The Gentleman and His Stories

This is a story of James White.

He was a true adventurer in his time.

When I heard he had passed on, I felt that we had all lost something precious.

He was in his 70s but he was such a good-natured grump – I used to tease him mercilessly about how handsome he was when he was in His Majesty’s secret service. He’d turn red and mumble (as the British tend to do – they ‘swallow’ their words!) but I knew he was often pleased that I read his stories – little did I know that in his London days, he took on a lowly paid security guard job just so he could spend hours writing up his stories from his days in pre-war and post-war Malaya.

He loved the Far East.

I treasured this friendship because we would share, for hours on end, our love for books, art and technology.

For a man in his 70s, James was never afraid of technology. He lived on a modest pension but somehow he would be able to get himself the latest Canon digital camera. Photography was his love, besides his four fluffy cats called Ice, Gin, Lime and Tonic!

A gathering of friends, old and new at Bon Ton Langkawi to celebrate James
A gathering of friends, old and new at Bon Ton Langkawi to celebrate James

I didn’t know how emotional it would be at the special sharing session at Bon Ton. It’s true that you’ll only know who your real friends are when you die.

Because at that session, hosted by Kyri (James’ Langkawi friend) and Marianda (James’ UK friend), only the real friends turned up.

Kyri (standing) and Marianda
Kyri (standing) and Marianda

Somehow Langkawi is like that. It is a big island but it is very kampung-like. News travel fast and I bet everyone knew James had passed away. The community can be nice but most people can be bitchy. I’ve heard enough gossip to know this to be true. Like Nic often says, Langkawi reminds him of the 1980s series “Fantasy Island”. It is an island where troubled souls come to escape their problems. And when troubled souls meet other troubled souls, the sparks fly.

Marianda reads tributes from James' friends who emailed her
Marianda reads tributes from James' friends who emailed her

The session was to piece together James’ life -prior to Langkawi (his Hong Kong days, his London days) and post-Langkawi (what he did on the island). Included were our own personal journeys – how we each met him and what we loved about the man who was totally indefatigable.

James often told me stories of his upbringing – how he got his surname White, his Cantonese amah (he was born in Hong Kong) and his jungle tales of Borneo (as a planter). He rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous (Kate Moss was one of them!) but he was never starstruck.

Instead he’d gape with wonder at the local bomoh he’d found, or the orang asli he befriended in his days. Such was his attitude. This white man could speak Tamil and Malay (and I think, probably native languages too) as he traversed the jungles of Malaya and Borneo in his younger days. He puts many of us Malaysians to shame today with his incredible knowledge of the land, its myths, its jungles and its people.

These meanderings of his fascinated me to no end. No doubt he’d repeat them each time we meet but I put it down to being old and forgetful. Or he just wanted to drill the stories into me. I became a fan of his stories, so much so that he emailed me his stories, asking if I could help polish them up for him. He also gave me a hastily stapled together version, in a booklet form.

I’d often remarked to Nic that I’d like to help James do P-O-D or Publish On Demand as a surprise for him one of these days. Somehow it was relegated to the back of my To Do List. I thought this year would be a good year to do it. And now James has passed on.

As I’ve said, James made my life richer (and he taught me how to appreciate gin!).

I will never again meet someone the likes of him. The world doesn’t make unique beings like that anymore. He was a British gentleman till the end, a little upset and lost at the new world. He valued love, friendship and honour and he trusted people.

But he wasn’t very fortunate because his old-world heart trusted the wrong people – he used to recount bitterly how he’d been ripped off by his “friends” on the island. Perhaps his heart broke a little each time someone turned his life upside down. I know I’d be bilious too.

Therefore, meeting his UK friend, Marianda threw up a deep connection. I was calm when I got news that James had passed on but upon meeting Marianda, I collapsed into her arms, hugging her as we both wept at our loss. Intuitively, he connected us both.

My promise is that we’d keep James’ memory alive – all his beautiful stories (fiction or fact, who knows?) of him as a planter, spy, adventurer, son of the earth.

So this year, I hope it is one of my projects – to help edit through his stories and put them on a website so that all those who knew him would be able to read his Far East tales.

I hope to get an edition published too and those who buy the book will be contributing to his favourite charity or organisation. The orang asli were his favourite people besides the Indians. We were thinking that maybe the Indian temple in Kisap would be the beneficiary (he had, after all, been cremated in a pyre at that temple, as per his last wishes). Then again, all these are just my ideas. I wonder what his friends have in mind.

Final send off for James White
Final send off for James White

The next day, all of us who could make it, set off in a boat to a spot near Pulau Dayang Bunting. James’ ashes would be sunk there.

The spot we chose was secluded, near a hilly cliff-face of scraggly rocks and tall tropical trees. Two white-breasted eagles swooped overhead and landed on a tree, watching us, watching them.

Tropical flowers to line the way
Tropical flowers to line the way

They started singing as we each grabbed handfuls of cempaka flowers (taken from Kyri’s garden) to scatter into the mesmerizing green sea. We took this to be a sign that yes, James would like this very spot.

Marianda reads one of James' poems
Marianda reads one of James' poems

His London friend, Peter, used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel a tiny hole at the bottom of the clay vessel which held the ashes. Marianda read a poem aloud – a poem penned by James in the days he started to write. In the poem, James likened himself to a bear. Some shaman told him once that he was a reincarnation of a bear, a ‘beruang’ and I think James loved the idea.

As Peter released the clay vessel into the still waters of the Langkawi sea, we all wished in our hearts for his eternal peace. He would rest well in these waters. He was finally in his tropical resting place.

James' final resting place
James' final resting place

Johnny, the other owner of The Lighthouse restaurant, popped open a bottle of champagne to toast the final send-off. James would have been pleased.

So this is for you Tuan Besar (that’s what I used to call him) – the journey has ended but we will keep your stories alive.

The In-Betweeners

We’ve been here for a few days already and the cold is getting to me. Immensely! I don’t know how the local Hongkongers do it (is Hongkie a bad word to use to describe them? Someone please tell me). They are wrapped up in thick sweaters but they go about their life as if the cold was just a mere fly.

As this is my 3rd time into Hong Kong (the first time I came during summer BEFORE 1997), we’re in that in-between category – neither tourists nor working expats. We’re the sojourners and that’s a label I use because I keep thinking to myself, I really cannot live here. The cold gets to me (even at 14C and it’s March) and I layer up like kuih lapis before I dare venture outdoors.

When it’s hot, it’s hot and that’s in July or August. That’s also when the summer sale starts.

Anyway, weather aside, it’s been great just taking our time traipsing up and down Hong Kong aided by nothing but the MTR Octopus card and a HK tourist map.

I can’t help but do a comparison and contrast while sitting at the park (and despite the cramped apartment conditions here, the irony that stares you down is that the supermarkets and shopping malls in HK are large, even those located in the boondocks and their gardens and parks are just as huge).

Food-wise has been nothing short of excellent. Just like Penang, you can’t get BAD food here. It’s just not possible. But what I would give right now for a piping hot ayam varuval or mutton periatal from Little India in Penang – in this freakingly cold weather, that kind of food will just energise me right up!

Of course the roast goose, roast duck and meats and stuff do make up for this craving for spicy food. And then there’s this preoccupation with afternoon tea which starts at 2pm right up to 6pm. As I was sitting about this morning warming myself up with a mug of hot water, I speculated that the HK coffeeshops here had to include afternoon tea because without it, their coffeeshops would be empty. And like all pragmatic Chinese, why waste good rent when you can maximize it? So average coffeeshops here (“char chaan teng”) does round the clock business, starting with brekafast, lunch, tea and dinner. It’s busy all the time. Business is competitive here.

HK as a tourist (forget your 3D2N trips) and HK as a sojourner (10 slow meandering days) are as different as kopi and nai-cha.

We came here to do a few things but mostly we came here so that we can fully appreciate the lives we have in Penang.

More of my insights later…. and photos too. Right now I am using my friend’s laptop to type this while waiting for Nic to get ready so we can go for … what else?… TEA!

Third Steam Right

Today I made savoury glutinous rice (Hokkiens call it “chu bee p’hng”) for lunch. It’s one easy dish because it’s a one-pot dish and very filling too. I forgot to take some photos though so you’ll just have to put on your imagination cap for this one. Will update this post with photos when I next make some.

This is my 3rd time attempting this tweaked recipe. The first time, I didn’t steam the rice long enough. The second time, my rice was too salty. This third time, it came out beautifully. Cooking is about experimentation and never giving up.

My aunt told me it’s so easy to cook this so I decided I had to try. Plus it’s a great time-saver for people on the go. This portion below serves 2 people nicely. (A tip: if you like making your own sushi but think Japanese rice is too pricey, try using glutinous rice.)

For this recipe, you’ll need:

1.5 cups glutinous rice, washed
4-5 dried Chinese mushrooms, rehydrated in water
1/2 cup dried prawns (hae bee) soaked and drained
2 Chinese sausages (lap cheong) sliced thinly
some spring onions, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 glass of water (about 150 ml water)

1. First, soak the rice overnight. This softens them considerably and you don’t have to steam them too long. I soaked mine for more than 12 hours.
2. Next day, heat a pan with some oil and saute garlic and dried prawns. Add dried mushroom and Chinese sausages. You have to saute till all the flavours start erupting from the pan. When you are excited by the smell, you know your dish will be gorgeous.
3. Add in the drained rice. Mix well. Pour in half a glass of water. Lower fire.
4. At this stage, you will prep the stage for the flavours to combine and turn magical. Your seasoning is the key: into the mixture you will sprinkle these – some pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon soya sauce, 1 teaspoon sesame seed oil, 1 teaspoon dark soya sauce and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. You can add 1 teaspoon Chinese cooking wine too. Stir well. By now, the water should have all been absorbed by the rice grains.
5. Turn off fire. Scoop the rice mixture into a steam-proof plate (in my case, I use a stainless steel plate).
6. Get your steamer ready. Steam this rice mixture for 20 – 30 minutes until the rice is soft and edible. Halfway during steaming, taste the rice for done-ness and also check if the water in your steamer is still available or if the water’s all steamed dry. You may need to sprinkle some water over the rice and stir the rice a bit so all the grains are evenly steamed.
7. Before serving, sprinkle chopped spring onions. Serve warm.

The King of All Herbs

I have this strange satisfaction in eating the food that I grow.

When I was 10, I was already growing my own vegetable – no doubt it was a tiny patch right in front of our terrace house. It was a vegetable which to this day I call “slimy vegetable” because my mom used my harvest to make a soup with the green leafy vegetables. I don’t know what its scientific name is, till today. I do know that it produced tiny purple berries. If you squished the berries, the purple dye will stain your fingers.

I still enjoy growing herbs and vegetables because at the end of the day, I get to eat them!

Ulam Raja or Wild Cosmos
Ulam Raja or Wild Cosmos

Nic and I have a passion for ulams, especially ulam raja.

I am currently growing ulam raja (wild cosmos) in my backyard (also a tiny patch but what a lovely tiny patch I have). Ulam raja is an unforgettable taste. Its leaves are best eaten young and with a good dollop of kick-ass sambal belacan. Its flavour is a cross between lemon and mangga. The best way to know this is to take the fresh ulam raja and pop it in your mouth for a good chew.

This herb or ulam is quite beautiful too when it flowers. It grows easily from seeds (which you will get once the pink flowers die off) and you will always have fresh ulam to eat! Eating this ulam keeps you young (it has anti-ageing properties) and strengthens your bones (due to its high calcium content) and is a breath freshener.

Another ulam I have is one I do not know the name of! If you know the name of this ulam, please let me know. I got to know of this through my uncle. He’s a big fan of ulam with sambal belacan and he had a huge pot of this ulam in my grandma’s house compound. I plucked a few stems and propagated them successfully. This ulam has a different taste and texture compared to ulam raja.

Does anyone know the name of this ulam?
Does anyone know the name of this ulam?

Pegaga is also another ulam I grow in my backyard. I have 2 types – the round leaf variety (which you often see in ponds) and the market variety (sold in markets!). Pegaga is quite the miracle ulam, full of good stuff for your health. Nevertheless, do not over-indulge. It makes you woozy if you eat too much!

Pegaga growing with peppermint
Pegaga growing with peppermint

Below is a photo of the round pegaga which you can use as water plants for your aquarium (I use them in my aquarium anyway) and as food. Talk about versatility!

Pegaga - as ornamental plants, as food, as aquarium decoration
Pegaga – as ornamental plants, as food, as aquarium decoration

Daun kaduk (wild betel leaf) is also an ulam I have though I have yet to harvest and eat this. It is quite precious as it’s still growing and it seems to take forever to grow! (Update 2015: I noticed that if you let daun kaduk grow on the ground, it grows so much faster!).

It is not daun sireh – daun kaduk is softer and you can usually find this when you eat the appetiser, Mieng Kham, in Thai restaurants. This is the leaf you use to wrap the peanuts, dried prawns, chillies and all that yummy condiments. It is also used in Nyonya dishes such as perut ikan and otak-otak.

Glossy daun kaduk
Glossy daun kaduk

I also have daun setawar – I know it’s medicinal but is it an ulam? When I was in school, we used to pluck the leaves and use them as bookmarks! Apparently, it was magic to us kids because the “anak” (or baby plants) will grow from the sides of the leaf.

Daun setawar
Daun setawar

What disappoints me is that although my chili plants are growing and flower all the time, I have yet to see any real chilis! Any chili expert grower can tell me why?

How to Make Yogurt, The Pictorial Guide

Last week I made yogurt after a long time!

I made it because Lee Choo, a journalist from Guang Ming Daily contacted me and was curious about my homemade yogurt recipe and process.

She said that many people needed to use a special yogurt maker and yogurt starter to get the yogurt made. When she came across my blog post, she was really excited because it meant anyone can make yogurt at home using the simplest tools and ingredients.

Well, I consider myself blessed because Dada Lalitesh taught me this method almost 10 years ago and I still use it and it has never failed me. Dada was my yoga teacher but we became firm friends as we shared similar interests – books, travel, eclectic movies, all things Chinese. And he’s from South America. Right now, he is in Vietnam and I met him just before he left and we still have that many things to talk about (and yoga wasn’t the topic either!)

So here it is – a step-by-step process via photos. I use Marigold brand for both yogurt and milk. I used to use milk powder and that makes a thicker yogurt compared to packet milk. Taste-wise, it’s still the same.

While Dada used to eat yogurt with fruits and muesli for breakfast, I have other uses for yogurt. I love fruit lassi’s (mango lassi is super delicious but if you can get strawberries or blueberries, they taste yums too!) and I love using yogurt to make cucumber raita. I can also use yogurt to make chicken curry. I also use yogurt to mix with mayonnaise as a not-too-calorie laden dressing for salads. The possibilities are truly endless.

But the end result is: it’s healthy. It’s good for your gut. And you’ll feel more satisfied because you made it on your own. You know what you put into it.

You can use yogurt to bathe – just slather the yogurt over your body, exfoliate with a natural loofah scrubber and then rinse well. After that, feel your skin’s ultra smoothness! Like a baby’s bottom. I always feel like I’m Cleopatra when I am using yogurt in the bath, except that she used to bathe with milk.

You can use it as a face mask too and it helps with blemishes and acne. You see, there’s plenty of ways to use yogurt. You can keep the yogurt for 3 – 5 days in the fridge (not freezer or chiller please). After the 5th day (and you don’t feel like you want to eat any more yogurt), use it for bathing and as a mask.

I haven’t really figured out why Marigold contains the right sort of live cultures (I have tried making yogurt with Dutch Lady brand and it never came out right) but Dada himself said that he uses Marigold only for best results.

Anyway, try this at home and you’ll never need to buy commercial yogurt any more!

Only 2 ingredients: UHT Full Cream Milk & natural yogurt, Marigold brand
Only 2 ingredients: UHT Full Cream Milk & natural yogurt, Marigold brand

You can use milk powder too. If you use milk powder, you will need about 6 heaped tablespoons of milk powder. Mix this with room temperature water first before you add hot water. Keep adding the hot water until the milk mixture is warm (not hot please).

Pour the 2 packets of milk into a pot.
Pour the 2 packets of milk into a pot.
Heat the milk for 3 minutes. Do not bring to boil.
Heat the milk for 3 minutes. Do not bring to boil.

Take a tablespoon of yogurt and mix into the warm milk. Milk must be warm to touch, not hot.
Take a tablespoon of yogurt and mix into the warm milk. Milk must be warm to touch, not hot.

Here I must add my two cents. Stick your pinkie into the milk. If you can keep your pinkie in the milk for more than 10 seconds, it’s warm enough. If you find the milk too hot, stir the milk a bit to cool it down. We want to create a warm world for our live culture. We do not want to kill the lactobacillus strains.

Pour milk mixed with yogurt into a container. Cap the lid.
Pour milk mixed with yogurt into a container. Cap the lid.
Wrap container with a plastic bag. Tie the ends tightly. This is the insulation your yogurt needs for the next 12 hours.
Wrap container with a plastic bag. Tie the ends tightly. This is the insulation your yogurt needs for the next 12 hours.

Put this into a container and cover with an old towel. Again, it's for keeping in the warmth so the culture can get to work fermenting the milk.
Put this into a container and cover with an old towel. Again, it's for keeping in the warmth so the culture can get to work fermenting the milk.

Here I use the inner container from an old rice cooker (my old rice cooker died on me many years ago) and I never had the heart to throw out the (still) good inner container. So I line it with an old cloth and use it as my yogurt maker!

Set it aside for 12 hours. After 12 hours, your milk has become yogurt. Once it has set properly, keep it refrigerated.
Set it aside for 12 hours. After 12 hours, your milk has become yogurt. Keep it refrigerated.

How do you know if the yogurt’s done fermenting?

The mixture should not be runny like milk. You can scoop some out and the mass of yogurt stays firm on your spoon. Taste some. It will taste a little different from commercial sweet yogurt. Sweeten this with honey or fruits and you’ll be a happy bear in no time.

This recipe makes 500 ml of yogurt.

Homemade Nutmeg Syrup

I love market days.

This morning, I was at the market and my vegetable lady had some fresh nutmeg for sale.

Fresh nutmeg - aren't they beautiful?
Fresh nutmeg - aren't they beautiful?

Penang is famous for nutmeg juice and nutmeg slices and all sorts of nutmeg balms and oils because nutmeg is grown quite a fair bit on the rural side – in Balik Pulau. I think it’s because we get it so easily we kind of look upon it unkindly and don’t really appreciate the fruit for its medicinal qualities.

I bought a kilo of fresh nutmeg and the vegetable lady taught me how to cook this down into a syrup. I enjoy experimenting in the kitchen so this was just perfect (just like making roselle syrup!).

Plus nutmeg drinks are healthy and contain a host of good stuff for your body. I read that nutmeg oil stimulates the brain and relieves stress. Nutmeg on its own helps with detoxification of the liver. If you have heart problems, nutmeg can stimulate blood circulation. It can increase appetites, reduce joint and muscle pain (that’s why we have nutmeg salve and nutmeg balm), can get rid of gassiness and bloatedness, and help with coughs and colds and general respiratory issues. It removes halitosis, treats menstrual pains and is reputed to be an aphrodisiac! The only contraindication is that pregnant women should avoid taking this.

If you have trouble falling asleep, nutmeg is the answer. In fact, nutmeg is so useful, it’s a wonder why we don’t love this fruit more! Besides nutritional benefits, it seems that pagans used nutmeg as symbols of luck, money, health and fidelity. Nutmeg was so expensive back in 1800s that Europeans wore graters around their necks so they could grate their own nutmeg into their food!

OK, now that you know the nutmeg is such a wonderful spice and fruit, let’s cook the nutmeg.

Wash the fruit under running water, drain and cut the fruit up. Remove its seed.

Split nutmeg, showing its seed covered in mace (the reddish stuff)
Split nutmeg, showing its seed covered in mace (the reddish stuff)

Inside is the nutmeg seed covered in the reddish skin (which is called mace and very much useful so don’t throw this seed and mace away). Dry these seeds and mace under the hot sun – now’s a good time as Penang is very warm! Perfect for sunning nutmeg seeds. According to the vegetable lady, you can crack 1 nutmeg seed into your pot of ‘tau yew bak’ (braised pork in soya sauce) for extra yumminess. So keep them.

Fresh nutmeg, sliced and ready to be boiled down into a delicious syrup
Fresh nutmeg, sliced and ready to be boiled down into a delicious syrup

Place the fruit into a pot and add 1 kg of rock sugar. I added 2 large bowls of water and put the pot over a medium fire for 15 minutes, covered. After 15 minutes, turn down the fire to its lowest and simmer for another 30 – 40 minutes (pot still covered) until the syrup has thickened slightly. Cool and store in jars in the fridge.

Nutmeg syrup - ready to drink!
Nutmeg syrup - ready to drink!

The syrup will be of a golden colour. Coffeeshops around Penang do serve nutmeg drinks but I’d sometimes ask if they’re freshly made or boiled. The colour of these nutmeg drinks is whitish and a friend told me why this was so. If the drink is whitish instead of a deep golden hue, it means the skin was removed before boiling. Not sure if this is true or if the coffeeshop people just blended the flesh of the nutmeg fruit! You know, like how you’d make a fresh watermelon ice blended. Just blend the fruit! One day I must investigate or ask why the colour’s different from my homemade syrup.

When you want a thirst-quenching drink, just spoon a few tablespoons of nutmeg syrup and mix with water. Top with ice cubes and serve. For the elderly, you can mix the nutmeg syrup with warm water. It makes a refreshing warm drink!

One more thing, you can reserve the softened nutmeg fruit and eat them, or you can keep them to serve with the nutmeg drink. I suppose you could dry them in the sun and eat them as a snack but I haven’t done that before. To me, it’s such a waste to throw out the nutmeg fruit.

If you have a large enough slow cooker or crockpot, you can boil this syrup overnight or more. I don’t have a big slow cooker so I did mine over a regular stove.

History Belongs To Me

I try not to let politics taint my blog – after all, we have good doses of them in our daily life, news, twitter and facebook.

But I also am starting to get really mad because this country is starting to go crazy and crack in the wrong places. Malaysia is never famous for the good stuff – we’re a country of crooks and cons, and I suppose foreigners shudder if they hear news about us.

We’re possibly the craziest of the crazies. Whenever I am listening to webinars or talks, Asia is about Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and sometimes The Phillipines. What happened to Malaysia? It’s as if we don’t exist as a country! We’re THAT notorious!

And yet, Malaysians are the nicest, kindest folks – hardworking, amiable, pleasant, great with languages, difficult to pin down and full of character!

I’ve stopped reading newspapers because everyday is full of the same crap. Nic and I have given up eating at mamak places in Penang mainly because we don’t want to support people who are obnoxious. Our ringgit should go to more deserving makan places. We don’t even want to go to a particular breakfast place in Langkawi because his politics suck.

Anyway, the latest episode of craziness stirred U-Jean, a friend who’s passionate about the arts, to write a heartfelt missive to the Malaysian Insider. I first watched her perform a few years ago, as a kapitan Cina, and thought to myself, “Wow. This girl can act and sing and dance.” (U-Jean is wearing the light blue coolie baju in the photo. See if you can spot her!)

When I got to know her, she’s every bit as quirky and audacious as she writes. (And by the way, I don’t know much of Banting’s history either… so if there’s a similar programme for Selangor, all teens should join!). Politics should never taint the pure intentions of children and youth who are passionate about the oral histories of the place. If Farid is so upset, he should set up his own team and write his own oral history! But then again, we know what ‘tin kosong’ does! It’s all noise but no action.

And bravo, U-Jean! I know Malaysia WILL be a better place if we had more people who really learnt and loved history!

Speaking up for Arts-Ed — U-Jean
February 13, 2011

FEB 13 — If you and I are of the same generation (born in 1988), plus minus a few years, you would probably agree that our History education sucks. Mindless memorisation of useless facts, overemphasis on naming the correct years and characters, uncreative and dreadful learning experience, and the oh-so-clearly disproportionate reading of “world” history, all for the sake of getting an A for the SPM History paper.

Coming from a top school in Penang, where we were groomed for A’s by practising on revision books, trial papers, forecast papers, and past-year papers, I got my very well-deserved A.

This A, however, represents nothing but a failure in our History education.

In the Form 1 textbook that we used, it tells you why you should learn history. One of them is to “mengenal jati diri”. Till today, I still have no idea what that means. We all learned “history” because it is a compulsory subject in SPM.

In 2006, I got myself involved in a heritage project sponsored by Digi. Digi conferred the title of “Amazing Malaysians” to heritage champions in this country and these heritage champions had to carry out a heritage project with young people. I was a participant under Amazing Malaysian Janet Pillai (of Arts-Ed), and that year was the turning point of my life.

At the age of 18, I was one of the oldest participants in the project. At the end of the project, we were to stage a musical drama on the history of George Town. For three months, we spent our weekends discovering for ourselves what heritage is.

We had the privilege of being brought on historical walks around George Town, we scoured the streets to document the sight and sounds of George Town, we spoke to and interviewed people about old George Town, and we learned about performing, making music out of random objects, boria, gamelan, wayang kulit, and composing.

I came out from that project a transformed person. I found history amazing, I found Penang amazing, I learned different ways of learning history, I learned to be inclusive of people, I learned that I very much enjoy performing, I learned humility, I learned to work with people of different ages and ethnic, and most of all, I had fallen in love with Penang.

People around me see me as “the Penang girl”. Some would claim that I’m the unofficial Penang tourism rep for always being so gung-ho about Penang. I am the unpaid tour guide for my non-Penang friends because I am almost always so willing to show them around. I am so Penang that one can take me out of Penang but they can’t take the Penang out of me. Oh, do ask my friends…

Now, we have the learning of our national history in place but what I find missing is the learning of our local history. If you are from Banting, what do you know about Banting’s history? If you are from Ipoh, what do you know about Ipoh’s history? If you are from Kulim, what do you know about Kulim’s history?

This is basically what Arts-Ed, the NGO trapped in the recent Balik Pulau controversy, does.

Or at least what they have done for me. Through them, I learned the value of local history.

For people unfamiliar with the “Arts-Ed” style of executing a project, Arts-Ed works with young people in creative ways. Things one does not get do in school. We use cameras to take pictures, produce photo exhibitions, shoot and edit videos, compose lyrics from interviews, create dance moves through observation of people’s movements, perform history of the common people, produce booklets and newsletter, carry out visits and tours.

I learned that history is not limited to textbooks and history experts but what the average layperson experiences and remembers are also part of history. There are stories and legends about the place we live that we can never read from books.

Things like coolies running to the port with their handcarts to carry sacks of spices, that they were paid 50 sen for each bag they carried, the system of loading and unloading goods from the ship to the boat, the “stairway” arrangements of the sacks, and that the head of the coolies were called “tandaal”, and the division of profit between the coolies and the “tandaal”.

History books do not tell me this. Laypeople do.

Arts Ed encourages young people to leave their books and collect stories. These are called oral histories. Stories that are transmitted verbally, that some of us youngsters classify as “grandmother stories”, and will be lost when its bearer dies. And when you learn how cute, distinct, and special the place you live is, that’s when you learn to love the place you live.

This is what Arts-Ed is doing in Balik Pulau. Documenting and presenting oral history of the people of Balik Pulau, preserving them so that the younger generation would know, understand, and carry them on.

As a proud graduate of Arts-Ed’s projects, it saddens me that the only NGO who gives a voice to young people, who works in creative ways, who educate for free (almost), who believe that everyone has a right to tell their story, and runs on fewer women-power than the number of fingers on your one hand, is now accused of spreading fallacy, a scapegoat and victim of a political agenda.

How irresponsible for people ignorant about the learning of history nor care about them to put Arts-Ed in a bad light when they themselves are not clear about Arts Ed methodology of education.

Muhammad Farid Saad, here’s a lesson on history. History does not belong to experts. History does not belong to the state. History belongs to everyone and we all have a say in history (yes, that includes you).

Your recollection of history matters just as much as the laksa uncle’s and the aunty jus buah pala’s. As has been clarified, MyBalikPulau is not a textbook and is was not intended to be so, it is but a compilation of oral history.

Stories from uncles and aunties. People whose opinions and memories will never ever appear in the history books just because they are not history experts. Will you deny them a chance to share their history of Balik Pulau?

Though you may never have the chance to be in Arts-Ed’s programmes (as they usually only for young people) I hope you will make the effort to learn about Arts-Ed and their ways because they have changed my life. They have played a major role in shaping who I am today and I hope other children will have the chance to experience what I have experienced.

Someday, should I become the chief minister of Penang, I know that Arts-Ed has started this path for me.

Cookies and Snacks of CNY

I’m still in the CNY mood though we officially started work on Monday.

What would CNY be like without mandarin oranges?
What would CNY be like without mandarin oranges?

I still have lots of CNY cookies so I decided a little pictorial glimpse of what’s sitting on my kitchen counter would be good.

This year, I didn’t manage to get a jar of my aunt’s famous pineapple tarts. I dare say that Mrs Wong’s jam tarts are the most looked forward to item in my repertoire of edibles and munchies. This year though what with me running around doing this and that, we placed our orders too late (gah!) and didn’t manage to get any. Hmmm….I must remind myself to get my orders in earlier NEXT year. Even clients love these tarts.

They’re bigger than the usual supermarket variety with a beautiful melt-in-the-mouth buttery goodness. As the pastry dissolves, the sweet pineapple jam oozes out! It is that delightful! I call them artisanal tarts because they’re all made by hand.

Anyway, my sis made me some jam tarts so here’s how her’s look like. Mrs Wong’s are similar – they’re actually in a roll form.

My sis made these jam tarts
My sis made these jam tarts

This year too I ordered some lovely mini popiah from Cecilia. They’re little deep-fried spring rolls with pork floss. They’re highly addictive and make good munchies for TV time. Fortunately, I managed to order two jars from her. She usually makes these for her family and they’re really not for sale. What I especially like is the fact that the pork floss is also made in her kitchen! These days, people normally take the easy way out and buy ready-made pork floss. (I used to help my Grandma make pork floss and it is such back-breaking and hot work! Sitting for an hour or so in front of a charcoal stove and stirring the pork meat in a wok is no fun. And after all that hard work, all you ended up with was a small clump of pork floss!). Cecilia’s mini popiah is crunchy and tasty and best of all, not at all oily (as one would expect from deep-fried snacks).

As you can see, most of the mini popiah is gone....down our tummies!
As you can see, most of the mini popiah is gone....down our tummies!

I also ordered ‘ngar ku’ chips from Cecilia. Made from arrowhead bulbs (a clear sign that CNY is coming), ‘ngar ku’ chips beats potato chips any day, hands down. Expert technique is much in need because the thinly sliced arrowhead must be deep-fried in hot oil just so. Any longer in hot oil and the edges singe, giving off a bitter and unpalatable taste. Now Cecilia and her family again are maestros at this. Her ‘ngar ku’ chips are a shade of lovely gold and not over-fried at all.
"Ngar ku" chips are better than potato chips

Another favourite cookie for CNY is definitely the ubiquitious butter cookie. Now everyone has their own butter cookie recipe. And it all boils down to using the best butter you can find, according to the people I’ve spoken to. Of course butter is mighty expensive these days so a good butter cookie must be fragrant like butter with a totally melt-in-the-mouth quality. Some people prefer a crunchier butter cookie; others like a butter cookie which melts as soon as it hits your tongue. This year, I ordered butter cookies from my cousin and Mrs Hor, my neighbour plus my sis made some for me too. See, I’m very blessed!

Simple traditional favourite - butter cookies
Simple traditional favourite - butter cookies

My sis made me some Almond London (or are they called London Almond?) cookies. They were amazingly in vogue some years ago but now almost everyone knows how to make them. Essentially it is a whole almond encased in a light biscuit-like crust; the entire almond-biscuit is dipped in melted chocolate. I believe these are popular among the Malays for Hari Raya celebrations and somehow, we’ve managed to ‘borrow’ them for CNY.

Almond London - always a hit with choc fans
Almond London - always a hit with choc fans

I also ordered cheese cookies from Mrs Hor. I love anything and everything cheesy so these were perfect for guests (and me). It makes a good complementary cookie because its savoury taste is much welcome after so much sweetness! Her cheese cookies are pretty heart shape cookies and full of parmesan yumminess. Oh and a jar of her much-loved cranberry oat cookies. Chewy and healthy, they go best with a cup of hot Ceylon tea!

Savoury cheese cookies
Savoury cheese cookies
Cranberry oat cookies - chewy and healthy!
Cranberry oat cookies - chewy and healthy!

Finally, seaweed snacks. This is all the rage (and perhaps is still all the rage) due to its addictiveness. It is also easy to make. Like all deep-fried snacks, go easy on this. My aunt gave me a jar of this and I am keeping this for times when I really need to snack.

Deep-fried seaweed snacks
Deep-fried seaweed snacks

I had wanted to make some buttercrunch since all my cookies are ordered from other folks. In the end, I didn’t make any because I ran out of brown sugar and Tesco ran out of their brown sugar supply the week before CNY. I was raring to try this buttercrunch recipe from my bread sifu. Hopefully I’ll get around to this before Chap Goh Meh!

In case you’ve wondered why all the cookies in my kitchen are ordered or gifted, truth be told is I’ve never had much patience or inclination to make cookies. I’m just not that kind of cook. I love cakes though but even so, I don’t bake that much. Isn’t it great that I’m surrounded by family and friends who bake yummy cookies?

If you’re salivating… it’s time to tell me, what’s your favourite CNY snack or cookie? (Speaking of snacks, there’s a whole different ballgame going on for Kuchingites and their snacks.)

Not so shameless plug for the bakers mentioned above:
My sister, Mei, takes cookie orders all year round. Please note she lives in Banting, Selangor. Her email is alyagoon [at] (Here’s one post where you can see how she looks like.)
Mrs Hor also takes orders for cookies – she lives here in Penang.

The Food of My Memories

I truly enjoyed and appreciated this Chinese New Year – without the mad rush to get air tickets to Kuching, we took things a little bit easy and had a more laidback celebration with ourselves, with my parents and sisters, and with my grandma, aunts and uncles.

This year, no one was going to slave over a hot kitchen, or so I thought. That was why my youngest uncle decided to invite all of us out for a sit-down 8-course dinner on Tuesday night at this Chinese restaurant along Logan Road, opposite Loh Guan Lye Specialist Centre. Even so, the restaurant was packed and bustling! Later I heard that the restaurant will be operating throughout the CNY – it goes to show the kind of demand in Penang for food and feasting!

Anyway, my aunts still cooked on Wednesday after because they needed dishes for prayers at the home altar. In the end, everyone sat down for another round of dinner which actually resembled a proper reunion dinner, minus the noise.

I was still busy cleaning my apartment till the very last minute – but then I reasoned, who really cares if there’s dust or dirt? I mean, I can clean as much as I can but dust will still settle somehow somewhere. So I did my best but really, will anyone penalize me if there’s a mote of dust under the bed?

Sometimes I also wonder: what’s all the rush all about? When I was a kid, the rush was for ‘balik kampung’. In those days, I lived in Banting and CNY is always celebrated in Penang. For me, that was the ultimate prize – packing our bags, getting into my dad’s car and making that long, hot, crazy drive (on trunk roads no less) to get back to Penang. When we spied the Penang Bridge from afar, we’d all get excited and couldn’t wait to see our cousins, aunts, uncles and Grandma.

The thrill was the anticipation of the drive up to Penang, of thinking of our new dresses and of course, the ang pows we’d be getting. I admit, the money was so important to me then. We cousins were in a race to see who could amass the most ang pow money.

The thrill these days is to meet with family and friends, people we have not seen for a while, and to catch up. Even the food, in my opinion, isn’t that important anymore. Especially when we can all afford all the abalone, oysters, fish maw, etc. (My cousin and I retreated to her room to talk and talk when the buzz of the relatives got a bit too much for us to bear. These were the extended family – my dad’s cousins and their kids. The best moments were just lying on the cool marble floor of her room and chatting! That to me personified a good CNY moment.)

In the end, it is the experiences which we hold on to. Even when we reminisce about food, it is always tied to the memories and experiences of that time when we were partaking in the food.

Just the other day, as we were lunching on the first day of CNY at my Grandma’s, we spoke about my Grandma’s favourite vegetarian dishes. In my mother-in-law’s house, everyone was vegetarian on the first day of CNY. It was a must. We could be having vegetarian meehoon or vegetarian fried rice.

In my grandma’s house, she was the only one who took vegetarian food on the first day of CNY. She often cooked a few dishes for herself while she made meat dishes for us all. (Many older Chinese folks observe vegetarianism on the 1st and 15th day of the Chinese Lunar Calender.)

Two of those dishes were re-created this CNY by my aunt for her husband. He too missed the vegetarian food my Grandma used to prepare. One was a simple dish of stir-fried salted black beans with julienned young ginger. It is such a simple dish yet one full of flavour. The other was stir-fried black olives which is an acquired taste. Eating these two dishes with warm rice was an experience. It reminded me of my Grandma – she’s too feeble to cook now; she’s forgotten too many things now. She now needs to be cared for like a baby but the dishes were a beautiful reminder of what CNY was like before.

Cantonese folks don’t do steamboat for reunion dinners like the Hokkiens – we prefer to have our dishes with happy symbolisms. So the table is laden with dishes like prawns, chicken, pork, colourful vegetables and soup. The signature soup of the reunion dinner (at least in my Grandma’s house) is the “tuu thor th’ng” or pig stomach soup, an incredibly delicious soup made with pig stomach, gingko nuts, water chestnuts, peppercorns (lots of it!) and pork bones. Every family has its own version of this soup. This is the food of my memories. In my own family, we often served a tangy yet tongue-searing prawn kerabu to offset the cloying meat dishes. I miss that kerabu!

I am such a traditionalist when it comes to CNY. I think I’m getting old. I love sit-down dinners at home. Restaurants may serve tasty course dinners but nothing beats the idea of a home-cooked meal because that is totally priceless. Restaurants are impersonal, the waiters can be off-putting sometimes (can’t blame them, they are overworked souls on busy days) and everyone has their own opinion about each dish.

What did you have for CNY? What food reminds you of your family?

What I’m Growing In My Garden

I’m quite pleased that my garden (little though it may be) is growing quite well, thanks to the rich compost I make. (In case you want to make some compost of your own, you can read about the composting method, that a very gungho couple from Bukit Mertajam taught me.)

It’s been a little more than a year since I started to use compost for my own plants and herbs and I can tell you, there is a BIG (pardon the pun) difference with regular soil. Compost is full of nutrients and plants love it!

Here are some photos I took just this morning – I’m already in the Chinese New Year mood so I decided to take it easy and show you what I like to do when I am not busy with website design projects or doing business writing or networking or going out.

Besides cooking which I love (I think I like experimenting with food), I enjoy pottering about the garden, watching my plants grow. It’s quite fulfilling to see something growing from a seed – and I have had much success growing plants from seeds or cuttings (thankfully). I do know some people who can’t seem to grow anything or rear anything. Unlike Midas with his golden touch, certain people have poisonous touches, killing plants with their vibes.

At the moment, I’m satisfied that my little roselle sapling (is it a sapling or a baby plant) actually has roselle fruit! Look at the photo below. It is about 4 inches tall but it is mighty cute with a single roselle bud. I grew this from seeds which I saved after I made roselle syrup. Roselle is one of those plants which need a lot more publicity because it can be grown in Malaysia and it is full of vitamins and tastes better than the sugary-rich Ribena.

roselle plant, roselle fruit

The next plant or sapling which I am quite pleased with are my markisa plants (also grown from seeds, after I ate most of the markisa or passionfruit which I so adore). Nic isn’t too keen on passionfruit as it’s a tart fruit.

I figured I could grow the fruits I like to eat so this was one of those experiments. Passionfruit seems to be making a comeback now as I see lots of fresh passionfruits sold in the Lip Sin market. The flowers of this fruit tree are gorgeous, I am told, and a little research online confirms this. However this passionfruit is a climber vine sort so I have yet to find out how to let the little ones climb and where! I cannot wait when it fruits!

markisa, passion fruit,

The next plant which I really love is pokok kemuning. For the longest time I didn’t know what it was called because Nic calls it by its Mandarin name “chit lee xiang” (roughly translated, “seven mile fragrance”). But a search and some garden blog scrutinising later and I found out it is called Murraya Paniculata.

Like most plants with nondescript tiny white flowers, it needs an added ‘feature’ to get the bees and butterflies excited (and come over and help them pollinate!). That is why Murraya Paniculata has an enticing fragrance, one so heady I swoon (in a good way of course).

Murraya paniculata, pokok kemuning
Murraya paniculata is a sun-loving shrub and grows well in pots or in the ground

The tiny white flowers are five-petaled, with each petal curved back. Their fragrance gets released as the days grow into nights and I can tell you, it’s an unbelievable aroma, coming from smallish white flowers like the kemuning.

When I was in HK last year, one particular white flower caught my ‘nose’ too. The osmanthus plants I saw grew in the HK Botanical Garden – the plants were grown around the bird cages where their delicate aroma masked the stink of the birds. I thought this was a splendid idea. When I came back, I was dismayed to know that our tropical weather did not bode well for the temperate osmanthus. Luckily I got to know about the Murraya and it is as good as the osmanthus! The Murraya can be grown as hedges, in the ground, or in pots (like what we’ve done). It loves the sun so anywhere which gets the sun is good place to position your dark-green plant.

By the way, the city of Gui Lin in China is named after the osmanthus. In Mandarin, the osmanthus is called “gui hwa”. Osmanthus flowers are also used in TCM; its dried flowers are steeped as a tea. I have seen dried osmanthus flowers sold by local herbalists to promote beautiful skin.

Here’s a photo of the fruit of the Murraya. The fruits are oval-shaped green berries when unripe but become attractively orange when they ripen. As with all plants, they entice birds to come eat their berries and help spread the murraya seeds far and wide. My mom-in-law grows saplings easily from these seeds back in Kuching. You can do the same too by plucking the ripened berries and putting them into separate pots to help them grow.

Murraya paniculata berries or kemuning fruits
Ripe Murraya paniculata berries which can easily grow if planted

Since this post is quite long, come back for the next post of what else I’m growing in my garden and why!

Do you have a garden? What do YOU grow in your garden? It doesn’t have to be a garden at all. When I was in my old apartment, all I had was a tiny balcony. Even so, I had pots and pots of plants. I believe all of us derive great pleasure from seeing things grow and progress. Plants are one of the easiest and when they grow well, we get the added benefit of seeing their flowers or inhaling their fragrance.

So tell me, what are you growing right now?