Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cook Singaporean? CAAAAAAAN!

Having studied in Singapore, and having visited it thrice in the last four years, I have been one of its biggest fans for years - not in the least because of the food. I have made Laksa a couple of times before, but I never got down to cooking a Singaporean meal. Of course, that is a little tricky, because Singaporean food is a mix of various regional and immigrant influences, and ingredients are not all that easy to find here. But I was determined, and invited my sister and brother-in-law, and a friend couple (both of whom recently became parents) to taste of my first shot at making a full Singaporean meal.

To start with, I prepared the requisite Laksa. I did not post the process here, because I used a premix packet for the Laksa curry paste and flavor, pouring this over blanched noodles and bean sprouts, and topping with shrimp, surimi, fried tofu, fishball, and sambal chili. Still, its looks (and taste) warrant a picture.

But here's where the actual cooking begins.

For the vegetable dish, I chose to make Sayur Lodeh, a Malay/Indonesian vegetable curry popular in the region. We start by quartering shallots and chopping garlic.

Then we crush candlenuts (I used brazil nuts) in a mortar.

We add them to the mix, along with turmeric, sauteed shrimp paste and roughly chopped dried red chile peppers.

We mash this together and fry it in a pot until the garlic and shallots soften.

Then we slice and add galangal (substituted with fresh ginger)

We add coconut milk and bring to a simmer.

Now we can add the vegetables: carrots cut into thick sticks, pieces of cabbage, and cut beans, with some sugar and salt.

Finally, we add fried tofu, and allow to cook until the vegetables start to soften.

Served hot, Sayur Lodeh can be eaten as a delicious hearty soup, or with rice.

For the meat dish, I went for a Malay/Singaporean Chinese classic called Bak Kut Teh. It literally translates to "meat bone tea" from the Hokkien language, but it does not contain tea (tell you why later). It's normally made with pork, but one can use any meat, and I went with mutton. I secured a combination of stewing mutton and backbone mutton, and selected a large mutton leg that I had a butcher chop up into hefty chunks.

We start by chopping garlic.

We fry those a bit at the bottom of a pot (I used a pressure cooker), and add water, followed by the real distinguishing components: the Bak Kut Teh herbs and spices.

When this is simmering, we can add the meat and some shiitake mushrooms.

Finally, we add some broadly cut napa cabbage, oyster sauce and bean sauce, after which we put the lid on and allow the dish to slow-cook.

A few hours is sufficient, but I went for 18, and in a pressure cooker to boot. Almost all the bones in the Bak Kut Teh were completely softened out, and meat was tender and flavored through and through with the Bak Kut Teh herbs, sauces and spices. It was the hit of the night (and the next couple of days >_^)

And here's where the tea comes in: despite my repeated skimming, it's quite a fatty dish, and it's traditional to down a few cups of green tea right after (in this case, some of my stash of original Longjing from Hangzhou).

To complement the Bak Kut Teh, I made a Chinese rice dish called Yau Fan, or Garlic Rice.

We start by frying ginger-garlic paste until slightly browned, and adding soaked rice to mix.

To this, chicken stock, sugar and salt is added, and the rice is cooked in a cooker.

The finished Yau Fan is served with brown-fried shallots stirred in. Honestly, this is tasty enough to eat on its own.

And to cap a great meal, Singaporean-style coffee, made with brewed and filtered special coffee imported from Singapore on a recent trip, and a little sweetened condensed milk.

Gas station Attendants' Tips Still Being Confiscated

This is a bit tricky. It's common practice in some establishments (especially where a customer can be served by a number of interchangeable staff in a single visit) to put all the tips into a pool and split it at the day's end. Of course, the effectiveness of this system is contingent on the final sum actually being split among the service staff, instead of being fed into some hazy "staff welfare and entertainment" fund.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Star Wars Cantina Shufflin'

Found this today, and was totally blown away. The synchronization is just unbelievable.

Not as grin-provoking, but still impressive for it's 3D graphics work:

Friday, December 7, 2012

UAE National Day Mob Gropings of Women

Rather disturbing news from this UAE National Day has come to light (apart from the suicide-by-metro in Dubai, that is).

It appears mob sexual assaults were taking place in Abu Dhabi on what is supposed to be a glorious day for the country. According to the head of police in the capital, there were "between five and 12 [mob sexual assault] incidents reported on the day". Now, National Day is generally notorious for the vandalism-heavy revelry - a feature to which we UAE residents have somewhat resigned ourselves. I know I refused to visit my parents in Abu Dhabi until late into the next morning, by which time all that remained of the debauchery of the night before were glittery curbs and foamy cars. If you're on Abu Dhabi's Corniche Road or any other such "parade-prone" strip in a vehicle, you can expect to get silly-stringed and confettified. At least, I thought that was the worst we had to fear on this day.

In the National's article on the most recent spate of such attacks, there are worrying signs that the attacks were organized - if not for specific targets, then for the aggressors' participation and methods, which resemble those in Egypt. In once case, a group of 5 women were swarmed and brutally groped by almost 70 men on the Abu Dhabi Corniche, escaping thanks to their having hung together and fought until they could get the attention and assistance of passers-by.

One puzzling part of the article was the head of police saying that the parties who reported such assaults, most of them "Arab and Asian", then withdrew their complaints "because of the festive spirit". Huh?

This sort of attack happened more than once last year, given that the women in the story said that they "heard some stories from last year". Incidentally, they decided that the appropriate precaution for this year would then be to "be very modest ... [wear] trousers, [cover] up" and not "draw any attention to [them]selves". I suppose internalization of victim-blaming mentality did not help much this year. Perhaps they will have better luck next year with the addition of headscarves. Or not.

A quick web search also revealed an archival article which indicates that this has been happening since as far back as two years ago, when on National Day (again), a group of another 5 women were surrounded by a mob and groped (one of them subjected to an attempted stripping) for almost two minutes, after some in the mob blinded them with silly string (of the story of which the very same head of police was, um, skeptical back then).

I think both expats and nationals will agree, now more than ever, that the atmosphere of lawlessness that is permitted to prevail on this day in the name of the aforementioned "festive spirit" has got to end. This is no longer a matter of just glittery curbs and foamy cars.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Gorgin' on Georgian

What's one to do when one has a bottle of Georgian wine on hand? Make a Georgian meal to go with, is what!

Friends with adventurous palates were invited to sample this fine Caucasian cuisine, prepared by yours truly. The cooking experience was fairly straightforward. One of the best things about cooking Georgian food is that one can do so much with readily-available components. Too often have I taken it upon myself to make a meal of a particular non-mainstream cuisine, and end up hopping from market to market for hours to find a specific ingredient.

For this meal, I decided to make a starter of a Georgian staple called khachapuri. It's a bit like the manakish we get here. It's basically a type of cheese bread. To start, the dough is prepared by mixing flour, salt, sugar and baking soda with buttermilk.

While it rests, the filling of shredded mozzarella cheese, egg, crushed garlic and finely chopped cilantro is prepared.

The rested dough is made into balls and flattened out into thin discs upon which a dollop of mixed filling is placed.

Then the edges are folded in over the filling, and the result is flattened again.

Fried in shallow oil until golden brown, the result is a delicious khachapuri.

Next is the Georgian salad/appetizer called pkhali. For this, beetroot is boiled and skinned, then shredded.

Walnuts are lightly crushed and roasted.

These are added to the shredded beetroot, along with finely chopped garlic and cilantro. Greek yogurt is added to dress and bind.

Finally, lime juice and salt are added to taste, to produce a delicious salad complement of pkhali.

For the vegetable dish, I chose to make ajapsandali. Cubed potato is parboiled, then layered in a deep pot with cubed eggplant, diced onion and chopped tomato with some tomato juice.

This is covered with chopped bell pepper and drizzled with oil, and then covered and simmered until the vegetables start to soften.

Then chopped cilantro and parsley are added, along with salt, pepper and paprika to taste.

Once the eggplant gets mushy, the ajapsandali is removed from the heat, and may be served.

The rice dish is plov, which is a sweetish sort of Georgian pilaf. For this, grated carrot, minced onion and minced garlic are briefly stir-fried in butter.

Then slivered almond, orange zest, raisins, saffron and turmeric are added, and the mixture is stirred over heat a while longer.

Finally, rice is stirred in, boiling chicken stock is added, and the pot is set to boil briefly.

After adding salt and pepper, the plov is allowed to simmer until all the stock is absorbed, and served.

The preparation of the chicken dish chakhokhbili begins with browning of chicken breast cubes with chopped onion, which is then cooked at length with chopped tomato.

Minced garlic, mixed fresh herbs, bay leaves, crushed red pepper flakes, salt and pepper are added.

The mixture is simmered until most of the liquid evaporates, and the chakhokhbili is ready for serving.

For the dessert of kada, pastry dough is prepared by making a dough of water, salt and flour, and repeating a process of rolling, spreading butter, folding and chilling.

The filling is prepared by roasting some flour, mixing it with melted butter, and stirring in sugar.

The filling is spread onto the pastry dough, which is rolled up and sealed with cold water.

It can be coiled into a tin and baked, but I chose the unorthodox method of slicing the roll into coins and baking them individually.

The kada is ready after brushing with egg yolk and baking at about 180C until it becomes a golden brown and the filling melts into delicious gooey-ness.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

Planning a Flash Mob? Just Don't Call It That.

Once again, we in Dubai are subjected to a "flash mob" (this time, a Gangnam Style dance) that is costumed and professionally choreographed to the last shoelace and shimmy. They did not even bother creating the semblance of a flash mob - the throngs that normally mill about the Dubai Mall were cleared from the runway atrium in advance, in order to let the dancers take up planned starting positions.

Fine, maybe there's not so much freedom of assembly here, and you have to get permission for this and that, but call it a "public dance" or something, instead of appropriating and diluting a term like "flash mob" just because it's trendy. The same goes for the term "open mic" being used to describe events with pre-approved scripts and pre-selected lineups.

Right Wing Gaffe on Obama's "Islamic Ring"

Looks like WND and ilk have gone off the deep end with the Obama has an Islamic Ring story, even though it has been thoroughly debunked as the wishful interpretation of a completely benign decorative pattern of straight and wavy lines. I strongly doubt they will retract this claim now, given how close it is to the election.

Photo credit: Miguel Villagran / Getty Images (June 5, 2009)
Retrieved from on Oct. 10, 2012

Ironically, the folks normally doing the job of seeing Islamic writings in any old pattern of a squiggly/stripey nature have been Muslims. And when these Muslims see Allah and Muhammad written in a sliced tomato and on a fish skin, the Christian right is more than happy to join in what is a completely justified mockery of a more-severe-than-usual case of religiously-driven delusion. But said Christian rightists have now revealed their hypocrisy, gleefully using the same ridiculous tactics when it comes to attempting demolition of a presidential candidate. They have shown themselves to be more desperate than even I could have imagined.

Monday, October 15, 2012

JK Kim Dong Wook - Bucket List

A lovely, deep song by opera-pop singer JK Kim Dong Wook, from the Scent of a Woman OST. What a unique and beautiful voice, for a unique and beautiful song.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sarah Geronimo: Kung Ako Na Lang Sana

I discovered this song on a recent visit to a Filipino music bar. The original is by Bituin Escalante, but Sarah Geronimo's cover is vocally comparable, and has good instrumentals.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Capital Calling

A new Abu Dhabi government decision mandates that all employees of the emirate's government or government-owned bodies must reside within the emirate, if they want to keep their housing allowance. Such a policy has already been in place for some emirate-owned companies, such as Etihad Airways, but it has now been extended to any entity under the emirate's wing. The majority affected will obviously be those who commute from Dubai, and a year is to pass before housing allowances are to be withdrawn from salaries of those who fail to comply.

Concerns are already being raised, but the root cause of the vast majority of these is that the mandate is being retroactively applied i.e. added to the contracts of everyone in organizations to which the mandate is applicable, even when the hires were made before this decision was reached. Many persons who work in Abu Dhabi and have long been in Dubai have, by then, settled themselves and their families into a way of life tailored to Dubai.

As anyone who has been to Abu Dhabi knows, the road system is still going through growth pangs, as the network makes a transition from the older traffic signals and grid layout to a more streamlined system of underpasses, flyovers and interchanges to which Dubai-dwellers are accustomed. The urban zone is expanding onto the mainland and other islands, but much affordable residential space has yet to come to market, and facilities for residents like restaurants, nightclubs, public transportation (read: metro), malls, theaters, galleries, pavilions, entertainment complexes and lifestyle centers have a long way to catch up to Dubai's level in both quality and quantity. This is not an indictment of Abu Dhabi, but merely a recognition of the reality that has already been pointed out by commentators such as Khalid al Ameri.

Then there is the parking issue on the island, which has resulted in chaos and frustration in many parts of the city, thanks to lack of a policy to ensure packaged parking in building construction until the last couple of years. Where the parking meter system has been implemented, people have to park and take a bus or taxi from hundreds of meters away from their own homes. The only way to get away from the city's parking woes is to move off the island to the satellite islands or mainland locations like Al Raha, Khalifa City and Shahama. But that, again, means losing out on access to aforementioned lifestyle options.

Those who live with spouses/siblings/children working in Dubai will be faced with a much harsher dilemma. These families will be either be torn apart or lose breadwinners, unless the Dubai-employed spouse/sibling can find a job in Abu Dhabi, which will put additional pressure on the Abu Dhabi job-seeker's market. It gets even more complicated when families with children have to transfer the latter to Abu Dhabi schools. This will increase demand for slots in Abu Dhabi's schools, especially when it comes to children who have been educated in a specific syllabus. Family issues aside, there are the social circles that will be stretched, possibly to breaking point. And this is not to mention those who not only live in Dubai, but have taken property in Dubai to live in on a rent-to-buy basis, and will now have to find tenants at likely lower rents.

So this is not an entirely negative move, according to those behind the decision. The claimed benefits will include less commuting stress and fewer highway accidents. I know of a few people who have made a move to Abu Dhabi when the stress got to them. That was their choice, though; they decided that the trade-off weighed in that direction when considering their tastes and circumstances. Clearly, for the others, the long commute was worth what they had going in Dubai. And as for highway accidents, better enforcement of speed limits and road discipline would help much more than simply reducing the number of cars on the road. You still see drivers zipping along at 160 km/h on  a 140 km/h highway, weaving through traffic and flashing anyone who cares to actually observe the speed limit. Besides, many people who are used to living in Dubai will probably head there right after work to attend to their evening social engagements, and then head back in the night, which could result in far worse highway accidents involving tired, full-bellied drivers in the 22:00 - 01:00 period.

For the affected employees, there are few ways out. People might try to register residence with a friend or relative in Abu Dhabi while living in Dubai, but I suspect now that Abu Dhabi is cracking down on apartment sharing, this too might become impossible. There is, of course, the possibility of renting accommodation in both cities, but that would be prohibitively expensive for most. Another way out is to have an arrangement with a trusted Abu Dhabi resident, also working in Abu Dhabi, but in the private sector. You would register tenancy for their place in your name and they would register tenancy for yours in their name. This would follow the letter of the law (assuming a tenancy contract is the evidence for living in the emirate). Since private sector employees are not penalized on housing allowance with regard to living in other emirates, this would not be a problem for the private sector Abu Dhabi resident, while you would meet your requirement of having an Abu Dhabi tenancy contract in your name.

Anyway, for those who don't engage in such loophole tactics, some will resign and settle for jobs in Dubai. Others will suck it up and move themselves and their families to Abu Dhabi. Of these, some will move to Al Raha, Khalifa City or Shahama, and hightail it to Dubai to spend the evening after work, while the rest will try to make do with whatever's are available in Abu Dhabi.

There are other questions in the grey. Will people being hired during the grace period have to move directly to Abu Dhabi, or can they also stay in Dubai on housing allowance until September 2013? And if you are a working couple or family, will all except for one housing allowance get clipped if the tenancy contract and bills are registered in the name of one person? Which is to say, how do you prove that you live in Abu Dhabi, if the bills are being paid in the name of just one of the people with whom you live? Also, will housing allowances be adjusted in accordance with the pricier rent situation in Abu Dhabi? Yes, I'm very curious as to how all this will get sorted out.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hyun Bin - That Man (현빈 - 그남자)

The Korean unrequited love ballad at its best. Secret Garden's soundtrack just gets better the more of it I hear.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Another great Oska song: Tear Stain

I normally roll my eyes at body swap scenarios, but the one in Secret Garden is executed exceedingly well. Looking forward to finishing this series. In the meantime, here's another beautiful ballad by our dear Oppa.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hot for Hotteok

I had recently gotten my hands on a Director's Cut version of Musa: The Warrior, and set up a screening at my place. Of course, I had to make it a theme night, so I looked up some Korean snacks, and selected hotteok. An alternative I considered was bindaettok, but I was concerned about its appropriateness for a light teatime snack, it being rather meaty, savory and spicy. So I settled on hotteok, the sweetness of which made a great accompaniment to the flower tea.

To start with, stir sugar and a bit of dry yeast into warm water, and let it sit and foam up.

In the meantime, mix wheat flour, rice flour (important to give it the crispiness) and some more sugar.

Add in the foamed-up yeast/sugar mixture, and some soy milk.

Fold and knead into a dough, put in a large bowl, cover with plastic film and let it sit somewhere warm (like the outdoors in Dubai)

While it sits, mix brown sugar, chopped walnuts and a little cinnamon.

This will be the filling.

After a couple hours, the dough should have doubled in size.

For each hotteok, take a small ball of expanded dough, flatten it, put the filling in and fold the edges of the disc over the filling to cover and seal it into a ball. Pop it on a sizzling-hot oiled pan, and use the clean bottom of a coffee mug (if you don't happen to have a genuine hotteok press) to flatten it. Fry on both sides until it browns a bit, and soak the excess oil into a thick tissue paper sheet after removal from the pan. Pay close attention while it's frying - it's easy to burn if you leave it on too long, and I had to discard a couple on that account.

Serve hot and crispy with tea.