dimanche, mai 17, 2015

Gluten-free Chocolate Hazelnut Cake

Gluten-free Chocolate Hazelnut Cake

Baby Girl had a very slim lady teacher who was gluten intolerant and I guess I wondered then if that was why she was so slim and elegant. That was the second time I was actually brought to think about this problem, the first being that one Christmas party I attended at Tetra Pak in Modena many years ago where they had a separate buffet spread for employees with coeliac disease. The third occasion was last year when I organised a lunch for my BISS Year 12 class and discovered that one of the very slim and glamorous mums who attended was gluten-intolerant.

From the look of all the round and boisterous members of my family, none of us seems to be suffering from this misfortune and could eat as much pasta, bread and cakes as we want, which we did, making us look like what we ate basically.

Then I noticed that gluten-free products whether primary (e.g. flours) or finished tend to be much more expensive than normal ones and that made me curious to find out more about the disease. I even bought a gluten-free cookbook written by some celebrity chef, but must admit that most of the supposedly delicious recipes hadn't inspired me thus far.

Finally, a Germany bakery here was having a promotion a few weeks back and never one to be able to resist a sale, I bought a packet of premium hazelnut meal and have since been wondering what I could do with it.

A few days ago, I decided to make a simple Gluten-free Chocolate Hazelnut Cake for 3 reasons: 1. to use up the hazelnut meal; 2. to give the kids a taste of a gluten-free cake; 3. because I suspected that Hub would enjoy it very much.

The cake turned out very well and I served it with home-made whipped cream. The kids thought it tasted nice, but preferred the "normal" chocolate cakes that I've baked them. Hub, as predicted, loved the taste and texture of the hazelnut meal in the cake and basically ate most of it up on his own!

The next time there should be a need for a gluten-free offering, I would know what to bring.

Gluten-free Chocolate Hazelnut Cake:

175g chocolate (minimum 35% cocoa butter)
125g butter

6 egg whites
½ tsp salt
25g castor sugar

6 egg yolks
75g granulated sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp grand marnier (optional)
130g hazelnut meal

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Line an 18-cm cake tin (mine's more than 7 cm tall) and grease its sides.

Using a clean and dry electric beater beat the egg whites till stiff, adding the salt and then the sugar along the way. Set aside.

In a separate bowl melt the butter and chocolate in the microwave. Mix well and set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl cream the eggs and sugar together. Add the vanilla and alcohol.

Stir in the butter-chocolate mixture.

Stir in the hazelnut meal.

With a spatula mix in the egg whites in 2-3 portions.

Pour into the prepared cake tin and bake for 45 to 55 minutes. The wooden skewer you poke into the cake should come out clean.

Leave the cake in the tin to cool for a few minutes before turning it out.

Eat it as it is, with some icing sugar over it, or with home-made whipped cream like we did. The cake was not as compact as it would have been otherwise because of the use of egg whites. It even managed to turn out quite tall even though there was no baking powder in it.

dimanche, mai 10, 2015

Pandan Chiffon Cake

Pandan Chiffon Cake

Baby Boy is very fond of eating Pandan Chiffon Cake. I cannot recall where and when he picked up his first slice of the cake, but it's interesting that he should like it since he grew up in Europe and chiffon cake is not popular there.

A few months ago we attended a celebration organised by the Singapore Consulate in Shanghai and a vendor sold pandan chiffon cakes in the bazaar there. I was made to buy a small cake that was really expensive, and I asked myself then why I've been making orange and other chiffon cakes in the past but never a pandan one?

A few afternoons ago, I decided to whip up one quickly to match a charity theme. A few friends of mine here are organisers of the More Than Aware Fun Run yesterday (for breast cancer awareness) and green and pink were the colours for the charity. I made a Beef in Red Wine sauce for the pink and decided on a pandan chiffon for the green. Hub was away as usual (this time abandoning us to be with his best friend in Thailand) so we decided not to join the event, but I've wanted to be with them in spirit.

The chiffon turned out pretty well as I adapted the recipe for my other chiffon cakes for it, but I made the mistake of not being able to bear the loss of a tiny bit of pandan paste just after I've poured the batter into the mould, dipping the spoon into the batter...unfortunately this bit of paste sank into the bottom of the batter without mixing properly with it and the result could be seen after the cake has been baked. We learn from our mistakes, I'm sure.

Pandan(us) Chiffon Cake:

6 egg whites
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cream of tartar
70g caster sugar

6 egg yolks
60g caster sugar
60g canola oil
150ml coconut milk
1 tsp pandanus paste
150g all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 340°F or 175°C.

In a mixing bowl whisk the egg whites till half stiff. I prefer to prepare the egg whites first when the electric beater is clean so as to minimise failure.

Add the salt to the whites and continue whisking.

Add the cream of tartar and continue whisking.

Finally add the sugar and whisk till stiff but do not over do it.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar till creamy.

Add the oil and continue beating.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and mix into the batter.

Stir the pandan paste into the coconut milk and pour into the batter. Mix well.

Mix the egg white batter into the egg yolk batter in 3 times.

Pour into an ungreased and unfloured 21-cm chiffon cake tin and bake in the hot oven for 55-60 minutes.

Turn the cake tin upside down after you've removed it from the oven and let it cool for a while.

Use a knife with a serrated edge to separate the sides of the cake from the tin and unmould the cake onto a serving plate.

The cake can be kept (covered to prevent drying) at room temperature for 2-3 days, but probably not more than that as it contains coconut milk. Keep part of it in the fridge if need be.

Oats in Curry

Oats in Curry
You read a lot nowadays about how processed food and pollution are killing us, awakening the cancers in our bodies and clogging up all our arteries. It is ironic that as Science prolongs the human life, we end up killing ourselves through the way we chose to live.

I am, unfortunately, one of those unhealthy people guilty of not eating enough fibre, preferring a largely protein and carbohydrate diet, and also not doing much physical exercise as a general rule.

My mum is currently an avid reader of the Mind Your Body column in the Straits Times and she really watches what she eats for a couple of years now. That's the same mum who was feeding us snacks all day long when we were kids, fried frozen food from the supermarket (especially during the boom import years when Singapore started becoming very quickly industrialised) and yummy restaurant fare on weekends and during outings.

You look at my siblings and myself and you know that genes apart, we have picked up our fat body shape and generally bad eating habits from those years and it's not possible to turn back the clock. As a mother, I have passed on some of these bad habits to my own children and they are even worse eaters than I've ever been. I started out really well when they were babies and I had to prepare their baby food daily and fresh, but once they started being able to eat food from outside, all my good resolutions flew out of the window and I basically fed them as I would myself.

At the same time, I really think that we should enjoy our food and I wake up every morning looking forward to what I would savour in the day. My grand aunt died when she was 100 years old (the one who used to teach Mrs LKY Geography in MGS, and who was the wife of my illustrous grand uncle Dr. Lim Tay Boh) and as far as I could remember, she spent decades basically eating only boiled vegetables and very little meat (also boiled). I don't think I can live like that, I'd be happy to die of a heart attack later on in life if I'd had my fill of good steaks and other sinful delights.

But you can see that I've nonetheless given some thought to the subject, so I made a resolution to at least eat more healthy stuff like oats whenever I can. The other day I made a chicken curry (actually I make a curry or 2 every week) and we finished most of the meat leaving the equivalent of a small bowl of the gravy behind.

For breakfast the next day, I reheated the gravy with a few tablespoons of rolled oats without overcooking them. Oats in Curry tasted surprisingly pleasant, almost like a dal.

I endeavour to repeat this dish as often as I can in times to come, in fact, I also had oats in Bak Kut Teh a few days later.

samedi, mai 02, 2015

Darwin, Litchfield, Pine Creek and Kakadu in August 2014

View of the Nadab floodplain from Ubirr lookout

It was on a whim that I decided to fly the family to Darwin, Australia when we were in Singapore last August. The flight would take less than 5 hours and August was the dry season which would mean good accessibility to most of the sights in the National Parks, not to forget less risk of encountering crocodiles.

For a number of years now we like to combine nature, food and culture in our holidays and I've always wanted to visit UNESCO-listed Kakadu National Park where the Aboriginal people are said to inhabit for more than 40000 years. We also prefer to self-drive and visiting Darwin during the dry season is essential for that. We started our stay in Darwin with a bit of drama as Hub had left his credit cards behind in Singapore (being used to traveling empty-handed when he's with me) and Budget refused to rent us the car we had reserved because of that. We spent a frightening 30 minutes trying to find an alternative and must commend the lady at Thrifty for her kindness when she discovered the shit we were in. She agreed to rent us a car using my credit card (though Hub would do the driving) and even found us the car we wanted for a slightly higher price than Budget. Whew!

George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens

We were dead tired actually having arrived before 6am in Darwin. Drove out to the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens for a walk after breakfast as it was too early to check into our hotel. The grounds were not too big, but the gardens were lovely and it was interesting seeing houses built over void decks. I imagine it was to survive the flooding and crocodiles swimming around during wet season.


With the car rental fiasco we missed watching the sun rise at Mindil Beach, but left the kids to play on the sand while we checked out the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery (MAGNT). It was a small gallery, but we learnt some interesting facts about Cyclone Tracy that devastated much of Darwin and also learnt about Aboriginal art, the NT being the traditional homeland for many of the Aborigines in Australia.

Mindil Beach and Stokes Hill Wharf neighbourhood

Darwin is a very small and expensive city and I was initially quite shocked to discover the cost of accommodation as I was planning the trip. However, as we only had a full day and night to spend in the city, I booked us 2 rooms at the Palms City Resort just in front of the esplanade. It was within walking distance to most places including Stokes Hill Wharf where there were wave pools, restaurants and a food court selling different types of food including seafood, Thai and Indian. For dinner, we bought wonderful meat and wine from a nearby supermarket and had a BBQ by the hotel's pool.

Magnetic Termite Mounds, Litchfield Park.

The next morning we set out for Litchfield Park which while not as famous as Kakadu is really well worth a visit. You reach the Magnetic Termite mounds first and these cathedral mounds were fascinating as many were taller than us and you learn about the ecosystems, the respect the traditional people have for nature, for their land. Apparently blind worker ants used their inbuilt magnetic compass to orientate their mounds in a North-South direction to keep out the heat, hence the term magnetic termite mounds. Ironically I would discover a huge termite problem in my current rental home just after and I can assure you I didn't take to them kindly and was hell bent on their extermination, no way I wanted any mounds in my house or garden.

Florence Falls, Litchfield Park.

We drove further inland and reached Florence Falls where we walked some distance to enjoy a picnic lunch followed by a beautiful swim in the pools beneath the falls. I was just a little bit insulted when some Australians stopped by where we were eating to remind us to carry our rubbish with us. Much as I appreciated their concern, I felt that there was no need for us to be patronised, especially when we were not throwing anything around us.

During the dry season, it's easier to drive around on one's own as well as access pools where crocodiles would have been cleared out so that it would be safe to swim in them. But the rule remains that you don't swim in any body of water if there are no signs telling you it may be safe to do so.

Buley Rockhole (top middle) and Tolmer Falls Lookout

After our swim (the skies were blue and we didn't have a drop of rain during our week there so an occasional swim was always welcome to help beat the heat), we continued walking and reached the Tolmer Falls lookout before finishing at Buley Rockhole which was near where we parked our car. The Tolmer Falls area was breathtakingly beautiful and we were pleased to discover that though it was peak tourist season in the NT there were still not that many people around no matter where you went. What a change from China!

Litchfield Safari Camp

I have decided to stay overnight in the park so that we would be able to start our next morning at the Cascades. Also, I thought it would be fun for us to stay in a Safari Camp for a change, while still having access to our own private toilet and shower. If you are looking for a budget holiday and do not have your own tent or caravan, forget the NT. We had to pay a small fortune to stay in this tent while being eaten alive by mosquitoes and freezing to death in the middle of the night. But it was quite fun just to have done it once and we even had a BBQ in front of our tent with supplies from the camp's little store.

The Cascades, Litchfield Park.

You don't walk/climb your way to the Cascades in tongs or slippers. It was still quite a walk in and the ground was rocky and slippery, but if you were there early in the morning before the tourist buses arrive, you would probably have the pools all to yourselves (hence a good idea to stay in Litchfield for the night). It was a beautiful swim surrounded by nature and we loved Litchfield Park for all these relatively accessible swimming holes.

Wangi Falls, Litchfield Park.

On the way out of Litchfield Park we stopped by Wangi Falls to have another swim and that would be our last easily accessible swimming hole for what remained of our stay in the NT. Of course we have only done the usual tourist spots in Litchfield since we didn't have a real 4WD nor too much time, but if you have a real 4WD (and it's your own since rental cars are usually not allowed on unpaved roads) with preferably a scuba you would be able to visit even more amazing places in the parks.

Mobile home and pool at the Lazy Lizard; a colonial-era building in Pine Creek town.

From Litchfield Park we continued south into the Katherine region and stopped at the little town of Pine Creek that used to be a booming gold mining and iron ore mining town. Spent the night at the Lazy Lizard where we had a mobile home and the kids swam in the pool where once a crocodile was found swimming in. Pine Creek was really quiet when we were there and we didn't encounter anyone when we walked in the neighbourhood. We were planning to visit Umbrawarra Gorge nearby, but it was turning dark and we didn't dare take the risk, so we had to give it a miss.

Had a pretty good dinner at our holiday park which also had a supermarket and gas station. Last stop for gas on the Stuart Highway before Kakadu National Park, by the way.

Ranger station and Maguk Plunge Pool

We entered Kakadu National Park from the Mary River region and decided to drive to Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) for a swim. We stopped by the Ranger station hoping to buy park tickets (A$25 per person) and obtain information about driving accessibility to one of the water falls, but there wasn't a soul to be seen. On the map, Maguk is only accessible via 4WD along a 12km track. We were pretty desperate to check out the plunge pool reputed to be one of the few in Kakadu whose waterfall still flows during dry season, so we decided to give it a go.

It was fortunate for us that Hub was a brave and good driver. We had 4WD in our rental car, but it was really tricky driving through the sandy stretches and a couple of times we were almost stuck especially when we had to stop when there were cars coming from the other end. My heart stopped beating a few times, but the 2km return walk through monsoon forest and along a rocky creek leading to a small waterfall and clear plunge pool really made it worth our while. However, Maguk was scary too because estuarine crocodiles have been known to move into the area even during dry season, so one still had to be vigilant when walking and swimming in the gorge.

Yellow River

It was with regret that we left for the Yellow Water region, hoping to catch the famous Yellow Water cruise. However, I made the mistake of not booking for places in advance and had to give it a miss though we were there in time for a departure. We walked around the beautiful banks of the river and visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre instead. Very interesting centre that described traditional lives and beliefs in the region, definitely a must visit.

From there we drove up to Jabiru, the main township in Kakadu. You have a few hotels, a library, supermarket, bakery (good pies) etc in Jabiru and we finally managed to buy our park tickets at the very nice Bowali Visitor Centre. Actually it was a little expensive when they were for 14 days and you only planned to stay for 4, but it was important to buy them in order to support the maintenance of the park.

Kakadu Lodge

We took a mobile home in Kakadu Lodge and once again it was expensive for what you get, but there was a large pool, pretty good bistro and BBQ pits everywhere. From Jabiru, it was also easy to visit the important sights in the park, so it was a good idea to set up base there.

Manngarre walk and Cahills Crossing

We spent the next day in the East Alligator region. After a few drinks at the Border Store we walked and walked for the next few hours: Manngarre rainforest walk, the fascinating Cahills Crossing, Bardedjilidji walk...Cahills Crossing was fascinating because we stood on the banks of the alligator river watching crocodiles (quite a number of them) swim in it - as a few cars tried to cross to the other bank. There were tense moments as you watched a few crocodiles crossing the land bridge in between cars, and you know that if for some reason a car should lose control and flip into the water, it would be surrounded pretty quickly by a number of the reptiles.

Bardedjilidji bush and sandstone walk

I found the Bardedjilidji and extended sandstone walks savagely beautiful. The sandstone formations were rather grand and there were moments you felt you were in the middle of nowhere surrounded just by bushes and layered sandstone outliers. There wasn't much shade so it could get pretty hot and we were often bitten by huge flies whose bites really hurt!

Rock art at Ubirr

The late afternoon was spent at Ubirr. Ubirr's the site of several fascinating Aboriginal rock art sites and a rocky climb takes you to the top of a rocky lookout that offers superb views over the Nadab floodplain: rock, bush, plain. All I could think of once I was up there was WOW! In the older days the traditional peoples took refuge in the rock shelters and I believe that they didn't have the written word and transmitted their stories, rules, celebrations and beliefs through paintings on the rocks.

Ubirr lookout

You could see that they eat kangaroo, emu, turtle, water snake, grub, yam, use a kind of pricky leaf from the bush and may rear water buffaloes. The land stretches, but we hardly ever saw anybody or even a hut. Where do they live within the park?

Anbangbang Billabong

On our 3rd day in Kakadu we spent our time in the Nourlangie region. We walked through the beautiful Anbangbang Billabong with its bird life and with Nourlangie forming its backdrop; we visited more rock art in Nourlangie and did part of the long and difficult sandstone Barrk walk, picnicking up there somewhere on one of the rock formations before making our way back down to the carpark.

Nourlangie art sites

I was sometimes a bit pissed off with our slave driver. Anything that could be climbed would be climbed, and a holiday sometimes became less of a vacation because of the fatigue. Much as it was satisfying reaching somewhere to enjoy a beautiful view or have a lovely swim, there was only so much nature a city girl like me could stomach. It's probably the insects that got to me too, I totally couldn't stand them. But well...

Lunch at mid point of Barrk walk

We were told that the traditional owners (Warramal) of Nourlangie were extinct, and that other neighbouring clans are helping them look after the land. They really have a lot of respect for the land and their culture, which considering the hardships coming with such an extensive and harsh landscape is quite something.

6km return walk to Gubara

That afternoon, we walked for ages trying/hoping to reach the pools at Gubara, knowing as we started out that there may not be enough water in the pools to swim in because of the dry season. But Hub being always optimistic (a trait which often irritates a pessimist like me) insisted that we try, so we did, getting sand in our tongs as we walked, trying to avoid flies that bit, hoping not to come across any crocodiles.

And of course there wasn't much water in the pools when we finally reached there, and we consoled ourselves by soaking our tired feet in the cool waters before we made the long walk back to the carpark. Fortunately there was a pool at our hotel as it was another really hot and dry day out in Kakadu.

We left Kakadu Park after breakfast and passed through Mamukala on the Arnhem Highway rapidly. My initial plan was to visit the wetlands and observe its famous bird life on our way back to Darwin, but I managed to secure a visit to Pudakul and had to get us there by 10:30am.

Pudakul: Aboriginal cultural tour

Pudakul is a family-run business situated off the Arnhem Highway about an hour away from Darwin. The head of the family is an elder of his clan and they own stretches of traditional land in the region. He works as a ranger in Kakadu Park certain times of the year while his wife and 3 daughters help run their cultural tours. We met the youngest that morning and she was a pretty student who was studying tourism management and who seemed perfectly at ease in both the traditional and modern worlds in the NT.

We parked our car in front of the billabong and later found out that crocodiles lived in it. In fact, during the wet season the whole area would be flooded and you would need to navigate the waters in boats and the crocs would be swimming near your houses etc. We were told that often they would travel with an animal like a dog as the crocodiles usually go for the smallest creature first! Girl welcomed us with a cup of water from the Billabong and spat on us with it so as to ward off evil spirits and allow us to move around their homestead safely.

We then met the father and learnt some interesting stuff about the traditional laws and customs. For instance, the Aboriginals have strict marriage laws and they have a chart (according to their colours etc) telling them who they could and could not marry. Also, when siblings reach a certain age (just before puberty, I think), the different sexes would have to be separated and could no longer talk or play with each other for the rest of their lives. That sounded totally harsh and unnecessary to us, but of course it was something natural for them in order to avoid incest. Many guys would appreciate the fact that they wouldn't have any need to accommodate their MILs, nor even to talk to them, because of this rule!

Daddy explained to us how they created (from termite-hollowed out trunks of certain trees) and blew their didgeridoos, how they created their colours, how to throw a spear. Girl explained how they weave their baskets, how they hunt and we questioned them about school systems, land ownership, recipes etc. They still hunt for their meat e.g. wallaby, turtle, snake...though she claimed that she didn't find them particularly tasty actually. Nowadays they also eat food like pasta and rice that they buy in the supermarket and occasionally vegetables. Seems like they have a protein-based diet most of the time and they are not allowed to eat certain animals according to what they themselves are supposed to represent (the mums would normally know that during their pregnancies). We enjoyed the 2 hours spent with them and were glad we chose to do this instead of the jumping crocodile cruise nearby.

Parap Village Apartments

Our last night was spent in the Parap neighbourhood in Darwin, love this area with its nice little shops and the apartment we were in was really comfortable with a great balcony for dining in! There was an electric BBQ in the balcony so we bought great meat from the butchers opposite and cooked ourselves a lovely dinner. Lunch was fish and chips from the chippery opposite, yummy too. Darwin was fabulous in the dry season, was really glad we made the trip there.

Maguk Panorama

jeudi, avril 16, 2015

First Time Skiing in Japan (Niseko, Hokkaido, March-April 2015)

View of Mount Yotei (Ezo Fuji)

With the exception of The Young Adult who started at age 4, my kids started learning how to ski when they were barely 3. No matter where we were in the world (e.g. USA, Germany, Italy...), we would return to France to ski in the French Alps.

We did that 3 years running even when we were living in China. It was a total hassle, very tiring, not to forget expensive. One year we had a connecting flight (Paris to Lyon) cancelled, had our baggage (containing the ski suits) delayed, and missed our bus connecting Lyon airport to the ski station. Total nightmare.

Call it ski chauvinism, but Hub and the kids were convinced (still are) that there is nowhere better or more suitable for alpine skiing than the French Alps. Until the year before, the Babies were also taking ski lessons with the Ecole Française du Ski (ESF) and only decided to stop when they all had their Bronze Star. Baby Boy now talks of eventually trying for the Gold Star, probably because he realises that he could still improve his technique and enjoy skiing even more as a result.

I decided to put a stop to this skiing business for this year, for no way was I going to go through all that hassle yet again for a week of freezing cold and sore legs. Needless to say I'm hopeless at the sport, having picked it up too old and being afraid of my own shadow. I'm totally out of shape, so skiing can only be a torture for me. Yet I've reached the stage where I get really bored doing the easy runs and am too slow for the more challenging ones.

Looking at their disappointed faces, I relented and proposed a compromise: why don't we go to Korea (because air tickets are cheaper)? Hub was absolutely not motivated as he had never heard of Korea being a great place for skiing. I reminded him of the Winter Olympics, but he just had to be stubborn about it.

Then I remembered Japan. I have a friend who has been skiing there for nearly 2 decades and loved it. Hub has heard good things about Niseko too, about the powder snow, important snowfall and the efficient logistics. By the time we decided to go, the only holidays we had left was Spring/Easter Break, so we bought tickets to New Chitose for end March, booked a log cabin at Hirafu and prayed for snow.

On the way to Niseko

We arrived in Hokkaido on a sunny day and the plane (China Eastern), miraculously, was on time. We even had the time to grab a delicious pasta lunch before we settled onto our comfortable Hokkaido Resort Liner bus to Hirafu. The transfer lasted 2,5 hours and we were picked up at the Hirafu Welcome Centre by our hosts Tohsan and Kahsan of Fullnote Pension.

During peak season, it will probably not be possible for us to sleep in the log cabin which can house up to 10 people. But we were more or less the only guests there that week, it being almost the end of the Season. In fact, most restaurants were closed or closing, many shuttle buses stopped running and even the airport transfers would stop a week after our departure (or already had).

Fullnote log cabin

But we had our log cabin. It had a living area with a tiny kitchen in a corner (even a piano), a loft with tatami sleeping area and a basement with a WC, bath and 2 bedrooms. The smell of fuel was a little too strong in the basement and I worried a little about the kids suffocating in their sleep, but apparently they survived. Breakfast was included and freshly prepared each morning in the main house where there are rooms and shared toilets and showers, as well as a live jazz bar.

Shaba shabu at the pension

We rented our skis from Tohsan (the pension owner) and he also took charge of our ski lift passes. You could also order dinner from him (usually weekends) and we asked for shabu shabu on Friday evening which was done just the way we liked it. Very gentle and kind hosts who would drive us to and from the main ski lifts, while a free shuttle service from Hanazono stops just opposite Woody Note which is run by Tohsan's younger brother.

Skiing in Grand Hirafu

We had lovely weather most days except for one where it rained non-stop all day. It was amazing skiing with sunshine and under blue skies, and they were not exaggerating when they mentioned powder snow because it was the most beautiful snow I've ever skied on. The French Alps do indeed offer more exciting runs and gave meaning to alpine skiing, but one skies on volcanoes here in Niseko meaning usually wide runs that are not too steep. I also love the trees dotting the mountains in Hirafu and Hanazono, hopefully I will be good enough to paint them soon.

Love the trees

There are 4 ski villages here and we personally feel that concentrating on just Greater Hirafu (including Hanazono) is enough for a short week. The restaurant at Hanazono 308 was also our favourite though it was quite expensive. The teriyaki pork don was yummy.

Most amazing onion rings at Niseko Ramen

Food is a highlight of skiing at Niseko and it was unfortunate that so many eating places were already closed for the season when we were there. We managed to dine at Niseko Ramen next door on its last night open, at Nihonbashi in Kutchan (totally recommend) and at a few other places near our pension that were all quite good actually. I have put on 3 kgs after a week of ramen, different sweet-sauce meat-based dons, tempura, grilled fish, pizzas, fried chicken and yakitoris (because I do not eat raw fish). There is a Seico mart near our pension and we would visit it every day, lugging back choco pies, ice cream, Pokki sticks and soft drinks. You could hear HK tourists in the supermarket exclaiming over how cheap everything was, I guess at current exchange rates between the Yen and the HK Dollar, Japan must seem cheap to them.

I decided to take a break from skiing one day (also to give those poor guys a break as they were sick and tired of waiting for me on the runs) and explored lower Hirafu on foot. Love the architecture in the neighbourhood! Interesting combination of wood, concrete, lots of glass. Walked past the onsen (bath house), but the kids didn't like the idea of bathing naked with strangers (so prudish, mind you) so we didn't try it out.

Exploring lower Hirafu on foot

I wish we had discovered Niseko earlier. At the same time, the domains are not extensive enough for the rest of my family who are good skiers, but I certainly enjoy skiing there on that powder snow and very wide runs. There is also this dilemma about when best to go to Niseko; we enjoy skiing in late Winter/early Spring when the days are longer and there is usually sunshine, but it carries with it the risk of not enough snow. In Niseko, it also means fewer restaurants and buses and no live jazz at Half Note.

Finally, did I mention the heated toilet seats and integrated bidets almost everywhere in Niseko? Love it, such a clean and civilised country! Only at New Chitose airport were we reminded that we would be returning to China - starting at the check-in queue. Chinese family behind us literally stuck themselves onto our backs (instead of standing behind in the queue) when we were at the counter, and were complaining loudly when they were not served the minute the next counter was free (what was the point of sticking themselves to us actually when the queue was for 2 counters?)

Sayonara, Hokkaido, till the next time!

mercredi, avril 15, 2015

A day on Pulau Ubin and Chek Jawa (August 2014)

Pulau Ubin, Singapore

One positive thing about being an Overseas Singaporean is the pleasure I discover playing tourist in my own country each time I return home. When I was a teenager, I thought that it would be really cool to travel around the world and stay on my own. I still think it great, but I also look forward to seeing my parents in our old flat and getting back into "the routine" once I'm back on the island. Just thinking about this makes me homesick and with age the feeling intensifies.

Singapore is both a concrete jungle and a garden city. It is both a modern city and a place steeped in traditions practised by those who occupy its heartlands. I have learnt over the years to look beyond the facades of modernity into the true Singapore where new and old, east and west merge or co-exist in various degrees. We really do have the best of many worlds.

Last August, I finally brought my family of 5 to Pulau Ubin. The last time I visited was probably back in the 1990s when I was an Elderly Befriender volunteer with the Ang Mo Kio Social Service Centre. Us volunteers occasionally received training from the social workers and we also had bonding trips to help us remain more coherent as a group (consisting of people from very diverse backgrounds and ages as it was).

From Changi Point to Pulau Ubin jetty

Today, Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) probably has one of the last kampongs left in Singapore. Heard that only 38 people lived on the 10km2 island in 2012, from the few thousand back in the 1960s. We took a bumboat from Changi Point Ferry Terminal one morning after it had 12 passengers onboard.

Hub loved the island - the laid-back, old Singapore feel, the greenery, mud tracks, wooden houses...It was almost like stepping back into time, into another world. And it's so cool because it's so near to modern Singapore.

The Village

Make a quick visit to the public toilets near the jetty before you set out to explore the island unless you fancy doing it out in the nature with possible visits from gigantic monitor lizards while you are at it. We came across one as we were cycling and it was impressive how it hit a van (with its powerful tail) which was parked next to it (the driver stopped to take a picture of said lizard). It was scary and fascinating at the same time. There was also a family of wild pigs near Chek Jawa that residents seemed to be familiar with.

Some of the wild residents

Before we rented our bikes (easy to do so from any of the several shops lining the main street of the main village), we visited a vegetable garden (with deadly mosquitoes, so do come equipped with long sleeves and pants or powerful creams) and walked through the village. The bikes had seen better days, but what the heck, it's all part of the rustic nature of the island, besides they were not expensive to rent. A couple of cyclists have lost on their lives on "cemetery road" while going downhill or engaging abrupt ends so do consider hiring a helmet too.

Quarry lakes and wooden houses

We discovered that Ubin has a world-class Ketam mountain biking trail, and saw a couple of guys with special bikes going on it. It poured at some point when we were on the island and we took shelter in one of the various shelters along the tracks. Fortunately, rain doesn't usually last long in Singapore, you get a shower and then life continues.

The island is very green and the quarry lakes are beautiful. We didn't go on any guided tour because the timing wasn't right, but do check out the NParks website for guided walks or visits on the island.

Chek Jawa

We did visit Chek Jawa though. There is a boardwalk (through mangroves and the coastline) that is open daily from 8:30am to 6pm and you leave your bikes in a parking area near its entrance. We also climbed up the Jejawi Tower for a view of the canopy and surrounding islands. I loved the viewing jetty in the sea, felt just so calm and peaceful.

View of the canopy

Before leaving the island, those who love seafood could dine in the village. We didn't since the younger kids do not eat seafood, but I heard the food there was quite good.

On certain Sundays, I believe that a Malay cooking class is held in one of the wooden houses, maybe I'll return one of these days for the experience. I've never lived in a kampong before, having started out my life in a 3-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh.

Bye bye Ubin!

I hope that Pulau Ubin would be allowed to remain idyllic and not too developed so that mainlanders could have somewhere to go to if they would like to take a break from city life; not to mention remember a bit of the past by.

vendredi, avril 03, 2015

Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

Thank you, Mr. Lee, you will always be my hero! R.I.P.

I am who I am - because you were

I can lift my head high and walk with my back straight - because of you

I dare to dream and I dare to do - because you did

I have the courage of my convictions - because you had them first.

No one has inspired and motivated me as much as you had, Sir. I thank you for a life of struggle, of tough decisions (and the courage it took to make them), of vision, of leadership by example and of devotion to the Nation. May you join your beloved wife in rest and in peace. 

Thank you, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. 

I promise to always try my best and keep the flame burning, that we do not squander all that you have built for and with us.

Majullah Singapura!