Friday, April 28, 2006

The Missing Lunch Pack

‘What? What? What? I was just asking to SEE your son’s lunch pack because my son’s is just like that and his is missing! Don’t you talk to me like that! NO, I DO NOT want your son’s lunch pack, my son already has one!’

Well, at least, that was what I think I will say, if the situation ever so annoyingly should repeat itself…if ever, I will be prepared…this time…hopefully. Instead of being so nice and courteous and smiling all at the same time.

I hate it when people bully me. In the havoc that is children and parents picking up their kids after school, never forgetting to bring along every younger preschool sibling and senior citizen that are alive in their extended family into the classroom, I hear my son shout, ‘Mama, my lunch pack is missing!’ You see, I have never had the experience of my child schooling back home in Malaysia, simply because my son was too young to be sent to school while we were still there. But, I certainly do not remember my grandma and all my other siblings following me into the classroom while I was in school. In fact, I distinctly remember my dad waiting alone and bored in that old white Volvo to pick us up from school.

That was when I went looking for my son’s lunch pack. It’s a common one – I’ve written his name on it but I’ve seen other children's with the same design so somebody might have taken it, mistaking it for his/ her own. They’re children after all – you can’t put it pass them to be careless about their things. So the first boy I saw holding a similar lunch pack, I went straight to and asked him very nicely, with a smile, whether I can just look at the lunch pack he’s holding, just in case he has mistakenly taken my son’s. But what do I get for being a good mum, a good wife (I don’t want my husband wasting his money on another one for our son!) AND a courteous and friendly person? Too late I realised that the boy had a big size, intimidating looking father, quite brutal in appearance and on top of that, he looks like a bully. And that was when this conversation occurred;

Man: Do you want it? (lunch pack).
Me: No, no..I just want to look at it.(Smile..) My son’s lunchpack looks…
Man: You can take it if you want. Take it! Do you want it??

And it was not a friendly question. It was a sort of challenge. At this point, I was feeling a little surprised at his reaction to my innocent request. His son was looking at me too, looking equally surprised, but definitely interested. However, my nature has always been that of a pacifier and I backed off, saying, very nicely and again with that smile, ‘No, no…that’s alright…thanks.’ And off I went, a little flustered, but just a little. Thinking that it's too late to look for it now since the classroom is nearly empty and the person who has taken it will probably realise his mistake when his mother looks into his lunch pack at home, I went to inform the teaching assistant in my son’s class in case somebody returns the pack tomorrow. But what does it look like, she asked. And I pointed to the boy’s lunch pack. My reaction is really very slow as too late I realised that she was also going to ask to look at the boy’s lunch pack. And the same conversation ensued. This time, even more accusatory and more offensive. He was probably getting ready to hurl the lunch pack at us. And I gave him that same reaction. A smile, a courteous ‘no, no’ and a flustered face.

At home, I realise I have offended the man by suggesting that his son might have taken someone else’s belonging. Although the request to look at the lunch pack was made apologetically and courteously, with the assumed ‘understanding amongst adults’ that children do make these types of mistakes, his ego/pride was bruised. And then I began to understand why their people react so (almost too) passionately to the slightest offense, killing many of their own in the process of protecting ‘honour’. They are very passionate people and they value their pride and honour more than their blood. They are perhaps descendants of warriors and a past civilisation whose pioneers’ blood runs in their own. And like their ancestors of old, they too will demand retribution for any attack. And so I sort of, sort of understood his reaction. What can I say, these people are just like that.

But I still cannot make myself fight over such a thing (a missing lunch pack, for goodness’ sake!). I realise I may be acting a little cowardly by letting him talk to me in such a way but I cannot ‘stand up’ for something so trivial, something to me that only requires some civility amongst humans. But there is still that feeling of hurt. And THAT induced me to glare at that boy every time I see him and whisper ‘beruk!’ to that man each time I pass him by.


Monday, April 24, 2006

I Pine..Oh Yes, I Pine..

Yesterday I had a craving. A craving so strong it was a pining. For beef rendang and nasi himpit. That craving made me go to the kitchen the moment I stepped into my house after the weekly grocery shopping with my husband and children to defrost the beef in the microwave.

As my hands start the therapeutic (oh yes, I do consider cooking therapeutic nowadays!) process of cooking, my mind, as usual, starts to wander. And as it embarked on its journey as I cleared up the kitchen surfaces and started to wash the dirty dishes left from breakfast, I realise it was wandering towards home. Home in Melaka where my mother and grandmother live in a fairly large bungalow near the sea. With an Indonesian maid that seemed to grow fatter and fatter every time I saw her.

In that very vivid picture in my mind I saw my mother standing in front of the stove, that old spatula in her hand, vigorously stirring food. Cooking the Rendang. And when finally the smell of the beef and coconut milk concoction wafted through my kitchen, my heart felt heavy. That smell. With that smell came so many happy memories. Of Eid (Hari Raya). Of my sisters and I gathering in the kitchen filling up ketupat casings for cooking in the big pot outside, water in it already boiling merrily. Of my mother’s black mood every Raya eve for she wants everything to be ready and perfect for the day after and yet her daughters are lounging in front of the TV, doing nothing. How young and irresponsible and unhelpful we were! And how normal for people so young. We were, most of us home from boarding school for the holidays and all everybody wanted to do was really to sit back.) What happy memories that smell brought to me. How happy that smell made me.

The memories are happy memories because they are memories of home. Even though they may include memories of a scolding or a slapping(!). That’s right. I was slapped once. For something I did not do. It still hurt to think about it. I wasn’t believed and so I was punished. But I have forgiven. She is my mother after all. She has her own trial and tribulations. Who can escape their own share of those. Memories of my mother, father and grandmother will always be fond memories that I cherish and treasure, no matter what.

Ah, yes. I am truly and honestly homesick.

But a phone call home can help. And the rendang will help too, once consumed. It is my very own cure for homesickness. Perhaps you have your own cure but this is mine. For those of you who are living abroad, away from Malaysia like me and want a piece of home, made simply and without too much fuss but tastes just as good, try my rendang recipe below.
Good Luck!


500gm beef (not lean, cut into small pieces 4-5cm)
1 can of coconut milk
3 cms galangal (pounded just a bit)
2 sticks of lemon grass (pounded just a bit)
2-3 teaspoons of turmeric powder
1 slice of asam keping (what’s that in English?)
2 tsps of chilli powder
salt to taste
kerisik – dessicated coconut (choose a type that does not look too dry) - about 1 tbls, browned without oil and pounded to a rough paste

to be blended:
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
3 cms ginger

Put everything except the asam keeping and kerisik in a wok or a pot. Salt can be added later too. No oil needed. Make sure everything covers the beef very generously. Increase heat to boil and then reduce heat and simmer until coconut milk is very thick. Don’t forget to stir once in a while to avoid the mixture from sticking to the bottom of the wok/ pot. Then add the asam keping and stir a little bit more until the rendang is even thicker and any flowing liquid is nearly dried up. Then add the kerisik and stir some more. Add salt to taste. Rendang should be ready when it is very thick, gravy not flowing and not liquid anymore. Eat with rice or nasi himpit.

Nasi Himpit

Rice cooked traditionally in a large pot with lots of water and then pressed down hard in a flat pan and left to cool. Once cooled, they will be cut into cubes.

Away from Malaysia, what you need is just the rice that they sell in supermarkets that are sold in small boxes. Inside the boxes, cleaned rice is packed in small packets (that have small holes on them) and can be straightaway chucked into boiling water. Once cooked according to the instructions on the box, the westerners will tear up the plastic and pour the cooked rice into a plate. That’s how the westerners seem to like their rice – dry and not starchy. This product can be easily found in any supermarkets in England.
In order to make nasi himpit though, this product is wonderful. What you need to do is just chuck 2-3 of these packets in a large pot of boiling water and let it cook for at least 2 hours. Make sure the packets are immersed in the boiling water and top up on the hot water if you need to. Make sure the nasi himpit is cooked evenly by turning over the packets once in a while. The nasi himpit is ready to be drained and cooled on a rack or a towel when the plastic is filled and nearly bursting (but not!) with the over cooked rice. Once cooled (normally for a few hours in room temperature or a shorter period in the fridge), the rice packets will be hard. Cut the packets into 2 before removing the plastic and cut further into cubes to be served with the rendang.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Perfect Chicken Rice

To me, the rice must be moist, must be fragrant with ginger. The chicken must be sweet, the skin crisp and dark. There must a good vegetable sidedish. Don't forget the chilli dip for the chicken. But most important of all - it must not taste of Ajinomoto (a popular taste enhancer used by almost all restaurants in Malaysia!). I don't care too much for the soup if the rice is moist. So there.

There is no doubt a variety of chicken rice recipes out there. I'm not a big fan of the Hainan type although I think they're not bad. I don't really like the fried chicken rice. To me they taste like yesterday's chicken rice leftovers, fried so that it would not expire. Well, at least that's what I would do if I have some chicken rice leftovers. Although in my house, I am happy to say, that is indeed a rare occurence.

I'm happy to share with you the chicken rice recipe that I have been using for the past few months. I have tried several recipes since a few years ago but to me this one is by far the best. Or, the real situation maybe, I've finally perfected it since now I actually have time to practice cooking it at least once a week! Let me first give you some tips about cooking the rice.

(Warning! I am not a professional cook. I do not use sophisticated ways to cook. What follows is the traditional method of cooking rice, passed down from generation to generation in most Malay families. It works very well but it also depends on the rice - some may need more water to be nice and moist, some don't require too much and may be too soft and sticky if the same amount of rice and water is used. My own measured method is also given, using a cup and mls of water but again, this depends on the size of your own measuring cup which may be different from mine. I say this because I have two measuring cups of different makes and they measure '1 cup' differently! ). Right. Let's get to it!

After washing the rice 2 or 3 times, try to spread the rice evenly over the bottom of the rice cooker pot and measure the level of the washed rice with your pointer finger and thumb. That level should be the perfect water level needed for your rice, above the surface of the washed rice. Comprende?

While cooking any rice dishes that include onions, ALWAYS increase the level of water a bit to maintain the moist rice texture as the onions may absorb the water. You need to look at the chart inside you rice cooker pot for this to be easier. Example: If the perfect water level for your rice is '3 cups' (according to the chart) just add more water so that the liquid reaches '4 cups'. This is a rough estimation but going '4 cups' from '3 cups' when cooking chicken rice works perfectly for me. Saying this, in some other rice dishes when the rice is 'fried' first with the onions or the other ingredients of a dish before the water is added, the water level may be maintained at the perfect level as the rice is already half cooked. Phew!...I hope all that made sense!

Ok, before I prattle on, let's get on with the recipe.


Good long grain rice - 4 cups (this will require 1150ml chicken soup for the perfect water level, but must add a little bit more than that for a moist chicken rice - do not simply pour extra liquid into the rice, use the chart inside the pot to gauge how much you need!)
1 chicken (cut into 8 pieces)
Chicken stock cubes - (the recipe says 2 cubes but I just use half a cube - unfortunately without the cube, it will not taste like the chicken rice at the shops in Malaysia at all(!) so you should at least put a little bit in.)
Cooking oil - just a little bit for the soup, a lot to fry the chicken later on
Water - need to be more than 1150ml to accommodate the extra liquid needed and for the side dish soup, if required.
Salt to taste

To be pounded/blended together in the blender with a little bit of water:

Ginger - size about as big as your thumb :-). make sure it's young ginger i.e. when you cut it there should not be a rough texture in the centre of the ginger, it should be smooth and easy to cut through. Be generous with the ginger.
1 Large onion
3 Cloves garlic


3 tbls honey
4 tbls oyster sauce
3 tbls soy sauce
1 tbls sesame oil
1 tbls fennel seed
, pounded (jintan manis)


Heat up a little oil in a pot. Add the blended mixture and stir fry until fragrant. Add the chicken and the stock cubes. Add water. Increase heat to boil and then reduce heat and leave for a while to get the good chicken soup taste. Add salt to taste. Remove the chicken pieces and drain. Marinate chicken with the marinade above for at least 1 hour and fry in medium heat until crispy. If fire is too hot, the chicken will burn very quickly due to the honey. Heat up what's left of the marinade and pour onto fried chicken. Really yummy! Make sure you don't over-fry your chicken so that it won't turn hard. Don't need to fry for long as the chicken is already cooked inside!

Use the prepared soup to cook the rice. Rice must be washed first and drained. While washing, you should measure the amount required for the perfect water level (using your fingers) and drain that amount into a measuring cup so that you'll know exactly how much water is needed. Pour the cleaned rice into the rice cooker pot. Add the soup and the extra bit more to make it moist (Again, for an estimate, just look at the chart inside the pot and increase the soup level by '1 cup' as stated on the chart). Stir the rice and soup and taste it. The mixture must taste a LITTLE salty or else the rice will be bland. Add a bit more salt if necessary(!) I also love to add 3-4 more slices of ginger in the mixture to make it more fragrant. Use the rest of the soup as a side dish.

Chilli Dip

As usual, Malaysians always need something hot to spice up their food. For the chicken rice, a chilli sauce is prepared on the side to pour on the rice or on the chicken.
For this dip/sauce: blend some fresh red chillies (4-5) and some garlic (2-3 cloves) with a little bit of the chicken soup. Squeeze some fresh lime into it or add some vinegar to balance the taste. May add just a pinch of sugar if want to.

This chicken rice is good. It doesn't use any food enhancers and yet it still tastes very nice. The chicken is sweet and succulent and the dip is pleasant. Hope you'll try it and also enjoy the result as I have. If you're used to cooking plain rice, just forget the confusing explanation on how to cook rice above and cook your rice as u normally do. But remember, there must be a little bit more liquid than usual for any rice dish that has onions etc in it for the rice to be nice and moist.

Urap Tomato

Now, this vege side dish is good and to me, the perfect accompaniment to chicken rice. Well, to me, at least. Try it! It's simple and no cooking is required. Mix the ingredients below and leave for a while in the fridge for it to cool.

3 tomatoes
1 large onion
3 green fresh chillies
(slice all the above into very thin slices)
2 tbls pounded dried shrimp
2 lime

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Million Dollar Question or Should I Say..

the 'extra money' question. Or maybe I should call it the difference between needing and wanting. Or maybe weighing the issues according to importance. Or maybe it's the question of love. But I do love my children, no doubt about it! And they are definitely more important to me than anything else in the world. Indeed to anybody who has children this is true.

So I guess its the question of the extra money and whether I need to work are the ones I have to answer. When one loves one's children and they are of the utmost importance, one will want the best things for them. The best toys so that their minds will be stimulated enough for them to grow up to become intelligent individuals. The best education so that they will be successful in whatever they want to do. The best schools so that they will be educated, nurtured and shaped into balanced individuals. The best food and nutrition. The best care.

And when talking of the best - that's where the question of money arises. And I am not working. Maybe I should. Should I? And that's the million dollar question. Or as I mentioned earlier, the extra money question. Really, it is a never ending spiral of thinking, confusion, unanswered questions, still more thinking and confusion and yet, more unanswered questions for me. I just cannot decide.