Sunday, July 27, 2008

Winter comfort food - orr nee

It is right in the heart of winter here now, with heavy morning frosts and our water taps froze a couple of times last week. But not just because it is cold and one's thoughts automatically wander to warm rich food, I have been yearning on and off the last few years to have a teo chew (chau zhou) yam dessert my grandmother used to make. It is not commonly found but it can be bought at a few selected stalls in Singapore. I bought a serve the last time we were back but it just wasn't the same. Only hers and a few Teochew restaurants just taste right.

Unfortunately, my grandmother is now bedridden and doesn't communicate anymore, so I am unable to let her know how much I miss her or her cooking. Well I guess I could but realistically I am not sure that she would understand. The worst part about being this far away from the place I grew up in is that each time I return, she seemed that much more frail and the last two years, she couldn't recognise me anymore. The previous years when I held her hand, she still squeezed it although she didn't say much. And of course even 6 or 7 years ago, I could still talk to her on the telephone.

Anyway, the last time in Sydney, I actually bought a taro (purple yam) and decided to have a hand at making it. I always knew that the original recipe would be quite unhealthy as it calls for copius amounts of lard and sugar. I decided to research it on the internet. A google search of "orr nee", "or nee" and "yam paste" brought about some recipe results. The simplest of which was found on Rasa Malaysia's blog. Although there is a great picture from wikipedia here

It is sometimes made without pumpkin but it is very often made with ginko nuts. I didn't have any gingko nuts but for those interested, there is a recipe here for those with access to ginko nuts.

Taro Paste country healthy style

1 Taro (about 500-600 gms)- cubed
1 cup soy milk
half cup castor sugar
2 tbsp peanut oil
water as desired

Some recipes suggest to boil the taro pieces but I know my grandma used to steam them. I microwaved them until tender. I then transferred them into a large saucepan and started mashing them and adding some water, the soy milk and caster sugar and oil slowly over a low heat until it was a smooth paste. For those who would prefer a much smoother and richer (and more authentic) taste, lard or more oil can be used in the place of the water and soy milk. Sugar can also be added to the desired taste, however, the main aim of the taro is to get the rich tasty texture and the sugar enhances rather than dominates the flavour.

Or nee is sometimes made with coconut milk or served with a splash of coconut milk. This is probably the southeast asian version. Amazingly coconut milk is difficult to find in the country. Most supermarts sell coconut cream but not milk.

I enjoyed mine with a splash more soy milk which added to the nutty taste. While it didn't taste like grandma's it was enough to remind me of home and was definitely comforting! Always served hot, to me it is like hot ice-cream!

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A blue lagoon afternoon

The boat usually cruises while we lunch to another island or another beach on an island. At about 2:15 the afternoon shore excursions start. Most days it was to a beach where once again, we would park ourselves somewhere.

The crew would set up the afternoon tea table but if you notice to the right of it, another table is also set up... yes! It is a massage table for those who would like a beach massage under the coconut trees. It cost FJ $30 for 20 minutes but neither of us got round to getting one. We were too busy trying to fit in snorkelling which can actually be quite addictive!

A word of warning about coconut trees to those who haven't had much experience with them... coconuts can actually fall quite suddenly without warning. Hence it is always wise to see where you are parking your mat. Richard was quite shocked to find after coming back with a scone for afternoon tea one day, a coconut about a foot from his mat when there wasn't one 3 minutes before! I am sure if Newton had been lying under a coconut tree he wouldn't have discovered gravity.

For something different, one afternoon we had a sulu (local word for sarong) tying demonstration. I learnt about six different ways to tie it other than just as a long skirt! They also demonstrated how the guys wear it, tucked in closer to the front rather than the side.
Yet another day, on one of the islands with a hill, Henry the cruise director organised a hill climb (aka hike aka bushwalk). The view was quite magnificent.
This was a pic of a village house on one of the islands we swam at. We were told not to approach any of the villages as it was a big cultural no-no unless we had been welcomed through the official Yaqona ceremony. At most of the beaches though some of the village women would set up a little shell markets selling mostly sulus, laquered shells or necklaces and bracelets made from shells and seeds.
Outside pic of what was our home for 7 days. There was usually an afternoon snorkel session followed by some afternoon tea at 3:30 pm. At 5 pm, the tender boats would start to take us back to the boat where there would be a large drop in water pressure as most people would freshen up for the evening.

Somewhere between 6:30 and 7:30 pm, some of the crew memebers would start playing music up in the bar/ lounge deck. There would usually be a tray or two of canapes and most of the passengers would wander in after they had freshened up. There would be chatting and laughter accompanied by a cocktail or drink. It was on the first night that we learnt there was a couple right from our town on the boat as well! What a small world! Although we had never met them before, the guy who owns a printing business actually printed for both the companies we work for.

The crew members would also come around and encourage us to do the island shuffle. This is a pic of Richard with Serevina one of the lovely girls who always helped with the morning and afternoon teas. The island shuffle consisted mostly of just stepping a few steps forward and back, holding each others hands behind the back. It was quite fun and there was no pressure for fancy steps.

Some of the nights had themes such as indian night, fancy hat night and fancy dress night. Not everyone participated but we did get into the spirit of things and it made for a few laughs. (Pics in a future post ... maybe ....)

At about 8 pm (kids ate earlier) we would all troop down for dinner. Most nights it was served buffet style but the first and third night was a sit down four course dinner with a choice of entree, soup, main and dessert. A lot of the meals were quite standard western fare. I was quite self conscious of snapping pics so these were the only two I snuck in.

My first entree at the captains dinner. Prawns in coconut broth with island fronds. The fronds were nice and tasted alot like seaweed. The coconut broth was served cool and was very mild in flavour. My chicken main at the dinner on the third night. Crumbed chicken stuffed with local spinach. Filling and tasty but nothing to write home about. Was sitting next to one of the girls from California who has finished her SATs and is going to UCLA in Fall. She said " I can't believe you just took a picture of your food." I tried to explain blogging to her but she didn't quite get it. Sadly, she also told us who won the Amazing Race by accident *sigh* Teenagers nowadays! If we ever have kids I hope they metamorph right into adults bypassing the teen stage.
Every night after dinner which would conclude at about 9 pm, most people would just head back to their cabins. There was a quiz night one night and a disco night another but I think most people weren't night owls. Our fellow passengers were lovely and we made quite firm friends with a few of them. There were roughly 10 from NZ, 14 from Aus, 11 from the US, 2 from Norway and 2 from Italy. The largest contingent was from Fiji with 22 crew members. I can't believe that they do the same cruise 50 weeks of the year, yet they are so friendly and enthusiastic, you feel like you are just joining them for the first time! They cruise the 6 nights and have one night at home with their families and do 6 weeks on and one week off. That is a pretty hard life! Yet they are always laughing and giggling either with us or amongst themselves. Hopefully the sunny island attitude will stay with me the remainder of these cold winter months.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

and there was this one time, at snorkel camp ....

As we have had quite a stressful few months, we looked forward quite a lot to this trip, yet at the same time, besides reading up on a review on we didn't do much preparation or have many expectations.

A typical day ran according to a schedule which was placed in your room during the evening turn down service the day before. While the activities were optional, unless feeling unwell, most people would participate in them. Since most of the day was spent swimming or snorkelling, after the first day, it felt a little like camp ... so Richard and I dubbed it snorkel camp :)

The cabins were quite roomy for ship standards. There was a small wardrobe and pantry/ minibar area with dressing table and lcd TV mounted on the wall. The LCD TV was merely turned off since there was no TV reception. There was a DVD player in the public bar area which you could put your own DVD in or borrow one (not sure how many titles they had) and then go back to your room and watch it. We only did this one quiet evening.

The bed was queen sized but had a strange lump in the middle. The bathroom was sort of a Formula1 motel moulded plastic type shower/ toilet combo. Fortunately there was also a vanity unit/ mirror to store your toiletries. The lovely crew would also make the floor mat fan shaped to pretty it up everyday. When we first arrived, they had also placed Singapore Orchids here and there for decoration.
I guess I'll do it as a two parter and run through a typical day in luxury snorkel camp. I will hopefully also finish off two separate posts on a village visit and a school visit.

There was the option of an early morning swim everyday with a wake up knock on your cabin door at 6 am. Although we thought about it a few times, that is as far as it got.

Breakfast was served in the dining room from 7:30- 9 am. Most days we made it there by about 8:30 am. I didn't get to take any photos at breakfast but everyday there was a hot buffet of bacon, sausages, baked beans, tinned spaghetti and pancakes or french toast. There was an egg station set up with eggs to order, including made to order omelettes with a choice of mushroom, ham, onion, capsicum or the lot. We had this twice and it was very well made and yummy. There was always a fruit platter, bread next to a conveyor-belt toaster ( I love those!), cereal and yogurt.

At 9:15, a tender boat would take us out to the morning island. Most days we would actually have sepearte spots in the morning and afternoon. We would then take a beach mat and beach towel which was provided and set up a nice spot for ourselves on the beach.
Whilst we were reading or swimming or walking or lazing around, the crew would be busy going back to the boat and retrieving trestle tables, table cloths, urns etc.

At 10:30 or thereabouts (remember we are running on Fijian time) there would be a holler of "moooorning tea!" Thereabouts we would look up and most of us would mosey over to see what the pastry of the moment is. (There was a dedicated pastry chef on board). It was amazing that every time it would be something different but there was always a fruit platter with the standard watermelon, pineapple and pawpaws. There was always a selection of teas and freeze dried coffee.

This would always be closely followed around 11 am with "snooooorkelling!" Whereby we would don our fins, mask and snorkels and either swim out like our own school of strange fish or the tender boats would drop us off to the reef spot. If we were far from shore, they would always circle us to make sure we were safe.
I have never been snorkelling before (unless you count using a shower cap and putting over my face and planting it into the bath tub when I was 6) yet I owned my own mask and snorkel, bought at a fair from a bargain bin (but it was so cheeeap!) Well! I sure am glad I had my own and brought it along! Snorkelling is truly amazing and we were fortunate to have a few guides point things out to us as we swam along, telling us which things we could touch and which to avoid. Before we knew it, we would be slowly swimming back to shore or signalled back onto the shore. There would then be a quick pack up of our things on the beach and the tender boats brought us back to the big boat for lunch.

Lunch was usually about 1 pm. There was different themes for the hot food section such as stir fry day, burger day, pasta day, BBQ day (which was on shore for something different) etc. And there was always the salad bar. The food was nothing that would make you go "wow" - with the exception of a very tasty bolognaise sauce on pasta day which had everyone getting seconds, even people putting it in bread "sloppy joe" style. Yet it was always freshly cooked, hearty and satisfying.
There was a coffee machine which produced pretty good coffee.
And ... to our surprise, there would be a fruit based type dessert with lunch. There was fruit cocktail the first day, these bananas rolled in cocoa and freshly grated coconut (simple yet divine) the second, chocolate mousse a third, trifle a fourth etc.
Next post ... the rest of the day ....

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Monday, July 14, 2008

The Lovo - A traditional Fijian Feast

A week ago, we came back from Fiji, most of our time spent in the Yasawa Islands. Our home was the Fiji Princess for 6 of the 7 nights were were there. The cruise company, Blue Lagoon Cruises were awesome and the crew took really good care of us. It was a wonderful way to visit many different islands and beaches, see lots of marine life when snorkling as well as participate in cultural activities. More in future posts.

If I thought Bathurst was rustic, I hadn't seen anything yet! These islands don't have any telephone lines and the village generators are run only on special occasions. While almost all of the meals we had were quite westernised, my favourite and most memorable was the lovo. A special Fijian feast usually prepared only at huge celebrations such as weddings, we were fortunate that it was part of our tour to experience it and we were invited to watch the cooks prepare it.

First, a hole about only as deep as your arm up to your elbow is dug. Depending on how much you are cooking for, a typical size is about 2 by 2 metres. Firewood is placed in the hole and a fire is lit. Medium sized rocks are then piled on top of the fire. When the rocks start glowing hot and the firewood has collapsed so the rocks have sunk into the hole (needs a bit of gentle persuasion from a shovel),

it is time to make a "grill" on which the wrapped meat and root vegetables rest. This is made of layered banana leaf stems.

Next various meat such as sides of pork, lamb, whole fish wrapped in banana leafs or foil as well as the traditional root vegetables dalo (or taro), cassava and kumela (local sweet potato), are laid onto the strong stems. I can't believe they weaved the baskets housing the meats and veggies so intricately!

A blanket of banana leaves is then laid on top.

And yet more banana leaves ... can't have too many banana leaves!

This is followed by coconut? fronds

Then some sack cloth ...

And finally some tarp ... nothing like a bit of plastic for insulation

Although an island beach party was planned, we had to have dinner back on board the boat as a torrential rain storm hit in the evening. The crew so nicely ferried us and then later our dinner back in the rain!

Simeli the head stewart ran through the different meats and vegetables and a few additional dishes. This included a divine local raw fish salad known as kokoda (pronounced kokonda) and cooked curried vegetables and sauteed local spinach.

My plate from the buffet...
Clockwise from bottom, piece of taro, curried veggies, lamb, pork sitting on a bed of rourou, kumela, bit of fish and cassava to the left of the fish. The root vegetables were cut extremely big and chunky. Though tasty and tender, they were extremely starchy and filling so I couldn't finish them. The meat was spectacular, all of it was fork tender and had the most exquisite smoky flavour. I think the rourou (local spinach) might also have been cooked in the lovo then sauteed because it also had that smoky flavour.

More pics and stories to come but this is one of my favourite pics, taken just off a village shore.

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