Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A piece of cake

Of course, it all started with the movie “Julie & Julia”, surely the year’s most gastronomically entertaining movie starring Saint Meryl. All that outrageous flirting with French food for two hours must have short-circuited my good judgement because as soon as I emerged from the cinema, I was suddenly seized by the urge to bake a chocolate cake.
Don’t ask me why a chocolate cake, because as far as I can remember, while there were any number of soles, chopped onions, lobsters and boeuf bourgignons, no actual cakes were involved in the movie.
On the way home, I stopped by Cold Storage and stocked up on the ingredients I thought might go into a chocolate cake. Chocolate was a given, but I spent a long time in the baking aisle trying to decide if it was plain or self-raising flour I needed. And then just when I had finished tossing a coin, I saw a row of all-purpose flour which confused me even further. I ended up buying all three on the assumption that it was better to be safe than sorry.
“You’re baking?” Saffy said when I arrived home with my grocery bags. “Do you even know how to bake?”
“I’m sure it’s very simple!” I said airily as I got onto the internet to look for recipes.
The River CafĂ© recipe got my attention if for no other reason than the fact that it was called ‘15-minute chocolate cake’.
“I like that it only takes 15 minutes to cook!” I told Saffy as she peered over my shoulder at the laptop.
“Do we even have a bain-marie?” she asked.
I paused. “The more important question, I think, is whether we even know what a bain-marie is?”
I think it would help at this point to note that I grew up in a household where the boys were not encouraged to step foot into the kitchen. To this day, I think my father only has a very vague idea of just where the kitchen is in our house. But I’m nothing if not an optimist. “How difficult can this be?” I asked Saffy. “You just follow the instructions!”
So, I calmly set a bowl on top of simmering water. All while wondering what ‘simmering water’ looked like. “I guess it means it’s not boiling,” Saffy hazarded. By now, and much against her better judgement, she was absolutely involved in the whole crazy project.
First, I mixed half a kilo of chocolate with nearly an entire block of butter.
“Oh my God, there’s so much butter in a chocolate cake?” Saffy breathed in horror. “Is that why it tastes so good?”
In a separate bowl, I whisked six eggs. (“Six!” Saffy shrieked. “This is a cholesterol nightmare!”) Or at least, I tried to whisk. Most of the eggs went spraying all over the walls.
At one point, I stared at the yellow mess in the bowl. “The recipe says firm peaks. Do these look like firm peaks to you?”
Saffy leaned in to look. “Does that sound rather sexual to you? Or is that the whole point of chocolate cake?”
I decided to wing it and began folding the eggs into the chocolate, while Saffy boiled a kettle of water.
“This is a really complicated recipe!” she complained as she watched me laboriously scrape the mixture into the cake tin, set it into another baking tray and then pour the hot water into the tray. “Are you sure we haven’t misread it?”
“Don’t stress me, Saf,” I instructed as I covered the tray with some tinfoil and popped the whole thing went into the hot oven. We closed the door with a satisfying thud, set the timer for 15 minutes and waited anxiously.
At one stage, Saffy said, “Seriously, wouldn’t it be easier to just call Awfully Chocolate and get one delivered?”
“We followed the recipe exactly!” I said. “It’s gotta work.”
And of course it didn’t work. This was why my mother never allowed boys in the kitchen. Something about our DNA completely ruins all food. Including chocolate cake. Because at the end of 15 minutes, we pulled the cake out and stared at it. After a while, Saffy said, “Is there supposed to be a thick layer of oil on the top? And why does it look like gravel?”
We drained the oil, cut a piece and tentatively had a bite. And spat it out.
As I tipped the whole sorry mess into the trash, Saffy reached for the phone and hit speed dial. “Hello, is that Awfully Chocolate?” she announced crisply before adding to me, “So much for Saint Meryl!”

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mandarin Oriental

The other day, Amanda and I were on the 105 bus when a group of secondary school students hopped on.
Yes, Amanda, in all her Gucci and Prada glory, was on the bus, on account of the fact that she’d left her wallet at home, and I had all of five dollars to my name. “How do you even know which bus to take?” she’d asked earlier with great admiration as I lead her out of the Orchard MRT station to the connecting bus stop. “This is a whole other world for me! And you and Saffy do this every day?”
Eventually, she fell silent, somewhat overcome by the novelty of sitting on a real bus while I, lulled by the gentle motion of the bus, fell comfortably asleep.
One minute, there was the kind of complete silence on the bus that can only be achieved by a group of strangers doing their complete best to ignore each other. And the next, I jerked awake. It sounded like Madonna had dropped into your local wet market: screams and shouts, high-pitched nattering, and everyone practically squinting out of thick glasses.
“Oh, no,” Amanda murmured. “What’s going on? Why are there so many children? And why are they all shouting at each other?”
Midway to Toa Payoh, it occurred to both of us that there’s some law somewhere in Singapore which says that it’s illegal for five or more people, or some low number like that, to gather without a permit. I sometimes think that this particular piece of legislation should apply to school children, if for no other reason than to preserve the sanity of those of us who no longer are.
Like a physical wave of sound, the young teenagers swept down the bus, annoyingly secure in their youth and brazen in the safety of their number. To say the least, the conversation was riveting.
Apparently, one girl had just been in a fight with her brother who had called her a bitch. “And then, hor,” she said, her glasses fogging up with indignation, “wo gen ta jiang, ‘Ay, ni bu ke yi anyhow say one, ok?’ Just because ni bi wo da yi shui, cannot, right! You wait I tell our mah-dur!”
“Jialat, lah!” agreed her friend.
“I really hate boys, you know!”
“Maybe he is a gay?” her friend wondered with all the nonchalance of people talking about the weather.
At this point, I whipped out my notepad and began transcribing furiously. You just can’t make up this sort of thing.
“Ay, wo wen ni, hor, this weekend ni yao qu Mary de birthday party, ma?”
“I think is in Bishan.”
“Yao mai present, ma?”
Amanda, noticing that I was busy taking notes, tugged at my sleeve. “What language are they speaking?” she hissed.
“Seriously, Amanda, please don’t tell people that you know me.”
For days after, it was all she could talk about. “It was like I was in some foreign language movie but someone had forgotten to put in the subtitles!” she told our cleaning lady in Mandarin that was, thanks to many summers in language camp in Beijing as a child, pitch perfect. “What are they teaching these kids at school?”
“You need to get out more, Amanda,” Saffy advised severely.
“It’s a scandal!”
“Write to the prime minister,” Saffy said in bored tones, as she flipped her latest issue of Vogue. “He might bring it up at the next G7 Summit. Or whatever,” she added hurriedly, as Amanda opened her mouth to point out the obvious.
“But doesn’t anyone care?”
“Oh, what’s the big deal? Everyone understood each other, right?”
“But it’s not Mandarin!” Amanda’s voice rose several octaves.
Saffy sighed. “Look at this black top I’m wearing.” All eyes in the room swivelled to Saffy’s heaving bosom. “It looks like one of your Gucci tops, but it’s a cheap Shenzhen knock-off!”
Amanda’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your point?”
Saffy was astonished. “I don’t have a point. I just wanted you to look at my top. No one has commented on it so far.”
“How is this country going to record its history if the next generation can’t even articulate a complete sentence in grammatically correct Mandarin?”
“Don’t worry, Manda,” Saffy said soothingly. “It’ll all be on YouTube!”
I said I didn’t care as it was all giving me such good material to use for my column.
These days, every time Amanda comes across one of those “Huayu Cool” ads, she snorts loudly. “It’s a farce, I tell you!” she exclaimed loudly the other day, leading Saffy to tell her, “Listen, do me a favour. Don’t tell people we live together, OK?”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Plane sailing

I know this week’s column is going to make me very unpopular, but can we talk about babies on planes?
It began with a recent night flight from Singapore to London. I was looking forward to a relaxing flight of meals and movies. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but stay with me.
Some people de-stress on a beach. Some take refuge in a bottle of Johnny Walker. Others lie face down on the massage table. Meanwhile, my flatmate Saffy likes to sit with her feet up on the window sill to, as she puts it, “air” herself.
Me, I like to get on a plane on a long haul flight. For 13 blissful hours, no one can get hold of me and bother me with urgent deadlines, give me bad news, or send me stupid 15MB attachments of their ugly restaurant interior.
I don’t get annoying calls from people who want a few minutes of my time to take a survey. And best of all, I don’t have to talk to anyone. Unless you’re on a flight to America and sit next to an American who will usually want to tell you his/her whole life story within the first ten minutes of the seatbelt sign coming on, in which case the best thing to do, I find, is to pretend you don’t speak English.
Of course, the inevitable happens. Struggling down the aisle towards you will be a woman who appears to be some Indian goddess incarnate. Because there’s no way a normal person should be able to juggle, with just two arms, five bags, a stroller, a baby, a box of toys, and three squirming toddlers.
And usually, it’s just the mother. “Where’s your husband?” I asked the woman on that flight to Singapore from London while watching her struggle to unload her nursery and toy shop onto the seat next to me. This broke my golden rule of never speaking to anyone on the plane unless she’s offering me a choice of chicken or seafood. But I couldn’t help but think if I’d been her, I’d have divorced that sorry-assed husband of mine two weeks ago.
She paused struggling with the seatbelt on her three-year old and pushed a strand of oily hair out of her face. “Oh, he’s working back in Sydney. Katie, please stop yelling at me. I’m talking to this nice gentleman. Yeah, I just took the kids to see their grandparents.”
She looked like she was one Dopamine away from a full-blown hysterical fit. So I tried to distract her with meaningless chit-chat: “So once we land in Singapore, you’ll have a two hour layover, and then another 8 hours to Sydney?” In the throbbing silence, I added, “And all these kids are your’s?”
As Amanda later pointed out, “That’s why it’s all about having a full time nanny. If I had to travel with four children without help…well, I just know that will never happen.”
Saffy’s contribution to the conversation was: “I think people just adopt fully grown children. Preferably just as they’re about to be shipped off to boarding school.”
Meanwhile, back on BA11, I was stuck with the horror that came from sitting next to a mother whose four children had clearly never met an Asian mother with a rattan cane before.
“Are they going to remember the occasion?” I asked after a while of watching the child next to me alternate between screaming at the top of her lungs and chewing the inflight magazine.
“Your kids. I read somewhere that children don’t form any long term memory till they’re about four.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t get what you mean.”
I tilted my head and gave her my best Oprah frown. “Well, it’s just that… I mean, was there any point in them meeting their grandparents at this stage in their lives if they’re never going to remember it? Is it worth the effort?”
For the rest of the flight, every time she clambered over me to get to the toilet, I could tell my probing question was haunting her. Either that, or she was wishing there was some safe way she could push me off the plane.
But I didn’t care. And I still don’t. I paid good money to be on that flight. Children get to scream, throw up, cry and run up and down the aisle through the whole night. If I did the same thing, the crew would’ve sedated me and slapped on handcuffs; and once we’d landed, charge me with disorderly conduct. That’s just plain rude.