Monday, 4 June 2018

The wild side

Do you ever have those days, those days where you are busy shooting monkeys out of your papaya tree with a super soaker and when you try to get a better angle to hit the motherf*ckers, you almost step on a large monitor lizard with your bare feet? And that later that night, as you arrive home after a party, there is a four-meter python on your driveway and the taxi uncle mutters under his breath: ‘Why on earth do you live here?’

No, you don’t have those days? Well, this was just my Saturday. A lot of people ask me what it is like living in one of Singapore’s (in)famous ‘Black and White’ colonial houses. The only real answer to that: it is a unique experience!

If you are into old rickety houses with oodles of charm and nooks and crannies to lose your children in during the too long summer holidays that international schools offer in exchange for extortionate school fees, these houses are for you. And if you like a bit of history thrown into the mix - even better. Especially if you don’t mind that history bloody, with a genuine WWII battle in your garden, a POW camp in your very bedroom and the accompanying ghosts roaming your lofty verandas. Go for it.

But if you like your real estate polished, smooth, your roof leakage-free and your bathrooms clear of mould – think again. And of course, you need to have a certain tolerance for the wilder aspects of tropical living. Up in the sky on the twenty-seventh floor of a concrete condo you can be fooled into believing the opposite, but us ground-floor and garden dwellers know better: Singapore has a wild side.

And that is what I love most about our Adam Park house: the immense garden. That place where our kids can build huts, where we host marshmallow roasting campfires, where I scoop the leaves out of our very own pool three times a day. Where the kids play football, badminton, tag, hide and seek and swing on our jungle swings. Where we breed tadpoles and butterflies, keep chicken, plant flowers, herbs and vegetables. Where guests comment that they don’t need to leave the house, that staying with us is resort experience enough. That is, those guests that don’t mind sharing their bathroom with our resident toad. At Adam Park, we are never allowed to forget whom we share this lovely green space with.

The second thing people ask when we talk about our house is usually: ‘But what about the snakes?’

For some reason I have the reputation of that tough gal, that head horror that fearlessly leads the way in jungle hashes through the wildest terrains, the one that scoops up snakes from her daughter’s bed (who was at school, thankfully) with a broom and dustpan, and throws them over the fence without flinching. Admittedly, I do those things, but what people don’t see is that even tough that was a perfectly harmless bronzeback tree snake, my heartbeat went through the roof. So it is time to admit here, once and for all: I am terrified of snakes!

I am afraid of the black spitting cobra I saw slithering though the front yard from the window, the extremely poisonous malay coral snake that bit my cycling husband in the rear tire. Even the harmless wolf house snake, kukri snake and the beautiful colours of the tree snakes make me nervous. I have become proficient in identifying local snakes, thanks to the internet and the SG snakes app but still, I remain restless. A child bitten by a cobra can die in hours. 

(as I am typing this on our patio, a two-feet monitor lizard is sneaking up at me. It is still around five meters away, but bloody hell, that face with its forked tongue is just too much like a snake for its own good!)

Anyway, this Saturday night, I did not sleep so well. I kept imagining all four meters of that python coiled around our cat Mitzi. Or seeing its long, chequered body with several chicken-sized-bumps in the middle. When I woke up late, hung-over and restless, I was relieved to see all my children sitting on the sofa reading comics quietly, Mitzi snuggled up cosily between them. It took several minutes for me to work up the courage to go outside to let out the chicken from their supposedly snake-proof coop. Supposedly, as the hugest python can squeeze itself through the tiniest gap and that coop is as rickety as our house. Our chicken run is the most efficient python trap, as any python with a chicken inside his belly is too lazy and fat to get out again. We have ‘caught’ four already, and yes, I have ACRES on speed dial. Thankfully, all the chicken were safe. That is, for now.

Despite the snakes, the lizards, the monkeys, the omnipresent ants, the ear-numbing noise of cicadas and last but certainly not least the terrifying risk of falling trees, I would not want to live anywhere else. 

Every day here is an adventure!

Monday, 19 February 2018

Auntie's tempeh

After a visit to Indonesia Indah once bought back the most amazing dish I ever tasted: Tempeh Goreng, or crispy fried tempeh, prepared by her Auntie. I had eaten tempeh before, but the one you can buy in Europe, vacuum wrapped, has nothing on the fresh one you buy here at the wet market. Also, I never really knew how to prepare it properly. Of course Indah was up to the challenge of replicating (or should I say improving?) the recipe of her Auntie.

Tempeh is a fermented soy bean product, which is more coarse then tofu; you can still see and taste the texture of the individual beans. If you have the proper starter, you can make it yourself relatively easily, but in Singapore it is not hard to get at wet markets or even supermarkets like NTUC Fair Price and Giant. The fresh ones are the ones rolled in banana leaves, and you need to feel & squeeze the packages to judge their ‘ripeness'. If they are not ready, the individual beans have not merged together, and you need to give it another day or so to ferment. Good tempeh should be a solid, white block. Once it turns black, it has gone too far. If in doubt, ask the seller for advice. 

Before you fry it, cut the tempeh in slices or just under a centimetre thick. Heat a couple of centimetres oil in a wok, and fry the tempeh until it is crispy and golden brown. For large amount it is best do this in several portions to ensure crispiness. Set aside the fried tempeh while you prepare the rempah - spice mixture. 

The quantities of these spices is indicative, this will be enough for 4-6 people. But Indah and I prefer to err on the side of too much when in doubt. You can play around with the amount and types of spices used based on your on taste and availability. 

· 5 shallots

· 2 cloves of garlic

· 2-6 chilis (use some large ones for colour and flavour, and as many of the small yet hot chili padi as you dare)

· 2 cm fresh galangal (lenguas / blue ginger) root

· 5 kaffir lime leaves (jeruk perut)

· 2 salam leaves (Asian bay leaves, we grow them in the garden but you can omit) 

· several tablespoons dark of palm sugar (gula malaka) chopped finely (add more or less depending on how sweet you like it)

· several tablespoons of tamarind paste (assam), dissolved in half a cup of warm water, seeds removed. 

Chop the onion, chili and galangal fine. Remove excess oil from the wok, and fry them in the wok in shallow, hot oil for a few minutes. Add the kaffir lime and salam leaves, and half a cup of water. Add the tamarind and palm sugar and stir. Let it cook for a few minutes. 

Add the fried tempeh, and stir well until all the flavour has been absorbed and the dish is nice and hot. 

Serve with rice and vegetables (like kangkong or stir fried long beans). For a more fancy vegetarian feast, add sambal eggs. I always like to make large quantities- this dish keeps well and is also delicious cold the next day. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Everything changes

I don't know if anyone actually looks at it ever, but there is a photo of me and the kids in the right hand corner of this blog. We are all balancing on that most iconic of the Lion City symbols: the Merlion. 

Perhaps it is time to change this photo, as it has become a bit dated. Not only is it about five years old, but the kids seem all wrong too. Tijm is standing still and smiles. Singapore's-next-top-model Linde, who usually strikes her most charming poses and smiles when a camera is in sight, is upside down; you can't even see her face. Baby Jasmijn is so little I need to hold her tight, and I can't remember whether this is because she was not yet that stable on her feet, or if then - like now - she always tried to escape and avoid being in any photo at all. Needless to say I still look exactly the same as I did five years ago - twenty eight forever.

When I first started blogging I mostly wrote about my children. Parenting; the sweet and the sour. When they are small, your offspring can consume your everyday thoughts. When we moved to Asia, the move and the wonders of the region began dominating my writing. Now, it has become a random place to share random thoughts, erratically and irregularly. Does a blog like this even need a photo, particularly one including my kids? 

Since we were on Mount Faber a few weeks ago anyway, we thought we'd reenact the old scene. To my surprise a fence had been put up around the Merlion! That is progress in Singapore for you. 

Can you spot the differences? Which one is better?

I am not sure what kind of bribery or threaths were involved with making the picture below (most likely ice cream and/or the withdrawal of pocket money) but this one is not my favourite. No one is doing any bunny ears or photobombs in the back. That is just not realistic! Just after this was made the heavens broke, and the umbrella that Linde is holding proved completely futile to protect us from the cats and dogs dropping from the sky. That too is Singapore. Getting close to six years in, we still love it here. Rain or shine, old and new. 

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Our Homes, Our Stories

Oh my, I realise it has been terribly, terribly quiet here on the blog the last months. I suppose it is time I tell you why I have been so busy lately: I have been working on a new book, that will be published on International Women's Day in March next year by HOME, a Singaporean charity that has supported and empowered migrant workers since 2004. Have you ever wondered what life is like for a migrant domestic worker in Singapore? This book will answer that question, and more.

In Our Homes, Our Stories, women that work in Singapore as live-in domestic workers share their real-life stories. They write about illicit love, rogue agents, abusive employers, and that one thing they all suffer from the most: missing their families back home - in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and India. The women write about sacrifice, broken trust, exploitation, lack of food, salary deductions and constant scolding; but also about supportive employers, the love they have for the families they take care of, or how they use their time in Singapore as a stepping-stone to realise their dreams for the future.

A writing class at the shelter 
Writers Meri Ledi and Ainun at work

Volunteer Raelee working with one of the shelter residents

All proceeds of this book go to HOME, and all the writers in Our Homes, Our Stories are part of the HOME community, either as volunteers on their one weekly day off, or as residents at HOME shelter for ill-treated domestic workers. With a team of volunteers we did workshops at the shelter and HOME Academy around the theme ‘home'. We worked closely with the women, coaching them to improve their writing, the structure of the story as well as their grammar. We taught them how to rope the reader in from the first paragraph, and how to keep their attention until the end. As many of the women shared intimate, strong and compelling stories, this was not at all difficult to do, all they needed was to be nudged in the right direction. For some women, who had a very limited grasp of English, we brought in volunteers that could work with them in their own language – Indonesian, Burmese, Tamil, Punjabi. But where possible, we let them write directly in English, helping them to choose the correct and best words suited to convey what they wanted to say. We always aimed to conserve the writer's own voice, after all, it is her story to tell.

Karien and writer April Lin

HOME Academy workshop (Jo Ann, Karien, Gilda and Novia)

Writer Linda and volunteer Pleun

I am immensely proud of what we made together. I am proud of the brave women that opened up their souls to share their lives with you on the blank paper we gave them. I hope it will help you, the reader, to get a better insight in who these women are, and what drives them to leave their family, often their young children, behind to take care of those of others.

In order to bring this book to print, we need funds. We are getting closer to our target, but it would be great if you can support the project by pre-ordering your copy. For people outside of Singapore, we can ship (at your own cost) or you can order the ebook version. 

Find our crowdfunding page here: 

Follow us on Facebook to get regular updates on the book:

And do look out for the MyVoice blog for any other news on the book, interviews with the writers, and much more:

Writer Lakshmi at work

Tamil speaking workshop with volunteer Jayanthi

Friday, 8 September 2017

Poor Scruffy

We’ve been on the fence about Scruffy for a long time. Last Sunday, I heard loud cackling from the coop. Always worried about pythons, I rushed over to see a large brown shape, most likely an eagle, flapping away from a branch on the tree overhead. Inside the run, Scruffy was standing on top of a stool, cawing at the top of his voice. All the hens were inside, in the henhouse. I felt so proud of my dapper cockerel protecting his ladies, that I forgot his vileness for a while.

But not for long, because eagles were not the only thing Scruffy was protecting his ladies against. The next morning, when I left the run and forgot to walk out backwards, or look into his eyes admonishingly, he attacked me from the back immediately. Thankfully, I managed to slam the door right into his sharp beak, but needless to say, I did not particularly want to go back in again after. I was not alone in being less than amused with his temper that morning: through the wire mesh I observed Scruffy chasing the girls all across the run, in a way I was not sure was meant to be romantic, but in any case was pretty violent, and not at all appreciated by the ladies.

Roel said we had to do something, and we had to do it now. Scruffy, obviously, had other ideas about that, and we spent a good fifteen minutes chasing him around the garden – that roo can run! I won’t get into details about what happened after, it suffices to say nobody enjoyed it, but it was swift and yes, the rumours about headless (or broken-necked in this case) chickens are very much true.

Some people might find it distasteful that I post a photo of my stewed rooster, but you know what, many of my friends post photos of their food on social media, including fowl, fried, roasted, cooked, or with rice. Do you know what I find distasteful? Industrial, or broiler, chickens that are raised by the tens of thousands in windowless barns, that grow so fat so quick they can’t walk, that have wounds on their legs from sitting in their own manure all day, and that are cooped up so tightly together they peck each others backs bold from boredom and frustration, with an aggression that exceeds Scruffy’s on his worst days. The air they breathe full of ammonia and faeces, makes them suffer from respiratory illnesses. There is more to say about that, but I think you get the picture.

Having kept chickens for years now, I know what sociable animals they are, how they like to dig in the sand, climb on roofs and benches, and huddle up comfortably together. Chickens are fairly stupid, but not stupid enough to endure what is happening in those industrial farms.

So yes, we kill and eat our own rooster, who grew up pampered in a large run, with six wives, and plenty of food, fresh air, sand and clean water. And yes, I proudly present this lovely dish of ‘Rooster in Prosecco’ (well, we happened to have an open bottle, and were out of red wine). And I have to admit, Scruffy was much nicer stewed than he was in real life.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Not so Scruffy

He struts around the run as if he owns the place, not I. Whenever I enter, he keeps a shrewd eye on me, ideally positioning himself between his harem and me. I have learned never to turn my back to him. He might look plucky, but he always attacks from the back.

Scruffy is the youngest in the flock, yet about double the size of the hens. His head is crowned by a magnificent, bright red, comb, flanked by equally impressive wattles. When he was a few weeks old his feathers poked in all directions. A pineapple chick, Indah laughed, and Roel aptly named him Scruffy. When he started to grow at an alarming rate, and his comb became suspiciously big and red, it became more obvious day by day: Scruffy was a boy. 

A few days old, and still scruffy

Of course roosters are pretty useless when you keep chickens for eggs. In fact, this batch of hatchlings we had been fairy lucky; out of four chicks, Scruffy was the only boy.

Scruffy at a few weeks, comb starting to show

Scruffy grew up not so scruffy at all. His long white tail feathers arch up elegantly from his back, and the golden ones on his neck contrast brightly with the red of his comb. His favourite position is on top of a stool, towering even more high over the ladies, from which he will crow – all day long.

Since his testosterone has kicked in, Scruffy and I have been at a standoff. If I come bearing food he accepts me, grudgingly. Do I merely to come by to look for eggs, he will eye me suspiciously until I leave. I feel his eyes piecing my back when I look in the hen house for eggs.

A few times he has confronted me, high on his haunches, his neck feathers upright, but even in this position his impressive chicken size is nothing to my human one. But I have seen the spurs grow on his legs, and have no wish to test their sharpness.

So one or twice a week I show him who’s boss. I grab him, and push him to the ground firmly, all the time telling him I’m in charge, not him. Roel has dunked his feet in ice water for a similar face losing session. Afterwards, Scruffy retreats in a corner, licks his offended feathers and shakes his wattles. He behaves himself for a few days, until his cockiness rears again. He can’t help it. He is an eight-month-old cockerel.

The big question is, can he stay living with us? Since he attacked Tijm, the kids refuse to collect eggs. But what to do with him? Linde bawls when we suggest turning him into coq-au-vin like predecessor Messi. Indah suggests releasing him to go and live with the wild junglefowl, but will he manage there? Once, when I accidentally left the door of the run open he showed a wild rooster - half his size - all corners of the garden. But unlike them, he can’t fly for the safety of the trees at night. Is it better that we eat him, or the pythons? Or will he be successful, but mess up the gene pool of the endangered junglefowl with his hybrid features?

To be honest, Scruffy is an arrogant bastard, and I am not sure even the hens like him and his aggressive romantic advances, but still, I hesitate to kill him. I have seen him break out of his egg, grow into the insecure adolescent he is now. We know he can’t stay, we have been talking about it for weeks. Yet here he still is. He is so gorgeous.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

A park, two tents, and one-and-a-half air-mattress

After our three-week trek through Portugal, France and the Netherlands, where we saw family, as well as old and newer friends, we still had almost a month of summer holidays left. A week of doing very little was restful enough for me to give in to the kids' repeated pleading: we would go camping. 

We went off to buy two cheapish tents, and tested them in the garden. But that was not real enough. The most adventurous places to camp in Singapore are on offshore islands, but to practice; Singapore’s mainland parks have campsites too. I decided on Pasir Ris. It has plenty of cycling paths, a wetland reserve, a huge playground, and we had never been there yet. I figured few people would be crazy enough to go camping in the height of summer, and that we could just get a (free) permit on site. But when Roel, who did not trust me, decided to register online, it was already full. We would have to go to East Coast Park. Also nice. 

After we had packed our sizable seven-seater to the brim (we were going one night), our escapade started, as many do, with fights and shouts and accusations that shook the foundation our marriage wobbly. The first challenge was locating an AXS machine to print the camping permits Roel had registered for. No, there is none in East Coast Park these days, regardless of what maps say, and yes, there is in fact one about 100 yards from our house, which we noticed on the way home. Of course all of this was my fault. 

Then there was the thing with the air mattresses. It turned out I had packed one single and one double – for five people. The upside of the mistake was that it saved Roel some breath, because when I unpacked the pump, I realised I had forgotten to pack the connector valve thingy. It also saved us a trip to a nearby sail club to scrounge electricity (I had not managed to locate the foot pump in our piled high storeroom). What we did find, rolled in the air mattress was the cap of another – the double one that sleeps 3 kids – that had gone missing when friends had borrowed it a few months ago. The matching air mattress, sadly, was not here. 

Blowing up by mouth the offensive objects, left Roel so out of breath that he had none left to argue when I said that, during my futile quest around fellow campers to borrow a pump, I had spotted a better spot for the tents. Directly at the beach, closer to the toilets, and not right in front of – later on potentially smelly – BBQ pits. He gave in grudgingly, and I dis- and reassembled our tents, in not too much more time than the 3 seconds promised on the package, at the new spot. 

We cycled, drank sugar cane and lime juice, picnicked, swam in the murky sea and told stories around an imaginary campfire. We ate our pre-cooked quiche and salad with gusto, but still looked jealously at our neighbours grilling crabs and satay on charcoal. We slept uncomfortably, hot and sweaty, huddled with the two of us on a single air mattress under the roaring planes taking off at Changi Airport. But the next morning, breakfasting with chocolate croissants and crackers with Nutella in the morning breeze, we looked at each other and smiled. Three happy campers rode around on their bikes. Yes, we promised them, we’ll go again. We now know where the AXS machine is...