A nomad mother in Singapore

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Hot eggs

What do we eat for Easter? Eggs! But since we are in Singapore, why not try a local classic? These spicy eggs are great for a vegetarian dinner or lunch, served with rice and some vegetables. Or, if you are more adventurous, perhaps for Easter Brunch? Believe it or not, they are the favourite food of 6-year-old Linde. The sambal is sweet, sour and spicy at the same time, just a perfect balance. For more fussy children, you can vary the amount of chili you use. 

Sambal eggs

6 eggs 

2 large tomatoes
2 onions
4 shallots
7 large chili’s
2-3 chili padi (small, string chili) to taste
4 cloves of garlic
½ tablespoon tamarind paste (seeds removed)
2 tablespoons gula malaka (palm sugar)
2 salam leaves (Asian bay leave)
2 jeruk perut leaves (kaffir lime)
cooking oil

Boil the eggs hard, and set aside to cool. Take one large onion, and cut in in thin strips. These will add texture to your sambal. Chop the rest of the onion, shallot, garlic, tomato, and chili roughly. You can use more or less chili depending on your taste. 
The large chili’s are usually not that spicy, the chili padi are, so use less, or none, of those if you prefer a lighter version. Blend all of these ingredients together in a blender or food processor. Or, if you want to go old school, grind them in a pestle and mortar.

Peel the eggs and dry them. Heat about a cm of oil in a wok, and fry the boiled eggs on all sides until they are golden, which should take just a few minutes. You can omit this step if you prefer, but the sambal will not stick to the eggs very well. 

Set the eggs aside on some tissue. Now take the blended sambal mixture, and add the tamarind and palm sugar. Fry the sambal in the hot wok for a few minutes, until fragrant, and until some of the moisture has evaporated. We don’t want to sambal to be too wet. Then add the sliced onion and salam and jeruk perut leaves, and a pinch of salt. Fry until the onion is soft.
Finally, add the eggs, and heat everything through.

You can eat them straight away, or let them cool down first.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Mama’s got a gun

I am sitting behind my computer, typing away quietly, and he sneaks up on me. Sensing a dark shadow behind me, I turn around and gasp. He looks at me, his eyes piecing, a slight grin playing around his fierce pointy canines. I scream. I wave my arms. He shrugs, and retreats, casually. 

A few days later I walk into the living room from the bedroom hallway. He is sauntering halfway the living room, same spot, and looks annoyed that I interrupted his stroll to the kitchen. Caught in the act, he feels cornered, and looks around him. Which way to go, into the kitchen? Back the way he came, the patio doors? I’m blocking the back window as well as the hall to the bedrooms. He starts towards the kitchen, his favourite destination, where he knows we keep the food.

I shout, wave my hands, try to block him without aggravating. He would have no way out, all doors and windows in the kitchen are closed, because of him. All food is locked away. But worse, Indah might be in the kitchen, and when he feels the back-exit is blocked by me, he might get aggressive. I flap and sway my arms, shout, still trying to avoid looking into his eyes. Don’t go there! He gets the message and picks a quick exit via the patio instead. I breathe out again.


We have lived with macaques peacefully for years. We have enjoyed sitting on the patio, sipping or tea and Ribena, watching them weaving through the trees, some with babies clutching to their bellies. We watched them file by in a row, jumping a large palm leaf one at the time, waiting for it to slowly sway over, jumping off to the next tree, and the leaf swaying back to it’s original position, ready to pick up the next one in the monkey family train. 

We have learned to hide all food, even the toothpaste, and to lock the medicine cabinet securely. We chose to live in the jungle and we knew they lived there too. 

But this guy is different. I don’t trust him. And he, obviously, does not trust me. 

He is starting to treat not only the garden, but also the house as his home. And that is where I draw my line. 

Possibly this male, a large Alfa, I competing with us for space. Our house is comfortable and safe, and, as he knows well, full of nice food to steal and toothpaste to suck. We need to teach him who’s the boss. Another possible scenario is that, since this group contains two large males, our guy is in fact not Alfa, but Beta male, and he is being pushed out of the group. The recent monkey wars, where they fight high up in the trees, loud screeches resonating through the street, support this theory. Beta male will be aggressive, frustrated by being pushed out of his family group, and insecure as he will need to go out to start his own, in a world where territory is scarce. 

All perfectly natural behaviour for a monkey, but not a war I want battled out in my living room. 

Advice from a macaque specialist at Acres advices: macaque activated sprinklers (which I am sure the kids will love, just a bit too much), spraying chili or other foul substances on window sills (which, since they quite happily rip chili’s of our plants, I doubt the effectiveness of) or spraying/ splashing them with water. Show him who’s boss.

So. I went out and bought me the biggest super soaker I could find. And a small handgun for by my desk. Beware, you motherfucking monkeys. Mama’s got a gun. The battle is on!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The hassle with the hens

I figured you must be surely all wanting a chicken update, right? Because you are all freaks like me, that are obsessed by feathery chooks and eggs? 

After my husband told me I am not allowed to talk about chicken anymore (at least, he said, perhaps not all the time) I realised that the rest of the world is as concerned for, and interested in my hens as I am. And if I am not allowed to talk chicken, I can always write chicken, not?

The thing is, why I have been so consumed by chickens lately, that we have had some very nasty events. First, we had another visit of a not-so-friendly python. It turned out the new handyman had not done a very good job of fixing the hen house, and there was a hole, conveniently out of sight behind the nest boxes. The image of what I saw that morning when I approached the run is etched on my retina forever, I’ll spare you gory details, but our faithful top layer and top hen Tilly was dead, as well as a young pullet that we had not even had long enough to name it. 

After Acres collected the snake, and my heartbeat had slowly gotten back to close to normal, I consoled myself that in fact eight hens would have, in fact, been a bit too much of a good thing. In the run we now still had our ‘new’ old hens Messy and Lizzie, that popped out eggs daily like clockwork, as well as another unnamed pullet that would become Lucy. And, of course, we had the three chicks. Six hens was plenty. 

Lucy when she first arrived

Little did I know, our troubles had only just begun. A few days later, Messy got yellow diarrhoea, curled up in a corner and died. When Lizzie started to dawdle too, I quickly administered antibiotics (in over a year of keeping hens in a jungle I have drastically changed my views on organic farming practices and anti-biotic free), but she still died in less than a day. 

Now, poor, shy Lucy was all alone. Well, apart from the chicks, Daisy, Fientje and Ronaldo, who had spend their time wisely eating, poo-ing, cheeping, and above all growing, in a cage inside. They were more than ready to go in the run. But mother hen me was afraid. What mysterious bacteria killed Messy and Lizzie? Did the python bring it? Or did the stress of it's visit merely smash their already weak battery farm immune systems and they succumbed to standard jungle bacteria? Did the monkeys that like to lounge on the run drop nasties? Why did the anti-biotic not work? Was it a virus? Coccidiosis? And what about Lucy, who seemed fine, apart from a low appetite and the presence of ‘motile bacteria’ in her poo. 

Monkeying about on the roof
I spent (a lot of) time on online forums, chicken websites, and emailing with random vets. The results remain inconclusive. 

So now what? I scrubbed out the henhouse with bleach, twice. I spread pine oil solution in the rest of the run. I have let the chicks in the run for short periods of time. I have decided it is out of my hands. 

This weekend the chicks will go the run permanently, where they can chase and harass poor Lucy, who is much bigger, but too sweet and shy to fight off three little rascals, and prefers to escape on top of the chick’s cage.

I worry. I despair. And I keep my fingers crossed.

Lucy playing tough

What's this?

I'm bigger than you!

Lucy escaping the chicks

Update: the chicks have been in the run for five days now, and love it. They don't bully Lucy as much as at first, and have learned to sleep on the perch. Fingers are still crossed, but so far so good. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Meet Mr Foo

In front of the beach resort is a wooden shelter. Plastic sheets shield the sides from wind, sun, rain and peeping Toms. I’m lying on my back, and bent over my feet is Mr Foo. When he greeted me this morning, I knew straight away: this would not be an ordinary massage.

Mr Foo shushes me when I want to talk, and starts on my feet. He rubs every toe separately and tells me what ails me. Tiredness, sure. Back pain, shoulders, neck, off course. And headaches, who doesn’t have them? He tells me that he used to treat everything in his village, down in rural Penang, from cancer to diabetes, and that bone setting was his specialty. I can guess why he moved on to massaging tourists; he never charged the villagers.

I nod, and refrain from comments about Mr Foo’s cancer curing abilities, but ask about his village instead. The reflexology is relaxing, and soon Mr Foo moves upwards, rubbing my legs with fragrant clove oil. Normally, my massages are facedown, and silent. Masseurs in Singapore barely speak English. Between rubbing and commenting on the state of my body, Mr Foo shares his live story. 

His father took a boat from China to Singapore in the middle of last century. The boat trip was free, but to pay back the cost he had to work on the Singapore docks for three years, as a coolie. The docks were a dangerous place, coolies were accident prone, and soon Mr Foo senior started to develop his talents as a traditional healer. That suited him more than lugging merchandise, and when his three years were up he moved to Penang, which, like Singapore, has a large community of Straits Chinese. He met a girl in a village, started a fruit plantation, setting bones and curing the villagers on the side. 

Mr Foo has now started on my arms, prodding sore muscles and explaining where I need to knead myself daily to loosen my stiff shoulder. We talk about his village, which has fishermen and fruit plantations. He himself opted out of the fruit, leaving his family plantation to his brother. His other inheritance was more valuable to him: the wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine his father taught. Where Mr Foo senior used to order all his herbs in China, junior does not trust the Chinese. He goes into the jungle, to collect his own. His own son, Tommy, who has joined him in this ‘Father and Son’ reflexology business, refuses to join him on foraging trips into the snake-infested jungle. Now and then, Mr Foo and Tommy talk in rapid Cantonese over my head, looking and pointing at the hotel and its guests. 

We chat on, and Mr Foo tells me his children were smart, but did not manage to get into a local university. Malaysian universities only accept a small number of non-Malays, even though the proportion of ethnic Chinese and Indian in the country is more than significant. Wealthy Chinese send their children to Singapore or overseas, but Mr Foo could not afford this. 

We move to my head, and neck, and I stay quiet for a bit. ‘Your head is blocked,’ says Mr Foo, ‘especially on the left.’
I nod, as he attempts to loosen my neck, shoulders and arms.

We discuss the shiny condos that spring up to the sky all around the island, on-going construction, and soaring real estate prices in Penang. The massage business must be going well, Mr Foo has two apartments in Georgetown he rents out to pay for his village bungalow.

Then, all too sudden, my hour is over. The next client, an elderly German lady that winters in Penang, is waiting. Mr Foo is booked up days ahead.

I walk back to the pool with the noisy kids, covered in a lingering smell of cloves, loose limbed, and the feeling I got to know not only my own body, all the hotel gossip, but also Penang a bit better. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016


Trying to make sense of the challenges of healthy eating

We all try to eat healthy, don’t we? Well, we try, yes. Maybe. But it is not that easy. Learning to say no to all those yummy cakes and cocktails is one thing, but an equally difficult matter is the question: what is healthy these days?

Scanning the internet, we can find millions of conflicting opinions on what ‘experts’ (either scientifically trained or self appointed) believe is good for us. Some promote high fat, others low fat eating. Some worship meat, others ban it. There is the Eatwell plate (‘schijf van vijf’ in Dutch), 5 a day, Paleo, Atkins, vegan, superfoods, glutenfree, low fat, low carb, high protein, and much more. Can’t see the forest for the trees? You’re not the only one.

In the nineties we were led to believe that eating too many eggs would raise our blood cholesterol. So we limited our egg intake, or didn’t but felt guilty at every bite. Then, a few decades later, the big news came: the effect of dietary cholesterol, like the one found in egg yolk, on our blood cholesterol is minimal. Even the heath authorities admitted their mistake. We can gorge on eggs again.

Then there is meat. Protein is good for you, it makes you strong, gives you energy, so if we stick to lean meat we are good, right? No, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, red meat and particularly processed meat like ham and salami, will increase the risk of cancer. A worldwide outcry from meat lovers resulted. Many disagree, especially followers of low carb, high meat diets like Paleo, where you eat only things that were available already in the era of cavemen. Whether cavemen were particularly healthy is unknown, and beside the point, believers claim that the evolution of our digestive system is so slow that it has not yet adapted to ‘modern’ additions like dairy, potato and grain.

Are you still there? Let’s take an easy one now: fruit. Fruit tastes delicious, and has an amazing reputation. Fruit is healthy, say five a day preachers, as it is full of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. So can we unanimously applaud fruit? No, say some, fruit is full of sugar, and whether sugar comes in the shape of a can of coke or a round red apple, it is still sugar. And sugar is bad, that is the one thing experts seem to agree on. Not only does it increase risks on obvious things like diabetes, tooth decay and obesity, it has also recently been linked to blood cholesterol, cancer and heart disease.

So do we need to further discuss sugar? Can we just agree that sugar is bad for us? What about the difference between naturally occurring fruit sugars, unrefined raw sugars, honey, maple syrup and highly processed table sugars or worse, the high fructose corn syrups that are so cheap and therefore popular in the food industry? Different types of sugars have a different effect on our blood sugar levels, yet have the same amount of calories. And yes, they all provide energy, but apart from that they have mostly negative effects on our bodies. Having said that, naturally occurring sugars are balanced by the fibre, vitamins and enzymes in fruit and vegetable, which help the body deal with the sugars more easily and give added benefits. Refined sugars, on the other hand, are mainly ‘empty calories.’

Fat then, you ask, what about fat? It is surely bad for you too? If we can’t rely on simple facts like ‘fat will make you fat,’ we will completely lose it. For sure, public opinion is still very much anti-fat. Products claiming to be low fat, or even fat free, fly of the shelves. That the fat is replaced by other ingredients like sugar, starch or chemical additives, is conveniently hushed up. While most official food authorities still take the anti-fat stance, many others, often backing themselves by scientific studies, will disagree. The thing is that, like with sugars, one fat is not the other.

You knew that already, it’s the saturated fat that is bad for your, right? It clogs up your arteries, raises the risk for heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer, you name it.
Sure. Following that line of thought coconut fat, one of the most saturated fats in the world, coming in at a whopping 80%, would be the worst for you. In comparison butter, which contains only 55% saturated fat, should be much healthier.

Yet, in recent years, foodies have hailed coconut oil as the best thing since cod liver oil. It is a miracle, and can cure most diseases under the sun. With my degree in chemistry and 10 years of experience in the food industry, I have to scratch my head here.

To brush up my knowledge on saturated fat, I google ‘why is saturated fat..’ I wanted to add ‘bad for you’ but my eye fell on the first two suggestions google gave me for my query: ‘why is saturated fat bad for you’ and ‘why is saturated fat important.’

The food industry loves saturated fats. Why? They are stable, solid, and have many other properties that make them easy to use in ready-made food products, like increasing stability, mouth feel and shelf live. Highly saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature (butter/ ghee, cocoa butter, coconut fat) whereas the more unsaturated ones are liquid (olive oil, sunflower oil, canola/ rapeseed). Every fat is in fact a blend, and to really judge a fat you need to look at the entire profile, but I won’t bore you with too much chemical detail. Simply put: highly unsaturated fats are seen as ‘healthy’, and saturated ones as ‘bad.’

Saturated fats are also expensive. That’s why the food industry has found a trick: hydrogenated oils, also called trans-fats. Basically, you chemically trick liquid oil into being solid fat. These artificially saturated fats are especially bad for you. And our coconut fans claim the naturally occurring saturated fat, like the one in coconut oil and butter, is a whole different story.

In a similar way, margarine tricks liquid oil into being a spreadable substance by adding emulsifiers. Originally invented to save costs (butter was dear), margarine was later recommended for health reasons. After all, it is made from liquid, unsaturated fats. And by adding more additives, even less fat is needed to make a spread. Food authorities still promote non-dairy fat spreads like margarine, particularly low fat varieties.

Are they right? Who knows, but one thing is clear: there is more to fat than saturation. Highly processed vegetable oils like sunflower and rapeseed contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids, which can be harmful in excess. In contrast to the omega 3 fatty acids, which you can’t really get enough of. These beneficial fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, walnuts, (soy)beans, olive oil and fish.

I could go on for pages about fat, but let’s leave it in limbo for now.

What about those additives, you wonder? Health authorities claim they are researched, approved and therefore safe to use, but the opposition cries murder. There is often no clear evidence to prove them right, but even I, a trained (food) chemist, struggle to believe that all these chemicals can be good for you. So sorry, no univocal answers there either.

Now for the good news, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: vegetables. Vegetables are good for you. Vegetables are the best. Yeah.

I thought one option at least was safe. Until I recently visited a nutritionist. I had to sum up what I liked to eat, and as I am such a vegetable lover I was sure to get kudos. I smiled when I read out my list.
On spinach, she shook her head. Full of oxalates.
Beet roots? No, root vegetables are full of carbs, better avoid.
Tomatoes, I offered, hesitantly, or aubergine, my absolute favourite.
The look on her face said it all. Oh no, nothing in the nightshade family.
Apart from sweet peppers. They were the best, she said.
And onion and garlic were super healthy too.

The thing is, I hate the taste of sweet peppers, and onion and garlic make me so bloated I look 3 months pregnant.
So at that point, I gave up.

Right now, to me, only one thing is perfectly clear: Nutritional science is very complex. If even the experts disagree, how are we supposed to understand what is good for us? I have decided on a different approach: common sense.

I feed my family a varied diet, rich in wholesome, natural, unprocessed products. Low on processed carbs, sugars and chemical additives. High on flavour. I avoid products where my experience has shown they cause adverse reactions in my own body. And sometimes we cheat. We are, after all, only human.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Cheep cheep

*** cuteness alert ***

A soft, intermittent cheep cheep sound is what I am hearing when typing this post. Fairly soothing, definitely way more so that the racket I am hearing from outside in the chicken run, where a new pecking order is being established, and loudly, chucklingly so. 

The cheeping comes from three little fluffy chicks. Our flock had been diminished by the visit of large Mr Python, and some smaller but equally vile stomach parasites. Then, some of our hens stopped laying altogether, supposedly from old age, and we were down to one egg a day. Not enough to feed a family of six. So, it was time for some new blood. 

Next to Marigold the aged hamster, in a small rabbit hutch, are the cheepers. When the children came home from school yesterday they ran to them straight away. The three chicks were swiftly divided, one each, and off course they all named their own little one. They spent most of their time eating, poo-ing and sleeping, just like all babies. And cheeping. 

We can't stop staring at their overt cuteness and fluffiness, and hereby I proudly present the new members of our household: 


Jasmijn opted for the smallest, yellowest fluff ball and named it after her favourite flower. 

Jasmijn and Daisy

Linde went for the largest yellow one, and called it little Fien, after large Josefien who is still in the run outside for now, but will leave us soon. Josephine was Linde's favourite chicken, named after the late Oma Jose and Linde's own middle name. 

Little Fien

And, last but not least, our little brown one: Ronaldo! Which I hope will turn out to be a Ronalda, although Tijm has different ideas on that. 


Little Fien and Daisy

Meanwhile, outside, Messy and Lizzie are fighting their way into the run. Like the others before them, they look slighlty dazzled and frumpy after life in a farm cage. At many spots feathers are missing, their combs are pale and drooping, and they have no clue about natural chicken life. Not only do they have to get used to walking on sand (or mud, in yesterdays weather), seeking shelter from rain, sleeping on a roost, and eating bugs and vegetables, they have to do this under the not so watchful eyes of Josefien, Tilly and Fee. 

Since Josefien has not been her imperious self lately, Tilly seems to be ruling the roost. She is our top layer, and now top hen too, but even so, she is a scrawny little thing with a very bare bum, that after almost a year and a half out of the cage still has not regrown its feathers. Tilly fluffed up the few feathers she has in her neck to seem larger, and strutted around the newcomers haughtily. 

Josephine tried to assert some of her former leadership by chasing Lizzie and Messy away every time them came near the food. I strategically placed three bowls in different spots in the run, hoping that Lizzie and Messy will manage to get at least some of the food. 

I keep a much more watchful eye, and am looking forward to gorging on all those eggs again!

Messy and Lizzie

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Our Tropical Christmas Tree

The monkeys by the tree
When I walked into the garden centre the smell of pine hit me in the face, hard. The scent evoked strong memories. Memories of toilet cleaner, pine fresh. ‘Enjoy a merrier Christmas with the sweet scent of Fresh Christmas Trees this season!’ banners announced.

When we first bought one of these US imported trees in Singapore I was positively amazed by the strong scent. It invaded every corner of the house, and after a few hours I was less impressed. The tree started to give me a headache. The Norway spruces I was used to in Europe smell much more subtly. Only if you bury your face between its branches the lovely smell will envelope you. Walking past, brushing the twigs ever so slightly, will let bells in the tree ring, and send a small whiff of pine scent into the air.

After a week or so in our house, with no air conditioning, the Singapore heat had turned most of the needles or our US Noble Fir brown. The scent, however, permeated from the barren stalks as strong and fresh as ever. It was then that I realised the truth about the ‘sweet scent of fresh Christmas tree’ the garden centre promised. A spruce in the tropics, who was I fooling?

So this year, when the pine fresh toilet cleaner hit me, I decided on a different approach. I wandered along several garden centres until I found something that would fulfil my purpose: a small Monkey Puzzle tree. In a pot. At a fraction of the cost of the US Noble Fir.

When I took it home, Linde was immediately excited. A tropical Christmas tree! Tijm, less so. It is not a real Christmas tree, he moaned. It took some explaining, telling stories about the spirit of Christmas, about the cluster of branches of the casaurina tree that I had as a Christmas tree growing up in Borneo, that with their long, droopy needles looked even less like the real thing, to persuade Tijm of how cool our Monkey Puzzle was. But after we decorated it, we all agreed it was just perfect for our jungle house patio. 

Just a short distance from our tropical Christmas tree, across from the gate into our garden, stands a full-size Monkey Puzzle tree, fifty feet high. Our furry neighbours, the macaques, love playing in it. How will they react to the baby one filled with colourful decorations and sparkling lights? I’ll tell you once I find out.

Only, our Monkey Puzzle has one little problem: it does not smell. Maybe I should buy some air freshener? Pine fresh

Merry Christmas to everyone!