Sunday Sofa Sojourns #15: Bormes les Mimosas, France

We were on the train en route to Toulon, headed to M’s wedding. To my right the sea whizzed past. I saw a few divers bobbing on the surface and wondered if there were reefs in the dazzling blue below.

Before we left the Hub warned me about the number of train rides we needed take on this just-us trip. I told him not to worry, long train journeys didn’t bother me as long as I had something to read. I came armed with plenty of books. One of the books I brought was a dud — after page 49 it was suddenly page 248 — and I made a mental note to exchange it at Kinokuniya even though I had lost the receipt. “If they won’t take it, I’ll make them go viral!” I declared. He laughed, “No one would care.”

*

We flew to Nice where we spent a day to experience a bit of the famed French Rivieraalso known as Côte d’Azur — because who knows when we’d be back travelling in this neck of the woods? (In this post-B.C. era, that turned out to be a good call.) The water was as blue as I imagined it to be. The blue was in three shades and the sky did its best to match.

We passed cliffs dotted with what looked like villas and I remembered an old Garfield comic I read when I was really young where Garfield rattles off his wish list to Jon, ending with “…and a villa in the South of France!” I’m not sure why the phrase stuck with me after all these years. Perhaps I did not know what “villa” meant, or why a tubby cartoon cat would want one. But now I think I do — anyone would. The place is a dream.

We found a vintage merry-go-round
Ride-on vehicles for sale — I was so tempted to buy one

We dropped off our bags at the hotel and had an unimpressive seafood lunch near the flower market. Afterwards we had a mojito, praline, and pistachio gelato from Fenocchio which was absolutely delicious. Then we strolled along the promenade.

We passed by a lot of runners. I wondered how they could jog without so much as a glance at that sparkling Mediterranean sea. How was it possible to live next to it every day and not at least look, stare, linger?

We also noticed people were sunbathing on the rocky beach. It couldn’t have been comfortable — it looked like it was just gravel everywhere, with small rocks piled high in mounds in some spots. But the sun was out and the weather was lovely, so I don’t think people minded. We paused to watch two men play beach tennis with a pink ball that flew with the breeze.

*

From Toulon we took a bus to Bormes les Mimosas, a small village with tiled roofs and houses all painted the same soothing peach hue. The church where M would be wed was here, Église Sainte Trophyme, and the wedding was that afternoon. We only had time for a quick quiche and a shower. Exploring Bormes would have to wait.

We got lost at first on our way to the church, but a kind French lady left her shop to walk us there. The interior of Église Sainte Trophyme was quaint and the same hue as the houses. Both of M’s sisters and her nanay were dressed in elegant Philippine terno dresses (“Para may representation!” said M’s ate) and of course most guests were from the groom’s side since it was his hometown.

The sermon was delivered in English with most of the service — and M’s vows — in French. A lovely, simple service, with legal formalities at the end, and torotot distributed to the guests for when the couple exited the church. M’s ate did her bridal makeup and arranged tiny rosebuds in her hair. “Sabi ko nga pwede rin pala magpakasal ng simple lang,” M’s nanay later said, when we were enjoying cocktails outdoors before the reception dinner. “Sa atin kasi…” and she trailed off, assuming I knew what she meant. (I did.)

*

The reception was at La Magnanerie de Saint-Isidore, a long drive from the church. We booked a cab to take us there. Two hours were allotted for guests to mingle outdoors with pre-dinner Provençal apéro: wine, fruit juices, and various finger foods which I thought were better than the main course that followed.

I especially liked the anchoïade, a Provençal dip made from olive oil, anchovies, basil leaves, and garlic. At M’s reception the fresh vegetables were artfully arranged so it looked like they were growing in the anchoïade “soil” dip. I liked the baby radishes best.

Another favourite of mine was the freshly grilled meat station. I had my fill of bite-sized tender chunks of beef, marinated chicken, and blood sausage. A waiter went around urging guests milling in the gardens to help themselves from a tin bucket of foie gras (yes please two for me).

During dinner, there were messages from families and friends (his in French and hers in English — but M’s ate also delivered hers in French — “C’est magnifique!” exclaimed M’s in-laws, understandably impressed). The Hub and I were seated next to a banker and his girlfriend who asked us questions about Singapore. (Is it true they don’t allow people with long hair in? Can you chew gum there? What’s it like living there? “It’s good for families,” I answered. “We don’t have kids,” he said.)

Unlimited dancing followed dessert but the tiredness was taking over. Honestly, there were times too that I felt like a fish out of water. Most introverts might be familiar with the feeling — by then I had used up my day’s supply of small talk and just wanted to recharge back at the hotel. Finally, the Hub and I hitched with a friend and left after taking Polaroids for the wedding guest book. I took one extra snap of us, for me.

*

The next morning we were up early and had our chance to walk around Bormes. The mimosas the town was known for were not yet in full bloom but I could imagine what the streets and the house gates would look like whenever the season was right. The souvenir shops, with their postcards, sweet scented perfumes, ceramic jewelry, and bags of lavender and other dried herbs, were just starting to open. There was no one around.

Some houses were nearly covered in bougainvillea flowers

We had tea and a croissant at the hotel cafe with a truly Provençal view (mountains, the peach-coloured houses with tiled roofs, blooms, and the startling blue sky with a single streak of white).

I thought to myself how difficult it must be to think of the rest of the world and its many troubles if I lived in a place like this.

But in some small way, I was also glad to leave.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #14: Rome, Italy

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Rome is a delicious assault on the senses. There is the sight of an almost 230-year old fountain grafted on to the back of a palazzo when you turn a street corner, the taste of thick, creamy gelato as it melts on the tongue, the pain of sore feet when you walk too long on its cobbled streets.

The sore feet are worth it, in my opinion. Walking around Rome is the best way to discover hidden gems. Like finding the Fontana delle Tartarughe, a small fountain with tiny turtles crafted in the 1580s by Bernini himself…

… discovering Bartolucci, a toy shop selling whimsical wooden toys and a real-life Pinocchio…

… or spotting an angel making off with a stop sign.

*

Pounding the pavements also allowed us to chance on the unexpected. We went up to Pincian Hill one afternoon and found a giant, yellow can with a radioactive sign painted on it. It had been set up by members of Greenpeace. I forgot what they were protesting about.

Looking up Pincian Hill

The distracting can aside, the sunset view from the hill was romantic and it was peaceful to people-watch from the top overlooking the Piazza del Popolo. We made our way down to the piazza as the big, open space filled with the sound of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ We sat on a bench to the side and watched an MJ-lookalike dance to a medley of songs in the middle of the square. The crowd slowly grew and I could see people singing along.

We stopped at Castel Sant’Angelo where we could see St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance, as well as enjoy a good broad view of the Tiber river and Sant’Angelo bridge.

Castel Sant’Angelo
The view of St. Peter’s Basilica from the top

*

On a side note, we visited a lot of churches when we were in Rome. I’m not overly religious, but I find European churches fascinating. The grand cavernous interiors, the abundance of blank-eyed marble saints, the way people automatically whisper when they step inside. The churches in Europe felt more aloof and imposing in my mind, in contrast to the generally relaxed and homely atmosphere in Philippine churches. Parang Gregorian chants lang yung bagay kantahin sa loob.

My personal favourite of the Roman churches we visited was the Pantheon, a formerly pagan temple saved from destruction only because it was converted into a Christian church by Pope Boniface IV. A well-preserved, 1000+ year old wonder.

The Pantheon

There was also a small 6th century church named Santa Maria in Aracoeli next to the Piazza del Campidoglio. It’s at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Legend has it that if you climb the 122 steps on your knees you can win the lottery. (I guess the fine print reads that you can win, not that you will win.)

*

All the walking around the city is bound to make anyone thirsty. It’s a good thing the flowing water found in most of Rome’s fountains – and we found plenty of these – is safe to drink. All we needed was an empty reusable water bottle. (Never mind the water in the basin, the flowing water from the tap tasted fresh and clean.)

*

We ate our way through Rome too. The Hub and I indulged our sweet tooth at Tre Scalini via a creamy triple-chocolate tartufo ice cream ball with a fudgy cherry centre, topped with cream and a chocolate wafer stick; at Giolitti for hazelnut gelato; and a double gelato dose at Il Gelato di San Crispino.

A tartufo ball

We had a shot of excellent espresso at La Tazza d’Oro, had our fill of excellent pastas and crisp salads with barely a misstep. Maybe we were just lucky, or Rome really doesn’t have bad restaurants.

Fresh salads from popular chain Insalata Ricca

*

I think the sight of the Vatican City is impressive to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Even devoid of all religious associations, one can still appreciate that it’s a beautiful testament to humanity’s creativity. So much to see feel do think, in such a small space.

At the Vatican City

It was a Sunday so there was a blessing by the Pope at noon. We waited in the crowd until he arrived. Actually, we couldn’t tell what was going on since the announcements over the speakers were in Italian. We didn’t even know where to look; we thought the Pope would appear on the front balcony overlooking the crowd. I then spotted an open window with red cloth hanging out and remembered thinking to myself someone was drying out the Pope’s towels. Apparently, this was the window where he eventually showed up.

We made our way up the St. Peter’s Basilica dome for a bird’s eye view of the city. I remember the Hub (then the Boyfriend) and I lingering a little too long at the top of the dome. I thought he was taking his time with his photos – little did I know he was working up the courage to propose.

Our proposal story – saying “Yes” behind the saints

We eventually started to make our way down the dome, and made a brief pit-stop behind these marble statues of the saints. I had the camera and was snapping away when suddenly I felt a back hug (insert K-drama reference here) from the Hub and saw a small brown box open in front of me. I couldn’t see his face but it dawned on me what was about to happen.

Yes, behind these saints

I had imagined this moment perfectly a dozen times in my end. In each imagined scene I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. Why ruin such a happy occasion with tears and what would most likely be a runny nose?

But when the reality of what was happening started to sink in fast, I felt my tears start and by then it was difficult to stop. The actual proposal went something like this:

Hub: (Box open in front of me, revealing the ring.) “Will you…”

Me: (Mumbling to self, realising I was crying.) “No, no, no…”

Hub: Ha?! No?”

Me: Ay, hindi! Yes, yes, yes!”

So that was my Expectation vs. Reality moment. Still, I think it turned out better in real life.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #13: Jakarta, Indonesia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Unlike my other Sunday posts, this Jakarta weekend trip probably wouldn’t be of much interest to the usual tourist. We didn’t drop by the Monas (National Monument), buy batik, or visit any of the city’s museums and parks. It was more of a random stroll down memory lane, possibly an attempt to reconcile rose-coloured childhood memories of a city I loved with its current reality.

Because of my dad’s job, my family moved to Jakarta in the 1990s. My mom, siblings, and I had spent a few summers there prior to the move. To this day, I feel a strong connection to this busy behemoth of a city. It reminded me often of the bustle of Makati / Manila.

View of the Selamat Datang Monument from our hotel room. It was a Car-Free Sunday.

We eventually left Jakarta in the chaos that was 1998 along with a number of other families we knew, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis (Indonesia was badly hit) and the race riots.

*

We lived in the Kelapa Gading neighbourhood in north Jakarta. The Kelapa Gading Plaza was close to our house but often the wares came to us. I remember the tukang sayur who used to go around our residential village with a cart of fresh vegetables every morning. Our family helper, whom we affectionally called Mbak, would call him over and buy a bunch of fresh kangkong for Rp500 (ah, the pre-1997/98 era before the Indonesian rupiah had too many zeroes). Then there was the jamu seller in her kebaya bearing her mysterious herbal concoctions, which Mbak drank near-daily (she never let us try some).

A tukang sayur. Source: Detik Food

My favourite mobile vendor was the chicken-shaped truck that sometimes toured our streets selling ayam goreng kalasan (deep-fried kampung chicken served in oil-soaked boxes, sprinkled with crispy bits of batter called kremes). Give me kremes over KFC chicken any day.

*

Anyway, back to our trip. We weren’t in Jakarta long enough to eat at all the places where I wanted to eat, so we just settled for a trip to our old food haunts in Kelapa Gading and near our hotel, as well as a clandestine visit to our previous primary school in Ancol (it involved some wheedling on our friends’ part to get the security guard to let us have a walk around the school grounds late on a weekday evening).

Jakarta now has Chowking! I remember when Jollibee first opened here

The cinema facade of Kelapa Gading Mall (it wasn’t a plaza anymore) hadn’t changed much. I hazily recall looking up from our car at the movie poster for ‘Speed’, which was hand-painted then. Keanu barely looked like himself.

Me, still zipping by

Inside the mall, we made a beeline for Bakmi Gajah Mada, an old favourite. We had ice cold Sosro teh botol (which now came in cartons instead of glass bottles), bowls of bakmi bakso (Indonesian noodles with beef balls) and crispy pangsit goreng (fried wonton).

I introduced the Hub to A Fung’s vermicelli noodles (graced with more beef balls and a huge block of tofu with meaty goodness nestled inside).

For novelty, the Hub and I tried the infamous kopi luwak. The menu helpfully explained it thus: “The luwak (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) denizen of the coffee (kopi) plantations of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, eats only the ripest coffee cherries. Unable to digest the coffee beans, the luwak graciously deposits them on the jungle floor where they are eagerly collected by the locals. The stomach acids and enzymatic action involved in this unique fermentation process produces the beans for the world’s rarest coffee beverage.” What exactly was going on through the minds of those kopi luwak pioneers? (In case you’re interested, it tasted like normal Arabica coffee. No 💩 taste whatsoever.)

Here is a food court spread from Sate Khas Senayan, with bowls of sop buntut (oxtail soup) topped with emping crackers, satay mix (meat skewers), ayam goreng kremes (fried chicken with the crunchy bits), and a rice meal doused with spicy peanut sauce. God I missed Jakarta.

*

Now that I think about it, maybe most of my rose-coloured memories were all about Indonesian food. Consider our pasalubong haul.

Indomie is life

Think critically dear readers,

Hawker Culture

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of hawker centres to daily life here in Singapore.

One of my ex-colleagues once told me that throughout her childhood she had never seen her parents cook. They bought dǎbāo (打包, takeaway) all the time. “I turned out all right!” she declared.

Eating out every day sounds expensive, but honestly when it comes to hawker centres it makes sense. You can have good eats for very reasonable prices. The variety is great. There’s even a sense of community in the air. Back when we used to live in one of Singapore’s heartland neighbourhoods, we often saw groups of old uncles hanging out at the hawker centre tables chatting over their morning kopi and kaya toast – especially for hawkers located near HDBs. (HDBs refer to public housing managed by the Singaporean Housing and Development Board or HDB. It’s where almost 80% of Singaporeans live. I’ll blog about these gems in the future.)

Laundry drying racks jut out from HDB blocks

*

What’s a “hawker centre” anyway? These are open-air food courts made up of many stalls selling affordable cooked food. Most are conveniently located near HDB estates and near wet markets.

The construction of hawker centres in the 1970s-80s was part of a government programme to legalise street hawkers and ensure food preparation was up to standard. Nowadays the National Environment Agency, as a government regulator, ensures hawker food is prepared in hygienic and safe conditions.

Doing the Lord’s work, even on weekends

*

If you’ve seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians (2018), there’s a good montage at the start featuring Newton Food Centre where Henry Golding orders plate after plate of hawker food in English, Mandarin, and Malay: satay (meat skewers), roti prata (Indian-influenced flatbread), fried carrot cake (a misleading name — it’s made of radish cubes), hot bowls of spicy laksa (noodle soup in curry coconut milk) and fishball noodle soup, shaved ice desserts, and of course, cold mugs of beer (Tiger, I hope).

“Each of these hawker stalls sells pretty much one dish. They’ve been perfecting it for generations” (Source)

Pro-tip #1: while it’s cool how the movie introduced Singapore’s hawker culture to a global audience, trust the locals – there are better satays to be found elsewhere besides Newton.

Pro-tip #2: keep your eyes peeled for the nod to the chope-ing tissue at 0:22. When at a hawker centre (or any food court in Singapore for that matter), do not sit at tables where there are tissue packets. This means that spot has been chope-d, i.e. reserved. Doesn’t sound fair? It is what it is. #RespectTheTissue

*

The Hub and I love hawker food. Before coming to Singapore, we were already familiar with a few local dishes: the glutinous goodness of chicken rice and the sinfully rich char kway teow, for instance. When we lived in the UK, we paid frequent visits to London’s Chinatown to sample New Fook Lam Moon’s bak kut teh (the soup more herbal than peppery) or Rasa Sayang’s chicken rice. We later learned that Rasa Sayang’s version of char kway teow is more Penang than Singaporean, with the Singaporean version somewhat sweeter.

Queues at Tian Tian Chicken Rice, which the late Anthony Bourdain once praised as delicious even on its own

*

With so many choices, how do you know which stall serves the best food? The length of the queues of course!

Alternatively, you can check out food reviews online. When the Hub and I first arrived here, we relied heavily on a food blog called “ieat•ishoot•ipost” written by a family doctor named Dr. Leslie Tay, who’s also an avid foodie and photographer. His blog’s tagline is “never waste your calories on yucky food.” (He also uses his platform to teach his patients on what kinds of food to avoid if they have certain medical conditions, which I think is a smart way to merge your work and your passion project).

A Tian Tian chicken rice feast, with freshly squeezed sugar cane juice

I like that his blog is organized into dishes: from Assam Fish all the way to Zi Char. It makes it easy to search for places when cravings take over. While there are one or two recommendations which didn’t please, I think this is simply a matter of taste, and overall Dr. Tay’s recommendations were an excellent starter guide for non-locals like us to navigate Singapore’s rich hawker culture.

You may already know how fond I am of bak chor mee (the thought of the chili and vinegar in al dente noodles already makes my mouth water). But our best discovery from Dr. Tay’s blog was the gloriously messy Hainanese Curry Rice.

“Umami bomb” is the best way to describe it — the best Hainanese Curry Rice is a flavourful explosion of curry sauce, fried porkchop, stewed cabbage, and braised pork, and it has found a permanent spot on our personal comfort-food list.

Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice. Source: Pinterest

Hainanese Curry Rice is not Instagram-friendly, that’s for sure. It may never snap up a Michelin Bib Gourmand. If I recommend it to one of my ang moh friends he / she might demur.

But you seriously won’t know what you’re missing. Super shiok.

Think critically dear readers,

Featured image by Ethan Hu on Unsplash

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #12: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

When I first saw the moss-covered temple stones at Siem Reap in Cambodia, I was reminded of the mobile video game Temple Run released back in the early 2010s. Temple Run was a running game with no end, at least until you made an ill-timed swipe or the crazy monkeys caught up with you. The monkeys at Siem Reap are duelling kings however, pink and still in the ancient stone.

We arrived at our hotel in the afternoon. We wasted no time in hiring a tuktuk to take us to Angkor Wat, the “temple city,” the largest religious monument in the world. We read that the outer walls and moat surrounding this medieval temple complex symbolised the edge of the world and the cosmic ocean, respectively. Unusually for Khmer temples, the Angkor Wat faced the setting sun, a symbol of death.

Outside Angkor Wat

The causeway leading to the temple was lined with vendors selling pirated English guidebooks for as cheap as a dollar. There were too many tourists with impractical shoes. Some of them spat on the ancient stone.

Angkor Wat looked time-worn and understandably so, having been built in the 12th century. Wooden steps were constructed over the original steps — not only to preserve it but because the older ones were too steep. The sensual apsaras lined the walls in an assortment of poses, jewellery, and headgear. I had a strong urge to see for certain what it looked like in its original glory.

*

The rest of the architecture at Angkor had its own pull: take Banteay Srei To Baphuon for instance, with its salmon-coloured stones and incredibly detailed reliefs.

Banteay Srei To Baphuon

*

Then there was the surreal Ta Prohm, which was deliberately restored in a way that cut as little of the surrounding jungle as possible.

The majestic tree roots at Ta Prohm

Parts of Angelina Jolie’s film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were filmed here.

The giant banyan trees continue to simultaneously hug and crush the temple buildings, as they have for hundreds of years. In time, nature will finish its work and the temple too will fade.

A stegosaurus carved in the stone at Ta Prohm, or something else? It’s still a mystery

*

Personally, I found The Bayon, also in Angkor Thom, the most enigmatic. The temple had a curious pull on me.

Our approach to The Bayon
The Bayon

The pyramid shaped temple mountain rises on three levels and features more than 200 stone faces, all with smiles as mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s.

The reliefs at the Bayon featured not only apsaras but also daily life — cockfights, festival celebrations, market scenes, meals being cooked. To me, this imbued the dreamlike temples with a sense of normalcy. In another time, ordinary people just like me lived here.

*

The Baphuon was once one of the grandest of Angkor’s temples, built in the 11th century, but parts of it have long since collapsed. There is a giant reclining Buddha inside. Since the temple was dedicated to Hinduism the Buddha was probably added centuries later.

The Baphuon

*

We had time to visit Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of what I call the Dead Marshes (it looked so much like how I imagined Tolkien’s Dead Marshes would look!). The temple’s pools were meant to cure diseases.

Neak Pean

*

The “City of God Kings” remained on my mind well after our trip. I tried to search online for images of how Angkor’s ancient temples might have looked like in their heyday. Google did not disappoint. Scholars produced colourful overlays that show you the old and the new side by side, some even recreated the kingdom on video. The Smithsonian digitally reconstructed Angkor Wat, brightly coloured and gilded with shiny gold, a far cry from its present state.

More recently, laser scans revealed an intricate network of cities hidden beneath Angkor, suggesting a rich everyday life led by those who peopled it.

Source: The Conversation

The last lines of a poem came to mind as I reflected on Angkor (though it may be more appropriate for one of my previous posts):

And how one can imagine oneself among them

I do not know;

It was all so unimaginably different

And all so long ago.

The Gloomy Academic, Louis MacNiece

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #11: Dinner in Beijing, China

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

I plan to write a full post on my trip to Beijing in the future. This is just about an interesting dinner we had the evening of our first day.

I was on work training in Shanghai for six weeks. My colleagues and I thought it would be a cool idea to take an overnight train up to Beijing for a weekend. None of us had been to China before, so we were planning day trips left and right: Suzhou, Hangzhou, Xi’an.

We arrived in Beijing late in the day. After settling in at our hotel, we wanted to get some dinner. Being in Beijing, all of us naturally thought to look for a place that served good Peking duck. We ended up in a random restaurant called Tiānfǔ Shíbā Xiāng. (Think it was 天府十八香, which I suppose could be loosely translated to Heavenly Province 18 Spices? I’m not too sure.)

The servings were huge, good value for money, and surprisingly tasty. We had the Peking duck we wanted; it was carved skillfully tableside. You have to place the duck –including slices of crispy, juicy skin — in thin Mandarin pancakes, add hoisin sauce, cucumber sticks, fresh scallions and voila! A delicious bite-sized duck wrap. Apart from that, we ordered pork dumplings, diced chicken, plates of spicy tofu, and two kinds of rice (egg fried rice and soy sauce rice). It really was quite a lot of excellent food.

Food aside, one of the more memorable things about the meal was some inadvertently funny translations of dish names on the menu.

To be fair, this was around ten years ago. Google Translate didn’t exist and some poor employee at the restaurant probably had to dig out a physical dictionary and translate all these somehow.

Now that I also have the benefit of knowing a little bit of Chinese, I can figure out some of the characters myself… KIDDING! Of course I used an app (shout-out to Pleco). Also, sorry about the quality of the photos. By this time, I hadn’t saved up for a decent camera yet.

So, let’s begin:

1. Rabbit Leg Singular Taste. The script is stylised so I can’t make the last character out. I only understand 兔 (tù, rabbit). Can anyone tell me what the rest means?

2. Squirrels GuiYu (松鼠桂鱼). I initially thought this was referring to squirrels of the nut-eating kind. Now, even a Chinese language newbie like me knows 鱼 (yú) means fish. This dish is actually called Squirrel Mandarin Fish, a very popular dish because the fish lacks bones. It belongs to Huaiyang cuisine, from China’s Jiangsu province. The dish is called “squirrel dish” because the way it’s presented resembles a squirrel’s tail. I wouldn’t mind having this the next time I get the chance.

3. Poached [various] animal offal (毛血旺). Don’t get me wrong, I like plenty of dishes with offal ingredients (in fact, my all-time favourite dish is lengua estofado). But I generally prefer a bit more specificity when it comes to knowing what went in my soup. 😅 In Pleco, the name for the dish actually translates to “duck’s blood and beef tripe in spicy soup,” which kind of reminds me of Pinoy dinuguan (a delicious Filipino stew made from pork and pig’s blood).

4. Monolithic beef has generated a lot of income (铁板牛柳). I would like to think they meant this was a bestseller. 😂 The name of the dish translates to sizzling beef fillet served on a hot iron plate.

5. Bullfrog burning (小炒牛蛙). No, they don’t serve the dish burnt. This just translates to wok stir-fried bullfrog. And don’t knock frog meat until you’ve tasted it! Frog is a relatively common ingredient in Singapore, especially in congee. It tastes just like chicken (really!).

6. Shaozi soil egg (绍子土鸡蛋). No soil here! I think “绍子” may be referring to Shaanxi cuisine, which generally means dishes that are seasoned with many spices and condiments, including Sichuan peppers; while “土鸡蛋” literally translates to “soil eggs” but actually means free-range eggs, or eggs laid by home-kept chickens.

7. Chinese style hoecake (玉米饼). My friend’s favourite. I guess they should have just translated this as “corn cakes!”. And finally…

8. One for the world (一品天下?). This one had — and still has — me stumped. I think I can guess what the main ingredient is though!

My main takeaways from this menu are 1) tourists have it so much easier these days — clarity can be had with the tap of an app, 2) it’s easy to get things lost in translation, and 3) it pays to be a little adventurous.

If I could go back, I’d definitely order myself a sizzling plate of monolithic beef.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #10: Seville, Spain

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

There are oranges almost everywhere in Seville, or at least, in the places tourists like the Hub and me frequented. There are trees heavy with orange fruit, fallen oranges on the ground, oranges accidentally squashed underfoot, mouldy oranges, oranges not yet quite ripe.

However temptingly orange and Sunkist-like the fruit looked, the general advice was not to pick one up and eat it. Notice the locals don’t do that either? That’s because Seville oranges are bitter. The British actually use it to make their beloved marmalade. So, we just contented ourselves with deep breaths of the fresh citrus-scented air.

In Seville we took long, leisurely walks all over the city. It was small and compact, and the number of “must-sees” was just right for a short weekend break. Unlike other European cities we had been to, we didn’t feel as pressured to be out and about all the time, and we even had time for a siesta in the afternoons.

We managed to get one of seven lovely rooms at a small hotel on Calle Zaragoza. The breakfast at the Taberna restaurant was exceptional – fresh squeezed orange juice, hot baked bread with sweet olive oil for dipping, coffee with kick, and slices of Jamón Serrano.

The Taberna del Alabardero courtyard

*

The hotel was within walking distance of the Seville Cathedral, the largest Christian church in the world. The cathedral’s towering Gothic arches allow the building interior to have a temperature markedly different from the outside – inside it was cool and perfect for muni-muni (deep thinking).

The Seville Cathedral’s main entrance
The main altar’s 15th century altarpiece, the world’s largest. Composed of 45 Bible scenes with over 1,000 characters
The cathedral’s arches
Found this 17th century Madonna with Child in one of the displays. It’s by an “anonymous Filipino artist”

While we were there, we also climbed up the cathedral bell tower, also known as La Giralda. It had fantastic rooftop views of the city. The climb was made easier by the fact that it was a ramp rather than steps, the original design being intended for men on horseback. It was still quite steep though.

*

In Barcelona, bull-fighting had been banned since the year before our trip. I’m not too sure about Seville, but when we were there the season hadn’t started yet so we just went to the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza for the tour and a visit to the museum. I’ve never seen a bullfight before– and I’m not too sure I want to.

Plaza de Toros

*

We toured the usual spots in Seville – the Real Alcazar, a luxurious Moorish palace with intricate designs on the walls and ceilings, the Plaza de España, a lovely square that was apparently used in a Star Wars film for its other-worldly feel, the Casa de Pilatos, a well-preserved urban mansion that reminded me of old Spanish-era houses in the Philippines.

Real Alcazar
Real Alcazar’s Sala de Justicia, with its impressive ceiling. Look closely: it’s composed of little stars with the royal emblems in the middle
Plaza de España, with colourful tile maps of Andalucian cities
A whimsical sculpture of a reading little girl we found while wandering, whom I later found to be a monument to the Spanish politician and women’s advocate Clara Campoamor

Seville was the first Spanish city we had been to, so we were really keen on seeing authentic flamenco dancing. Walking around the back-streets we chanced upon a small, cosy theatre on Calle Alvarez Quintero. The flamenco show started at 9pm and costed a mere €17 back then (€15 if you’re 26 years old and below). We were treated to passionate (in the guy’s case, the hip-swaying, furrowed-brow crooning, really intense kind of passionate) flamenco dancing and singing. Eyes closed one could easily imagine oneself walking in a fruit-laden courtyard, bathed in red-orange hues in the style of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or eating tapas on a rustic table in a small whitewashed kitchen.

*

Then again, I could be over-romanticising things.

We made a side trip to the Archivo de Indias, a library of documents related to the Spanish colonization of the New World. The building itself was built in 1598. I wanted to go see if there was anything about the Philippines in there.

We watched a short video presentation about the history of the building itself and the neglect it experienced – apparently, at some point it even became a halfway house for the homeless. It’s been renovated extensively since. The day of our visit, the exhibit was mainly about Latin American colonies. The only mention of the Philippines was a tiny dot on an old brown map exhibited behind glass.

Archivo de Indias

Sometimes, I catch myself talking casually about difficult times in world history and feel an odd twinge of guilt. My colleagues in a previous workplace included a British national and an Argentinian. I recall discussing colonies and empires with them over our lunch breaks. (It was the Argentinian who asked me if I ever felt upset about having to apply for a Schengen visa, given we were colonised by the Spanish for centuries. According to him, we should get a free pass since the Philippines was practically a part of Spain. Suffice it to say, a lunch hour was not enough for that conversation.)

*

I’ve mentioned how much I liked grocery stores in a previous post. Same thing goes when we travel; we make it a point to stop by one in the places we visit. I feel that I get a glimpse into a country’s culture by looking at what they buy. I also find we have more in common than we think.

Anyway, we found these biscuits in the store we went to:

The Filipinos biscuits were doughnut-shaped, and came in milk chocolate or white chocolate flavours. It had either a light-coloured biscuit inside (similar to rosquillos biscuits in the Philippines, except Filipinos biscuits didn’t have scalloped edges) or a dark-coloured biscuit.

I remember reading about these Filipinos biscuits many years ago in the Inquirer when some congressmen thought the name an insult (note these biscuits have been in the market for over 40 years). The foreign secretary at that time, Domingo Siazon, attempted to counter the protest by noting that Austrians do not complain that small sausages are called “Vienna sausages.” (How about Belgian waffles, Hawaiian burgers, French toast?)

Names aside, it was a tasty biscuit.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #9: Athens, Greece

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Whenever possible, we try to visit a McDonald’s when we travel.

Why McDonald’s? Mainly because there’s a good chance the city has one (The Economist invented the Big Mac Index for a reason). Now, before you start thinking we’re unsophisticated eaters who don’t appreciate local cuisine (we do!), our reason for doing this is the exact opposite – McDonald’s has a menu item unique to the city and we like trying it out. In Paris, we had a cheeseburger that used blue cheese (au bleu) instead of the usual processed cheese slices they served elsewhere. Singapore used to offer a gula melaka (palm sugar) flavoured McFlurry.

In Athens they served a ‘Greek Mac’: two beef patties, lettuce, and tomatoes sandwiched in pita bread.

The McDonald’s branch was a short walk from our hotel in the Plaka district but the route was a little dodgy – graffiti on the walls, men loitering in the street corners. It was the year of Grexit and my siblings joined me on a rare “just us” holiday to Athens. Parliament was also close by. I recall expecting protests in the neighbourhood and being a little worried.

The evzones or Greek soldiers in front of Parliament, dressed in traditional attire

The view of the Acropolis from the hotel roof deck was unforgettable though, so we made do.

We headed to it the next day. The Acropolis is the highest part of the city. The walk up the hill was easy and clearly signposted. We passed several places that evoked memories of our high school “History of the World” textbook: theatres with names like Dionysus and Herodes Atticus, a temple named after Athena Nike.

At the top of Acropolis Rock was the Parthenon. At that time, restoration was in full swing so parts of it were covered in tarpaulin and there was scaffolding too. But still… it was the Parthenon. A building built circa 5th century B.C. during the golden age of Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world. We were right there! And the view was stunning.

The Erechtheion. According to myth, Athena and Poseidon battled for Athens on this spot
The Parthenon

From the Acropolis we made our way to the Agora, where Socrates was born and where St. Paul preached. There was hardly any shade on the way so water bottles and face towels are recommended.

The Agora is for wandering. There are several buildings on the site you can explore. You can shut your eyes and imagine it as the ancient marketplace it once was centuries ago, complete with the hustle and bustle typical of a public palengke, the famous philosophers who spoke, the huge crowds that must have gathered here to listen.

We continued on foot to the Roman Forum, where the Romans moved Athens’ marketplace from the old Agora. It’s smaller and has the beautifully named Tower of the Winds, an octagonal tower built in 50 B.C. There used to be a bronze weather vane on the tower roof which indicated the direction of the wind, personified in carved relief at the top of each side. Rays of sundials are carved on each side beneath the scenes of the winds, and inside there was a water clock powered by a stream from the Acropolis.

Dogs at the foot of the tower, napping in the shade. There were plenty of askals in Athens

We had lunch at Diogenes taverna. It had a shaded terrace, which we craved after the heat. I ordered a creamy moussaka, a traditional Greek dish made of minced beef and eggplant baked in a tomato sauce, and our youngest had rabbit stifado, a local meat stew.

For me, the best part of this trip were the conversations with my siblings. As sweltering as the walks may have been, their company was hard to beat. That made it okay.

We talked about ourselves, mostly.

This is a bottle of Absolut being repurposed as a water bottle. We got our mom, whom we Skyped often while on the trip, to a near panic when we joked that we were having an inuman session

We sat in a cafe, To Kouti, for rose petal ice cream and strong shots of Greek coffee and talked and talked. The conversation was at times light, at times serious. By then, I had lived abroad for a few years. It was the longest I’d been away from my family and I felt out of touch. I used to know the daily minutiae of A’s love life. When I left, our bunso was still in university. Now A was in a serious relationship and the other was about to become a high school teacher.

While I did keep in touch with my siblings since leaving, I felt I was only getting a highlight reel of what went on in their lives. It just didn’t feel the same.

I think the distance from home helped us talk a little more freely. Without going into detail about our (fairly sheltered) childhood, it was thrilling for me to be there in a foreign country with two grown individuals whose lives I felt I knew intimately (and yet didn’t), whose voices sounded like mine (but spoke differently), whose thoughts reflected mine (but still managed to surprise me, in fascinating ways).

In Singlish, same same but different.

So, how about it, A and C? Let’s get another round of ice cream — it doesn’t have to be rose — we can have chocolate this time. Let’s pick the place together, it doesn’t need to be far. Let’s have more

Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Let’s do this again, just us.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #8: Singapore

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Today’s a special post since it’s Singapore’s National Day, so it’s not quite about a trip. Happy 55th Birthday, SG!

Celebrating SG51 with pancit canton and Peranakan kueh back in 2016

八 (Bā) or 8 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture because it sounds similar to 发 (fā) which means to “become rich, make a fortune” (among other meanings). This year marks the 8th National Day my small family has celebrated in this Little Red Dot. (I also just realised this is my 8th #SundaySofaSojourns post!)

2020, of course, is turning out far differently than any of us expected.

National Day in Singapore is held annually on 9th August. I think it can be best described as a celebration of how this city-state proved itself to be “the little nation that could.”

There’s a live parade (a.k.a. the NDP) where members of the Singapore military, police, and civil defence force as well as its best homegrown companies march, where almost everyone from students to seniors showcase musical performances, and where one can see all the nation’s politicians don their best red & white clothing on TV.

My kid watching a past parade with his pork floss bun

There’s a much-anticipated fly-past of the country’s flag, the Red Lions freefall jump, and the fighter jet display (usually, they spend over a month practising this – from our office building in the business district, it was common to hear the deep rumble of the jets every day in the weeks leading to the NDP). The parade itself is broadcast real-time on free TV, but tickets to see it live are balloted to citizens months before.

This year’s NDP Funpack includes hand sanitiser, face masks, and a digital thermometer (Source: Mothership)

Apart from the NDP itself, there are signs of celebration elsewhere – sales, commemorative cakes & breads, ‘I ❤️ SG’ t-shirts.

Bread Talk, a popular bakery chain, offers a Taste of Home Set which includes breads with local flavours like kaya (coconut jam), seafood laksa, and otah (a delicious fish paste)
Toys“R”Us is still operational here

Everyone is encouraged to participate. This year’s theme song is “a tribute to Singaporeans’ spirit of community” and gratitude for each other. While NDP 2020 will be a more sombre, more reflective affair, the ceremony will go on.

*

For any country, there is value in this kind of active retelling of its history — for the younger generation, that they are introduced to this sense of belonging (outside of their immediate families and communities), and for the older generation, that we may remember what we were taught in school. It is easy to forget. And when we forget, we risk repeating past mistakes.

As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I am trying to think of a unified ceremony celebrated in a similar way across the entire Philippines (one that covers all Filipinos, so religious or provincial holidays don’t count) and I am coming up short. (I may be missing something here, so if you have an example please share in the comments.)

For us personally, this question of national identity is becoming more relevant as our kid grows. We want him to feel connected to both countries and to be able to navigate both cultures, with understanding and mutual respect for each. How do we do this? What stories do we tell our children? These are not easy questions.

It is in the stories we choose to tell that we shape our nation’s collective memory, or leave it without one.

Think critically dear readers,