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…..now 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] yahoo.com (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?