Monday, September 30, 2013

Singapore Lunches - 3: Dessert anyone?

Family obligations meant an at home Sunday lunch this weekend. The Brothers were meeting school friends after many a year and my sis in law hosted while I lolled around and pretended to look busy/ interested. 

I did however want to talk about some cupcakes. At two separate occasions this weekend we have managed to gorge on cupcakes. 

The first lot, on Friday night, was from a place called Twelve Cupcakes. They have branches all over and I think one has to buy three cupcakes at a minimum. That's red velvet right in front, with the icing and little hearts (sour cream I think - not too sweet), my friend. I think I ate two while everyone else was eating the dum aloo and saag paneer dinner and I pretended to go and collect the salad from the kitchen. Very very good, a dense texture and lovely complex layers of sweet. Of course they went straight to my Michelin  tyre middle, why do you ask?

Then we had a box of beauties from Cupcakes with Love and they were divine. This was Sunday lunchtime. Apparently they don't use emulsifiers so stay better at room temperature. They are certainly light on the tongue and not very sweet so feel a tad 'healthier' than the Twelve Cupcake lot. I'll certainly seek them out again. 

Either way it was a sweet sweet weekend. Next weekend it's a beach lunch. Come back and I'll tell you all about it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The good, the bad, the sad (and often weird) things - 2

Twelve months deserve twelve points.

1. Yesterday was One Year since we got here. For its weather alone it has been worth the journey. Seeing the sun everyday is cheering and although it's too humid to walk and I miss all the London walking (who knew!) I still love it! Good, very good.

2. Pedicures are aplenty. I don't walk as much but my feet take a beating in the dust and heat and pool and with never wearing socks or closed shoes. Pedicures are available in every mall at every price point. In clean salons by women who know what they are doing whether by experience or training. I try and have one a month at least (compared to an annual treat or home remedies in London). I have found a few good ones but am trying to experiment and try new places when I can. Good, very good. 

3. Expat bubble. How do I explain this without sounding like a snob? Keep an open mind, I am generalising. We live in a condo (gated development of high and low rise mix of flats) which is where most expats tend to live. Even those that live in houses (and the old b&w's) live in a very different situation from the way locals live. We have some local families in our building but never the twain shall meet.  But I'm talking about the expat population when I say that people aren't always friendly and I have found many many hands of friendship rebuffed. And the feeling I get is because it's each nationality group tends to socialise with mainly its own country people. Aussies with the Aussies, desis with the desis, etc. Maybe it's just my condo, or maybe it's just me. Either way, it's not good for the mental state. Bad, not good.

4. More expat bubble. Unless you make enough effort it's extremely likely that you live in this bubble. You shop in Malls, go and see private doctor, live in a padded shielded world. This is an expensive city - but expats live in this little world of privilege, rarely venturing out. And of course some expats try, they visit the odd wet market, they attend the festivals, but at the end of the day they live in an insulated bubble. Here all foreigners are 'Expats' whether they've lived here for 17 years or moved on non-expat packages. Ang Mo, white man. I may not be white but I'm still marked out as an Expat. This is a small and quite divided city. One that is very different from the melting pot that is London. Different, and not very good. 

5. Movies: The movie halls here are amazing! One in every mall. Great screens and sound. I go every Sunday evening - the tickets cost half of what they did in London and there is always plenty on. Very very good.  

6. Tropical bugs: Where do I start? Ever since we got here we have encountered all kinds of bugs. We've had courses of antibiotics for everything from mycoplasma to throat infections and h1n3. My Kid has developed asthma and needs an inhaler once a day (hopefully temporary). We constantly beat down bugs and fevers and colds only for them to re-appear within weeks. Bad, very bad.

7. More tropical maladies: Mould and dust, the scourge of the humid tropics. It's like an endless jungle that needs beating back - or rather wiping and disinfecting, ceiling fans and dehumidifiers, ventilation and airing of the flat every day. Keeps one on their toes. And everything lives in the fridge from salt to sugar and flours and pastas. Wierd and bad.

8. Shopping for groceries: There are insanely expensive supermarkets built to serve the expat population. No one good online groceries place. You can go and shop, load up your trolley and have things delivered in flimsy boxes (defeats the purpose I feel). Or buy non perishables online for a premium, to be delivered, and then get perishables elsewhere (an extra layer of work). I have only just found a system that works for me: Non perishables once a month with the online service, then fruit veg and fish in the local wet market every Tuesday and milk/ bread/ other fancy things like crisps and chocolate from the supermarket. This is sad and bad and needlessly complicated and I hope someone builds the refrigerated trucks and begins to provide an online groceries service like London. Sad and bad.

9. Bugs: All kinds that we'd never experienced before. Fascinating and occasionally frightening. The only one I don't like for sure is the household lizard which keeps having babies eeewwww! Bad and wierd.

10. Kitchens: Singaporeans don't really cook and eat at home. They eat in hawker centres (kopitiams) where a plethora of cheap options are available. Breakfast lunch and dinner. And so even condos don't have well designed kitchens. During our flat hunt we struggled to find one with a good sized kitchen with any/ all of the mod cons in it. Dishwashers were hard to come by, cupboard space was badly designed and  generally kitchens not very conducive to their intended purpose. Wierd.

11. Travel: The best airport is Changi. Organised, easy to navigate and an absolute pleasure to travel though. Sitting where it does Singapore is a prime gateway to visit the wonderful sites of the orient. In this year alone we have seen Bali, Kota Kinabalu, Hong Kong and Danang. And of course India - thrice! Good, very good. 

12. Life. It's a different experience living in South East Asia. A different pace of life from bustling London. There's been a lot to get used to but that's the adventure we signed up for. There's plenty of sunshine and thundery showers and this wierd and wonderful weather is my highlight. At the One year mark I can only say I have my days of intense London people missing but I usually wake up happy and excited to learn and enjoy a bit more of this tiny city. Good, very good. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rainy Day

Two strips of masking tape
All the wooden blocks we own
Hot wheels car launcher
Small bucket of cars

Cool marble floor
Bowl of blueberries
Glass of water with fish shaped ice

An hour and half of fun

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Singapore lunch - 2: House

This Sunday it's homemade brocolli soup and garlic bread for lunch. There's only Kid and I (both with stinking colds) and with this being the F1 weekend I'm not tempted to venture far today. 

I did want to share the Sunday lunch V, Kid and I had two Sundays ago (the day I introduced the brunch preamble) in Dempsey Hill. 

We often go to Dempsey Hill, 5 minutes away in a taxi (like everything in this zone 1 city) to a restaurant called Margarita. It's the haunt of vegetarian Indians and guests from India because they do a mean old style veggie nachos. I like it for the crumb fried fish and fajitas but frankly I am so bored of it from overuse that even this short paragraph makes my tummy churn. 

So anyway, two Sundays ago we woke up with no plan. Nephew on the other side of town had some plan so it was going to be just the 3 of us for lunch. So I booked a last minute table for noon at House on the basis of a review I read somewhere. V had some office calls that morning and they dragged on and on so Kid and I left and got there at noon as planned. 

House in Dempsey is not on the main thoroughfare of well sign boarded, fairly posh restaurants and shops and art galleries. It's at the back in a parallel in an incongruous green grey block at odds with the rest of Dempsey's shiny look. Down a set of worn wooden steps and into this huge concrete and wood space. The unexpected wall of glass looking on to the green forested area made the restaurant look bright and inviting. It was also FULL to the brim and the gentle hum of voices made it feel like being IN the forest. It had a shabby chic feel, not like someone had tried but like someone had got it right just by throwing things at it and seeing what would stick. Very welcoming for a lazy Sunday.

We, and by that I mean the Trains, had a look at the menu and ordered fish and chips for Kid and wagyu rolls ( with chilli and maple syrup inside) with Asian slaw for myself. V called to tell us he was on the way and I ordered him a warm mushroom salad. 

The meals arrived just as V got there (typical!) and we tucked in with gusto. The halibut was fresh but the batter too thick for my liking - I peeled off most of it and let Kid eat just the fish. My rolls were excellent, the wagyu tasty and encased in thin spring roll pastry. But the maple syrup totally overpowered the chilli, the balance off kilter to the sweet side. But I didn't mind because that slaw was AHH-MAZING! Thinly shredded red cabbage and raw papaya and mango covered with a peanut soy chilli vinegar dressing. 

V's salad was also excellent - loads of lovely warm mushrooms and artichoke and not drowned but just drizzled with enough watercress spinach dressing to make it interesting and enticing. Most other mushroom salads tend to be over garlicked; this wasn't, it was flavourful to the hilt. The brunch menu also had some fresh juices and Kid and I shared a lovely watermelon and carrot lemonade off the daily specials board.

Walked around Dempsey to have a look at the monster giant Fish and buy a tub of ice cream from the Ben and Jerry shop. A kind and gentle afternoon. I thought House was a tad expensive for such a simple meal but I've learnt that good quality food in Singapore tends to be. Especially in expat land Dempsey. V liked it as well and we might revisit this one if only to try another of the dishes on their brunch menu. 

I'm hoping Kid and I feel better by this afternoon and can manage a supermarket trip and an early dinner in the always dependable Din Tai Fung. Nothing like a steaming basket of xiao long bao (soupy filled dumplings for those not yet in the know) to tackle a weekend cold. Have a good one peeps. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

An education

When we moved to Singers nearly a year ago we knew that the Asian sensibilities to education would be quite similar to the Indian one. I assumed there would be a little less pressure than growing up in India. Boy was I wrong!

Our estate agents 4 year old does 6 house of tuition on Saturdays to 'keep up with her peers'. And our neighbour, a lovely little 5 year old Singaporean boy goes for tuition Every. Day. from 3-6pm. His lawyer mother says there is no other way for him to be competitive within his class. Clearly the local system is brutal in its rigour and expectations. 

On the other hand my son goes to a wonderful little Montessori which does a fair amount of work disguised as play. Without realising it my 4 year old is doing sounds and basic reading, counting to 200 and learning multiples. He is learning to work calmly (and if only you knew how his legs NEVER stop) and work for longish periods of time, writing, doing puzzles and playing games. It's not an easy day and he comes back tired but invigorated with all the FUN he is having in school. We are happy with his school and know from talking to other parents that when he goes to one of the big international schools next summer he will absolutely love it because they don't do even half of what he is currently doing. An example (before a knowing Singaporean expat jumps on this) is my nephew, who went to the same Montessori before my son and last year, at age 4, went to one of the biggest and best International private schools. He has every resource at his fingertips. For the whole of that first year he loved school because suddenly there was no writing sheets or maths, just learning through play and adventures. He was ahead in math and reading and eventually they all found their balance but he is redoing concepts he already knew, pretending he doesn't know them. Unlearning what he already knows so the whole class can learn at a similar level. I guess that works so that the whole class finds a somewhat level playing field. He eventually did a bit of reading with a small group that are the same level but in all other matters it's a minimal regression. The beauty of that system though is how much he loves going to school which is full of activities that teach in their doing (even if the teaching is very basic). Maybe this Montessori is too pushy and they all know more that they should at their age. I certainly don't know the answer but both nephew and Kid have been happy. 

School eventually evens out - much like crawling, walking, eating and sleeping - the corner posts of competitive parents everywhere - they all go to school and work at the level that works for them. They thrive or struggle, they find support, make friends, learn to work with obstacles and pursue their own interests. 

However it's the after school activities that are the competitive arena in primary school. I have not yet met a parent in Singapore who has not asked me which and how many post school and weekend classes my child does. Just this morning someone has texted asking if I am keen on piano lessons for kid. The choice is so varied as to be a whole industry of its own. And none of it is cheap. $20 a class with minimum 10 class or 1 term sign ups. Even the few kids who do 'hardly any classes' are doing at least 3. Apparently if you don't know how to swim, paint, play footie, defend yourself with capoeira or taekwando and burst out a mean tune on your piano you shall not be well rounded enough. 

I know a parent whose two kids go to 8 classes each week. A mix of piano, keyboard, swimming, horseback riding, drumming, capoeira, Hindi, football, art and craft. This is over and above a long school day (8-3 including travel time). This means that on the one afternoon they aren't a doing anything (Sunday) we are expected to have play dates. Impossible because Sunday is the one day when we go out for lunch and try and nap! 

You name the activity and there is a class for it - right brain development, drama, golfing, tennis. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against the idea of classes. I just think they aren't really for us. When Kid gets back from school at 3 pm I want him to play with me, examine his many toys, read his many many books, do some painting or a puzzle if he wants to or just sit on the floor and race cars or play trains. And it's not about having the energy to travel elsewhere for classes - we have the opportunity for tennis and swim coaches to come to us and nothing in Singapore is at any great distance anyway - it's about doing the opposite of school. Filling his day with the mundane. Learning to occupy himself without endless direction.

I'm probable stunting his development by not teaching him to pursue a hobby/ class. He did a trial football class when we got here ($70 for football boots that he has now outgrown and used exactly once) and didn't want to go back. He did a 10 class course of acrobatics which was terrible - the teacher had no real plan and the other 9 kids just sat in a line while 1 child at a time did a move with the teacher. He got maybe 10 minutes of actual learning in 60 minutes. A total waste of time energy and money. 

He hasn't asked for any classes and even when they are offered up to him (regularly by his father) he says he wants to just play at home. Or in the park. Or swim a bit. 

As I said I'm probably not helping but I really feel it's too young to pursue such a large range of things. I do hope as he works his way from 4 to 5 he finds something he enjoys enough to pursue as a hobby. Then he can join a class. I do want it to be his decision not a class forced upon him because I think it will help his development.

So while all the expats complain about the great pressure that local kids face in their schools, I hope some of them see that a huge plethora of classes does just the same thing, puts pressure on them to excel at numerous things at once, some of which may not be of their own interest. 

Education in Singapore is a multi- faceted game of choices and money and competition and on many fronts I think we are behind the game. Happy, but behind the game. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Singapore Lunch - 1: Original Sin

This is a country of non vegetarians and vegetarians would be hard pressed to find much weight in the mains of any menu. After a bit of a google hunt I found this Sunday's lunch venue, Original Sin, a vegetarian restaurant that has reviews in the extreme - as in, I've been going for 12 years and its our family favourite to OMG so depressing. 

I'll never be a vegetarian or a vegan and I'm not watching or reading things that will convince me of these paths but I'm always keen to find good vegetarian food when it's been an overdose of fish/ meat week. So to Original Sin we went, booking and all. 

We needn't have bothered with the booking as the restaurant was only half full. But that might have had to do with the gathering clouds and showers that began as we sat down. I imagine on a sunny day that pavement would be quite inviting.

Located in expat land, Holland Village, the restaurant is on a lovely green leafy lane called Jalan Merah Saga. The outside seating is covered by dark awning which did nothing to help the interior, casting it darker than its decor could reflect. The interior was a mix of an orange/ khaki upholstery against white table cloths and the usual crockery and cutlery. A bit worn but workable. 

The food: a lovely long and comprehensive menu, soups, salads, pastas, pizzas and mains. V and I shared this halloumi salad while Kid ate a margerita pizza.

Of course, Spencer (the train, keep up will you?!) approved. It looked inviting and was beautifully flavoured. The halloumi just salty enough that the lentils and veggies in the grilled pepper tasted great. Beautifully plated and dressed.

The other three arrived off the MRT, sopping wet in the minute walk to the restaurant. And we ordered mains. A mushroom risotto, a falafel salad, spanakopita and a moussaka. All four good, flavourful but not great. I think they overdid the salad leaves - which were on every plate - and lentils which seemed to be part of every dish - even the falafel salad! I'm not sure I would go back for any of those dishes although they were all good, well spiced and cooked. Worth one lunch but I'm looking forward to the next Sunday lunch. 

We walked back along the street and waited for this place to open:

Weirdly on a Sunday, when the world is at rest and looking for ice cream they open at 2. That does not make any sense. We had to wait about 10 minutes - seemed like an hour with two antsy kids  - and finally we were in, buying cones of chocolate and mango and honey vanilla. Creamy, tasty, satisfying goodness. Sat by the statement wall and finished up, waiting for the rain to abate. 

I'm on my way to a double movie afternoon (The Bling Ring, followed by The English Teacher) while everyone else goes off to play. I'm in charge in the evening while V heads off to his movie fix with his brother. 

And tomorrow it's another week. 

Friday, September 13, 2013


V is 40 today. Considering I met him when he was 17 I'd say he's aged well. Or maybe it's only I that can still see the schoolboy in him. 

What do you give someone who has everything they need? Homemade gifts zindaabad! 

First up, door hanger which says '40' on one side and 'winks' on the other. Its a wooden car shaped hanger which we covered in blue acrylic paint and once dry used masking tape to make tape resist numbers and letters in green. As in at your age, Old man, you need 40 winks. Cheeky, I know!

Then the obligatory T-shirt. One that cannot be returned because we drew on it with fabric pen. I drew his and Kid's hand prints on paper a few weeks ago and then cut those out to trace on the T-shirt. I wanted to embroider or get embroidered these outlines but I was too lazy and it was too cumbersome a task to organise so this is what he got. 

We've breakfasted at Paul (such a disappointment after London's Paul), shopped for groceries and are now chilling at home before Kid and I bake a cake this afternoon. V's brother and family will come round in the evening and we'll have smoked salmon on baguettes, guacamole and veggies, home made pizza and a chocolate cake. 

All a far cry from birthday picnic/ holiday on a beach that I had planned for his 40th. V is working on his day off (typical), Kid and I have colds and fever that's making one of us very grumpy (also typical). 

This is turning 40. Quiet, too quiet. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

A shoe update

I finally bought a set of fabric pens - what's a bit more clutter in a mountain anyway - and filled in and finessed what I had started.

And today they are having their first spin in the outside dust covered Singapore world. We shall just have to see how they fare.

This was my idea and i found the turtles and waves and improvised as I went along. Kid now wants a say and already I have one more request for hand painted shoes in a design of his choice. In a few years he won't want anything handmade by me so I'm taking the request seriously.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Singapore's 52 lunches - the preamble

So. It seems I need to get a life. It's all so slow paced at the moment that I feel like an old world black and white silent movie actor jerkily wandering along the screen in ever small circles.

This poor blog seems to be in a cotton wool ball of fuzziness. I need to sharpen my keyboard skills and wake up. So between talking about life and books and many other things, I'm going to write about my complicated feelings about Singapore food. Be afraid. Very afraid. Not.

Um no. I'm just going to write / photograph the various Sunday brunch/ lunch places we are eating our way through. Remember I told you about one of the most important reasons for our move was to be closer to our family? Well, that's working well. V and his bro are super close anyway and I see how much our only child loves their only child. Brothers, twins and best friends - that's what the 5 and 4 year old say when asked who they are to each other. It's very endearing. We try and spend huge chunks of the weekend together. And Sunday lunch is usually one of those. For most of the last year we have been following a small circuit of tried and tested eateries - a dumpling place (that does Veggie dumplings), a Mexican place and a Japanese place (that both have loads of Veggie options) - V's sis in law is vegetarian and loves all three places. 

I have to say that they have become our go to places especially because we know  the kids will eat a variety of things and we know the menu blindfolded. But to be honest I'm bored. Life seems sedate in my world. I'm tossing ideas of what I want to do now that we've been here 11 months. All this blah (outside) and whirring (inside) made me decide a few weeks ago that I was done with the 3 standard places for Sunday lunch. So I've embarked on a programme of Sunday lunches. I've made a list (that's how bored I am) and there are 52 places I'd like to try over the next year. 

So preamble over. It's chow time. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Summer of boredom

I can't write anymore. I'm stilled by the heat and trying to reawaken a youthful adventure with design and art by sitting in the air conditioning all day long.

When I couldn't find any blue slip on canvas shoes for Kid (whose shoe budget needs its own mortage) I went ahead and bought the most inexpensive white/ cream pair I could find. I can see you all nod your collective Internet heads in unison. White + Small boy = Mess/ total shoe destruction.

And yes that is probably what is going to happen. To make them look less white and stark I've drawn a different turtle on each and covered the heels and sides with some deep blue waves. I figure when the brown/ grey dirt comes, and come it will, it will just look like the turtles are making their way from the ground/ beach to the sea. 

Till then I'm just going to pretend I can convince him to sit quietly without scuffing his shoes along the ground as he walks.