I love to write when I am inspired. The story simply…flows. The process of stringing words together becomes so effortless, and the by-product, a memory that evokes and stirs. I may not be a wordsmith and I may not have a flawless command of the English language, but being able to pen my thoughts delights me to no end.
These days, inspiration plays hide-and-seek with me. Too busy, too tired, I often find myself psyched for that moment, only to be distracted or rudely snapped out of it. But yesterday evening, I was all alone. M was hard at work on a night shift, and little Faith was fast asleep. I didn’t realise how much I miss being by myself, until the quietude consumed me. I didn’t realise how much I miss being able to revel in nothing but my memories. I didn’t realise how much I miss being able to think. It was nice, being alone.
I found myself reaching out for my laptop and leafing through the tens of thousands of photos I have taken over the past three years. You see, I first fell in love with photography back in London and have been quite the shutterbug since, albeit a very amateurish one. Every photo brings me right back to the moment that I captured. There isn’t a single image that I couldn’t put my finger to. In a mere few hours, I took an epic tour of my life and it was, for the lack of a better phrase, pretty freakin’ awesome.
Some moments were better than others, of course. Some were good AND bad, such as the ones during our first family vacation in Perth. The three of us were just grasping the concept of FAMILY, and learning how to live with one another. Faith was barely three months old then and fell rather ill during the trip (think at least eight watery, colourless poopy diapers a day). We were worried sick and comforted her as much as we could, but we were also pissing mad whenever she screamed in the car seat. And she screamed EVERY SINGLE TIME. M and I tried to relax, but there was so much going on that we couldn’t. When the nights fell, we shuddered as we braced ourselves for hourly wakings that a sleep regression had brought upon us. Yet, there were the moments, when we felt so much love from our lovely hosts (the McLeans, who have never met us in person but generously offered to put us up and even welcomed us with our first Australian barbie), tilted our heads back with our eyes closed so the warm and inviting rays hit our faces, and held hands as we silently strolled through the campus of my father’s alma mater with his granddaughter nicely tucked into the carrier.
To others, this may just be another holiday, with a wee bit more drama, pitstops, and a bigass diaper bag, but to me, our first family vacation taught me love, patience, endurance, strength, generosity, friendship and the faith that we can get through anything as long as we are together.
Everything was more beautiful. Even the skies were bluer.
It was lovely, being alone.
M really, REALLY loves his curry puffs. That was the first thing I learnt about him when we were dating. Actually, maybe it’s one of two things that I first knew about M. The other is chicken curry, but since chicken curry is inside a curry puff, I suppose I could call it The First One-Big-Thing I knew about M. Now, M loves a good curry puff so much, that sometimes, I’m not sure which or who he would save in a fire – a puff or me. I’m not offended, because I mean let’s face it – a curry puff looks good and tastes good blistered and flaky – I can’t possible pull that off.
For his birthday last year, M asked me if I could make curry puffs for him. Well, I procrastinated, for a year, but thank goodness, my in-laws bought some Mr. Ting curry puffs and asked my parents to bring them over when they visited us in London. It was a sweet surprise for M. Almost a year later, I decided it was time to honour the request of my dearest husband. M decided to take part too, as he’s personally vested in this, so he made the chicken curry (a very thick version so we can pack it into the puff, you don’t want the curry to be making the pastry soggy…) with LOTS of tender, loving care. I’ve never seen him so focussed on getting the curry perfect for puffs. As for me, I used some of the pastry that was left over from making Portuguese egg tarts, and made more fresh puff pastry to accommodate the big pot of curry.
The result? Suffice to say that we were excellent partners-in-crime. The curry puff was perfectly flaky and fragrant, and yes, I would even go as far as bonkers-land to tell you that my curry puff ‘sings’! If you don’t believe me, watch this video. Yet, no frying was needed! This is definitely one of the best kitchen collaborations between us. We wolfed down two immediately, and exercised some self-restraint by popping the rest in the freezer. These kept well for a few weeks, all you have to do is to thaw the puffs out for a few minutes, and bake them as and when your craving hits.
The recipe for the puff pastry is the same as the one for my Portuguese egg tarts, except that I scaled the proportions of the ingredients up to match 200g of strong white bread flour. This should make about 10 large curry puffs. At Step 7 of the recipe, after cutting the pastry roll into 30g portions, with the cut side facing up (the orientation is very important because you want the flakes to appear like scales of a fish on the puff), press down each portion with the heel of your palm and roll out till you a circular pastry dough that is 12-15cm in diameter. Arrange the curry (preferably with a thick potato base i.e. add lots of potatoes in while cooking the curry, then mash the curry to create a thick luscious and dry-ish gravy) on one-half of the pastry circle, leaving a space round the edges for sealing. Bring the two halves of the circle together and seal by making indentations with the tines of a fork. Bake at 210 degrees Celsius for 18 minutes. If you want to keep them, freeze them before baking and let thaw for a few minutes (not too long though because you don’t want the butter in the pastry to melt – if that happens, the pastry wouldn’t puff up nicely and that means your puffs won’t sing like mine do, no Grammies!), then bake as per instructions.
Dim sum. It’s something we have on weekends, when work doesn’t get in the way of nibbling exquisitely made Chinese hors d’œuvres and bosses don’t breathe down your neck as you sip Chinese tea. It’s leisurely, it’s relaxing and let’s face it, it’s one incredibly tasty lifestyle.
I don’t know about you but whilst dim sum is very accessible now, it wasn’t always so when I was a kid. Dim sum lunches were a real treat and rarity when I was growing up. It was expensive in those days, and if Dad took us out for dim sum lunch, we put on our Sunday’s best, as we would do if we were going to Jack’s Place for a candlelight dinner on its green-and-white checkered tables. Yes, these two food outings were like Disneyland trips to me.
We used to head to C & West club (not sure if that is how we spelt the name, I wasn’t very literate then…anyway the club is now defunct as the shareholders ran away with people’s money, I think). I was a chicken in the water but I’d get to have that rare ride on my dad’s or brother’s back as they swam in the pool. All that with my bright orange fake Superman arm floats, and my garish green-and-yellow swimsuit. Mum would watch us play in the water, take me to the showers and then we would head to the restaurant for dim sum.
I don’t remember much about the restaurant, except the dim sum trolleys that would swing by with everything anyone could promise you with in the world. Oh, that and the incredibly high table that practically reached my chin when I sat down; I was a little vertically challenged then. I recall feasting on my favourite dim sum dishes – glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf (荷叶饭), fried radish cake (萝菠糕) and honeydew sago (西米露). I was particularly enamoured with the honeydew sago then, the little chewy bubbles were quite fascinating, and it was the only version that I would have then. I still like the dessert now, but what I really love about dim sum is the fried radish cake. It’s a savoury sweet pan-fried piece of heaven that is packed full of flavour, thanks to the ingredients that weren’t quite obvious to a primary school kiddo, other than Chinese sausage (lap cheong). Even as I cross into adulthood, I still love fried radish cake, I must and will have it at every dim sum lunch I go to and no one could stop me. But, I could never quite fathom how vegetables (daikon radish) could turn into something so delicious. That is, until curiosity hit me in January this year (yes, this is a super backdated entry, as with another 22 recipes that are still waiting to be told to you). I did my research and landed on some answers.
It turns out that the fried radish cake is made of the simplest of ingredients that are commonly found in Chinese cooking. Lap cheong is a must to impart that distinctive sweet savoury taste. Dried mushrooms are added to give an earthy fragrance to the dish, and dried scallops and shrimps are needed for deep, deep flavours.
It is also ridiculously easy to put together, so to the dim sum lovers who live overseas and can’t quite have ready access to dim sum, I hope this satisfies your craving. Even though I can get dim sum easily in London, making this was a real good thing for me; it was nice to have it homemade and even better to take a trip down memory lane.
Here’s the recipe:
Pan-Fried Radish Cake (Lor Bak Gou)
(adapted from Taste Hongkong)
825g shredded white radish
200g rice flour (those you get from Asian stores, these are different from the ones in Western supermarkets)
60g tapioca flour
1/3 teaspoon salt
80g lap cheong (Chinese sausage), diced
20g dried mushrooms, soaked in hot water to soften, stems removed and diced
20g dried scallops, soaked in hot water to soften, roughly chopped
10g dried shrimps, soaked in hot water to soften, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fried shallots
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 and 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce
1. Mix the flours, water and 1/3 teaspoon salt to form a batter.
2. In a non-stick frying pan, heat up oil and fry fried shallots for 1/2 minutes. Turn up the heat, add in scallops and shrimps and fry for another minute.
3. Add the mushrooms and lap cheong to the pan, and fry till fragrant.
4. Add the radish and fry till liquid oozes out of the radish and that radish is wilted. Add sugar, salt and soy sauce. At this point, turn off the stove.
5. Stir up the batter from Step 1 to reconstitute it and add the batter to the radish in the pan. Stir till combined.
6. Place the thick gooey batter in a steaming dish and steam for 1 hour on high heat, cool and then keep refrigerated. Do note that it’s easier to handle the radish cake when it’s cold and a lot less sticky.
7. Cut the cake up into rectangular pieces, and pan fry one side on a really hot non-stick pan with some really hot oil. When that side crisps up, turn the cake over and fry it on each edge. Repeat this process until all edges are golden-brown and crispy.
I’m embarking on a new journey come Monday, and as I clear out the stuff I’ve accumulated over the past 3.5 years as a PhD student, I am feeling strangely nostalgic and somewhat eager to embrace a new life too.
The reason why I had moved to London was because of M. We planned for this big move for more than a year. I’ll save the details of our story for later, but let me tell you that it was one of the most daunting tasks we took on. After M got accepted to our university in London, we were elated but we had a bigger problem to face. It wasn’t hard getting a professor to accept me for postgraduate research (I mean who doesn’t like free labour?) but we were worried. Where the hell are we going to get the money to fund my PhD? I was a research assistant then in one of the universities in Singapore, and I remember spending my breaks with dear friends QM and P, poring over sheets and sheets of calculations, wondering how I could ever pay off this feat? We worked out that I would require S$300000 to do a PhD in London, including fees and living allowance, and that was the price of a small flat back in 2007! After months of agonising and an awful lot of planning, I was constantly ill with bad gastric problems and much too skinny but by grace, I managed to get hold of two scholarships to fund my time in London. I remember calling M when I received the news, and I couldn’t contain my excitement as I paced up and down the corridors at my workplace. I was almost in tears. M was having lunch with his brother at Noble House. It was quite a moment. Then on our second anniversary, M proposed. I was delighted, things couldn’t get any better.
My professor was also happy to hear that I was fully funded. On his way back to London from a conference in Australia, he stopped by Singapore with his son to make sure I wasn’t a psycho. We took him for a lunch that he recalled having in Singapore 20 years ago – curry served on banana leaves – so, clueless us brought him to Banana Leaf Apolo. Both of them enjoyed the meal very much. We walked around in the area of Little India, took them to Sentosa to have a look at the museum, and sent them back to Berjaya Hotel. A few months later, I visited the lab in June 2007 when we were setting up our home in London. I met a few people, felt that it was a nice place to work in and before I knew it, we said goodbye to our families on 18 September 2007. I cried like a baby.
I was terribly homesick for a long time. Not one day went by without me missing my family. I was often in tears. I didn’t have any friends here and I had a hard time whilst working under the mentorship of a postdoc in my lab. Tensions escalated and I often fought with M, blaming him for my plight. I was a mess.
The first two years of my PhD was carved out of nothing but blood and sweat. I was going in at 8.30am during the first months as I was told to do so, and my mentor didn’t show up till 12pm, so I often wasted hours waiting for him each day. As he worked late till 10-11pm, I had to stay with him till after working hours. M and my sister–in-law were here in London then and I was adamant about spending time with them; I decided to ask my mentor for a schedule, so I could work my personal life around it without wasting time waiting for him to show up during the first half of the day. He cornered me in the tissue culture lab and warned while wagging a finger in my face, ‘If you want a schedule, you should be a banker, not a scientist’. There, the first threatening insult spewed right in my face. M encouraged me to talk to my professor about it, I did and the postdoc got into trouble. On hindsight, I should have told him, bankers have erratic working hours too, you stupid ass.
Just as I thought the situation was getting better, ironically, life as a postgraduate student worsened. Long hours and weekends aside, both of which are inevitable when one does research, I had to stand up against the lack of integrity in science and I was berated for being ‘stupid’ and ‘daft’ when I couldn’t show the same results as the predecessor. I doubted myself and felt that I wasn’t good enough to do a PhD. Yes, I had very low morale for two years, and that was part of the reason why I started this blog. I needed a way out of the negativity and I needed to realise that life wasn’t just about my PhD. I felt better when I approached the later half of my second year; you see, wedding planning made me quite a happy girl and I was a truly delighted Mrs when we said I do. Things also got better in my third year, when my work gained recognition and people realised that I was right after seeing how the work done by the predecessor was also not reproducible by others. Suddenly, I was praised for being consistent, good and upright in my work. Suddenly, I wasn’t ‘stupid’ or ‘daft’ anymore.
But it was too late. I had seen enough fraud and I am now jaded. I had gone into science, wanting to plough through facts and pull them out so the next generation could learn the truth. I didn’t go into science to publish for the sake of publishing. I couldn’t bear to be in this field anymore if I had to compromise my principles. I’m not saying that this happens in all research groups but it’s a shame that it happened to me in two out of three labs I worked with. I applaud the efforts of people who have the strength and courage to stay and produce good science, but I am ready to leave this to the better people.
So after six long years of research, three years of which were spent in London, I bid farewell to this life, for now. Maybe I will return, maybe I won’t, I still love science, I really do, I just don’t know if I can tolerate what I have stood up to for so long.
I summed up the core of my life here in London in 191 pages of my thesis. I passed my viva after 105 minutes of grilling by the examiners. Even though I was a bagful of nerves before the viva (I couldn’t walk up and down the stairs when I made my way to the university….), I came out feeling exhilarated that I had the most intense, useful and thought-provoking scientific discussion I’ve ever had in my life. I popped the champagne and celebrated with a group of labbies (sans that postdoc) whom I enjoyed working with in the office. I treated them to farewell tea at Patisserie Valerie afterwards. I squealed at the lovely and thoughtful gifts from them. I took farewell pics with this group of lovely people and of the stuff I’ve collected over the years.
M arrived in time for the farewell tea. I bade my peeps farewell, and M drove us to Charlotte Street to grab some celebratory grub. We stupidly didn’t make any reservations, tried our luck at Roka, nah uh, slipped round the corner to Fino, fat hope. I was seriously considering McD’s to line my rapidly eroding tummy as we left Fino, but there stood Nizuni, looking like a landmine waiting to be stepped on with its Japanese fusion-esque menu.
Looking tired but happy at Nizuni after 105 minutes of grilling by the examiners
Luckily for us, the newly opened Nizuni didn’t disappoint. We were expecting teething problems with service and sushi smothered in mayonnaise, but no, everything was in good order. We nibbled on small but fresh slabs of nigiri. We feasted on the delicately-battered ebi tempura. We chatted over beef tataki, ika karaage and saba shioyaki. It was a lovely meal. Most of all, I had the most amazing time reminiscing about the journey we’ve taken. I didn’t think I could make it this far, but I did.
Like M said, I’m at the shore now, and all I have to do is wait for him to arrive. So yes, my dear, I will wait for you.
I leave the rest of you with one of the four quotes I included in the preface of my thesis:
Persistence is what makes the impossible possible, the possible likely, and the likely definite. – Robert Half
This persistence saw me through to where I am today. Bring on the new life ahead of me!