Wednesday 24 April 2013

The help

Life in Singapore comes with benefits. Help. Cheap, all day, domestic help. The comfortable-off Singaporean housewife does not have to get distracted by laundry, mopping floors or getting groceries. She has time for the more important things in life. Like having coffee, with friends.

Whilst the kids relieve the small wooden shop in the corner of the living room of its wares, drive around the baby pram, or push over stacks of Duplo bricks, I pour another round of ice tea for their mothers. One of my friends wipes the sweat of her forehead. It is hot today. I hand around my homemade Dutch ‘ontbijtkoek,’ and my Australian, British and Indian friends taste and approve. We talk about baking. Cooking. And, before long, the help.

My Australian friend is looking for a new one. Her third. Why is she so unlucky? Either they cannot clean, don’t listen, or can’t control the kids. My other, Indian, friend, tells about her new helper, who worked for another Indian family for six years and promised to know all the ins and outs of complex Indian food. When my friend asked her to roll chapatti’s, the Philippina girl rolled her eyes. Where was the electric chapatti maker? The girl had no idea how to cook the vegetarian dishes my friend favoured, and she was considering a cooking course.
Cooking courses for helpers abound in Singapore, to teach Chinese, Western, Korean or Japanese food, to any employer’s fancy.

My British friend sighs. There won’t be a course in the world to help my helper, she says with a shake of her head, she managed to burn boiled eggs. We all nod, ready to carry on, share more stories, but my friend cries, no, really, literally. The girl let the eggs boil for hours, until the water was gone and the pot black with soot. 

But, my friend shrugs, she is great with the kids.

Complaining about the help. I have heard worse, far worse. These conversations can make me feel uncomfortable, but are also just so human, showing clearly the old, colonial inequalities in this otherwise so modern city. The girls, usually from poor and remote villages in the Philippines or Indonesia, don’t always have much in common with their Chinese, Indian and Western employers.

I try not to, not to complain. But I am only human too, the weather is hot and the ice tea cool. My complaint? My Indah is too good a cook. And she enjoys it too. I had resolved to do this myself, really I had. But the tropical heat makes lazy and tired. The afternoons are full of football, ballet and swimming lessons, and cooking time for dinner inconveniently coincides with bath and bedtime. So when Indah asks, with hope in her keen eyes, what she can cook tonight I let her, save in the knowledge that it will be good and tasty and requires no effort on my side. Not even the dishes after.

Every recipe I give her she will copy, faultlessly, better than I, who can stick to no command, ever could. Even my ‘why not something with aubergine and ginger’ gets tasty results.

We are best when we work and learn together, combining her Asian experience and excellent chopping skills with my western and technical food knowledge. She chops, she suggests, I google and I mix, all the flavours of the globe. Together we create real fusion food. We are a good team, my Indonesian helper and me. 

Indah's fish in kechap

2 large white, soft fish fillets (we use Pangasius)
5 cm ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 large onion
red chilli to taste
sweet Kechap Manis (indonesian soy sauce)

Slice the onion in thin rings and chop the ginger and garlic fine. For heat you can use either the larger, milder red chilli's, which add both flavour and colour, but if you like a bit more of a punch you can also add some of the smaller, but hotter, thai chilli's. 

Heat some oil in a wok, and fry the onion, garlic, ginger and chili for a minute or so.  Then add the fish, and fry briefly. Add the soy sauce generously, around 3 to 4 table spoons should do it. Fry until the fish is tender, and add a few tablespoons of water if the dish threatens to get too dry.  

Monday 15 April 2013

The most beautiful playground

We felt it was time to immerse our young children in a dose of Asian culture, and booked five days in Cambodia to see the famous temples of Angkor Wat. Later, not until we were packing, we leafed through our guidebook, noticing that April is known as the ’killer’ month, with temperatures easily topping the forties.

A touch of heat won’t scare us, and we take off early, having been up since five anyway, thanks to Jasmijn, our lively two year old. The early morning air is cool and sweet. Mr Ouch, our trusty tuk tuk driver awaits, to chart us around in his cart. The tuk tuk has two red benches, behind a small motorcycle. With the hot wind in our hair, red dust everywhere, we attempt to keep small hands and penguins on board all week.

Over a wide bridge we enter Angkor Wat, and its beautiful park, through impressively ornate gates. Tijm scrambles onto a pile of sandstone blocks. ‘Come on Linde, let’s climb!’
The temples, with their galleries, steps and towers are great for clambering and roaming. The most beautiful playground in the world.

We all climb higher, winding up to the towers, and around every corner it gets even more beautiful. We admire bas-reliefs and statues, carved in
 sandstone almost a millennium ago. Dancers with elegantly curved fingers, grimacing lions, enigmatically smiling Buddha’s. I point at at immensly steep stairs, leading to the top of this part Buddhist, part Hindu temple. So steep children are not allowed to climb, and I read aloud from the guidebook; that they are so steep, because the road to god is hard to follow. 

‘Why is the road to god so hard?’ asks Tijm.
I sigh and think. ‘Because you get to god by being good,’ I suggest, ‘and because for most people it is easier to be naughty.’
Tijm nods, and I am happy he asks no further. Not today. Not on this inspiring site.

The next day, at a side temple of the Bayon in the Angkor Thom complex, we see more stairs, equally steep but not so long. No sign or fence is to be seen, and Tijm just has to go up. Linde follows, and when she returns Jasmijn, only just two, sings ‘now me too, daddy.’
When she is safely back on solid ground a group of Korean tourists applaud her, Jasmijn posing proud for their flashing Ipads. The Koreans laugh, but don’t dare mount themselves.

Tijm and Linde have moved on, on top of a pile of rocks. 

I run, before accidents happen, to the kids or the thousand-year-old building.
‘Come on, mama,’ Tijm shouts, ‘I am at level three already.’
Not long after we all reached level thirteen and it is game over. The most beautiful game we ever played.

We see more temples, many more, every morning until the heat gets too much and Mr Ouch tuk tuks us back to our hotel with the little pool in the courtyard. There we wait out the heat of midday, until it is time for a quiet tuk tuk ride and sample Cambodian cuisine.

After much more climbing, over tree roots and stones, sauntering, dangling from lianas, it is not until the last day they sigh, please, no more temples. Enough.
Too tired to walk in the heat our tuk tuk drives us around for a final tour, round and round, until we saw it all.

Then we are back at Siem Reap airport for the flight home. We saw so much. We climbed so high. The best part of the holiday? 

The kids exclaim, unanimously: The tuk tuk, off course.

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