Saturday, May 31, 2008

Into the blue

I've had a tangled time of the past few weeks: bad news from school, bad fall, bad living conditions.


On the walk back from the clinic after my stitch was removed, I happened to glance up, and this is what I saw. I was cringing at the thought of returning to that house, and the very thought that that place was "home" to me made me want to cry. It did make me cry, on a few occasions.

The blue sky beyond the branches, in this case, turned out to be finding a new place within a week of kicking into "very active" mode with the phone calls, viewing appointments, interviews and various other inconveniences of searching for accommodation.

Having spend the past few months dreading the thought of leaving my room in case it meant more of the questions and small talk and altogether wearying interaction, I'm now happy to be home, whether in my room or out of it. The view is beautiful. The people are friendly without being intrusive. The facilities are an added benefit, one I didn't think to pray for but still received.

There is no little yapping animal.

I am happy.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I've been wondering...

... ever since I saw the jar in someone's pantry.

Who was it who came up with the idea for bottling gravy in "Creamy Chicken Tandoori" flavour? Has this person ever tasted, or come within sniffing distance of, tandoori chicken? Hence, does this person have a clue that for the many things tandoori chicken is, such as spicy, juicy (if it's good tandoori chicken), fragrant, tender, and the list goes on... for the many things that it is, one thing that tandoori chicken never is, is "creamy"? I mean, it's chicken that has a skewer stuck through it before it's baked in a clay oven. Where is the cream going to go?

Lazy market research people, BAH.

What? Me, in a grumpy mood? No. I just like things properly labelled.

Speaking of tandoori, though, I had some the other day that was not bad at all. It was all those things I mentioned above; it could almost fall off the bone with a gentle shake; it could have been a tiny bit spicier; it was served on a Chinese hot plate. The wonders of multiculturalism.

Why am I eating out in expensive Sydney while still unemployed? It's my friends, you see. Beautiful friends I have who were so concerned that I wouldn't eat well post-chin-gashing that they took me out for dinner, ordered twice as much as necessary, then insisted I bring the leftovers home.

So for one dinner, I had the tastiest biryani I've had in years, with a side of palak paneer. The latter has been one of my favourite dishes since I first tasted it as a nipper. It's finely chopped (mashed?) spinach, cooked in oil, with cubes of cottage cheese in it. The last time I had it in KL, one of my dinner companions thought the cheese was tau fu. It's one of my comfort foods; I just have to have a spoonful of it and I'm 11 again, having dinner at (sadly) long-gone Baluchi with my mum, brother and uncle. (Better that Northern Indian food memory than another one which involves the same company, minus one, and me unfortunately forgetting to bring the cash with which my brother and I had planned to treat my mum to dinner.

Last night, dinner was the remainder of a roti, with another of my all-time favourite dishes, butter chicken. For breakfast, I'd had a quarter each of two types of naan: one stuffed with cheese (oh, how it made me miss the order-takers at Murni/Mohsin/Purnama/miscellaneous other mamaks with their endless lists of naan. "Chis naan, bahter naan, kasmiri naan, garlic naan, garlic butter, garlic chis, pizza naan..." "Pizza naan?" we'd ask. And inevitably, someone in the group would order it just for curiosity's sake, and it would sometimes be a delicious soft, fluffy cheese naan with more cheese sprinkled on top, then tomato, then... spring onion? The wonders of multiculturalism. Say, this has been a long parenthesis) and the other with grated coconut, nuts and honey.

But before all this food was leftovers, it was being enjoyed in-house, in the warm company of Kam and Darsh. My head was still spinning from the previous night's fall. I didn't know yet that I had concussion and whiplash. I tried to chew with a jaw that hurt more than I'd realised earlier in the day. But it was beautiful food, enjoyed with beautiful people, and that made it more enjoyable than painful.

And I still think people have no business inventing "creamy chicken tandoori" gravy (to be eaten with chicken, beef or lamb!). Why make something up when the real thing lies at your fingertips?

Monday, May 12, 2008

In perspective

I'm still furious at my university, I'm still going to follow this ugly scene through to the end, and I'm still going to fight to get what I came here to do.

And, I'm also still irritated by a certain person's presence in my life, or perhaps by MY presence in HER life, whichever side of the looking glass you prefer to gaze from.

And I still really, really hate country 'n' western music, but since I can't stop it playing, have resorted to having my earphones on almost all day now.

But watching videos like this is a nice, healthy way to be reminded that I really don't have too much to complain about.

Even after falling onto uneven pavement, much like a felled tree, and landing on my chin, and needing to get the wound stitched, and staying in pain for what's been 21 hours since, I can say without irony that I am blessed.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

All my life, the girl thought, all my life, I have wanted to taste an orange.

Oranges, in this world that the girl lived in, were not easy to come by, and to taste one was a dream seldom to come true. A fortunate few experienced it once, and a very fortunate few, twice; some had even been to the legendary Orange Grove and made their living there.

But, this girl thought, I will not be greedy. I only want to taste an orange once, and then I will be happy.

She wrote to the elves at Orange Tree. "I would like to make a trip to the Tree and taste an orange," said she, "and, as it will be expensive and I must give up my present place on Flatbread Land in order to come, I will need you to tell me when the oranges are in season so that my trip will not be wasted."

She sent her letter by the swiftest of the swifts (and the swifts are birds that live up to their name), and soon a reply came:

"We thank you for your interest in oranges. We have exciting news for you: beginning with this upcoming season, we will no longer be growing plain, unexciting oranges on Orange Tree.

"We will instead be growing new, enhanced Vanilla Oranges, which are sweeter, more fragrant and tastier than the old oranges. It will be like tasting the orange you've dreamt of all your life, only better. As you know, our visitors were allowed to taste Oranges in exchange for one year's labour. Vanilla Oranges, being ever so much more of an experience, will require two years. We hope this is acceptable to you. If it is, please put your pine-cone seal on the dotted line below and return this letter by the waiting swift. We guarantee that you will be able to start work on your very own Vanilla Orange blossom as soon as you arrive."


And so, the girl began to make plans. Her little room in the dear house on Flatbread Lane was closed up, and her little car was sold, for if one wants to follow a dream, one must be prepared to make sacrifices. Good-byes were said, and tears were shed, but if one wants to follow a dream... well, you know the rest of that saying. And oh, she had dreamt of tasting an orange, so now that she had a chance of tasting not only an orange, but an entirely new! improved! orange, go she must, whatever it cost her.

And the girl bravely stepped into the pea-pod boat to Orange Tree.

Before very long, she had arrived, and been assigned her very own blossom to tend, to love and to keep alive for two years, that at the end of the two years, she might taste the long-awaited Orange. And not any orange would it be, but a Vanilla Orange.

It was not easy. There were days, and nights and afternoons too, when the girl wondered if the long hours of toil were worth it. There were times when she resorted to drinking the bitter juice of the Coo-Cow tree, named for its curious black-and-white trunk and the sound its leaves made when squeezed for their juice, just so that she could stay awake until the next turning of the blossom was to take place.

And yet, through it all, the girl told herself, you must work hard. You must stick to it. To taste an Orange! And not just any orange, but a Vanilla Orange! Are not two years of toil worth it?

Until the day came when she saw the Chief Elf, and she casually said hello, and he said hello in return;

and the Chief Elf asked, "How do?";

and she replied, "Fine, thanks, and you?";

and the Chief Elf said, "Fine, thanks, but are you really? You look so worn out.";

and she said, "Well, actually, Chief Elf, I am very tired, for I work day and night to tend my blossom, but it's all worth it, isn't it? I mean, with the new Vanilla Orange, I will..."

but she didn't get to finish, for the Chief Elf's eyebrows had shot right up to the top of his head, higher even, for elves don't have very large heads, and the Chief Elf had been surprised indeed at what the girl was saying.

"The Vanilla Orange!" he said. "Why, what's this about the Vanilla Orange?"

"What do you mean?" asked the girl. "Isn't that the new orange that is meant to surpass the ordinary old orange in every way, and then some?"

The Chief Elf's eyebrows returned, somewhat, to their normal post, and he said, "Why, yes, but we had decided not to grow it after all, because we were told that the Forest Office was letting us continue growing the old oranges."

The girl stood staring at the Chief Elf, speechless, for nobody had told her of this.

"What... what about the... Vanilla..." she sputtered.

"Oh, that was just an idea we thought of, when the Forest Office was thinking of not letting us grow the old oranges anymore. But now our Ordinary Orange Permit has been renewed, so we won't be growing Vanilla Oranges. In fact, I think that blossom you've been given-" and here, the Chief Elf took out a large ledger, in which were written the names of the pixie boys and girls tending the blossoms, "why, you are tending a Vanilla Orange blossom. Well, well. But I'm not sure it will bloom and grow into a Vanilla Orange, you know, for this isn't supposed to be a Vanilla Orange tree now, just an Orange one. In fact, I'm quite sure what you've got is an apple blossom, for Orange Tree produces apples, too."

The girl, well, she was dismayed beyond words. For she had shut up her little room in the dear little house on Flatbread Land, and said good-bye to all she had held dear, and bought a one-way ticket for the pea-pod boat to Orange Tree because, after all, who knows how much your life might change once you've tasted the orange, and you might never go back to the old one.

And now, to be told that her dream might be dust?

The girl was angry. She had had a dream. She had invested much into the dream. And nobody, not even the Chief Elf with his nearly detachable eyebrows, was going to take it from her.

***

I thank you, gentle reader, for having followed my little fable this far.

And that, in case you were wondering, is what I am going through now. I am very, very angry with my university. They are not going to get away with this. And yet, because it isn't resolved yet and they still have a chance of redeeming themselves, I am not making public my dissatisfaction just yet.

But watch this space.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Friday

I suppose when you find yourself in the corridors of a psychiatric hospital, it's good to know the way out. My first psychiatric practicum was interesting, and no more (probably considerably less) than what I might have expected, but I'm sure there will be challenges ahead. I love dance therapy.
Sunset over Hen & Chicken Bay. I've always loved looking at the sky in its various colours (except for the grey it takes on during haze season in southeast Asia or bushfire season in Australia), so these autumn evenings are a treat.

I know it looks as if I'm living it up in Sydney compared with my life in KL, and I am enjoying plenteous good times. But those are the ones I photograph. You won't see pictures on my blog or Facebook about the sleepless nights spent typing up essays, or the irritating housemate with her intrusive questioning and phone calls and insatiable appetite for country music, or the ache in my gut when I miss home and my nephew so much that I can't even cry. Blogs, like any other creative medium, are nice and malleable, and out of them you can construct a happy place where the worst thing that happens in life is that eggplant doesn't sink.

Friday, May 02, 2008

As I stood cooking

I left the house at noonish today in order to reach Ashfield well before the psychiatric practicum started.

By 4.15, after an hour spent with three rather quiet inpatients from the hospital and two other DMT students, I was on the bus back from Ashfield, and I had plans for that lonely slab of fish sitting on my designated shelf of the fridge, waiting for my plans to happen.

I decided to make it into green curry fish, with chopped mixed vegetables to make a nice, healthful meal of it. For the past few years, my cooking activity has been almost nil, which is why apart from mashed potatoes (or potato anything), tiramisu and assorted other low-skill items, I can't really cook. Now that I no longer live within easy reach of cheap and tasty freshly cooked food, it's time I learned.

OK, so using packaged green curry paste from the Asian grocery doesn't really qualify as making green curry, but I have to start somewhere, right?

5.00pm, at my local supermarket:
What veggies should I get? Potatoes, of course. I think seven of these glossy little Colibans should do. Eggplant... why are all of them so big? Never mind, they shrivel when cooked, right? (Right?) I'll just take the smallest one. And a kilo bag of carrots... I guess that's enough. Shouldn't overdo it. (In hindsight, after the whole thing with the eggplant, I see what a joke this is.)

6.15pm, after I have rested my muscles that are a little tired from lugging what eventually turned into a few kilos' worth of fruit, veg, and refrigerated pasta:
I say my goodbyes to friends I've been chatting with online, and start the preparations. The potatoes are easy; I have a long history with tubers and I know just how to handle them. Carrots, fine. The eggplant produces a problem. How big should the chunks be, so as not to dissolve to nothingness once boiled, yet not so huge that my Hokkien ancestors (were they still alive) would turn up their refined Southern noses at them? Should I slice lengthwise first, or crosswise? Only now do I see that this "small" eggplant was small in comparison to the others, and was in actual fact bigger than a guinea pig. An obese one. An obese guinea pig from a very large breed.

6.40pm:
Since I have twice as much santan (coconut milk), "meat" (the curry package doesn't seem to have been written by a seafood-fancying type) and veg...

Maybe I should rephrase that. Since I have twice as much veg as the recipe calls for, and I could just as well open the extra can of santan I'd bought in hopes of making kaya soon, let's cook up a bulk serving of green curry so I can freeze the extra.

All right, I need to rephrase it again. Since I underestimated just how huge the smallest eggplant was, and chopped it all up anyway and therefore now have about four times as much eggplant as carrot (about eight times as much as potato and, ominously, uncalculably more than fish), let's just cook a big pot and see what happens.

As per package directions, but double, I "fry" two tablespoonfuls of the paste in one can of santan. The resultant liquid is too pale for green curry. Mindful of my last attempt, which had too much paste, too little santan and too much meat, I decided to add paste in very tiny spoonfuls.

About five (gradually expanding) spoonfuls later, I decide it looks and smells right, and it's time to add the other can of santan and bring it to the boil.

7.20pm:
Hmm... still too pale. (More paste.)

Boiling. Time to add the fish. (This is a very small amount of fish for this pot, is my thought as the last sliver plops to the bottom. Mental note: fish is more dense than green curry.)

7.30pm:
Does this look too pale? (Still more paste. Have these paste people actually tried cooking using their own proportions?)

In goes the veg. The potatoes and carrots sink. (Mental note: Potatoes and carrots are more dense...)

My reverie over the potatoes and carrots is broken by the sight of all my beautiful, disdaining-Hokkien-ancestor-reject eggplant chunks floating. Evidently, eggplant is not dense at all. They're so floating that it almost seems they're not touching the liquid at all. This could be a problem. How are they going to cook if they're going to hover over the surface of the water- sorry, been spending a lot of time in Genesis of late (off-tangent aside: have really been spending a lot of time in Genesis of late; ask any other first-year Counselling student at Wesley)- of the curry?

I use the spatula to push a few chunks under the surface at a time. I feel like some mediaeval executioner, dunking unrepentant vegetables.

It's not working. I leave the lot to go on simmering while I duck back online and start typing this post, which I realise is a less worthy use of time than writing up one of the three assignments I have due next Friday, but take it as a warm-up for my writing muscles.

In between paragraphs, I keep going out to check on the curry. It has been a while since I last saw anything but eggplant. The carrots and potatoes obediently come up when I stir, but the fish, where is it? I can't find the fish.

Some of the eggplant has softened and submerged a little. Good. But where has all that fish gone?

Feeling optimistic at the sight of the softening eggplant, I put the rice on to cook.

8.00pm:
I can't wait for the eggplant any longer. I need to eat, because there are papers waiting to be written.

I poke a chunk with a fork. Instead of the soft, yielding chssssshhhh I want, I hear a firm, almost crunchy khhhk (my phonetics aren't very good, but if you have experience in cooking eggplant, maybe you know exactly what sounds I mean).

I decide to wait just a little longer. Besides, the rice, which I have decided to microwave on very low heat in stages so as to avoid the exploding rice problem I've always had, is two stages away from "done".

8.30pm:
I can't believe I've waited half an hour for vegetables. That's it, I am eating.

I take the rice out of the microwave and feel, lame as it is, that the perfectly done grains are cause for celebration. For once, there is no puddle on the microwave dish. There are no dried-out grains lying on top of a sodden heap of stuck-together grains. Perfect. I know just what to celebrate with:

Almost-vegetarian green curry. Or maybe vegetarian, because I still don't know where all my fish went.
Final verdict: Amazingly enough, everything was cooked just right. The fish did not dissolve, as some thought. It was pleasantly tender and the eggplant would have pleased Goldilocks.

But I think it could have been more green. The paste manufacturer definitely needs to revise the package directions.
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