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.

Celebrating a Love Story

I was happy to note that the counter recording the “number of nuts collected for winter”, had reached 100; that is to say, this blog has had 100 visits since it started last month. My thanks to everyone who visited but I wish more of you would leave a comment or note so that this experience could be more interactive. Nevertheless, 100 nuts is a milestone that should appropriately be marked by the telling of a special story from the Realm of the Lone Grey Squirrel – a Love Story.

That first squirrel autumn, I had many opportunities to observe the comic struggles of our protagonist, Spikey (the everyman squirrel) and the bully, Speedy (the ninja squirrel). Despite, Speedy’s physical advantage, Spikey generally did better than his adversary. Spikey had a good sense of my comings and goings and therefore was more likely to be around when I was inclined to dish out peanuts. Being sympathetic to the under-squirrel, I often sat on my little boardwalk in the garden and while I was there, Spikey was free to eat or hide nuts as he pleased without Ninja interference. However, Spikey was also industrious and innovative. He soon developed a habit of coming by early in the mornings, much earlier than Speedy ever appears, and he will go up to the tiny window which is my eye to the skies for my basement apartment. Then he would rap on the window pane.

“In the morning with eyes still dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Whether to wake up bright and cheery or succumb to sleep somemore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.`
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’

Back to sleep’s call, my eyes closing, restlessly tossing and turning,

Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,’ said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore
-Behold I saw at the window rapping, a Grey Squirrel that implored;
-‘Peanuts! Are there any more?’
(with apologies and acknowledgement to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven)
Anyway, my point before I digress too far, is that for much of that autumn, I only saw the shenanigans of those two squirrels. However, it was my better half, who at that time was not working and therefore had more time to observe the neighbourhood going-ons, that first alerted me to a third squirrel. She had much more red in her fur so that she did not have Spikey’s salt and pepper grey but was more of a golden colour. We assumed it was a “she” because “she” was too pretty to be a guy. Her tail was also very bushy and her fur looked immaculately preened. She was also very shy and would often be seen only in the branches of the nearby maple tree from which she could retreat to the roof and disappear. We named her Loonie on account of her golden colour which reminded us of the Canadian one dollar coin called the Loonie. The reason the Canadian one dollar coin is called a Loonie has nothing to do with squirrels but with another quintessential Canadian animal, the Loon, but that’s a different story.

The lonesome Loon depicted on the Loonie
She looked perfect to play the part of Meg Ryan to Spikey’s Tom Hanks. But would we see the fairytale, Disney-ish, romance develop. At first our observations were unrewarded. There were times when Spikey was at the feeding station and Loonie was in the tree but there seemed to be no interaction. Then one day, my better half called me excitedly to the window. We saw that Spikey had climbed the tree to meet Loonie. His approach seemed very unsure and hesitant. For a while they were just inches apart but did not seem to know what to do next. Then, magic. They reached over and planted a kiss on each others cheek. Then they coyly ran off in opposite directions like giddy teenagers. However, there was no looking back. We would later see Spikey feeding Loonie with nuts and generally fussing over her. Our hero had found his leading lady.

One wonders why Loonie did not end up with Speedy. Scientists argue that when looking for a mate, an animal would seek the strongest or fastest or one with the best qualities for survival. I like to think that Loonie chose Spikey because “he made her laugh”.

LGS Cultural Tour 2: Malaysia – Truly Asia; Concert in the Rainforest

Lone Grey Squirrel finds himself in Taman Negara in the midst of some of the oldest rainforest in the world. It is now late at night and it is all dark outside the cabin with only the sounds of cicadas breaking the stillness. I now regret researching for my previous Halloween post on the Banshee of the forests because tonight I find myself outside my comfort zone and in the world of the night creatures.To distract myself, I want to share with you the strange experience I just had of enjoying one of the best cultural dance performances I had ever seen here in this 130 million year old forest. I am here to participate in this year’s Asia Pacific Ecotourism Conference or APECO and tonight the State Government of Pahang hosted a dinner for participants and put on a great cultural show with their very own state groomed cultural troupe.

Malaysia is truly a microcosm of so many Asian and even non-Asian cultures; a legacy of being a major player, destination and crossroads in the spice trade routes of the 12-19th century and the rich and diverse indigenous peoples of the land. This is something that I have always been particularly proud of about Malaysia.

However, I have been far from proud or impressed by most of the Malaysian cultural troupes that carry out performances in line with Malaysia’s Ministry of Tourism’s tagline of Malaysia – truly Asia. Most of the performances are lackluster and sometimes even embarrassing. When a good friend from the UK visited recently, I took him to one of the more famous regular cultural performance and dinner venues in Kuala Lumpur ( and there are not many), but even there the food outshined the performance and the food really was not that great.

But tonight, I saw a superior performance and it made me wonder what made the difference. For one thing, the dances were all well researched and accompanied with an explanation of its meaning and its origin, including descriptions of the cultural influences that helped to shape the dance. This understanding helped to engage the audience but also was reflected in a sense of pride in the performers.

Representation of the Sewang dance of the Orang Asli (aborigines)

Malaysia’s Indian Heritage

The Tenun Dance showing off the Fine Weaving of Pahang

The Chinese Heritage

The next special ingredient was the attitude of the dancers. They were proud of what they were doing and of their culture and they appeared to be having fun. This is very important as a plastic or fixed smile always puts me off when viewing cultural dances.

The choreography and choice of dances are also important. The troupe tonight chose dances that very effectively showcased a very wide variety of the different cultural influences. I was pleased that they included dances from the indigenous peoples and the people of the forest. Unfortunately, very often they are forgotten or left out because of bigotry or a strange ill-placed shame some Malaysians feel for what they consider the more “backward” segments of the Society. Tonight’s troupe had none of that nonsense and celebrated the contributions of all these communities to the rich cultural canvas that is Malaysia – truly Asia. Tonight, we celebrated the cultures of the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, the aboriginal peoples, the Thai, the Arab traders, the Peranakan or Nyonya amongst others including local cultural traditions.

Celebration was another key concept that made a difference. Again the troupe should be commended that they chose songs and dances that were lively, happy and celebrated life and invited the listener to also give thanks for being alive. When one has only got about 30 minutes to do a performance, I believe it is time squandered if many of the song choices were melancholic or too self-important. The participant should feel encouraged to tap his/her feet, clap his/her hands or even get up and dance.

A fantastic overall performance. The Lone Grey Squirrel enthusiastically approves it but wishes to advise Ministry of Tourism to drop the obligatory song finale of “Malaysia – truly Asia” because it just is not a good song. Some songs just do not work. I leave you with a snippet of another Government commissioned song from a recycling campaign;

“Recycle, Recycle
Show that you have taste,Eliminate your waste!”

Malaysia’s Lady in White

On All Hallow’s Eve, I thought I would regale you with a tale of the supernatural from the dark forests of Malaysia. Fear and superstition still reigns in many parts of the world even today but what I find interesting is that some beliefs have a similar theme. Are they the product of converging imaginations or perhaps based on a common truth?

One of the most common and oldest of these un-natural monsters are the vampires – the blood suckers. The Malaysian jungle is full of these blood sucking fiends. This is true. I have seen them and been bitten myself. Over here we call them mosquitoes and leeches. Ha! Ha! Just a bit of nervous humour before we get down and really describe the creature of the night that I have in mind.

Malaysia’s blood sucking fiend is the Langsuir. It is a female creature that may appear in two forms. Firstly, the Langsuir may be in the form of an owl and may often be seen perched at night on certain trees in the forests. Banyan trees are believed to be a favourite roost or perhaps a strangling fig. Do not go near if you value your life. The Langsuir is also believe to be able to appear as a woman. She is alternatively described by those lucky to escape as a hideous creature with long claws and fangs or as a beautiful woman. Some say that she takes on the latter to seduce male victims. In either form, she has long jet black hair reaching to the ankles and she is always wearing a white robe. Her hair hides a hole in the back of her neck which is the means by which she sucks the blood of her victim. In one version of the tale, the Langsuir actually possesses the victim and feeds from the inside.

The Langsuir is believed to form from women who had died within 40 days of childbirth after also losing their child. Elaborate rituals must be made on the body such as placing glass in the mouth, eggs under the armpits and needles in the hand to prevent the transformation. Otherwise the creature will transform and with a shriek, fly into the dark forests.

Garlic has no effect on this creature but if you somehow managed to do it, you can tame a Langsuir if you succeed in cutting its nails and stuffing her hair into the hole in the neck. At which point, she becomes a normal and very beautiful woman. Folk stories even suggested that men have married tamed Langsuirs; suffice to say not all those stories end happily.

The shriek of the Langsuir is also said to be so eerie that once heard, it is never forgotten. Interestingly, there a number of places in Malaysia which are named after the Langsuir including Gua Langsuir in Langkawi Island which is called the Cave of the Banshee in English. It is said, you can hear them there.

I hope this little Malay folklore has been interesting to you. Of course, it’s just a story but still if you have ever seen a banyan tree or a strangling fig at night in the middle of the jungle, you might understand why even seasoned forest travelers might give a cough, start to whistle and generally give these places a wide berth.

Believe it or not. Lone Grey Squirrel reporting from the Malaysian Rainforest.

Viewing the World Through the Observation of Squirrels