Monday 27 February 2017

Sunday morning

‘Don’t wake us up tomorrow morning,’ we told the kids Saturday evening. ‘Mama and papa want to sleep in.’ The good thing about the kids getting older, is that they don’t automatically come to our room the second they wake up, but manage to entertain themselves for a limited period of time. We need to leave some instructions about noise levels - no piano playing before seven on weekdays, for instance, and no fighting or hurting each other too noisily (in quiet, it’s fine) but generally they do fairly well. Although we can’t get the girls out of bed on any weekday, on weekends, they seem to be always up too soon. But of course, as all parents know, anything after eight on a Sunday counts as sleeping in.

The first time I woke up it was around five, still dark. Mitzi the cat was meowing loudly in front of our bedroom door. When I went out to try and silence her, she nudged me to her bowl through the darkish room. I felt my way around the shelves, trying not to turn on any light that would wake up the other, still sleeping, half of my brain, and filled her bowl, whilst making mental notes to give her extra food next time. I scratched her head, and stumbled back to bed. Around seven forty five I heard gentle noises coming from the living room, but managed to block them, and turned around – they would be fine for at least another hour.

Then, the chicken popped up into my head. If I’d leave them in the night house too long, they’d traipse all through the poo, making a nasty mess, and worse, the older ones would bully the two young pullets in that closeted space after they were awake. I sneaked out the back of the house, so the kids could not see me, and released and fed the hens. I took the cage with the chicks out of the playroom, and watered and fed those too. On the way, I popped some chye sim into the tadpole bowl, and a leaf of lettuce in sla-witje the caterpillar’s bottle. With all creatures nourished, I allowed myself a sip of water, and snuck back into bed. The kids had had birthday parties yesterday, so I hoped their secret party bag stash sugar should give us at least another hour.

After about half that time, the first one popped his head around our door. I moved as little as I could, closed my eyes pointedly, and the door closed again. The next one barged in five minutes later, less subtly, and declared she was dying from hunger. I opened one eye, muttered something about bananas, and tried to sleep on, well aware that the end had begun. Every few minutes now another child would enter, asking about mandarins, chocolate paste on sandwiches, and to complain they could not cut the bread themselves. Cursing the artisanal, crusty bread, I got up, sliced the bread, generously dosed it with chocolate spread, put it on the table, and tiptoed back to bed.

And of course, after that, it was a only matter of little time before all three started piling on top of us. Feeling the little arms, legs and bodies around him, Roel stretched out and looked up. ‘That was a good lie-in,’ he stated. It was nine o’clock. Sunday had begun.

Monday 13 February 2017


Most mornings we are awoken by a cheerful cock-a-doodle-doo. It is a nice way to wake up, a reminder that nature is calling, and the day has started. Admittedly, it is slightly annoying at 5am, but hey. When you see the beauty of the fellows making this noise, much is forgiven. With their striking plumage and solid strut, the roosters of the wild jungle fowl are a joy to behold. They love our garden too, and the wild roosters like to prance around our own layer hens, who look demurely from the run at these attractive males. 

It seems not everyone feels that way. Not far from us a group of wild fowl was thriving, and after several complaints from local residents, the government decided to act. All the fowl were caught, and culled. Not even turned into proper free-range chicken rice, but disposed of. Needless to say, the other half of the residents were livid. They loved their chooks. 

Now, there is a raging debate online whether the fowl in question were in fact jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of our domestic chickens, an endangered, and therefore protected species. This particular flock was featured in a BBC documentary on urban wildlife, and I struggle to believe that Sir Attenborough and friends would not know their jungle animals?

The government obviously does not want to admit a mistake, and is trying hard to prove these birds were, in fact, no such thing. That they were feral chicken, domestic ones gone wild, and that have interbred with the jungle fowl, and therefore look alike. Biologists claim that these mixed-breeds need to be culled, to protect the clean bloodlines of the jungle fowl race. Can you imagine someone suggesting to do such a thing with human race populations? It has been done, historically, and never ended well.

To calm us all down before I continue, let me show you the photos of the immensely cute mother with four chicks we saw in our garden this weekend. 

Pure-blooded or not, we love all our game, noisy as they are, but I still became curious which race 'ours' were. On the internet it is suggested that 'real' jungle fowl has grey legs and a bright white spot by the side of the head. Most of the roosters we see have the white spot, so does mother hen above. They are all good flyers, that we have seen roost high up in the top of the trees, so I am included to think they are proper wild jungle fowl.

But one of my favourite roosters, seen below, perched on the fence, has a noticeable long, single feather tail, lighter grey legs, and no white spot. So I worry for him. Let's hope none of the neighbours call the police. 

Wednesday 8 February 2017

To meat or not to eat?

A question that has been on my mind for a while is: should we eat less meat? In this article, that I wrote for The Magazine by The Hollandse Club Singapore  I'm looking for some answers. 

Over the last century global meat consumption has steadily gone up, and with new parts of the world developing and being able to afford more meat, this is only expected to increase in the decades to come. Everyone loves meat. So why is that a problem?

Traditionally, people have become vegetarian out of principle - because they do not agree with killing other creatures, or the way in which animals in the modern meat industry are treated. Some do so for health reasons; meat consumption has been linked to a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney-, and gallstones. 

In the last few decades, another more pressing reason to eat less meat has emerged: the global animal industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, making up an estimate of 15 to 18% of global emissions. Burping and farting cattle emit methane, a 20 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Almost all scientists agree: climate change is the biggest challenge the world faces this century. But acting on this knowledge is a challenge for most of us. Our expat life style with yearly intercontinental flights home, frequent weekend trips, swimming pools, and constant air-conditioning is hardly the most sustainable.

Luckily, there is one thing that Asia offers that can help us in our battle against climate change: delicious sources of vegetable protein. Silken tofu, tau pok, tau kwa, as well as tempeh, seitan, miso, and natto. But many expats struggle to prepare these products, and stick to what they know. Which is, too often, meat. Let’s try to get creative, but first, let me explain why eating less animal products is important.

The ecological footprint of meat

Let’s start with some statistics:

* The production of beef releases four times more greenhouse gases than that of a calorie-equivalent amount of pork, five times more than poultry, and fifteen to twenty-five times more than an equivalent of vegetable protein.

* To produce one calorie of protein of beef, twenty-eight calories of energy – often from fossil sources- are needed. For one calorie of soy; only two.

* The production of beef requires roughly 28 times more land, 6 times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water than the production of pork or chicken, and that of crops far less even.

* Raising animals for food is the biggest polluter of our water and topsoil, more so than any other industry.


Forests, the earth’s lungs, have the capacity to absorb CO2, but increasing stretches are cleared to become agricultural land, causing wild animals to lose their habitats. The majority of crops being grown worldwide are used as animal food, rather than being consumed directly by humans. It's more efficient to grow a crop and eat it, than to feed it to an animal as it builds up muscle mass, and then eat the animal. If meat consumption would be drastically reduced, all of humanity could be fed without the need for any more deforestation.

Throwing around figures like this is relatively easy, but getting the picture clear is much more complicated. Many studies contradict each other, and it can be very difficult to make the best food choices, especially if you want to take environment, animal welfare, and your own health into account.

Life cycle analysis

A good way of looking at the environmental impact of a product is a life cycle analysis, where all stages of a product are taken into account. The results can be surprising, for instance one assessment done for packaged orange juice found that over a third of the lifecycle emissions came from just the synthetic fertilizer used on the orange groves. Often people think buying local will eliminate transport emissions, but in many cases 'food miles' actually make up a relatively small percentage of the overall carbon footprint. How the food is grown and produced is much more important.

So let’s all change to organic meat?

Yes, changing to organic or free-range meat will definitely improve animal welfare, and environmental pollution, but when it comes to land use and greenhouse gas emissions, these products are actually worse. Free ranging cattle take longer to grow, spend more energy on movement, and thereby emit more methane than stabled animals. Also, the efficiency of large-scale production can limit the amounts of energy and water used.

Non-intensive rearing of livestock, such as raising animals by grazing on marginal land, or feeding them waste produce, would be a way to allow meat-eating in lower quantities with less environmental harm.

There can only be one conclusion to draw from these facts: Eat less meat. The average American eats 125 kg a year, a Brit 80, and a Thai? Only 28.

Many people these days choose to eat one vegetarian meal a week, and slowly increasing that can give a significant reduction of your ecological footprint.

If you find completely meatless meals difficult, another way is simply to decrease portion size. In a pasta sauce, increase the amount of vegetables and add less mince. Rather than go straight to veggie hamburgers, start by adding a handful of lentils to ground beef, so you can gradually get used to the flavour and texture. Food preferences are simply a matter of habit. Can you not get your children to eat tofu? Coat blocks of it in crumbled cornflakes, and fry them crispy.

Of course now the question arises: what to eat instead? Fish? Fisheries typically emit less greenhouse gases than stables, but unfortunately we are rapidly depleting the oceans, and fish farms have many issues of their own. And the production of cheese emits about the same amount of greenhouse gases as that of pork, and more than that of chicken. From all the animal proteins, eggs rank the best when it comes to battling climate change. But they are still outranked by all vegetables.

The graph above shows that vegetable protein, like grains, pulses, nuts, mushrooms, quorn, seeds and soy are our best choices when we want to reduce our carbon footprint. If you see these products in the supermarket, and don’t know how to prepare them, why not whip out your smartphone, google the ingredient and a number of suggestions should come up.
It is true; going (partially) vegan can be daunting at first, but the wealth of information available online is a great help. Buy a vegan or vegetarian cookbook and by playing around, you will find that with a little bit of effort and creativity, vegetarian food can be immensely versatile, and often surprisingly flavourful.