Thursday, 14 October 2021

World Arthritis Day


I am not good at these ‘days’ that people cook up for whatever reason. I’m notorious for forgetting my wedding anniversary or my parent’s birthdays. This year I managed to almost forget my own birthday. I love a celebration, but why tie it to a date? So it isn’t at all surprising I found out the 12th of October is World Arthritis Day only after it happened. Not a celebration, but an excellent way to bring attention to a rather invisible disease that can make life quite miserable for a lot of people. People like me.

Like many fellow sufferers I am a master of disguise. My husband complains the rest of the world gets to see the cheerful me, active and full of spunk. He gets the moaning, grumpy me that lies on the sofa and groans about the loads of laundry that – literally – break her back. That shouting monster that is hiding behind the smile. I’ve tried explaining that he should take it as a compliment that he gets to see the ‘real me’ – but of course he is right. The most important people in my life, my family, deserve better. That terrible creature should not be the real me. It is just so darn hard.

The last few weeks I decided to try a different approach. I’d throw off the mask for everyone. My first instinct when someone asks ‘how do you do?’ is to say ‘fine,’ even when I’m not. What would happen if I told the truth? The result was shocking. Shocking in its absence. Do people find it awkward to talk about these things, or do they just don’t care? Or was my answer too jokingly given, my consequent shrug too distant?

It doesn’t help to have a disease with a name nobody can remember or spell, not even me. In English, it’s Ankylosing Spondylitis, in Dutch Bechterew disease (officially they changed it to Axiale Spondyloartritis or SpA, so now it has two names, even more confusing). Even rheumatologists barely understand this highly complex disease that manifests itself with a long parade of constantly changing symptoms. If you visit several doctors you get as many opinions. Every time I move, my new doctor questions whether I actually have it, only to grudgingly admit, after many tests, that I do, indeed, have it. Even if my symptoms are not ‘classic,’ apparently. The first symptom people think about with arthritis, an auto-immune disease that attacks your joints, is pain. What many don’t understand is that another symptom can be a lot more debilitating: Fatigue. A symptom so vague even doctors rarely take it seriously.

Moving to a colder climate has been hard. I miss the heat that warms my achy joints. I miss the humidity that makes I don’t have to use eye drops several times a day to see clearly. I miss the sunshine that melts away the cobwebs in my head. I miss the Asian masseuses that knead away my stiffness. I miss my lovely fulltime household help. The cold brought new symptoms that my immune system repressing medication cannot fix. Arthrosis in my hips, sicca symptoms (a drought all over my thirsty body) and the ones that are the hardest ones of all to talk about: mind fog and depression. Now autumn is in full swing, getting out of bed in the morning gets harder every day. My body just doesn’t see the point.

Thankfully I manage every day, one step at the time. I focus on the good things of living here. Being close to family, seeing friends I hadn’t in a while. Exploring the Netherlands and Europe, meeting new people. Things that give me energy. What can be hard to explain (particularly to my own husband) is that the best way to fight depression and fatigue is to get active. A day in the office supporting refugees might make my body total loss, it also gives my sense of self an essential boost. A morning of caring for baby hedgehogs shows me there is a point to my life. Joining events at my children’s school makes me feel I am part of their lives. Planting a food forest gives me hope for the future. Without all of that, who am I? Lying on the sofa might rest my body, but it stiffens my joints, and worse, my soul. I simply cannot do it.

My new novel has been on ice all of last year, as has this blog. Is it energy I lack to write or something more fundamental? A question I can’t easily answer. In the end, it is all about balance. Prioritising. Invest in things that make me happy rather than wear me out mentally. So that is my new year resolution for the coming winter, because as I said before, why link those things to a date?

Just one question remains: who will do all that laundry?

Friday, 23 April 2021

Impetuous April

I’ve often heard people say they miss the seasons whilst living in the tropics. To be honest, the only season I ever liked is summer – so living in an eternal one suited me just fine. But, now I’m experiencing it for the first time in almost a decade, I have to admit spring too has its charm. 


Describing spring makes one resort to clichés that don’t suit the sense of naïve wonder I feel looking at the tiny flowers suddenly sprouting up everywhere, battling up in unexpected places, between tiles on roads and in the sand of the dunes. Spring beauty is so fragile. The weather is still cold, and too early an abundance can be punished by night frosts. Still, spring sunshine has unexpected powers. When you find a spot that is sheltered from wind and showered by sun, you (and hereby I mean me, an extremely cold-hating person) can sit fairly comfortably outdoors. Until the tiniest of clouds obscures the sun and I need to rush back inside, to my electric blanket. And yes, I still wear my thermal underwear most days, in case you were wondering.


For April weather is extremely treacherous. It fools you into believing spring is here, so you take off all your layers and run outside, and minutes later will whip a hailstorm around your ears, laughing. There is a saying in Dutch ‘April doet wat hij wil’ (April does what it wants) and I've never seen that as clearly as this impetuous last month. I realise now why Dutch people always talk about the weather. There is so much to talk about. Also, my mood seems to be directly linked to the amount of sunshine I get to see in a day. That jar of synthetic vitamin D tablets only goes that far. On the upside, most trees still don’t have any leaves, so at least those scarce rays of sunshine don’t get blocked.

What makes spring in cooler climes so special is that everything happens at the same time. In the tropics birds nest year round, here a massive muddle of building action explodes in April. Spellbound, I stare at Mr and Mrs Blackbird going back and forth into the tree in the back of our garden with little twigs, for an hour. Mind you, we are still in a lockdown. It does not take a lot to excite me these days. 





A few weeks back an exuberant frog orgy exploded in our pond. Now this was proper excitement, to see these frogs do what we humans have not been allowed in ages. Dozens of them attended the party of the year, right in our garden, and for some of them, the tight embraces got so intense that they lost their lives in the kerfuffle. This week the first tadpoles emerged from the huge patch of frog spawn that resulted, and I have no idea how the tiny pond will be able to sustain this sudden invasion of thousands. I’m sure the herons are sending out invitations for their big party, happening soon, snacks are being prepared.


Spring beauty is not only fragile but fleeting. Soon after opening the cherry blossoms twirl from the trees again, like snow. The daffodils I planted lightened up our front garden for a few weeks but slowly wilt away already. I keep forgetting things I was supposed to do in this season, time goes so fast. Before you know it, summer will be there, then autumn and god forbid, winter again.


Which means we have to enjoy it while it lasts. I need to get up from behind my laptop, drag my kids from their screens and take them into the dunes. The sun is out, the air is fresh. Slowly, I am warming to this concept of seasons. As long as the sun shines.

Monday, 7 December 2020

Warming up inside: Sayur Lodeh


Over the last months people have laughed at me in my thick scarf, woollen hat and gloves. ‘It isn’t cold,’ they’d grin. ‘Just you wait until winter really starts.’

More than chilled enough by autumn, I would shudder. And now it happened: winter started. We’ve had frost at night and during daytime the temperature stays in single digits. Yes, I know, it can get much worse still, but this is bad enough for my tropical bones. Our mornings are a flurry of looking for hats and mittens for the children who complain of having to cycle to school in the crisp dark – this time of the year the sun won’t rise until after school started and sets somewhere mid-afternoon. I’m not sure yet what is worse, the cold or the darkness. The kids quickly caught on to the fact that Dutch winds are always headwinds when you cycle to school, and then somehow defy physics by being the same when you turn around. 

A few weeks back we were stuck without heating for a weekend and now, in the chilling wind and drizzle, the new heating system struggles to keep our old, leaky house as comfortable as I’d like it to be. So what can one do to heat up? Cook warming, spicy, Asian food! I spent our last year in Singapore painstakingly noting down recipes for Indah’s amazing Indonesian food, and when we miss her, miss the sunshine, we cook it and warm our chilly guts. I get many requests to share Indah's recipes - her cooking was famous amongst family and friends, and not without reason: her food is amazing. 

Foraging Singapore for wild greens

Today it is time for Sayur Lodeh. The great thing about this dish is how versatile it is. Sayur simple means vegetable, and lodeh signifies they are cooked in a coconut milk gravy. The dish is mostly vegan, apart from the dried prawns, but those can easily be left out if you don’t eat them.

The soul of any curry is the rempah, or spice paste for the gravy. This particular one is a base you can use for many different varieties of vegetable curries. It’s a great dish to empty your vegetable drawer as most things work. In Singapore we would go and forage for our vegetables: tapioca leaves, moringa, jackfruit, tiny round aubergines. But for lack of those, kale, carrots or green beans work just as well.

We are lucky that the Hague boasts a large community of Indonesian people, so most of the ingredients are available easily enough. Although the only place that sells fresh (well, frozen) galangal is half an hour drive away, so I do sometimes resort to powdered. And I really don’t understand why all the crispy fried shallots here are made with wheat flour (which I’m intolerant to) when in Asia they never are! If you can get fresh ingredients, do so, but with dried spices this dish will still be nice. Candlenuts (kemiri) can be replaced by macadamia or brazil nuts. 

Rijsttafel, an Indonesian feast

Sayur Lodeh

Rempah (spice mix)

8 small (or 3 bigger) shallots
3 cloves garlic
2 or more chilis (mix large ones for colour with small ones for heat)
3 cm fresh galangal
3 cm fresh ginger
2 stalks lemongrass, hard outer leaves discarded
3 cm turmeric,
8 candlenuts,
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (belachan in Malay, terassi in Indonesian)
1 tbs dried shrimp


As with all Asian recipes, quantities are indicative, kira kira. Indah’s original recipe that she wrote down for me just has a list of ingredients, but I added some indications of how much to use because I know working intuitively is difficult if you are less familiar with these spices. Based on the strength of the spices you use and your personal taste, use more or less of each. If you use dried, about one teaspoon of dried spice roughly equals 3 tablespoons of fresh.

Chop all rempah ingredients coarsely and blend them to a paste. Add some oil and/ or water if needed. I do this in a bender, if you are a traditionalist you can use a grinding stone or pestle and mortar.

Fry the spice mix in large pot with thick bottom until fragrant, five minutes should do it. Add your vegetables (see below for some suggestions), a few cups water and bring to boil. You an add more water later if it gets too dry, you are looking for thin curry/ think soup consistency. Add some salam leaf, kaffir lime leaf, and salt to taste.

Boil 15-20 minutes then add coconut milk, about 400ml should do it. If you use fried tofu, add this only at the end. Sprinkle with crispy fried onion. Sayur lodeh can be part of a nasi campur or rijstafel, a selection of different dishes served together with rice and spicy sambals. But for a simple weekday meal it is fine on its own served with rice.

Vegetables

As I said, you can throw anything you like in this gravy, but I’ll share two classic versions that I love. 

Singkong lodeh is even better the day after as leftover lunch!

Singkong lodeh (tapioca leaves)

One of our favourites is lodeh with tapioca leaves, which in Singapore and Bali we’d pick wild in front of our house. In the Netherlands I’ve found them frozen in an Asian supermarket. Take the thicker stalks off the leaves, wash them, then boil the leaves for 20 minutes. Squeeze out excess moisture, then chop them roughly. Add the leaves to the gravy as described above. This curry is usually made with only the one vegetable. It is quite an ‘adult’ dish to me and the first time I tasted it, Indah made it for herself for lunch. Suffice to say, the heat of the dish blew my tastebuds to pieces. Although I don’t make it as hot as Indah, I still like my singkong lodeh on the spicier side. If you can’t find tapioca leaves any dark green leafy vegetable like spinach, kale or beet greens will work as well. 


Classic sayur lodeh

Classic Sayur Lodeh 

The best known version that is served over Indonesia usually contains a mixture of green beans, carrots, aubergine and cabbage as well as cubes of fried tofu. It is the one that can be seen in the picture of the rijsttafel above right in front.

Wash and chop the vegetables into bitesize pieces, then blanch them briefly - be careful not to overcook, they still need some crunch at this stage. You can either buy ready fried tofu puffs or fry cubes of firm tofu in oil before adding them. Add the tofu to the curry at the end only, and boil until thoroughly heated and the tofu has soaked up all the flavours.

Lodeh with wild aubergines

Festive Fusion Pudding, Brexit proof


As much as the country has been annoying me recently (Brexit, anyone?) I have to admit no-one does Christmas like the Brits. My English great-grandmother and international upbringing are likely to blame, but ever since my childhood, nothing shouts Christmas to me like silly hats and bad jokes from Christmas crackers, and a good slice of Christmas pudding doused in brandy butter.

Living all over the globe, catering to guests from all walks of life, and having to stick to a diet for medical reasons, I have created my own ‘recipes’ for many classic dishes that can be adapted not only on the preferences of you and your guests, but also on what is available locally where you live. With the current Marmite crisis caused by Brexit, you never know what is going to happen, so it makes sense to stock up on mincemeat and crackers before it's too late!

If you break down any recipe to basic food chemistry (I knew that MSc degree would have some use eventually), it is easy to see what can and cannot be substituted. The rest, particularly the flavourings, are simply a matter of taste. Something we Dutch know cannot be argued about. I love to use Dutch speculaaskruiden to stir things up a little. 

Weren't they cute then?

Traditionally this pudding is made on stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday before advent, but my Dutch brain can’t do Christmas before St Nicolas has left for Spain, so just after the 5th works well for me. For luck, the whole family is supposed to take turns stirring!



Festive Pudding for all

900 g mixed dry fruit, chopped fine
100 ml liquor (brandy, or for non-alcoholics use fruit juice)
3 ts mixed dry spices (nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, ginger)
1 ts baking powder
pinch of salt
100 g chopped nuts (almond, macademia, walnut)
175 g dark sugar (palm sugar, or any other)
sugared lemon/orange peel
175 fat (suet, coconut, butter)
100 g flour (can be wheat or glutenfree)
225 g breadcumbs (can be glutenfree)
4 eggs
300 ml liquid (apple cider, fruit juice, sweet wine, port, sherry, dark beer)


The heart of the pudding are the dried fruits. Ironically for a pudding often called ‘plum pudding’ plums, or their dried version prunes, are not necessarily included, but they do work well. Raisins, currants and sultanas are your obvious choice, but I love dates, apricots, cranberries, apple, and dried mangos as well. There are really no limits. I’ve done a tropical version once with pineapple. Whatever you choose, dose them in brandy or your liquid of choice and soak overnight.

(I’m suddenly thinking up a gin & tonic themed pudding, well, there’s always next year… this year I opted for Middle Eastern with dried limes, apricots, mango and lots of cardamom)

For the fat, make sure to use one that is fairly solid, so olive oil is out. Even in the UK the traditional suet is getting harder to get (particularly if like me you boycott the nasty supermarket ‘vegetarian’ version of chemically hardened palm oil covered in wheat flour) If you want to be proper, do ask your butcher for suet, but by all means butter or coconut fat work perfectly fine too .

When the fruit is ready, add all the dry ingredients together in another bowl, then add the fat, eggs and last your liquid of choice. When mixed well toss the dried fruit in as well, let everyone have a stir and your mixture is ready to steam. All you need now is patience.

My first puddings I steamed in a earthenware bowl with some parchment, but water leaked in and they became soggy, so I invested in some plastic pudding bowls with lids. Place them in a pan with water, that does not reach the top of your bowl, as no water should get in. Add a lid and steam them for hours, at least five; the longer, the darker and richer the pudding will get. Then let it cool and rest in a cool dark place until Christmas. If you like your pudding proper boozy you can ‘feed’ it with a few spoons of brandy once in a while.

At Christmas dinner steam it again for half an hour to heat it up, or cheat by popping it in a microwave. Don’t forget to add brandy butter, which is butter mixed with generous slosh of brandy and some powdered sugar (mix 100g of room temperature butter with 100g icing sugar and 4 spoons of brandy, then stiffen in fridge). For a real show stopper heat up some brandy in a metal spoon, let it catch fire and serve your pudding flaming!

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Prickly cuteness



When I walk down the stairs, I see my son on his knees in the hallway, talking into his phone – a friend in Hong Kong on the other side. ‘There’s a porcupine in our house,’ my son exclaims. I grin as I skip down the last step. ‘Not a porcupine, a hedgehog,’ I correct him, turning around to his sister in the kitchen. ‘Did you let Rob out?’

In Singapore we had squirrels, flying lemurs, pangolins and pythons in our garden, amongst many, many other representatives of jungle wildlife. When we moved to the Netherlands, I worried about getting my fix of crazy creatures. Thankfully there are plenty around, perhaps less exotic, but not less cute. Next to our house is the Westduinpark, a nature reserve that sports Den Haag’s hedgehog shelter. Somehow I ended up volunteering there, and that is how Rob the blind hedgehog made his - albeit brief – appearance in our house.

Rob the blind hedgehog aka Houdini

Hedgehogs are nocturnal and don’t need much in the way of sight, so Rob’s biggest problem is that he cannot distinguish day from night. Wandering around in broad daylight is unsafe - many hedgehogs end up as roadkill. The plan was for Rob to live in our small enclosed garden, so we could observe him to see if he was fit for release. However, Rob aka Houdini had other plans. He came to us because he was stressed in his cage in the shelter and kept escaping, but that wasn't the end of it.

We pick him up in a small cardboard box. In our garden he spends half an hour crisscrossing around at high speed, bumping into people’s legs, like Sonic the Hedgehog on speed. We retreat inside, hoping on his own he will calm down. When we can’t see him anymore, I hope he’s settled down into the big heap of leaves I raked together especially for him. As a good hedgehog should, in the middle of the day. 

The quadruplets at the sanctuary

You can imagine my surprise when I walk out my front door and see Rob racing across the road, full speed ahead. Thankfully I can grab him quickly, and put him in a box inside whilst I call the hedgehog shelter to confer: what to do with mr. Houdini? Before I hang up, Rob has escaped again, long story short: that sunny afternoon we decide to drop Rob off in the woods at Clingendael. He stomps off happily into the bushes, as far from roads and people as we can manage. Where he hope he still lives.

Release into the garden


After more, finer wire has been installed, we are ready for the next lot. Spriet, Meneertje, Meisje and Hyacint are quadruplets that lost their mother and were brought into the shelter as tiny infants. They are healthy and grow well, but as hedgehogs hibernate, young ones that don’t reach a proper weight in time have poor chances to make it through winter. The siblings will hibernate in our garden, where we can fatten them up on a diet of cat food and cuddles (well, just the food. They are prickly, after all). If they do wake up hungry too soon, we can supplement their food so they can go back to sleep.


These little guys behave as hedgehogs should: sleep all day. In the evening we can see them roam around the garden, digging up the lawn and wolfing down the food we put out for them gratefully. 

Weighing time

Every few days we weigh them, and clean out their little pen – hedgehogs are messy animals that love to relieve themselves where they sleep and eat. But when they look at us with their beady eyes and pointy snout, we will forgive them all their sins. The weather is mild and they are still underweight, it will likely be a while before they start their long sleep. So in the meanwhile we can enjoy their company.

De Egelopvang Den Haag runs on volunteers and donations, if you can, do consider giving them some extra cash to help more of these amazing little creatures. More information can be found on their website: https://www.egelopvangdenhaag.nl

And here, just because I know you love them as much as we do: some more photos:




Tuesday, 25 August 2020

West wind blowing



So here we are, the wind has turned. The breeze blowing hot and dry weather from the East, with temperatures that the Dutch call a heatwave but made us feel right at home, has been replaced with a stout zuidwester, that fierce sea wind from the West, right off the North Sea. Dutch sea winds bring moderate temperatures and rain, making me shiver as I type this in my clothes that are better suited to the tropics.


The Netherlands are beautiful when the sun shines. At the end of our road we walk straight into the dunes, were pathways meander between wild roses and seaberries, all the way to the sea. Dutch beaches are wide and white, worlds apart from the black lava sands of Bali, both equally gorgeous yet so different. The first time we walked onto the beach here, we almost got blown off again. Dutch summers are treacherous, sunny and warm can become cold and wet in minutes, you have to bring layers of clothes when going out. The North Sea is grey and frothy, its waves flat compared to Bali. My Canggu-trained menfolk won’t get their wax out for them, but as I see Roel and Tijm staring at kite surfers scooting across the waters of the zandmotor, I’m thinking those sea winds may serve their purpose yet.


Of course, getting used to living in a new country is about more than the weather. And although many people tell us we moved ‘home’, it doesn’t feel like that, not yet. The Netherlands are new to us, it has been fourteen years since we lived here, the kids never have. Repatriation is strange, you have all the hassle of an intercontinental move, without the excitement of an exotic location. You have changed, with a lot of different cultural experiences, yet you still look and sound the same as a ‘local’. Often, as I stand in a shop or am on the phone with one of the many institutions this country boasts, I feel myself an awkward outsider - the Dutch don’t cope well with people that don’t fit into boxes. It makes me feel for ‘real’ foreigners, that don’t speak the language and have no network of friends and family to advise them how to navigate the Dutch bureaucracy where, unlike in Asia, rules are rigid and the same for everyone.


This move was a tad unexpected to me, and with both Roel and me at home, the children that haven’t been at school in half a year, I still feel in limbo. In a few weeks, school will start and hopefully life will become more normal. As normal as this family gets. Often, when people ask me whether we moved ‘back for good’, I cringe. I smile politely and give the only answer I can. ‘For good is a very long time.’ I’m sure the wind will eventually turn again, and who knows where it will blow us?


We are here now and will stay as long as we like it. And there are plenty of things I like about the Netherlands and living in Den Haag. When I feel too cold I list them and I feel better: Family and friends old and new. Kids sleeping over with aunts and grandparents. Cousins. Boating in Friesland. The dunes, the fresh air (although I might revisit this in winter when it becomes too fresh), the wind in my hair on the beach, and the fact that the sun is friendly enough to sit in (ironically I’m much more tanned now than I ever was in Asia). Seaberry kefir and kids picking blackberries. Public libraries. Kringloopwinkels (recycled goods shops). Cheese. Dewdrops. Petting zoos. My new old fermenting crock. Wild green herbs and flowers. Museums. Sheepskin rugs and wild duck down duvets.

A lot to love and we are here, in the Netherlands. Our newest adventure.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Keep Calm and Ferment On



A delicious selection of homemade sodas!

One of the advantages of being cooped up inside is that you start doing all that stuff you normally would like to do, but don’t have time for. Or, in my case, do what you were doing already a lot more. Like fermenting delicious drinks. Fermenting is such a fun thing to do with children, and mine love the flavour of our homemade fizzy sodas! You can make them as sweet or sour as you like, and add all sorts of fruits and spices to spruce them up. I get a lot of questions about how to make them, so I'll share my recipes and experiences here. 

You don’t need a lot of materials to get started, but what is imperative is to get some flip-top glass bottles that close well, and some large glass jars. For some versions a strainer, a funnel, a grater and a blender can come in handy too, as do cup measures. I normally prefer weighing ingredients as it is more precise, but in this case, cups are much easier to use and more than precise enough. Also, you’ll need a lot of sugar! But don’t worry, most of the sugar will be broken down by the good bacteria by the time you drink your soda, and those bacteria will do all sorts of wonders for your gut. So basically, these delicious sodas are not only delicious good for you too.

I won’t bore you too much with the scientific details, but feel free to ask them in the comment section as well as any other questions you have. 

Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented tea, and it is extremely easy to make. The one thing you need is a kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which is a solid mass of microorganisms that will ferment your drink. The best way to get one is to reach out amongst your network if someone has some to share. I definitely have some to share, they grow very fast. Kombucha feeds on very strong and very sweet tea. I typically use 4 tea bags and ¾ cup of sugar with 2 liters of water, but kombucha is very forgiving so don’t worry too much. Kombucha microorganisms are a non-fancy bunch, they like simple black tea and white sugar best. Although you can use other types of tea and sugar, it is best to regularly give them some good old builders brew with a light sugar to stay strong.


Kombucha brewing, the SCOBY on top

Let your hot tea cool down to room temperature before you add the SCOBY – you don’t want to kill it. The SCOBY is a layer that gets formed on the top, and with every brew another layer will form until it resembles a pile of pancakes. When it gets too thick, simply peel off a few and discard (give away or compost). Cover your jar with a cloth and elastic band – you want to let air in and keep the ants, flies and lizards out.

So how long to let it ferment? This depends on both the temperature of your kitchen and your taste. I like mine quite sour, so I leave it a little longer, but my kids prefer it sweet. Just use a clean spoon to try a little. As the colour slowly gets lighter as it ferments I now tend to judge if it's ready by colour. 
Mine (brewing at tropical temperatures) is usually ready in two days. You can drink it straight, or choose to do a second ferment, which I will describe in more detail below.


Milk kefir and yoghurt


For kefir you need kefir grains, which are similar to a SCOBY but small and roundish rather than flat, hence the name. There are two types, one to ferment milk, and one to ferment clear liquids. The milk kefir grains feed on lactose (or milk sugar) in milk, the water grains on different sugars, but the process is fairly similar. In our family we love milk kefir as it reminds us of the Dutch buttermilk, which these days is mostly no longer churned but fermented. Other cultured milk products from the Middle East like Ayran and Laban are made in a similar way, as is yoghurt, the reason they all taste different and gave different textures is because different cultures are used. 



To make milk kefir, simply add a few spoons of kefir grains to a jar of milk; they will float to the top. Then leave it out until you have the flavour you like (the longer, the more sour). I have had issues doing this in very hot weather, as the milk will curdle before it ferments (which means it separates into thick curds floating on liquid transparent whey). There is no fixing this, but you can use that whey for whey soda explained below, and put the curds in a smoothie. Or make cheese from it, but that is another story). To prevent curdling, I would ferment milk kefir in the fridge in Singapore. 


Kitchen top 'cheat' yoghurt

Because I don’t have milk kefir grains at the moment, I buy my kefir ready made, and then make it last longer (it’s expensive here!) by this cheat method. Simply leave a little in the bottle, top up with fresh milk, and leave it out until it thickens. Make sure to shake regularly, I find it goes fast, so don’t leave it out too long.

We do exactly the same for yoghurt, by putting a few spoons of store bought yoghurt in a jar and topping up with milk and leaving it out. In colder climates you will need to do this in an oven or hot place, but here its warm enough. For best results, heat up the milk for yoghurt until 80C, this gives a sweeter flavor and also makes the yogurt set better. Make sure to cool it down before adding the cultures or you’ll kill them!

Water kefir


Water kefir grains live on a sugar solution. You can also use them to ferment coconut water, but you do need to feed them sugars regularly too or they’ll flounder. Again, it’s not rocket science when it comes to measurements, but I do find kefir less forgiving than kombucha. They need extra minerals, so you need to mix in some darker sugars, molasses, or even a pinch of seasalt. Some people add dried fruit like apricot for this reason, but I find dark sugars work just as well and much easier.

I use roughly ½ cup of light sugar for 2 liters of water, plus a small scoop of a darker sugar as a supplement. You can experiment with different brands, but don’t use a very refined sugar. Toss in two spoons of kefir grains and cover with a cloth. Again, taste to see what acidity suits you. The longer you leave it the more sour!

Second ferment


We tend to drink our kombucha straight and do a second ferment for the water kefir, but this process works for either drink. Transfer your kefir/ kombucha to a flip-top bottle, but don’t fill all the way to the top. Now for the fun bit! Add any kind of fruit and spices you fancy. You can either blend the fruit, mush lightly or toss in in straight. I most often use passion fruit or (frozen) berries as those are easy and yummy, but any fruit will do. Harder fruits like apple are best added as a juice or puree. You can add slices of ginger, a stick of cinnamon. Get creative!

Now, set the bottle in a warm spot and wait. Make sure to burb your bottles regularly to let out the gas. Once it's fizzy it is done, transfer the bottle to the fridge – it will keep there for a few weeks, but will keep fermenting slowly. Be careful when opening bottles, always press down the top and open it slowly; sometimes there is so much fizz it will burst out explosively. I have had stains on the ceiling! 

Whey soda

Making whey soda is relatively new to me, and I am amazed how easy and delicious it is. It is a bit of a cheat’s ferment as it makes use of left over whey which is already rich in pro-biotics, so it is a great one to make if you have yoghurt or milk kefir gone bad or produce your own cheese. (I started doing this because a friend who sells artisanal cheese was looking for some products to make with her left over whey; I used to work as a product developer in the food industry, so that was right up my alley. Alternatively some stores also sell liquid whey, I got some at Bali Direct). In the Netherlands there are a number of whey beverages on the market, and the distinct flavour of it brings up memories. If you don’t like that, it is easily masked by strong fruit flavours.


Whey soda, the kids experimenting with flavours

For when soda I tend to puree the fruits, as we don’t just use them for flavour, we need to release their fruit sugars. For a one liter bottle I use between ½ and 1 cup liquid whey, which you add to a sweet fruit juice drink. To make that I puree fruit with some additional sugar, quantities are approximate and depend on your taste. It should be a little too sweet to drink straight. For instance, I would puree ½ a cup of berries with 1/3 cup of sugar for a one liter bottle, but you can add more or less depending on your taste. To be honest, I usually don’t actually measure and just do it on gut feel. (Something that I had to stop doing on my job as a product developer, as you can imagine!) A squeeze of lemon gives a little tang to a berry and brings out the flavour. Whey soda is quite forgiving, but it can also be very explosive so be mindful not to add too much sugar and whey.

My kids love the berry flavoured ones (blueberry-dragonfruit is a solid hit, as is raspberry lime), but my personal favourite is mandarin – turmeric, which has a note of bitter in it, just like Campari.

Ginger beer


I love, love, love ginger and all sorts of root beers and although these can be a little more tricky to make, trust me, it will be worth it. Imagine yourself with a homemade Dark & Stormy cocktail of fresh gingerbeer and dark rum. Most shop-bought root beers are just carbonated sugary flavoured drinks, but this stuff is the real deal. Add the beneficial features of many roots and you have the moist delicious health tonic ever (did anyone say gin?). Isn’t that what we all need in times of Corona?



Ginger- turmeric bug
So the first thing to do is to make your ginger bug, which will take a few days to a week. Roots have a lot of microorganisms on their surface, and it is these we want to proliferate. Apart from ginger, salsaparilla and burdock are traditionally used, but since we are in Asia I stick to gingers. Regular ginger works best. I have tried to make a turmeric starter, since it is such an amazing anti-inflammatory as well as flavour, but it does not work. Now I make one that is a mixture of ginger and turmeric and that works well. I occasionally toss in other ginger family roots, and the other day even some burdock. But using regular ginger as a base is your safest bet. Get organic ones if you can, we don't want chemicals in our ferment. There is no need to peel, the skin is where most of the micro-organisms live. 

To make a ginger bug, grate or finely chop some ginger and put it in a jar, cover with water and a few spoons of sugar. Quantities are not that important, but let’s say roughly 2 cups of water, a scant cup of ginger and a few spoons of sugar. Most sugars will work. You can cover the jar with a lid or cloth. Now you need to feed it daily, by a spoon of sugar, a spoon of grated ginger and stir. After a while you will notice it gets bubbly and smells and tastes sour, which means it is ready to go! If you don't want to feed your bug all the time, store it in the fridge, and only feed it once every week or so. In that case, you need to let it come our of hibernation before you can use it by feeding it at room temperature for a day. If it is at room temperature try to feed it a spoon of sugar most days, and grated ginger regularly, but it is okay to skip a day if you forget. 


Ginger - turmeric beer
To make ginger beer, make a sugar solution in a flip-top bottle, roughly ¼ cup of sugar to a bottle, but I tend to not measure but eyeball it. You can use any sugar, I like to use dark sugars like the Indonesian Gula Aren (palm sugar) for extra flavour. For a one-liter bottle add roughly a few tablespoons, more or less depending on taste, and add some of the grated ginger for a stronger ginger flavour. Top up your ginger bug with new grated ginger, water and sugar. 

At this stage you can add any fruit or spice that you fancy as well, similar to a second ferment as above. Then leave it out and remember to burp. It takes a little longer to get carbonated, typically up to two days in the tropics, just taste it to see when you like it. If you are lucky it will get a proper fizz! 

This is my repertoire at the moment, if you have been fermenting other drink, I'd love to hear, please do share tour experiences in the comments!