive oil, dukkah and sundried tomato pesto you plan to stuff your faces with.

5. Let your guests take their wineglasses into the pool because they came with bathers, only to swim 2 half-arse laps in your pool before deciding it was enough, they were tired and hungry.

6. Dig in to the snacks and wine. Your boyfriend also brought a bottle of whisky by the way, just in case.

7. Let snacks roll into dinner, which was a giant pot of delicious pasta (got to line the stomach, you know) followed by Magnum and Haagen Daz ice cream.

8. Continue with the wine. To maximise the pleasure out of all alcoholic drinks, play Cards Against Humanity. (What better game than this to play with someone you’re meeting for the first time, right? Trust us, you’ll get to know that person so well, you’ll never forget them.)

Between the Krazy Kow and Sonic the Hedgehog, the Ninja Turtle got to enjoy the company of her two favourite people in the world. (Not counting GodzillaPin of course, although to be fair, she’s been friends with them both a lot longer than she’s known GP. So give these two good folks credit for being able to put up with NT for all these years!)

Sonic had only taken a short leave from work, but Day Three was special as it was his birthday! Mother Turtle had plenty of activities lined up…

A birthday lunch at Jin Shan Lou restaurant, in Marina Bay Sands.

A birthday lunch at Jin Shan Lou restaurant, in Marina Bay Sands.

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Both Sonic and Ninja really enjoyed the meal, but Mother Turtle was not quite done with her surprises. On the way home, they casually “dropped by” the Fullerton Hotel, where something awaited.

Chocolate mousse cake from the Cake Boutique! They brewed a pot of tie guan yin tea to go with it.

Chocolate mousse cake from the Cake Boutique! They brewed a pot of tie guan yin tea to go with it.

Happy birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog!

Happy birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog!

Mother Turtle also prepared some kaya (coconut jam) and pineapple tarts for Sonic to bring home, but before they headed off to the airport, there was one last surprise…

DURIANS!

DURIANS!

Happy birthday, Sonic! Thanks for coming to see us in Singapore and spending your special day with us! It has been great fun to have you and we want you back soon!

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Travel

Photo essay of Singapore

Here are some photos to summarise some of the Ninja Turtle’s activities in Singapore this week.

Malay cookies for Hari Raya Puasa.

Malay cookies for Hari Raya Puasa.

Also known as Eid al-Fitr, Hari Raya Puasa is the local name for the Feast of Breaking the Fast, and marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for the Muslims. This year, it falls on 17 July, and the local supermarkets are already stocked up with all the delicacies associated with the Sugar Feast. As a multi-cultural society, Singapore offers its people the chance to partake in a variety of traditions, even if it’s something as banal as sampling the cuisine of another culture. The Ninja Turtle does have fond childhood memories of being invited to her Muslim friends’ places for festivities and celebrations, cementing her belief that world peace can be attained through a shared meal.

A napping cat at a local market.

A napping cat at a local market.

Proof that the unbearable heat we’ve all been complaining about is not a figment of our imagination, nor a reflection of us being a bunch of pampered sissies. Even the animals need a midday siesta and this cat was found sleeping at a local market. Passers-by would occasionally touch it, but it was too hot/tired/comatose to care.

Durians are in season.

Durians are in season.

Nicknamed the king of fruits, the durian is a cousin of the jackfruit, and if used correctly, can double as a weapon of sorts (just use your imagination). The last time the Ninja Turtle came back, it wasn’t the right time for this pungent terror, but in June, it’s time to roll out the mangosteens, durians, jackfruits (and the Turtle has spied lychees, longans, persimmons, cherimoyas, dragonfruits and a whole slew of other exotic delights). What is your favourite exotic fruit?

Peking roast duck dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Peking roast duck dinner at a Chinese restaurant with relatives.

Duck is an interesting dish; like pig’s trotters or frog’s legs, the French and the Chinese do it equally well, but the style is so completely different. While GodzillaPin’s grandma does a wicked magret de canard aux prunes, there is no substitute for the signature crispy duck skin with sweet dark soy and spring onion wrapped in a thin pastry like a beautiful little tortilla, followed by tender slices of duck meat.

Making a meal with the leftovers.

Making a meal with the leftovers.

Some countries don’t generally let diners take home their leftovers (looking at you, Australia), but in Singapore, it seems to be standard practise. In fact, restaurants probably would prefer to offer takeaway, in hopes of encouraging you to order more than you can finish, rather than order conservatively to reduce waste. Here, the Ninja Turtle whipped up a leftover duck, mushroom and apple salad with a homemade dijonnaise dressing, paired with a glass of wine…

International wine selection.

International wine selection.

OK, so this may offend the Ninja Turtle’s French readers, but all she can say is… tant pis pour vous. In France, they may not feel the need to import wines from elsewhere, given how many different wine-producing regions exist locally, but in Singapore, it’s all got to be imported. Which means one can easily find a wide variety of wines from all around the world. The Ninja Turtle picked out three bottles from three different countries – Chile, South Africa and Australia.

Yum seng!

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Food

This Runner Eats the World

Not long ago, someone asked the Ninja Turtle what a runner’s diet looked like. Well… it’s not all energy gels, protein bars and shakes, you know. GodzillaPin is a man who loves to eat, and the Turtle is a runner with an appetite to match his. They don’t like eating out ‘cos it’s expensive, and here in Metz, it’s hard to find good not-French-cuisine food. Plus, the portions are tiny.

So here’s what they fix up at home instead.

A scallops and greens pasta (although the pasta was buried beneath the mound of yumminess).

A scallops and greens pasta (although the pasta was buried beneath the mound of yumminess).

Ginger and garlic cod en papillote. Mother Turtle cooked a lot of steamed fish back in Singapore, and this was the closest approximation the Ninja Turtle could get. Served with stir-fried beansprouts and purple rice, cos... carbs,

Ginger and garlic cod en papillote. Mother Turtle cooked a lot of steamed fish back in Singapore, and this was the closest approximation the Ninja Turtle could get. Served with stir-fried beansprouts and purple rice, cos… carbs,

Seasonal foods taste the best. Here's a salad of endives, apple, walnuts, dressed with a walnut  and white wine vinaigrette.

Seasonal foods taste the best. Here’s a salad of endives, apple, walnuts, dressed with a walnut and white wine vinaigrette.

Vegetarian for the night: a chickpea and aubergine curry, made with some freshly grated ginger cos they were feeling fancy.

Vegetarian for the night: a chickpea and aubergine curry, made with some freshly grated ginger cos they were feeling fancy.

Finally, a 十全大補汤 which translates to All-Inclusive Great Tonifying Decoction. The Ninja Turtle slow-boiled this chicken and mushroom soup for 3.5 friggin' hours.

Finally, a 十全大補汤 which translates to All-Inclusive Great Tonifying Decoction. The Ninja Turtle slow-boiled this chicken and mushroom soup for 3.5 friggin’ hours.

They also had a Basque pork, vegetable and lentil stew, as well as a minced beef tortillas dinner, but those were gobbled up before the photos were taken. The whole point is this: runners eat a lot, and they TRY to eat healthy when they’re not living off Gatorade and granola bars, but healthy eating is far from boring. In fact, it can take you around the world.

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Travel

Scenes from the Chinese Garden

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8.30am on a Sunday morning, when half the city is still asleep…

The Ninja Turtle was out plodding before the sun even came up.

The Ninja Turtle was out plodding before the sun even came up.

It's just too damn hot and humid in Singapore to run after 9am, and before 8pm.

Even with plenty of shade, i’s just too damn hot and humid in Singapore to run after 9am, and before 8pm.

Finishing her run at the Chinese Garden in Jurong is such a pleasure...

Finishing her run at the Chinese Garden in Jurong is such a pleasure…

Sculpted plants...

Sculpted plants…

Beautiful landscaping...

Beautiful landscaping…

The glassy and still lake...

The glassy lake…

A hero to look up to (the real Hua Mulan, not that bastardised nonsense by Disney.)

A kickass femme fatale to look up to…

Relatives to visit...

Relatives to visit…

And of course, an important pillar of Chinese culture, gazing upon you benevolently to ensure you start the day with the right thoughts in your head.

And of course, an important pillar of the Chinese culture, gazing upon you benevolently to ensure you start the day with the right thoughts and attitude in your head.

Crossing the bridge and homeward bound (to a breakfast of exotic tropical fruits).

Crossing the bridge and homeward bound (to a breakfast of exotic tropical fruits).

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Arts and Culture, Food, Travel

Our Living Heritage

This week, the Ninja Turtle had the excellent fortune of being invited to the private residence of one of Mother Turtle’s oldest friends, Auntie Sylvia, with the express purpose of learning how to make ang ku kueh. What? you say.

A little bit of context: just as the French people don’t simply call themselves français when speaking among themselves, but rather from the geographic region of origin: i.e. “je suis Parisenne/Bretonne/Vogienne/etc“, the Ninja Turtle identifies as Teochew, in reference to the Chaoshan region of Guangdong, where her forebears originated from.

Ang ku kueh, or 红龟粿, translates literally to Red Tortoise Cake. Red because it’s an auspicious colour for the Chinese, and tortoise for its longevity, good fortune and prosperity (or so says Wikipedia). Looking at the key ingredients – sweet potato, mung beans, tapioca starch and glutinous rice flour, the Ninja Turtle was pleasantly surprised to learn that this dessert is in fact, gluten-free! (It’d be a long stretch calling it Paleo-friendly with the food colouring, but hey, 80/20 rule, right?)

Although ang ku kueh is still widely available for purchase in local bakeries, the sad reality is, like the spoken language of Teochew, the art of making traditional desserts is slowly dying in this globalised world. Hence, when the Ninja Turtle received the invitation to learn from Lao Sim, a master of traditional cakes, she jumped at the opportunity.

Meet Lao Sim, a mother, a grandmother, an expert cake-maker, a Teochew woman. She has lived through WWII, she has known Singapore before it was an independent nation. She speaks in Teochew, Mandarin and English. She is a living piece of our history.

Meet Lao Sim, a mother, a grandmother, an expert cake-maker, a Teochew woman. She has lived through WWII, she has known Singapore before it was an independent nation. She speaks in Teochew, Mandarin and English. She is a living piece of our history.

As most expert cuisiniers are wont to do, the way Lao Sim treats the food scale borders almost on the ornamental – that is to say, she can be quite unspecific with quantities. When her students requested to measure and record the quantities, they would be met with the retort “ah ka ah ka jiu hor lah, ming jing zhung!” which translates to “a guestimate will do” but said in the tone that implied food scales were for weaklings.

From many years of experience, she works with her eyes and her hands to determine how much of what ingredients to use. Her judgement will yield either a frown followed by a brisk addition of some flour, shaken straight out of the bag, or a slug of liquid into a mixture, or a satisfied nod and grunt of approval, whereupon the work would proceed to the next step without fanfare.

As such, the Ninja Turtle feels compelled to disclaim that despite her best efforts in recording, some ingredients’ quantities weren’t always made clear, hence she cannot take 100% responsibility for queer results. Nonetheless, if you are feeling adventurous, here is a recipe with photos.

Ang Ku Kueh Recipe
Equipment
Food scale
Blender
Steaming baskets
Moulds for ang ku kueh

Preparations

Skin of the ang ku kueh

The following list of ingredients is to make one batch. If you’re making two batches – one sweet and one semi-salted, the quantities must be doubled. To differentiate the two types, work with each batch separately and leave out the red food colouring in one batch, or substitute it with another colour if you’re feeling wacky.

  • Glutinous rice flour 300g
  • Tapioca starch 300g
  • Course sugar 7 teaspoons
  • Pinch of salt
  • Unspecified quantity of oil
  • Blended sweet potato 650g
  • Sweet potato liquid
  • Red food colouring

Fillings

Half-salted filling

  • 1kg cooked bean powder
  • 300g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 cup pandan leaf water
  • 3 tablespoons shallots

Sweet filling

  • 1kg cooked bean powder
  • 500g sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup pandan leaf water
  • Unspecified quantity of oil

Heat warm water. Add sugar.
Let sugar dissolve over medium heat – do not caramelise.
Add bean powder and stir to a paste.
Add glutinous rice flour to make paste sticky.
Add oil to make the paste smooth.

Sweet and half-salted fillings must be worked on separately. Don’t confuse the batches!

Putting it together

Lao Sim, vous êtes formidable...

Lao Sim, vous êtes formidable…

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