Monday, December 26, 2011

Melly Kid-Mak from Bangkok!

This is the first time in a long while that I celebrated Christmas in such an elaborate manner, I have almost forgotten what it's like. Those warm Christmases spent at my church's year-end camps feel like a distant memory. While I struggle to figure out where all those lost Christmases disappeared to, this year, in Bangkok's winter chill, I got the feeling back again.

Thanks to Wendy's spontaneous invitation, our festivities started on Xmas Eve:

A gathering of new and old friends, with good food and laughter, mainly revolving around some birds described in assorted languages
We ate Caesar Salad tossed in a gigantic Parmesan cheese bowl

We had nearly-exclusive access to a full roast turkey

And the fun spilt over to Xmas day itself, which started with going to church with a big group of friends, which included 2 Singaporeans, 1 Malaysian, 2 Thais and 2 hybrid kids. In the jingling of all the commercialised marketing gimmicks and carols, it is easy to forget the actual meaning of Christmas is to commemorate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Very aptly, many Thai people pronounce Christmas as Kid Mak, which literally means think a lot in Thai. If everyone can just sit down and spend a few minutes to Kid Mak of the countless things that happened in the past year, I am sure most of us will realise how much grace God has showered over us every single day. That's the actual significance of Christmas, it's most certainly not about presents, turkeys, snowmen or Santa!

The day continued with me transforming myself into a Top Chef wannabe

Christmas, to me, is also about families getting together and sharing heart-warming food at the table. This year, I had the privilege to cook for Li Li, my Baby in Bangkok and our family friend Wendy, so I had to Kid Mak again to ensure an enjoyable Christmas dinner.

Dinner's ready!

The ladies I cooked for.

The result: Crispy chicken thigh with baked potatoes and creamed mushrooms. 
After several rather un-challenging games of Monopoly Deal over some nostalgic Christmas carols, we ended off a perfect day with arguably our favourite dessert in Bangkok - Larna Cake!

After seeing the ladies totally enjoying the humble food I placed on the table, I realised another truth, that the diners can not only taste what is on their plate. They can also taste the warmth and love of the cook. I am sure that it was the latter that made the dinner so wonderful.

Yii family: Christmas 2011

Inevitably, our family picture taken during Christmas will be completely different in 2012. I am looking forward to it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Our first baby steps in Hua Hin

Sun, sand and sea @Hua Hin

In case anyone is wondering where the Stranger in Bangkok went to, the answer is that I am still here in the city of angels (also known as Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit), enjoying the very perfect winter (though it's slowly getting less cool) and trying to get back into the groove of having a decent volume of business after 2 idle months (thanks to the floods).

If you are a frequent reader of this space, a trend that you wouldn't have missed is that my posts in the last few months have revolved around food. If that's what you think I am doing in Bangkok, eating and only eating, this post will prove you wrong, because I am only going to post 1 picture on food, yes, only 1!

Here you go, 1 picture right? Hua Hin's famous seafood!
Anyway, this post is on a trip in October to Hua Hin with Li Li and 2 of our dearest friends in Bangkok, Wendy and Nueng. I am embarrassed to call this our babymoon because prior to this, my baby has already been to Greece (unknowingly), Singapore and other smashing parts of Thailand like Amphawa. However, since this is likely to be the only trip we deliberately planned in view of the impeding arrival of our little one, I shall call this our official babymoon.

Wendy and Nueng taking a leisurely stroll at our nice resort Baan Talay Dao
I don't actually like visiting places which are infested with overseas tourists. I am a foreigner myself, but since I am ready to call Thailand my second home, I would like to visit places where Thai people go to, like the Khao Yai area or places like Sam Chuk Market, where I can easily pass off as a local. That said, it's still peculiar that I took 2 full years to take my first step in Hua Hin, a leisurely resort town situated 3 hours drive from Bangkok (I've been to a more secluded Cha Am before though). Thanks to Nueng's recommendation, I am happy to have enjoyed myself immensely there before it is completely taken over by foreigners (please don't become another Pattaya).

Pretty mom chilling in our room

Aside of eating and chilling at our resort (in our rooms and by the beach), Hua Hin has a couple of new man-made attractions, Plearn Wan (a "feel-good" market that tries to bring you back to the 80s) and a new Hua Hin floating market, which is really just a market around an artificial canal. I think these, as my friend would say, are places Bangkokians open (miles away from Bangkok) to earn money from fellow Bangkokians.

The 3 pretty ladies at the entrance of Plearn Wan
One of the many colourful photospots at Hua Hin Floating Market

Since there's nothing unforgettable, let's capture those memories with our camera
Without being too critical, I have to say that these 2 places, though artificial, do exude an air of nostalgia and light-heartedness. If you are just looking for a place to have a slow stroll and some nice pictures taken, these places fit the bill perfectly. But beware of falling into the trap of buying too many things back for your colleagues as most items could easily be found in Bangkok(possibly at a cheaper price).

Another view from our excellent resort
At the end of the day, going to Hua Hin is all about throwing all your worries away and sitting around with your best mates. So what if most leisure spots are artificial, so what if the sand is not the whitest? As long as there is the sun, the sea, GOOD SEAFOOD and a laugh with people whom you love hanging out with, what's not to love?

Final group photo before we went to look for EVEN MORE seafood

Thank you Wendy for being such a great companion in Thailand, and thank you Nueng for recommending the resort and driving us all the way there (sorry for making you sick!).

Hua Hin's a great place, I just have a feeling my baby would want me to bring him back again, soon, to see everything with his own eyes.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Working Hour Lunch Feasts

The lunch feast

Starting a company in a foreign land is not easy, especially when you have to battle floods, riots, more floods and sneaky amnesty proposals. Just click the link of the right-hand bar under the label "Working in Thailand" and you will see some of the difficulties I have faced over the past 2 years.

That said, taking care of a company on your own does have its perks too. At least I can run it the way I feel a proper company should be run, treat customers the way they rightfully deserve, and most importantly, build up a team of people who will give their heart for a common cause and collectively reap rewards from it. Though I made my fair share of mistakes (and will continue to make them), the decision to provide free rice, condiments, rice cooker and electric stove has proven to be a masterstroke, one that is making me very satisfied indeed.

20baht per head (the rice is free) for this spread of authentic thai food, beat that

The picture above is a typical lunch at my office. Clockwise from the top left is Thai spicy sauce (a condiment to go with the food/rice), Thai red curry chicken with pumpkin, spicy catfish stirfry, spicy pork stirfry with long beans and basil, TES-cooked smoked fish soup (my staff cooked it with smoked fish made by another staff's mom) and finally deep-fried pork strips with garlic. Everyone would take turns to bring their favourite ingredients and even cook their best dishes to share with the company.

The best thing is actually not the food. It's the camaradarie built when everyone sits down around the same table, waiting for each other to be ready before tucking in, laughing together, refilling rice for each other when one has an empty plate. That's the best part. I'm not well-versed in Thai, but I sort of get most of the jokes made and contribute my own once in a while. I most fondly remember joining 4 Thai words together "Kin-Lao-Ro-Dai" (which means "drink whisky and wait for your death") which lightened the mood when everyone was worried about the floods a few weeks ago (I guess they just did not expect this chain of words to come out of my Malaysian mouth). They are still talking about it till this day.

TES family tucking in
I think this is not only a company, it is fast becoming a family. No matter how bad the day is, or how unreasonable a customer can be, I can always look forward to my team calling me at my extension at noon everyday asking me to join them for lunch.

The food isn't always spectacular, sometimes it does not suit my palate and I end up just having rice with omelette, but the warmth in my heart keeps me going for the rest of the day.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

福州炒煮面在曼谷!Foochow braised stir-fried noodle in Bangkok!

福州炒煮面 in Bangkok
Inspired by my friends, namely Fang Ting, who's always trying to create authentic Singaporean dishes in faraway Sweden, and Xinyi, who's a Singaporean trying to perfect her knowledge of Thai cuisine in Bangkok, I have courageously attempted to re-create dishes from my hometown as well.

That said, there is a clear difference between them and myself (resulting in a completely different cuisine), though born and (mostly) bred in Singapore, I am not Singaporean. I am from Sarawak, but it's complicated too. My mom comes from Sibu, my dad comes from Sarikei, but let's just agree that I am from Kuching, since all my folks are staying there now.

Taste of home is a tricky definition for me too because of my slightly complex background, but I shall stick with Foochow cuisine, which is what my mum cooks and what I scour the streets in Kuching/Sibu to hunt down whenever I visit.

福州炒煮面,which I will loosely translate as Foochow Braised Stir-fried Noodles, is my Dad's absolute favourite. It is basically a thick noodle dish that is fragrantly stir-fried before it's braised in nice stock to give a thick, dark dollop of sumptuous, soya-saucy goodness. Last Saturday, I figured I had enough ingredients to do a reasonable trial, so I took the plunge, even though I had no experience making it at all.

From my understanding of the dish, its crux lies in choosing the right thick yellow noodle and stir-frying it to perfection in a lot of garlic, a lot of Chinese wine and finally dark soy. The smell in my small apartment during the stir-frying process was absolutely divine, and my nose told me that I was on the right track. The stock was made with top-class pork sirloin, prawn heads/shells (pre-stirfried to bring out the fragrance) and chinese cabbage. The final step was simply to marry the noodles and stock and bring to a boil.

Not bad, not bad at all
Though I did not spend the effort to make lard (which will obviously improve the dish) nor have enough green leafy vegetables, I can shamelessly say that this first trial has achieved at least 70% of what I deem as the perfect product.

Home-made 福州炒煮面 to warm our hearts during a disastrous time in Bangkok - shiok!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My first open-house: Home-made gourmet food and gaming fun!

Sorry for another grossly overdue blogpost. Though the floods have not arrived at my doorstep, the accumulation of mental stress from preparing for the worst natural disaster in Thailand for the last 50 years has been slowly eating me up. But thankfully with the support of friends and family, I am slowly starting to feel more relaxed, and with the extra time I have on my hands due to a sharp downturn in business, I have finally gotten down to clearing my blog and FB photo-sharing backlog.

For those who still don't know, Li Li and I have moved from our little shophouse to an even smaller condominium this August. Despite its size, I am very pleased because we can finally call somewhere our home, and building it with the one you love is really a very sweet and satisfying process. 

We decided to make our first open-house a potluck, inviting friends to come over with some home-cooked food. We were expecting decent food, but boy did they deliver the goods:

Wendy's Kebab: 3 Tastes aka 三味肉串,this is the one made of chicken, there's also pork and beef
Par and Xinyi's Parma Ham Pizza and Thai Shrimp Salad, perfect fusion of authentic Thai with flamboyant Italian
May's impeccable Khao Soi
I have to reserve special mention for May's Khao Soi. I still remember a couple of months ago when I spent 3 days in Doi Lo, Chiang Mai, I made it a point to eat Khao Soi every single day as it's my favourite dish from Northern Thailand. It is essentially what we understand to be curry chicken noodle, but with added sophistication. Aside of having a fragrant curry (which is a must of course), there is added emphasis on the right noodle (cooked perfectly Al Dente by Teacher May), and the addition of condiments like raw onion, pickle, lime, crispy fried noodles makes this a complex yet wholesome dish. I still cannot believe it that it was the first time she made this. You have talent, May, please pass the recipe to me when I open my restaurant. I will make it a star.

The gathering did not end with the glorious food. Unfortunately, I did not have the presence-of-mind to take a picture of what happened next. Wendy displayed her gameshow-hosting talents by guiding us through 2 (or was it 3) hugely entertaining games of Jeopardy. It was all good fun, and there were 3 interesting revelations from the gameshow:
  1. Everyone's tired of Thai politics, no one knew the name of the Thai PM before Abhisit took over!
  2. Eddie's knowledge of entertainment gossip is second to only Wendy, he could recognise Hollywood stars at a glance.
  3. Steve Jobs' salary was 1USD.
I am looking forward to more revelations on our next Jeopardy session Wendy, please start preparing!

Thank you ladies and gentlemen for gracing my humble house and spending such a wonderful time together

It was a fantastic first open-house. My guests really put my cooking skills to shame. Luckily I had my bottle of Rupert and Rothschild to save my blushes!

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Stranger in Bangkok starts to cook gourmet flood food: Creamed mushrooms with wilted baby rocket

Eddie's creamed mushrooms with wilted rocket

Just to give everyone a quick update. The flood waters will remain in Bangkok for another month yet, and is spreading everyday to more and more parts of Bangkok. But we are still lucky to be living and working in districts that have been spared temporarily. While waiting for the blue dolphins to make their arrival with their aggressive and poisonous reptilian friends, I have been starting to make what I consider as flood food. It sure doesn't look like flood food, but I have my reasons (though I am pushing it):

  1. When the floods come, there is a likelihood that the electrical supply will be cut. In this case, we will need to clear the fresh perishables out of our refrigerators as soon as possible. Bacon, fresh mushrooms, salad leaves and fresh cream fit nicely into this category.
  2. Once there's no electricity, people like us living in condominiums will be deprived of our electronic hot plates for cooking. With our small portable gas stoves (I hope you got one), it is important that we can cook something from start to finish in a single small pot/pan (bingo), and more importantly, in as little time as possible as gas is precious commodity!
Now that everyone is convinced that this is a dish that make your day after many consecutive meals of Mamak (instant noodles), I shall present the method of making it in a concise, pictorial presentation. The key to making fresh mushrooms (this dish does NOT work with canned or dried mushrooms) is to have a very very hot pan and only use enough mushrooms to at most cover the pan. If you use too much mushrooms in a small pan (worse if it's not hot), the water that comes out of the mushrooms will not evaporate fast enough and you will end up with a disgusting mushroom soup.

Lightly fry 2 slices of bacon, this is a delicious base to any dish

Once the bacon is slightly brown, add in as much sliced garlic as you want. If you  put in the garlic first, it would have burnt before the bacon turns crisp
Add in the mushrooms while the pan is searing hot, I use fresh Shiitake

And fresh Enoki, because it's cheap and easily available. You can use any fresh mushroom you like actually, it will work just as well even with truffle!
With a hot pan, your pan will look like this within 30 seconds, and it's time to add a nice pinch of salt and freshly-ground black pepper

You may skip this step, but I like to now drench the mushrooms with a swig of fresh cream

Right at the end, it's time to add in a handful of baby rocket. I think wild rocket, spinach or watercress will work just as well for this recipe. It looks like a lot of leaves now, just wait for 20 seconds

20 seconds and a toss will give you your finished product, less than 4 minutes from start to finish!

So here, Eddie's creamed mushrooms with baby rocket to solve your eating blues whether or not you are facing the threat of floods. I tell my wife it can be the perfect side-dish for any wastern main course (be it steak or pork chop), but we like to enjoy it as the star of our breakfast.

Mushroom sandwich, anyone?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Drastic measures for desperate times

The government has announced the sacrifice of Eastern Bangkok to drain flood waters. Though our district has not been singled out as a disaster zone, we know we are vulnerable. Imagine PAP announcing Pasir Ris as a warzone and you're living in Bedok, you should really prepare for war too.

For the first time in my life, I have to make difficult decisions. I have to save the company, save the goods, save the office and keep my pregnant wife and mom (yes she's here) safe all at the same time. This stress is tremendous, especially when the threat is a possible onslaught of natural disaster.

It did not make things easier when my staff failed to find any bricks yesterday when I finally decided to build a solid wall on my warehouse doors (effectively building a 'permanent' structure to block up the office I worked so very hard over the last 2 years to open, compromising  our business activities at the same time) to prevent possible floodwaters from engulfing everything.

Finally, they were found, but with huge holes on them! My staff told me that we had no choice and people are fighting for them, so there's more work, because we had to fill the holes up with cement ourselves.
They are really a bunch of good lads, we are lucky to have such a team fighting for the company
Never in a hundred years would I have envisioned myself having to order the erection a brick wall to block up the entrances of my company, it's an excruciating feeling

At the end of the ordeal, whether or not the brickwall would be put into actual use, I can at least tell people I was fighting in Thailand during its worst flood for 50 years. Whatever doesn't break you makes you stronger, doesn't it. Any form of hardship in Singapore would not have strengthened me against the threat of nature.

In the face of disaster, human beings are all thrown back to square one.

Whatever, popularity, wealth, power and reputation does not matter anymore. The richest and the poorest, while facing disaster, become equal all over again.

So what if you have 10 houses if you have to stay on top of the roof?

So what if you have 100 cars when they have become submarines?

So what if you have millions in the banks, when all the banks and atm machines are closed?

So what if you managed to withdraw cash just in time before the banks got engulfed by the floodwaters? When all the shops are closed, the millions in your pocket become useless pieces of paper.

When the aids arrive in helicopters, even if you have millions in your wallet, you too, will chase after the choppers scrambling for every piece of bread and bottle of drinking water like everyone else.

Everyone is the same.

With money, you might be able to make a quicker comeback than the rest after the disaster, but can you survive it in the first place?

United we stand, cooperating and helping each other through the toughest of times.
Love needs to prevail, everyone needs to stand up, be counted and help each other. This is the only way we can emerge stronger after the waters subside.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tribute to Khaaw: How Bangkok has changed my life


By writing this blogpost, I want to tell everyone that myself, Li Li and Baby in Bangkok are all ok. Thank you for your concern. If anyone wants further proof of our resilience, you will soon see more information of us travelling down to Hua Hin over the weekend for some great relaxing time-off with a couple of friends. The flood situation in Bangkok is currently under control, with concerns in some areas till the end of the month. The worst flood in Thailand in 50 years has spared us for the time-being, and I am grateful everyday for it.

Enough of floods, the focus of this piece is really about the cute street dog pictured above. His actual name is Nom-Sod, which means Fresh Milk, but he himself doesn't know his real name, so let's just call him by his nickname Khaaw, which he identifies himself by.

More than a year ago, I wrote about how living in a local suburb in Bangkok has helped me overcome my 20-yr-old fear of dogs, but now (2 of the dogs mentioned in my post have sadly passed away), 2 months after moving out of the local suburb, Khaaw has absolutely deepened my love for them.

He has long fluffy hair, different from usual Thai street dogs
I have fond memories of playing with Khaaw and stroking him to sleep during the two years at my old office, especially during the many months when I was staying all alone, fighting a lone battle to establish my company in Thailand. He felt like my only companion when everything seemed stacked against me, and would always jump on me in enthusiasm to give me a reason to smile.

Since moving away 2 months ago, I had been back to visit him 4 times, and on every occasion he would be sprinting towards me from far far away before pouncing on me again and again, as if to give me all the affection he accumulated over the weeks of my absence.

Last week, I made one of those visits again, but this time I went to have coffee at a stall 50metres away, which is strictly out of Khaaw's designated zone (btw, street dogs work like professional mafia gangs, they have designated regions of influence, and trespassers would not be treated lightly). He took the risk and just sat peacefully beside me as I reminisced with the stall-owner. As expected, the dog controlling the area soon arrived and Khaaw did something to really touch my heart.

Mafia King finally arrived to chase Khaaw out of his area, they circled around, flashing canines at each other, while I was trying to coax Khaaw back to his neighbourhood

To my shock, he did the unexpected! Instead of returning to the comforts of his own village, he came up the platform where I was sitting and continued to accompany me, all the way till I left, despite the angry growlings of the Mafia King

In case any of you are rolling your eyes at this very unspectacular story of mine, take note that we are talking about a street dog here, who never had an owner nor proper training whatsoever, showing such love and loyalty to a friend who doesn't feed him (yes, aside of the odd bone, I NEVER feed him).

Khaaw stole a kiss on my cheek while we were posing for this picture. Our first kiss!

This is not the most flattering picture of me, and in normal circumstances I would never let this appear anywhere in public, but seeing the smile on Khaaw's face and the coincidental fact that I was wearing a bright white shirt as well, I think this is the best picture to show our deep friendship.

Thank you to Khaaw, and to all the dogs who are giving your hearts to the people around you. Your sweet actions prove to us that in the present society full of ignorance and hate, love always prevails.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Venice of the East Part 3: The calm before the storm

As much as I am reluctant to write this, it feels appropriate to write the 3rd instalment of my series of flood-related posts. As we speak, 3/4 of Thailand is affected by its worst flood in 50 years, with the ancient city of Ayuthaya just been rendered completely handicapped (flood waters up to 5m high in some parts). The stories we see on the news are devastating and interesting at the same time.

"... the government is are our wits' end...." not very convincing from the Chiobu PM. I am happy that you are going to decrease the corporate tax in the next 2 years (if you really do it), but come on, can you say something more inspiring? You don't have to lie, but could u just say some things to inject more hope into your people who voted for you?

In Uthai Thani, 100 crocodiles escaped from a crocodile farm, and the owners dubbed them "not fierce" as they had been raised in captivity. Now that sounds more inspiring than what you have to offer, Chiobu PM.

Commodities such as rice, instant noodles and canned food are running dry on the racks of major supermarkets, but these sales are closely followed by pet food! Kudos Thai people, you love your pets. They can always eat our food, but we can't eat theirs, so that's really thoughtful!

Flood preparation begins

Back in my company, flood preparation has officially begun. I grew up in Singapore, a country in which one single flash flood can cause the government to withstand major bombardment by the masses, so I am really not experienced in this kind of crisis management. But having visited my customer in Hat-Yai last month and witnessed remnant water marks (from last year's flood) at eye level (I am a good 6ft tall), I figure it's better to be safe than sorry, especially when our warehouse is in Bangkok's purple zone (medium danger level).

There are always opportunities in the face of disaster. This could be the first time in 50 years where sandbag-sellers could increase their prices by 20% every few hours. The price of every sandbag has increased from 30baht to 45 baht in the space of 24 hours. We were lucky we got ours at 35. We should really have purchased more, if we did, we would be rich by now selling them to our neighbours.

Little wall of sandbags

We have abandoned all business activities to work OT stacking goods as high as we can
We try to keep the lower levels as clear as possible, but there's only so much we can do, you can't fight nature, you always lose.

We can only pray and hope that when the flood waters finally wash through Bangkok, it will pass by our warehouse, bringing only the millions of rats hiding in the dungeons underground along, and cause minimal damage to what we have worked so hard to create in the last 2 years.

The tangible and intangible losses incurred by the floods are already too great to even think of, and it will leave possibly millions in this country needing to build their homes and livelihoods from scratch again. But hopefully, like we have seen again and again in other countries, disaster will bring along a newfound spirit of unity and togetherness amongst the Thai people, and the country will emerge stronger than before.

As we are doing our best to counter the forces of nature, it did not rain last night. It was the first time for as long as I can remember that there was no hint of rain for the entire evening. It is also scorchingly sunny today so far, my laundry is finally going to dry.

The calm before the storm perhaps? I certainly hope not.

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