Saturday, 12 September 2020

Sick Weekend

All I did was close my eyes and lean to one side and when I righted myself in my office chair I was struck by a wave of nausea.

I knew what I was in for. This isn't the first time. All those anxiety- and stress-fuelled late nights - some MCO-induced - have finally caught up with me.

Such episodes last quite a bit, but I had little idea how long: all the way to one of my usual clinics. Maybe I've forgotten how bad it gets.

What's more, the doctor was caught in traffic en route to his shift, so it was a long excruciating wait. The young man turned out to be nice and attentive, and he gave me two days' MC. The medicines worked wonders too.

What a nice young man, wheezed my inner ah pek.

However, I risked teetering over the edge this weekend after one or two more late nights, so I'm hurrying this up with my new full-feature keyboard - ASCII code and Word shortcut inputs, yay! - to try and get to bed before midnight.

But OMG, the VOCs emanating from it. Fresh out of the box, what did I expect? Well, I am typing faster than I was with the laptop keys. Feels more natural too.

That my first major Touch 'n Go eWallet transaction outside of toll and parking payments is for my clinic bill says a lot about my life at this point. Yet the company and creditors such as Citibank haven't caught on and sent me more promotions related to healthcare and medicine.

Instead, they feel I haven't been spending enough and nudge me towards things I'm not interested in. No, I don't visit Tealive THAT much. No, 20 per cent off spa day here is still ludicrously expensive. Thankfully, Citibank has stopped e-mailing me about Condotti luggage bags.

But more stressors keep coming. Last night I had to deal with an uninvited guest (first part of its name is synonymous with "rooster") when it was already damn late, and stress levels forced me to sleep in the living room. Might have to do that again tonight.

Now, if only all that water I chased down my supper of savoury oats with would process itself quickly and leave me alone.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Rice Rage

A while back, someone tweeted their displeasure at a video of a guy reacting to someone cooking "egg fried rice" on BBC Food, using a version of the archetypal Chinese uncle's accent reminiscent of Stephen Yan's.

They were irked at the notion of making comedy out of exaggerated accents, which they say debases people who speak that way, and panned such acts as entertainment for snobs.

Did "Uncle Roger", a.k.a. London-based Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng, assume this guise to poke fun at the stereotype? Were "snobs" supposed to laugh at him every time he went "Haiya!" or "recalled" some anecdote out of a clichéd Chinese childhood?

Probably not, but the clip Ng's persona reacted to made waves among Asian communities for how rice was cooked in it.

Too much water.
Probably not cooked enough.

Draining what looked like partly cooked rice in a colander and rinsing it with running cold water. 
Outrage coursed through the Twittersphere. Then, some pointed out that the chef in the clip was cooking rice the Persian way, leaving many of us chastened for jumping the gun.

However, days afterwards, more reactions to the BBC segment emerged on YouTube, with some replicating the recipe almost step by step. A BBC interview with Nigel and Hersha Patel, who demonstrated the recipe, also surfaced. The latter revealed that the recipe was the BBC's and she was following the station's script. 
Or maybe these guys were late to the party. What we can conclude from the later reactions is that you won't get "absolutely delicious" egg fried rice from that recipe; one commentator even said that the BBC dish was not "egg fried rice" but "fried rice with egg".

I'm probably not qualified to ask this but did they look at the part where the recipe says to use "150g/5½oz long grain rice or basmati rice"? What rice did they use?

Of course basmati rice would be cooked that way and of course someone from that part of the world would hanker for fried rice and should be allowed to make it how they like with what they have. Just look at how Jamie Oliver does it - do both recipes look authentic?

I've committed crimes against rice - overseasoning, too much water, etc. - when making single-portion servings of it by steaming during the first MCO, using a tip from Twitter. But I do it because it works and I get to eat every grain instead of scraping some off the bottom of the rice cooker pot.

Who'd be in the mood for egg fried rice or anything else Done Right™ when they have so much else going on?

In that light, someone mocking a foreigner doing rice different with an ah pek's accent is committing a worse crime than merely not being funny.

Many of us gleefully dunked on the clip, assuming it was one of a recent string of incidents where Westerners messed around with "our food", and got burned. A more mindful approach would have saved us the embarrassment and give us enough cred to write posts like this. 
With no mention of the type of rice being used and why it's cooked the way it was, the clip alone would have raised more than just eyebrows in East Asian homes.

Plus, the written instructions for the rice on the BBC website do not include the hackle-raising step of rinsing the cooked grains that's so prominent in the clip, which now seems to be location-dependent. Perhaps a response to the backlash, or confirmation that the recipe is tailored for certain audiences.

That doesn't change that fact that saying others can't enjoy making and eating certain dishes from certain cuisines because they didn't cook them right is conceited and racist.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Nest Cam Musings

Besides books, food and music, I'm also a bit of a history buff and enthusiastic about wildlife. What I haven't revealed here about that last bit here is that I've been following blogs and YouTube channels featuring nesting raptors.

Nest cams, to put it simply.

Around March until July - breeding season in parts of the U.S. - these channels usually buzz with activity, although this depends on the location and species. For eagles:

Breeding season varies by latitude. In Florida, egg laying may begin in November whereas in Alaska, egg laying typically occurs in late April through May. In Minnesota, the breeding season typically runs from late-February to early March in the southern part of the state through April into early May in the north.

Watching these birds nest and raise their young - and following the growth of their chicks - is my idea of a TV series catch-up. Few things are quite like it. Reality shows can't compare.

My introduction to this world was a camera feed of a nest of a pair of red-tailed hawks in Washington Square Park in New York.

Hawk couple Bobby and Violet became internet sensations in 2011 via The New York Times and its web cam when they built their nest outside then-NYU President John Sexton’s office on the 12th floor of the Bobst Library building overlooking the park. Violet sadly died later that year... After that, Bobby had two mates, Rosie, and then Aurora (also known as Sadie).

These cams have their fans and the drama on these nests can be quite gripping. However, the Washington Square Park cam is no more, as is the male hawk Bobby. But New York has other red-tailed hawk nests and birders keep an eye on these sites around breeding season.

As in many closely followed drama series, the death of a character is keenly felt. Red-tailed hawks do feed on rodents, and death by rodenticide is common. Bobby may have met the same fate, although a city has many other hazards.

From egg to grave, a raptor's life in the wild is tough. Baby peregrine falcons have died from complications brought on by swarms of black flies, or preyed upon by other raptors such as great horned owls. Birds such as ravens steal unhatched eggs, at times breaking them in the nest itself.

Early this year, a bald eagle chick from a nest in southwestern Florida apparently succumbed to rodenticide after it bled profusely from a broken pin feather, another potentially fatal condition. (Weeks later, this nest saw the birth of two more chicks that fledged successfully.) Pesticides and other forms of pollution affect adults, resulting in fragile eggs that break after being laid or non-viable eggs that don't hatch.

As in drama series, some viewers become too invested in the lives of these raptors. Following the death of a golden eagle chick by starvation on a nest in Latvia, angry comments flooded the chat window of the live YouTube feed.

"If they can instal a camera there, why can't they rescue the chick?"

"What's the point of the camera if it won't help save these birds?"

Anger born of grief, dismay and, perhaps, ignorance.

As environmental scientist Carie Battistone told TV station KCET, "We often do not intervene when bad things happen. In most cases, we choose to let nature take its course, even if it is difficult to see. This is a hard concept to grasp for people watching live video feed as it is normal for humans to be disturbed and emotional about what they see."

The point of the cameras is to show people how these birds nest and raise young. The antics of the chicks (baby hawks = eyasses, baby eagles = eaglets) are fun to watch, especially when they're in their fluffball stage. You can't imagine these chirping puffs of down growing up to become killers. But they have to, so that they can play their role in their ecosystem. They can only do that when they're raised by their parents.

Some behaviours are hardwired, but others are learnt by watching, like what to eat and how to pin down avian prey and pulling the feathers out before self-feeding. And, possibly, the realisation that they can fly.

When a chick hatches, it imprints itself on the first creature it sees. And if it is cared for, it will learn to trust its caregiver, whatever the latter may be. Human helpers can feed a chick and keep it alive until adulthood but they can't teach it everything it needs to survive as an adult.

And because of imprinting, wildlife raised by people from infancy will have a hard time in the wild. It can't function as it should in its own habitat. What if it becomes dependent on humans and actively seeks them out, risking death by trusting the wrong humans?

It's not just people. An odd case of a baby red-tailed hawk that was adopted by a family of bald eagles briefly became a sensation. Both species are rivals in the wild. The chick might have been intended as food but the eagle parents ended up raising it instead. Observers expressed worry that this fledgling hawk's familiarity with eagles might get it killed by one.

Life in the wild is harsh for raptors but members of their own species won't give them as much trouble as humans. They must learn to navigate their habitats to survive and thrive. Despite our good intentions, we can only do so much. Without a thorough understanding of how an ecosystem works, human meddling will only worsen things.

Watching a chick die can be traumatic and we do feel for the parents. However, be aware not to anthropomorphise these unwitting reality stars. They are wild animals and they get over such losses quickly.

Those yelling at "inhumane" or "uncaring" human cam installers probably won't be ready for the spectacle of a parent killing and eating its chicks, or older eaglets bullying their younger siblings to death when competing for food, sometimes killing them outright.

C'est la vie, man.

Unless their objective is research and tracking, many of those who put these cams are careful to minimise contact with these birds to allow them to live as naturally as possible. Their aim is more to educate than entertain.

If we are concerned about the welfare of these magnificent raptors who start out fluffy and cute, why not start with things we can control? For one, don't litter, and cut those damn plastic rings.

Limit or eliminate the use of pesticides. Keep their habitat pristine so that they and their prey can flourish. Don't chop down the trees where they might nest and certainly don't freaking steal their eggs or chicks.

And if you can't do any or all of these, petition those who can. Considering what we've done to the planet, it's the least we can do.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Whipping Up A Storm

Like some under this partial lockdown, I've taken to whisking up the viral Italian-sounding dalgona coffee popularised by Korean actor Jung Il-woo, who tried it in a coffee shop in Macau and talked about it on TV back home.

The name comes from Jung's opinion that the beverage reminded him of dalgona, a type of Korean honeycomb toffee. But this Internet sensation isn't Korean or from Macau. Probably not even Italian. And to my ears it's not dal-go-na but more like TAE-go-na.

A little dive into the dalgona rabbit hole reveals clues that the possible origins of this frothy beverage might be in Europe (the Greek-style frappé) or the Indian subcontinent, where this beaten coffee is known as phenti hui or phitti hui. As soon as the dalgona craze broke, some observers from the latter eye-rolled the same way we Southeast Asians do at some Food Insider videos.

I won't regurgitate all the fruits of my research here, but had things been different, we might also be calling this beverage "Chow Yun-fat coffee" or 發哥咖啡.

The guy who runs the coffee shop in Macau and makes this frothy coffee briefly became famous after making a cup for the veteran Hong Kong actor, who was said to like it. The proprietor of Hon Kee, Leong Kam Hon, learnt how to make this beverage from a foreign couple whose nationality he's unsure of. Presumably, this is the same coffee shop Jung Il-woo stopped by. What's remarkable is that Leong uses a spoon.

But I'm here to talk about my dalgona experience.

What's nuts about this recipe is not that only three ingredients are involved but the sheer amount of them, specifically the coffee and sugar. If I took a glass of dalgona coffee on Saturday morning my weekend won't end until Monday night. It's THAT potent.

My first attempt with an electronic mixer failed because I only used about a teaspoon (and maybe a teaspoon and a half at most) of coffee and sugar - I quit my regular coffee habit due to my gastric and, recently, my anxiety. I had better results with elbow grease, i.e., a small whisk and my decades-old mug or, once, a ceramic rice bowl.

Tipping the bowl at an angle made the small amount of coffee "deeper" than it is, making it easier to whip. The foam was so stiff I could invert the mug or bowl over my head and the coffee would stay there.

The texture presented a challenge when drinking with the layer intact. It would float above the milk like a raft while the milk flowed into your mouth from underneath. The foam is supposed to be mixed with the milk a little, so you get something fluffier than your average latte.

When using less coffee and sugar than prescribed, a small whisk and a small vessel make more sense. I watched, amused, while someone from Buzzfeed's Tasty spent about 17 minutes, off and on, whipping up a sweat with a sceptre-sized whisk and a helmet-sized bowl. All I needed was about six to eight minutes, but perhaps it was the difference in portions.

The amount of water seemed to be key as well. Too much and it'll take longer to come together, or not at all. Too little and you get a viscous but sort of aerated toffee, though not something you'd invert over your head for a few seconds.

This is not a beverage to wind down with after a long day. All that caffeine and sugar make it strictly a morning pick-me-up for people with time to kill. And after all that exercise and coffee you're likely to get wound up for the rest of the day.

I guess I understand why it's so popular. Like a magic trick, it's something anyone can learn and do, and the results are brag-worthy on social media. When one is stuck at home with little to do and feeling unproductive, a successful dalgona coffee gives one a sense of accomplishment.

But given the return on investment ... I wouldn't make this a regular thing, even with power tools. And even though I use less than a tablespoon of coffee, it's still a lot of caffeine at one go for me. Minutes after my last mug I was sweating a little, which never happened before.

22/06/2020  Two months sure fly by in a blank or two of an eye, don't they?

Against my better judgement, I've been whipping up a dalgona more often than I should. Once I figured out that the foam forms faster and better when using less water or following the recipe to the letter.

When the whisk starts "pulling" the mixture when stirring or whisking, it's halfway there. Whisk or stir a bit more vigorously to achieve your preferred consistency.

Sometimes I stop when the dalgona looks like dripping toffee because I'd stir or fold some of it into the milk anyway, like how some might do phenti hui. But often, I go on for two more minutes on high speed. I whip it inside a mug and push down any splashed coffee on the sides with a small silicone spatula.

No point whisking further because by then you won't feel your arm any more and you might need it afterwards. So when the foam is stiff enough to form peaks, you can stop whisking because you've reached peak dalgona.

...If you know me and if you're reading this in KL you should have seen that coming from Sekinchan. Pay. Attention.

I also add salt, along with cinnamon and nutmeg or vanilla extract for something different. Salt in coffee isn't new. It cuts down the bitter tang, though it forms a saline layer on top, probably if not mixed well.

Despite the strength of the coffee, the cinnamon and vanilla come through. The nutmeg, not so much. Attempts with pandan leaf powder failed but I wonder if I should resort to artificial essences.

Some make the dalgona foam and keep it refrigerated for future use, but I wouldn't bother. I bottled some but the coffee would meld into each other, leaving a fragile tuft of foam on top. Isn't "drink it fresh" part of the novelty?

Using warm or hot milk is also fine. I heat mine with a water bath inside an open stainless steel shaker. The heat releases more of the spices' aroma, and each day starts better with a warm drink.

Strange to get so used to whipping instant coffee after doing it almost daily.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Notes From Confinement

The highway below is quiet - well, as quiet as highways can be. When I first moved in, the highway my apartment overlooks is constantly awake. It hums, roars, groans, buzzes and snarls around the clock. Not one waking hour goes by without some bellyaching from the miles-long, unsleeping tar-clad serpent below.

So it's a little strange to hear it so calm, especially at night. It's almost like it's taking a nap - or lying at home sick, like many parts of the world right now.

Almost two weeks have passed since the Malaysian government passed a movement control order (MCO), one of many steps to stem the spread of COVID-19, a new and potentially lethal illness currently zipping across the globe. People are encouraged to stay indoors except when buying daily essentials and seeking medical aid, and those found flouting the order would be detained and perhaps fined.

Those who came in close contact with the several contagious clusters or known COVID-positive individuals or suspect they might be infected are advised to get themselves checked at the hospital. Fines and possible jail time await those who aren't forthcoming with their health and travel status.

When the MCO was announced various arms of the company discussed how to work from home and what jobs to schedule. I think some of us expected the partial lockdown to go beyond two weeks.

Working from home is no dream to have when you're getting by, plus a mortgage. Without the convenience of restaurant kitchens, you have to carve out time for laundry, housecleaning, grocery shopping, remote bill paying (or ATM visits) and other errands while editing, fact-checking, and deciding whether something needs to be capitalised or italicised.

And not forgetting, making your own meals. Even taking a break from work to make and eat your Indomie can throw off your momentum. Once your stomach is full you don't feel going back to the laptop. Especially when it's a little underpowered for Microsoft Word 2016, when the file takes a minute and a half to save, and Word crashes - when it doesn't make the screen temporarily go black - while repaginating the document or saving the AutoRecovery file.

And if I didn't tell you I took two 15-minute breaks from writing this you wouldn't know. Home has too many distractions for those not inclined to WFH or freelance.

So, no, I'm not coping too well with this working from home thing, even though it's proceeding okay so far. I'm doing even worse with restrictions on movements and the lack of open restaurants and food stalls.

However, my shiny ceramic cooktop has seen more work in these two weeks than it has in a month, boiling milk for masala chai or turmeric milk, and boiling drinking water, and keeping it shiny and clean is tough. I've knocked out several meals in lieu of instant noodles. Still, it's distracting - and discouraging - when the smells of the neighbours' cooking drift through the kitchen window.

Even the old rice pot has been brought out and I'm finally dipping into the tiny bag of rice that laid idle in the fridge since I moved in. I'd only used a little to "sweep away" bad vibes from the empty apartment on moving day, nine months later. A seemingly bonkers tip from Twitter about how to cook single portions of rice with a bain-marie (hot water bath) method actually worked.

But breakfast these days is a smoothie of oats and nuts, with either cocoa powder or chopped carrot. Munchie attacks are soothed by plain oats, cookies or Gardenia cream-filled bread rolls. I only got fruit - apples and oranges - from the market last week. Only a few stalls were open and security guards stood ready with with laser thermometers and hand sanitiser.

I miss eating out. I miss going to a supermarket on a whim and browsing aisles upon aisles of produce for stuff that might be a purple carrot soup, a not-very-good butter chicken, a basil pesto pasta, or a tray of shortbread.

I also miss the convenience of going to the pharmacy for my meds. Folks at home are concerned about my well-being; I have asthma and allergic rhinitis, so catching this bug is a huge no-no. Eating regularly has also been a challenge and my bad gut isn't helping. The latest gastric attack was horrendous.

We take too many things and too many people for granted. Cleaners, cooks, security guards, healthcare professionals, law enforcement, teachers, hired help, public transport, deliverymen, welfare workers ... I think it's starting to sink in just how crucial these functions are, and how tightly knit all of them are in a city environment. When several of these were disrupted, city life began to unravel.

When this is all over, hopefully these overlooked sectors and its workers will get the recognition and their dues. They are Malaysia and they're holding this country together and keeping it running. If we can't get them a raise and a better safety net, let's at least be kinder to them.

But not to politicians. I won't miss many of them, no matter how many bags of rice they send out with their faces on them.

In the days before and during this partial lockdown I bet we've begun to notice the difference between those who "serve" and those who "rule". Not me, that's the language being used by certain quarters. "Thank goodness they are back in power." "Thank goodness they no longer rule over us."

Speaks so much about how some of us (are conditioned to) perceive our MPs and ministers.

"Rule"? Since when do elected representatives "rule" over us? And why do we let them? And why do some people think of "ruling" like how some people think of freelancing or working from home?

Over these several weeks I've seen two groups of people: one bunch coasts by with doing just the bare minimum, leveraging on issues to make themselves more well known; while another works their butts off, putting the issues and those affected in the limelight instead.

Who'd you think I'd choose to have my back during a global pandemic, a global recession, or a zombie apocalypse?

Well, we might not survive the latter, but when it's go-time, I'll be glad that my elected rep will shoot the zombies rather than negotiate with them - or convince them to switch sides.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Another Kind Of China Syndrome

I'm not sure where and when concerns over COVID-19 were first raised but if it was in China, the authorities there screwed up imperial. The Middle Kingdom has always been preoccupied with its image in the eyes of the world, often to OCD levels. Remember the 2008 Olympics? The Belt and Road thingy? The Uighur "re-education" camps?

What I've read says news about the disease first surfaced last December, but now it seems that it might have emerged as early as last November. One should note that the first sightings of COVID-19 in China can mean that doctors in China spotted it first, not that this illness came from China.

But when doctors in China first raised alarms about it, Chinese authorities blocked the news from leaking out and silenced, vilified and even disappeared whistleblowers. Because every time a China-related crisis comes up, the first thing its officials seem to think about is "How do we make it look like it's not our fault?"

This might have been what Beijing spent precious weeks on, instead of warning the public and the world at large. And China being China, it's leery of sharing information with other nations, even if it does help. "Suppose they find something they can use against us in the data?"

For me, it's too late for China to rewrite the narrative. No matter how many remedial measures it takes now - which it should've taken much earlier, like, way before Chinese New Year - its role in the virus's spread and its handling of the pandemic locally must not be overlooked. Locking down the flow of information and repeating conspiracy theories don't make it look any better.

Had it acted like conscientious global citizen in the face of a growing (now full-blown) pandemic, China might have looked like the model country it sees itself as.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Some Novel Titles

At a café, I spied a row of novels. Some of these titles sound ... interesting.

吃定總經理 / Eyeing the General Manager / GM Sasaranku
總裁賴定你 / The CEO Relies on You / CEO Bergantung Padamu
惡魔大總裁 / The Devilish CEO / CEO Ku Setan
邪王的嬌妻 / The Evil King's Lovely Wife / Bini Molek Raja Durjana
壞總裁的剋星 / The Wicked CEO's Bane / Duri Dalam Daging CEO
替身格格 / Stand-in Princess / Puteri Gantian
惡魔的求婚 / The Devil's Marriage Proposal / Setan Datang Meminang
丫鬟不願嫁 / Maid Don't Wanna Marry / Dayang Tak Nak Nikah
絕情貝勒 / Heartless Lord / Kejamnya Tuan
公爵的豔遇 / The Duke's Encounter / Pertembungan Dengan Kerabat

I translated parts of the text with Google Translate, which deciphered zongcai (總裁) as "chairman" one day and "CEO" days later. Beile (貝勒) is a title for a Manchurian noble, and Tishen Gege (替身格格) sounds a lot like the premise of a popular Chinese drama series.

A small sample, but one can see a pattern and infer which eras the stories take place, from medieval era and Qing Dynasty to modern times.

Why a market for this is huge – and why such novels get written – is obvious. Not every book has to enlighten or educate. Books are also a form of entertainment, and not everybody wants to walk in familiar shoes on familiar streets. The boots of a mage or the greaves of a knight in a faraway or fantasy setting would be more tempting than the flip-flops of a weary executive seeking to "eat, pray, love".

Am I going anywhere with this? Not really. Curious about the titles, I tried typing them out and translated them later. I didn't want all that work to be wasted and it's nice to see something familiar in other languages.