Squirrel’s Secret Spot 2 : Han-sur-Lesse

I celebrated my 21st birthday in the company of strangers while stranded in Brussels due to a general strike which paralysed the otherwise efficient public transport and train services. I shared my birthday meal with an unemployed English parole officer, a Canadian Microbiology student and an Irish musician sitting in a restaurant within a relatively deserted Grand Place on account of the rain. I am reminded of this, as this is my 21st blog entry and both are a milestone of sorts.

I enjoyed Belgium very much. The people were friendly and helpful in many languages, that is to say that as a people, they were very impressively multi-lingual. Life, at least in the countryside, is bucolic and slow-paced. The beer was both good in quality and abundant in variety. Belgium may easily have the greatest number of beers in the world. Finally there are the frites which are thick French fries ( I do not support the campaign to call them freedom fries – it’s very immature). Frites are served with a variety of sauces and it’s the sauces that make it particularly memorable.

There were two places in Belgium that stood out in the Lone Grey Squirrel’s little mind. Today, I would like to share about Han-sur-lesse. Located in the Ardennes and near the scene of the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War, even today the painful memories are awaiting in the mass cemeteries of war dead that are maintained in the area. Yet, strangely, I felt at peace there in the midst of the lush, green pine forests.

The main attraction tourist attraction at Han-sur-lesse is the grotto consisting of a cave and underground river. However, the whole atmosphere, the green sights, the sound of water and the smell of pine all contributed to a tranquility of mind and spirit. I arrived late in the afternoon which meant it was too late to visit the caves and I would have to spend the evening there. In fact, the time was well spent sitting on rocking chairs at the Youth Hostel deck, swilling back Belgian beers and swapping travel stories with an English father and his teenage son who were cycling through Europe and a Canadian stained glass craftsman. We drank and talked late into the night as the peaceful darkness of the Ardennes Forest enveloped us.

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The next day was the trip to the caves which was interesting enough with a fair complement of staglatites and staglamites and other rock formations. (How to remember the difference between the two? “tights” come down while “mites” climb up). The highlight of which for me was definitely coming out of the cave by boat on the underground river as it emerged back to the surface. Frequently, there is a mist that forms near the cave exit and the mist hovers over the river making for a very mystical feel. Once again, with the river flowing through the forest, I felt peace, wonderful peace, in my soul.

(Dear reader, blog technology has not advanced sufficiently yet otherwise you would have had a rendition of me singing the last part of the sentence which is italised and in bold. I am actually a very good singer but for best effect, it may help you to just imagine Andrea Bocelli singing it to the tune of an inspirational hymn and reaching a crescendo. Thank you. I am now imagining your applause.)


Defend the Oceans

Canada, I love you but lately the Government has been making some really bad decisions on the international environment scene…….decisions that impeach the previously good reputation of the country on these matters. Please wake up and stand for what is right for our world. Remember our children need a world to live in too. May it still be a beautiful and life-sustaining one. As for the oceans, overfishing and damaging fishing techniques have already resulted in much grief and diminished fish stocks around the world. Now is the time to put a stop to these destructive activities. I show this with a heavy heart and a hope that Canada returns to being a “green” nation.

My thanks to http://eclectech.blogspot.com/2006/11/blame-canada-and-espaa.html for creating these messages.

Stephen and Su Kim; God bless and long life


Stephen & Su Kim
on the occassion of their Marraige (18th November 2006)

Stephen and Su Kim, we are all so happy for you. You are good for each other and you are great together. We wish you a very happy and blessed life together.

It was a night of celebration, a gathering of clans, Malaysian (Peranakan) and New Zealanders (Kiwis). A union of two life-embracing spirits with a shared passion for languages and peoples. The various speeches and emails from a round the world testify to how loved this couple are.

It was a night where languages and cultures mixed freely and happily. English in both Malaysian and Kiwi accents and slangs were heard and even Singlish from our neighbours to the south. Malay with a Peranakan twist was heard too and we were also treated to a good dose of Maori. Finally there was liberal use of chinese “Yam Seng” when the couple were repeatedly toasted by friends and family.

Carrying on with the literary theme. The groom gave a beautiful rendition of a poem he wrote entitled “Cape Richardo” which spoke of his desire to fly to be by his love’s side. It was wonderful but way too long for this nutter to remember and report. The bride replied with equal eloquence and shared a traditional Peranakan pantun (poem). Fortunately this traditional poem is short by nature and hence I am able to recall it here;

“Kita belayar, laju, laju,

Menuju ke kota Singapura.

Lupakan layar, lupakan baju,

Asalkan jangan lupakan saya.”

In English the poem says; ” We are sailing fast, heading for Singapore. You may forget the sail or even your clothes, but never, never forget me.” This is in the traditional pantun style where the first two lines tell a story which has little meaning but is followed by two lines that convey the deep message.

Before I end, I must mention my good friend Harriet who was very nervous about giving her speech. It turned out to be warm and humorous. A job well done.

White Surprise

I was feeling whimsical tonight and was just reflecting on a “few of my favourite things”. When quite suddenly, I had an epiphany. I realized that I have a strong preference for things “white” when it comes to food.

Pure Vanilla Ice Cream
Now it cannot be denied that I enjoy almost any food in any colour but if I were to try to give myself a sensual treat, then most of the things I desire are all white. I started with contemplating my favourite ice cream flavour – vanilla, of course. Chocolate is nice. I even like sherbets very much but vanilla is king for ice cream. I always thought that this reflected my predilection to purity; that ice cream was meant to be a pure clean flavor like vanilla and that all other flavors just distract from perfection. At least in this, I have chosen the top flavor which is also the top choice of 29% of the population (see http://www.sendicecream.com/15mospopicec.html).

“Tau Foo Fah” or Soya Bean Curd

served with ginger and pandan flavored syrup
But “white” continues to dominate my other favourite sensual or comfort foods; full cream milk, Ambrosia rice pudding, soya bean curd and soya bean milk. I prefer white chocolate to milk and mocha or dark chocolate flavors. I even discovered while in Spain, a wonderful white, milky drink made from the puree of tiger nuts called Horcata which is served chilled and is wonderfully refreshing with a hint of volatile, aromatic oils.
When Malaysians are abroad, they often miss local foods such as nasi lemak, roti canai, maggi mee noodles and various curries. Strangely, the thing I missed most was soya bean milk. When I had the opportunity to visit Chinatown abroad, I would frequently end up with several liters of the cool white soya bean milk.
I don’t have an explanation. Do you? Strangely enough, according to Dr. Alan Hirsch, vanilla lovers are colourful, impulsive, risk takers with high goals and expectations. It seems I am gregarious, easily suggestible, expressive, idealistic and private person. I don’t know, Dr. Hirsch, I do not quite recognise myself in that description. If you want to know what Dr. Hirsch thinks of your ice cream flavor choice, then visit http://www.personalityquiz.net/test/icecream.htm

Good night, Ms. Legatt

As we travel through life, we pick up a lot of junk. Not surprising, I am a bit of a pack rat and will not allow things I collect to be put out for a yard sale without a fight. For me, these are more than just items, they are symbols of my life journey. More than things though, we each meet a whole host of people. Some have been a big influence on our lives while others less so but they all touched our lives and were part of the shaping of who we are and what we believe. Some of them taught us great life truths and yet others got us wondering about life.

Tonight, I find my mind traveling through time and space until I find myself sitting by the bedside of Ms. Legatt. My younger self was a thin insecure teenager who found himself thousands of kilometers away from home in a strange and cold place called Brighton, United Kingdom, so as to have the opportunity to study. Once a week, I took part as a volunteer in a community out reach project. My assignment was to visit shut-ins. These are elderly people who are pretty much bed-ridden or house bound. Food is sent to them by Meals-on-Wheels which are run by other volunteers and they get a visit from the community nurse a few times a week. Very often their only other visitors and social contact was with volunteers like myself.

Brighton Pavillion

The truth was that for many of the community volunteers, visiting shut-ins were the least desirable of assignments. There was always the smell of urine or worse. The rooms or apartments were generally unkept and you might be asked to clean mouldy dishes or throw out the rotting garbage. Many felt that the hour spent there was the most boring way to spend 60 minutes.

Not for me. I was able to ignore the lack of hygiene and cleanliness and perhaps I was also alone in a strange land, I was genuinely able to enjoy the fellowship and because of that I was able to learn quite a lot. So I spent many hours visiting and sharing a cup of tea and a cookie with Ms. Legatt at her bedside. Ms. Legatt was pretty much alone in the world. She had no close family. She was diabetic and bedridden with an amputated leg.

However, we made a connection and in her tales and stories, she was a young girl with the world at her feet. She was thrilled to learn that I was Malaysian. It seemed that she spent the best part of her life traveling in the Far East. She was adventurous for her time. She took on a job with the British Foreign Service and left the dreary British shores soon after the end of the Second World War aboard a warship. Her first port of call was in Singapore where she served in the British Administration and took part in the post war rebuilding. I know many British, like Ms. Legatt, were really carrying out their imperial and colonialist duties. Yet, I believe Malaysians inherited a relatively prosperous and peaceful country at independence and in part it was because of the services and sometimes sacrifice of these servants of the setting Empire. So in all sincerity, I wish to say thank you to all of them.

Ms. Legatt spoke of some girlfriends of like mind and spirit. They made Singapore their playground. They partied and attended all the social events. They rubbed shoulders with high society and my eyes opened wide at some of the adventures and hi-jinks that she related that she sweared involved the crown prince, heir to the Sultanate of Johor.

It was a colorful and exciting life. Ms. Legatt was one of the flowers that shone brightly at the twilight of the Empire in one of the most exotic parts of the world at that time. Somehow she never married, eventually came back to Britain and grew old alone. Somehow she was forgotten.

I remember Ms. Legatt tonight and wonder about my own life. How would I be remembered? All my memories, the victories I celebrate, my loves, my friends, my struggles, my fights, what would they mean when I am old. Who would remember? Who would care? What would my life really count for? Why am I pondering these things? Well, I am about the age where I am due to have a mid-life crisis and as one of my friends is prone to say, “it’s right on time.”

Seriously, I think it is good to take stock of our lives from time to time to see if the things that occupy us, whether it is our work, careers, hobbies, friends, dreams, problems really remain as important against the test of time. As for me, I think you lived a full life, Ms. Legatt and you contributed to shaping a great country. Many may have forgotten but I remember and I enjoyed tea, cookie and friendship. Good night, Ms. Legatt, wherever you are.

Playing Music with Food

I have raved and given the highest praise to that wonderful, poisonous and yet delicious buah keluak seed but is it possible that there is still something more to this versatile food that I forgot to mention? Yes, indeed. It can be recycled and made into a musical instrument like this rattle which was spotted at the market in Ubud, the cultural and crafts center of Bali. No waste here.

I wonder what other food stuffs could be made into musical instruments. This might be made into an interesting themed menu for a restaurant where ingredients or leftovers from the main courses be later used by the resident band to make sweet melodies for the night’s entertainment. It would be great. For me, it would give me a lovely excuse to play with my food.

World Food Spot 2 : Buah Keluak (Peranakan, Malaysia)

My mother is a Nyonya, which is to say that she is part of that distinctive, historically significant and culturally rich group called the Peranakan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peranakan). The Peranakan culture, is a lively blend of Chinese culture with the polyglot of local cultures found in the Straits of Malacca which from the 12th century onwards was a major crossroads of the spices trade. The cuisine is a similar blending of flavours with adaptations to local delicacies, fruits and vegetables. One specialty is the Buah Keluak and this has been for me, an all time favourite since childhood.

It is usually cooked together with chicken or with pork ribs to form a rich, spicy stew which is flavoured with spices and the buah keluak. Buah Keluak or the Keluak Fruit is a very special, geographically limited, rare and unusual ethnic food. It is not a fruit nor is it a nut, although it resembles a nut and is often mistaken as such. Instead it is a very toxic seed from a very toxic fruit of a very toxic tree but when properly treated and cooked, it is ambrosia. Some call it the “truffle of Asia”. I would best describe it as “savoury chocolate”. To be honest, it is like nothing else so any comparison is quite whimsical.

The Black Buah Keluak with Chicken

Buah keluak seeds come from the “football fruit” of the Kepayang tree or Pangium edule which is probably only found in Borneo, Sumatra and Malaysia. This forest tree can reach 60 m in height and has thick, waxy broad leaves. Almost every part of this tree and fruit are poisonous and in fact extract from the crushed seeds can be used to make poisoned tipped arrows. The reason for this is that the plant material is rich in cyanide or prussic acid. To prepare the seeds, they are often buried underground coated in ashes for as long as 40 days, then boiled and cleaned. This process should remove the poisons. Visit http://gardenerwork.blogspot.com/2006/10/buah-keluak.html for some good visuals of this unusual plant and its seeds.

For those who would like to try to cook this dish, I suggest you visit http://www.makansutra.com/Makanzine/Nov99/ayam_buah_keluak.html. Be warned, it is a lot of work. Once the buah keluak is prepared, a small opening needs to be created by using a cleaver. The buah keluak can then be cooked. The fleshy part should turn soft and black with a strong nutty flavour. Some master chefs insist on extracting the flesh, mixing it with a bit of meat and re-stuffing the flesh back into the seeds. This extra work ensures a more even and consistent flavour.

The cooked dish is served with rice. You would place one or two pieces of meat on a plate and liberally douse the rice with the flavourful sauce. Then take a buah keluak and using a chopstick or fork, extract the flesh from the seed. Mix the flesh with the meat, rice and sauce. Enjoy.

If served with this dish, I could easily consume up to five times my normal intake of rice because it just goes so well together. What makes this such a great culinary experience? 1. Its nutty flavour, 2. Its creamy texture, 3. Its heady aroma, 4. its rarity and uniqueness and 5. its contribution to a rich cultural history. The best way to try this is to visit Malaysia and ask around for a Peranakan restaurant or even better, befriend a Peranakan who knows the recipe and get invited home for dinner. Sorry, there isn’t any easy way to do this but it will be so worthwhile. Hurry, this great dish of my childhood is getting increasingly harder to find with each passing year and because of the rarity of the tree, this will truly remain a regional ethnic dish even in today’s global village.

Viewing the World Through the Observation of Squirrels