A nomad mother in Singapore

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Creating my own kraut



The beautiful kraut crock, or ‘Keulse Pot’ (Pot from Cologne) that I inherited from my grandmother earlier this year, and painstakingly wrapped in an old jumper before packing it in my suitcase and flying it to it’s new home in Singapore, had been eyeing me for a few moths. So when I read that one serving of homemade sauerkraut contains more pro-biotics than a whole jar of pills, I knew the time had come: I was going to make my own ‘zuurkool’, or sauerkraut.



I was not sure whether the hot and humid Singapore weather was going to be a blessing or a threat when it comes to home fermenting, but I assumed there was only one way to find out: I bought a large head of cabbage. 






Some research online taught me the basics, and I went about it in the way I do with most things: tackle it head on, without too much of a plan. Indah shredded the cabbage for me very nicely, and very finely, in a way I would not have been able to manage myself. I added 2 smallish spoons of unrefined sea salt to the cabbage  (use 1 tablespoon for a little, and 2 for a large head of cabbage) and mixed it well. The amount of salt you need to add to the cabbage is no exact science, as every cabbage size and type is different, as well as the salt. This suits me well as I am not too exact myself (and that is someone with a MSc in chemistry speaking, go figure), but if you find it difficult to deal with, just taste your salted cabbage. It needs to be quite salty, without being overwhelming. 



Now comes the fun, and hard part: you need to massage, knead, squash, push and work the cabbage until the brine comes out. Yes, with your (cleanly washed) hands. The salt will set off the process of osmosis (that’s the chemistry degree talking), and water will leak from the cells of the cabbage to the outside, mixing with the salt to make brine. The kneading breaks cell walls to assist this. The salty brine that is formed will stop the bad bacteria from growing, whilst encouraging the nice, healthy lactobacillus that will help ferment the cabbage and improve your gut health. You need to create enough brine for the cabbage to be fully submerged, as any bits sticking out will go mouldy. If you don’t have enough brine, you might need to add more salt, but before you do that, leave it to stand for a bit and work it some more, you don’t want to oversalt, as this will ruin the batch. You can push the cabbage (which will wilt down to a lot less volume) down firmly to get the brine to the top. 



Now it is ready to go into your pot, and don’t worry if you have not inherited a nice vintage crock, any jar will do. You need to weigh down the cabbage so it stays down under the brine, you can use a plate, large stone, or a ziplock bag filled with pebbles (which I did) or even water (make sure it doesn’t leak!) If you want you can put in an additional layer underneath he weight, consisting of some whole cabbage leaves to keep the kraut from floating up. Don’t put a tightly closed lid on the jar, the CO2 formed in the process needs to escape. You can cover it with a clean cloth instead, or a loose top. 






Then you wait. Check your kraut every day to make sure it is still submerged, and depending on the circumstances it will take one to several weeks. Mine was delicious after just one week in the hot Singapore weather, after which I transferred it to a Tupperware jar, and put it in the fridge for safekeeping. If you want to know whether it is ready, the best way is the simplest: taste it. If you want to be more technical, you can measure pH, it needs to be below 4.5. But the best measure is you, if your kraut tastes great, it is great!

Mine was, but it still took copious amounts of applemoes (applesauce) to convince the kids of the edibility of Mama’s newest project. 






Mama eats her kraut raw, is loving it, and has already started on he next project: a more spicy, oriental version of this traditional Dutch recipe: Korean Kimchi, ladled with chili. Something tells me no amount of appelmoes will convince the kids to eat that one…

Meet the girls

After two and a half weeks in our garden, I am happy to say: our hens have settled in nicely. They love their spacious new home, and have quickly started to lose the unnatural behaviour they acquired in the cramped quarters of battery cages. When they first arrived they had no idea what to do with themselves. But now, they are starting to behave just like, well… chicken. They scratch the muddy ground, dig sand baths, lay their eggs in the nest boxes, and eat a varied diet of kitchen scraps, vegetables and chicken food. I even caught one snapping up a small cockroach this morning. They have learned to go inside in a thunderstorm, or when night falls, and some even understand the principle of sleeping on the roost, though others, despite my repeated attempts to hoist them up there after dark, prefer to huddle underneath, sitting in their own poo. They also learned that life in our garden might be more fun, but that it also carries more risks. The monkeys lolling about on their roof no longer bother them, but after observing a large snake strangling and eating a squirrel a mere ten meters away, some stopped laying for a week. The 5-foot monitor lizard snooping around the run probably did not help either. Since we have seen nor snake nor lizard for a while, they are back in action, and we struggle to keep up with the 4 to 5 eggs they produce a day. The fresh air and good food is doing them well, their feathers are fluffing up, their combs straightening, and becoming less pale. 



And off course, like real hens, they bicker. Life in a coop is strictly hierarchical, and slowly the pecking order reveals itself. So without further ado I present our leading, laying ladies. 



Josephine




Josephine is a large, full feathered hen, and the leader of the pack. She is especially popular with Jasmijn, who calls her my ‘knuffelkip’ (cuddly-chicken), as her feathers are lush and soft and she loves a cuddle. Josephine is a sociable hen, one of the first to rush over when anyone enters the run. As her position as top hen requires, she sleeps on the top roost, overseeing her flock. When there is food to be had, Josephine will put herself in prime position, standing in the middle of the dish, ensuring she gets first dibs. 

Keetje


Keetje (a Dutch name sounding a bit like Katie) is our ragamuffin, and Linde’s favourite. Curious, cheeky and bold, she was to first to dare eat from our hands, and she rushes over if there is anything to be done or seen (or eat). The rear of her back has a large bald spot, her comb is mangy, her head featherless, and the feathers she does have are scruffy, making us suspect life at the farm has been hard on little Keetje. She seems to have found her proper position in this flock, and is turning into one happy hen, whose attention is fought over by all the neighbourhood kids, that urge Linde to ‘share’ ‘her’ hen with everyone. 

Wilhelmina


Wilhelmina is a large and regal looking hen, hence her royal name. Wilhelmina always looks immaculate, with never a feather out of place. She had a pale, golden colour, with a white-flecked neck. Wilhelmina is beautiful, and she looks like she knows it. First we thought she was arrogant, and aloof, and suspected her of being top hen. Later we found she is just shy, and Wilhelmina is the only one that still won’t eat from our hands. She will hover in the corner until I am well out of the way, and those other pesky hens give her enough peace to eat. Her chosen sleeping position on the floor under the roost is another indicator that, despite her royal looks and demeanour, Wilhelmina’s position in the flock is low. 

Feetje and Leentje


Feetje and Leentje look very much alike, to the extend that I still struggle to keep them apart. Both have large, drooping combs that hang over their eyes like a fringe that needs trimming. Both have knotted tails with its feathers cut off. Both have bald spots on their long necks. The main distinction is that Feetje is slightly larger than Leentje, and that her comb is even larger and floppier. Both are friendly, cheerful hens, happy to drop by when there is food to be had.

Tilly


Last but not least there is Tilly. Tilly is a fierce looking hen, with a dark red comb, and bright orange feathers with white, fluffy bits sticking out. Like Feetje and Leentje, Tilly stays a bit more in the background, but she is getting more confident by the day, and I suspect that when her feathers are fully recovered from life at an intensive farm, she will be a beauty indeed.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

They have arrived!


A nomad that dreams of having her own backyard farm. That sounds a bit strange, right? Well, that’s me. This week a lifelong dream got fulfilled: I got my own hens. 

This wasn’t easy to achieve in Singapore, a city where most people live in high-rise flats or polished marble houses. They don’t have a garden, let alone raise their own livestock. Singapore’s kampongs with their free roaming chickens are long gone, and keeping poultry is now only allowed in a confined run. Which brings us to challenge number one: building the run.
Obviously, since no one keeps chickens, there are no ready-made coops for sale. DIY is not our strong suit either, so we needed ‘a guy’. As the hens won’t be allowed outside, the run needs to be spacious, and off course predator proof. To my big relief Singapore does not have foxes, but there are plenty of other lurkers on the loom. I don’t know if our monkeys will actually attack chicken, but am pretty sure they will appreciate the eggs. And then there is the big bad python, and other, smaller, sneakier snakes. Not to mention the huge monitor lizards, I am not even sure what those eat.

I won’t tell you the exact quotes that we got initially for getting this built, but they blew me away (ok, I will tell, one asked 8000 dollar)(++) After we finally found someone to do it for a slightly less extravagant number it took time, debate, redoing, and delay by massive rainstorms but finally: It was ready!





Which brings me to challenge number two: getting the chicken. You can’t just buy them at a pet store, nor anywhere else for that matters. Smuggling them in from Malaysia, where they are freely available at any market, did not seem a good plan either. Thanks to the Internet I met a fellow crazy expat who kept chicken and behold, she knew ‘a guy’, who knew a guy who had a chicken farm. After a delay of only a few days (some issues with farm regulations, off course, this is still Singapore) he delivered. Six brown fat hens now range across our run. 


Observing the chicken has proved a lot of fun. Not only we like it, the curious monkeys love using the top of the run as a trampoline, and seeing how far their arms can reach in. Birdie, our free ranging cockatiel, does not seem too bothered that the hens have taken over his temporary residence, and he has found a new perch in a branch above. The wild cockerel has gotten exited too, strutting his stuff circling the run. Both parties seem pretty miffed at the barrier between them.




Off course there are challenges with keeping chickens coming from a commercial egg farm. 
These girls have been living in a small cage all their life. They have not seen a vegetable in their life, and the looks I get when I put some in their feeding dish are very much the same as those my kids would have given me. They sleep under, rather than on the perches we so carefully constructed in the henhouse, just like they have no clue what to do with the fancy nest boxes. They lay where they walk. And laying, these ladies can! 





We all enjoy the clucking, cackling, squawking, and cooing. We observe our new hens, which are a great addition to our urban safari lodge. And, most of all, we enjoy our farm-fresh eggs.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Prepare to be amazed



A weekend city trip with 3 young kids can leave you with an acute need for a quiet vacation on the beach. But that does not mean it is not amazing. 


Our trip started in chaos, running around Changi airport to buy a last minute Bangkok city guide before the gate closed, and me racking my brain to dig up all those great tips that people shared in the last few weeks. After an elaborate study of the guidebook on the flight, in between games of Uno, hangman and reading Stickman for the fifteenth time, we settled on the museum where the Royal White Elephants used to be kept for that first afternoon. 



Bangkok is a busy, full city, and after our taxi, flight, and taxi ride to the hotel we walked, rode a sky train, and a tuk-tuk to get to the museum. When we arrived it was 3pm. The museum was closed.


Hot and weary, we rambled around the park, clutching the guidebook, unsure what was next with three overheated, worn-out kids. All of a sudden hordes of Chinese tourists, wrapped in colourful cheap sarongs over shorts, swept us up. Groups of them followed umbrella-holding guides to a large, renaissance style building. The tourists, guides nor the locals seemed to speak much English, but we took our chances. We bought tickets. 


More in-depth scrutiny of the guidebook revealed that we were in the Royal Throne Hall, which was even more impressive on the inside than the outside, with golden domes and ceiling frescos of naked angels, elephants and garudas. The hall was cool and vast, and housed an exhibition of gold and silk handicraft by royal artisans. The vastness of the golden halls silenced even the tourist groups, even our kids, into a serene site of glitter and glamour. We were amazed. There were golden boats, intricate woodcarvings, luminescent embroidered silk tapestries, and much, much more. The children were awed, and so were we. Our Bangkok trip had kicked off with a bling. 


The next few days showed more glimmer and dazzle, when we visited the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Again, neither hordes of tour groups, nor the blistering heat, spoiled our amazement. 




To cool off and chill out we then sailed Bangkok’s canals in a longtail boat, and the river on the ferry. Old houses, and ramshackle shanties were alternated with gleaming mansions and, off course, golden domed temples. Without too much purpose or planning we let a few more of the many, many faces of Bangkok amaze us. We fed fish for good luck.





We ate delicious food, hot, fragrant and spicy, less so for the kids. We relaxed by the pool, and got tortured with Thai massage. Our lack of preparation was not a problem. We were amazed any way. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Four Dutch girls, two tandems and 14.000 kilometres

Where I just went backpacking in South America for a few months after I graduated from university, these four young Dutch girls are looking for a bigger adventure. In just over a year they will cycle from Jakarta to Amsterdam. On two tandems. Not only that, they do it for a good cause: to raise awareness for women’s rights. A ‘Ride 4 Women’s Rights.’


A few weeks after their departure from Jakarta Carlijn, Monique, Lidewij and Sophie arrived in Singapore, staying with a friendly Dutch expat couple that took them under their wings. The next day I took them to HOME, the NGO I work for. HOME supports migrant workers in Singapore, and the Dutch girls were invited to join in my Dreams Class, where we dreamed about our prospective futures together with domestic workers staying at the HOME shelter. We found that, although the contestants came from very different countries (the Netherlands, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Greece and India) their dreams were not that different. We all wanted to start our own companies, build our dream house and be able to take care of our loved ones.



The day after the four girls cycled on, over the causeway to Malaysia, but luckily there was time for a quick interview. I was curious how they got the idea for this challenging journey. It turned out not to be the first time these women, that have been friends since primary school, travelled together. This time they wanted to do something different. ‘It was on our last trip that we realised that students like us are very self-centered. We took all our opportunities for self-development for grated, without stopping to think how special they are. Because we are all quite sporty, we wanted to add a challenge. To be aware, for 400 days, whilst cycling, of women’s rights, will be an unforgettable exploration. So that is how we started the ‘Ride for Women’s rights.’

The four women will visit various projects from Plan International and Care International during their journey, as well as other local projects that support women’s rights, and share their stories on their website. So far the group cycled through Indonesia to Singapore, neighbouring countries but which are worlds apart. Singapore impressed them as being ‘futuristic, grand, visionary, and full of expats.’ The ladies of R4WR don’t like to judge. Their journey is one of exploration. Yet they have to admit that Singapore is more modern, and much wealthier than Indonesia. The visit to HOME showed them that ‘beneath the veneer of Singapore there is a darker area, where for instance migrants rights are not always heard.’


How does the public respond to four cycling Dutch girls? ‘When in the busy Indonesian traffic two red tandems appear, men, women as well as children laugh their heads off. There is astonishment, but we also get positive reactions, when we tell that we will cycle 14000 kilometres from Jakarta to Amsterdam to raise awareness on women’s rights. Four girls cycling? Really…from Jakarta to Rembang? O no, all the way up to Amsterdam?’ They had not expected all these positive reactions, and the sign, conversations and meetings that came forth made a lasting impression on the four.  

Apart from the Far East they will also cross the Middle East. All countries that are not as safe as Singapore. Are they never afraid? ‘In the Netherlands we did training on how to handle aggressive situations. This was also a prerequisite for our parents and sponsors. Safety remains very important to us. In Indonesia we often slept at police stations, a golden concept. In every town or village we’d knock on the door at the local police office. After the first week police offices started to feel like home! Every office we slept at (on our mats) would provide us with a letter of recommendation for the next one. When we arrived at the last one, in Bali, we had 17 letters. Let’s hope this trick will work in other countries too.’

After Singapore, Sophie, Carlijn, Monique and Lidewij will cycle through Malaysia, then Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar before entering the Middle East. If you want to follow their adventures, do check their website at www.r4wr.or or find them on facebook as R4WR.

And if you have suggestions for projects to visit, or places to stay in any of these countries, don’t hesitate to drop them an email at info@r4wr.org


Sunday, 28 September 2014

When the cat’s away…


Roel went to Europe, and when he gets back, his first comment is that we have turned the house into a zoo. Our garden 
resembled a safari park already, but apart from a bunch of gecko’s and a hamster, as pets went, it was pretty calm. 



First, we find a rat’s nest in the beanbag. I don’t know if you have ever had a baby rat, eyes still closed, lying in the palm of your hand? Our pest control efforts all of a sudden seem mean and cruel, and my suggestion to give the little thing to Louis, the neighbour’s cat, as a present, is received with horror by the kids.


Next, Indah spots a bird in the frangipani tree. Nothing special in itself, but this one, with it’s yellow grey feathers and proud quiff, is not a local one. Indah soon lures it down from the tree, and has it eating linseed and breadcrumbs from her hand. It stays the night her room, perched in a laundry basket. Google tells us it’s a cockatiel, native to Australia and a common pet. The cockatiel is a bit under the weather, and at first we are not sure it can fly properly. A few days of bread and seeds get it’s strengths up. It darts out of the window. And the day after it is back. 



One morning, I notice the hamster cage roof open. I want to blame the kids, but I know, off course, it has been me who left it open last night. It is not the first time either. I close it quickly, and forget about it

That afternoon Indah points at Louis in the back garden. 

‘What does Louis have? A mouse? A baby rat?’

Louis drops whatever he is holding, and as it hops through the grass I notice two undeniable, and worrying, facts: The thing has stripes. And no tail. 

‘That’s no mouse,’ I scream, the open roof flashing through my mind. 
I jump, out the window, over the plant beds, up the hill, and grab it. 
Poor Marigold’s hind leg bends in a funny angle, and he has a cut on his right shoulder. 

A few days later Linde tells me, ‘Mama, have you not noticed Louis sitting next to Marigold’s cage?’
‘What the ghrfumble,’ I shout, chasing the tom out. 



Our bird, perched on his bamboo fruit basket, observes cooly. It has not moved much the last few days, even free to fly it prefers to laze around the seed bowl. But the tiger in Louis has awoken. Marigold might be locked safely inside, our free-ranging bird demonstrates he can fly fast and far, by dashing out of the house screeching, followed by a fierce looking Louis. 

Louis now prowls around the house, stalking our pets, in a killer mood. The cockatiel resides in the high palm tree before the house, while Marigold licks his wounds (or the antibiotic cream I applied) in the furthest corner of the cage. I had thought the cockatiel would be safer in our house than in the jungle. Now, I am not so sure. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Boontjes met vlees


Kids and vegetables, always a tricky combination. It is not that long ago that Linde looked at me, head cocked, stating with a weary voice: Mama, you know I don’t eat vegetables. She did not say it, but I could read the why do you keep serving them in her eyes. 

Yet a few months ago when I asked what she wanted to eat on her birthday, she summed up, without hesitating: green beans, broccoli, pink fish (salmon steak) and rice. In that sequence. I have still not recovered from the shock. 



Green beans especially have been a firm favourite in our household for a while now. We have had fights over who could get the last ones, and mean fights too. The other day we served two large packets of beans, and I had naively assumed that after two of my kids would have feasted on those, enough would be left for Indah’s dinner too. No. They ate them all. 


I still remember how much I hated green beans growing up, especially those served at my grandmother’s house. Memories of green beans boiled to death in the classic Dutch way still make me shudder. Obviously we are not having those. I have not boiled a vegetable since I-can’t-remember-when. We stir-fry. 

Credits for the popularity of green beans can be granted to a dish we call, very prosaically, ‘boontjes met vlees’. This translates into, well, ‘beans and meat.’ The dish is as simple as it is yummy, consisting of stir fried, ehm, beans and beef. 

Roel claims to be the inventor of this famous dish, the recipe of which has been further perfected by Indah (and we will tactfully ignore the fact that it seems in fact a classic Asian disc). Last Monday when we (we meaning Indah) cooked this dish I brought it out to five children, ready at the table, chanting ‘boontjes met vlees’, while banging their knives and forks on the table to the rhythm. Our little guests (who had it before and had requested it) complained that when their aunty made it for them, it was just not as good. 

And since I know that all you parents out there are now dying to get this famous recipe that will get your kids to gorge on green beans, without further ado I present Indah’s version of: 




Boontjes met vlees 
(stir fried beef with green beans)

500 g stir-fry beef, in thin strips
2 or 3 (~200g) packets of green beans, cleaned and in 3-5cm pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
kechap Manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) 




for the marinade:
3-4 tablespoons light soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon corn starch
pepper and salt



I have given indicative quantities for most of the ingredients because we don’t really do exact measuring in our kitchen, and also because it depends on your personal preference. You can’t really go wrong much, and you can always add more soy sauce or oyster sauce later. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade, and add it to the beef. Let it sit for a while, at least half an hour. 

Heat a wok with a generous glug of oil and fry the garlic and onion for a few minutes. Add the beans, and stir-fry these for a few minutes as well until they are almost done, before you add the beef. Make sure your wok is hot and you stir well. When everything is cooked, add a generous glug of kechap manis to taste. Serve with plain rice.