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Favourite comfort reads and a new favourite recipe

22 Dec

Anonymous asked about favorite comfort reads, or favorite recipes.

Favourite comfort reads (a non-comprehensive list)

I’m going to specify titles ‘cos it’s interesting to think about which specific books by these authors I like best for comfort reading, but in most cases the authors’ entire oeuvres fall under the heading of “comfort reading” for me.

  • L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. LMM is probably my #1 comfort read of all time actually. OF ALL TIME!
  • Patrick O’Brian, HMS Surprise
  • Georgette Heyer, Cotillion
  • Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
  • Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes
  • Jean Webster, Dear Enemy
  • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith books (cheating and naming all of them because I can’t remember which instalment is my favourite)

Oddly enough I don’t feel Terry Pratchett really belongs on the list, though I rate him higher than several of these authors in certain respects. I feel like Discworld really shaped my worldview, and showed me that it was possible for books to be genre and silly and fun but also serious and clever – but for whatever reason I don’t seem to have that deep emotional attachment to the books anymore. I still like and value them, but it’s like I’ve taken from them what I need, and don’t need them anymore.

Well, I say that, but if I were to embark upon a reread doubtless the feelings would return!

Incidentally nearly all the books/authors I name above I came to at around age 10-12, which is probably why they have stuck with me. The only two exceptions are O’Brian and Heyer, whom I discovered at around 16-18.

A favourite recipe

DIY chilli “pan mee”


Foods that make me think of home

16 Dec

finkelsteingirl asked about foods that make you feel tremendously comfortable or at home just by tasting them.

A list!

Nescafe with hot milk + condensed milk, the way my dad used to make it before my parents got super health-conscious and did away with milk and sugar.

Yau char kway: This is a fried breadstick you dip into your coffee and it is super good! It makes your coffee oily which would be weird in a latte but is OK in kopitiam coffee.

(Continuing the breakfast associations) soft-boiled eggs with white pepper and soy sauce. You dip buttered toast in it and eat the toast and it is so great.

Steamed jasmine rice.

Cabbage soup with fried garlic.

Chicken rice: This is rice cooked in chicken stock so it’s super yummy, served with poached chicken with the skins on and chilli sauce. (Not the sticky sweet Thai chilli sauce that comes in bottles. A different kind!) I actually like it with “black” chicken better (roasted so the skin is brown and crackly) than “white” chicken, but white chicken is the classic variety. One of the few dishes Malaysians are willing to acknowledge are done better in Singapore.

Ipoh hor fun: Hor fun (white flat noodles) served in a broth with shredded chicken and whole prawns.

Mamak-style Maggi mee goreng: Basically just fried noodles, but it’s so nice. So nice! I also don’t know why.

Steamed fish in soy sauce. The fried version is good as well, but it’s more exciting than comforting.

Tomato eggs: My mom always made it with baked beans instead of tomato, so that should technically be the version I recall with fondness, but I don’t like baked beans so I prefer tomato.

Tau yu bak: This is pork belly braised in this black black sauce with hardboiled eggs. The hardboiled eggs are almost the best part because you break them open and pour the sauce on the yolk and it is so nice. (I initially said “the best”, but changed it to “almost the best” because the best is really the meat.) My mom often made it with chicken instead of pork.

I am becoming unsure as to whether this is really a list of my comfort/”think of home” foods, or whether I am just listing delicious things to eat! Might be time to stop.

It’s probably unsurprising that this is all Chinese food (except the Maggi mee? I dunno if the Maggi mee counts) as opposed to Malay or Indian or any other cuisine. I like Malay/Indian/etc. food, but I guess you revert to what you ate at home as a kid when you are seeking comfort.

My food philosophy, or, reaching for the Optimal Taste Experience

9 Dec

kaberett: I seem to be super-interested in how other people approach food, at the moment, in terms of how they conceptualise it and how they cook and what emotions if any they have to do with it.

I always like talking about food! Pictures of things I have made/eaten recently under the cut at the end of the post.

My philosophy of eating is based around the idea of the Optimal Taste Experience (OTE). The idea is that with every single bite of food, you are aiming to achieve the OTE. For me, the OTE is the perfect balance of taste and texture.

Let us talk about Chinese food, because it is a good example. You are in Hong Kong. Because you are in Hong Kong, of course you order a rice bowl with roast meat and veg. (For those who are interested, my imaginary rice bowl has char siu, siew yoke and roast duck in it. Because why not go the whole hog/duck, it is an imaginary rice bowl! The vegetable is choi sum.) There is some sauce on the rice, but there is some rice that does not have sauce on it, because that is the nature of rice bowls.

In order for me to achieve my OTE with this rice bowl, I need to get on my spoon the perfect proportions of rice, sauce, meat and veg every time. Every mouthful must have the perfect balance of every element. If there is too much rice in a mouthful, that is not ideal because there is not enough flavour. But if there is too much meat, then it is too meaty and there is no balance. You don’t want too much sauce because then it will be too salty. But you want some sauce because otherwise it is boring.

Achieving OTE requires careful attention. Of course, when you are given a rice bowl you are not given equal parts of meat, veg and rice. So you have carefully to apportion out all the elements to make sure you don’t, say, run out of meat before you’ve finished the rice.

There are also more subtle ways to miss the OTE. You might think from the above that maybe you want to mix the sauce into the rice so it is evenly spread all over the rice. No! That would be a terrible mistake, because it would make all the rice sauce-y, and then when you want some plain white rice to offset all the other tastes in your mouth, you won’t have any! You have to keep some rice in reserve. This is because your mood and what you want to taste will change during the meal. Your OTE is not static!

I had been unconsciously practising this approach all my life, and only formulated it one day over a rice bowl at a HK-style diner in Midvalley Megamall. Reaching for the OTE was so instinctive to me that I was surprised and intrigued to find out that not everyone approaches food that way. One of my cousins wants to have a different taste experience with each mouthful, so even if she has achieved the tastiest proportions with one spoonful, instead of sticking with that combo as I would, she will adjust the elements with the next spoonful to see what that tastes like.

So that is my food philosophy! There’s more subtleties to it, but you can pretty much work out the ramifications from the original principle. Like, you don’t want to overeat because when you are full it’s not as fun to eat anymore, so that’s no longer OTE. OTE also extends to the post-food experience, so you have to take care with things like Doritos or McDonald’s, because you might be having OTE at the time, but if you go overboard you can end up feeling decidedly suboptimal. The keys to OTE are moderation and balance.

Anyway, here are some pictures of food!


Zen fails at food photography

10 Jul

I made black sesame “brownies”! I used a recipe from Pig Pig’s Corner, Black Sesame Brownies, though mine aren’t as gloriously tar-like as hers — mine look more like ones Green Cilantro made. I don’t know if it’s cos of the lighting or what — I’d quite like my brownies to be blacker.




It’s actually really a cake, and not a brownie at all. It doesn’t have the dense fudginess of a brownie, and also it contains no chocolate. But it is GOOD. I love black sesame and am especially excited about this recipe because it’s the kind of thing you probably couldn’t buy in a shop, but it is really easy to make if you can get hold of black sesame or black sesame paste.

Cephas finds it very unusual and says his inner British person is like, “The chocolate muffin I had at tea was better :(“. But his outer British person is quite broad-minded and had a whole piece. Both my inner and outer Asian persons responded well: I had two pieces in quick succession, and will have many more before the week is out ….

Eating Zens

1 Jul

Writer Lawrence M. Schoen does a blog series on Eating Authors, wherein he asks writers to describe their favourite and/or most memorable meal. I, er, flailed. But if you don’t mind responses that don’t properly answer the question, you can read my indecisive answer below!

Eating Authors: Zen Cho

Regency cosplayers, green tea cake with Dog, and a mustachioed King of All Cosmos

17 Jun

I’ve been meaning to make a blog post for a while and just not had the time to get around to it, so this’ll be a fairly variegated one, drawing on the stuff of the past few weeks.


A couple of weekends ago I was finishing up my line-edit of my Regency fantasy of manners, and I walked to Hampstead Heath with Cephas. It was a really pretty day — it’s a really pretty area, and it’s nice to be close enough to escape there when you spend the bulk of your days in the centre of town.


We visited Keats House, which we’d been meaning to do for a while. (It’s basically just a house, and they’ve filled the rooms with pictures of Keats while also trying to keep it authentic to the period, which makes everything a bit weird because you can’t imagine that he had loads of pictures of himself in his house when he still lived there. Maybe if it was Byron House!

Anyway, if you want to visit a famous person’s house in North London I’d recommend Freud House instead. Once in a while they have a Kaffee und Kuchen tour where they give you Austrian coffee and cake and a tour, and it is delicious. But also Improving!)

After our tour of the interior of Keats House I went to sit on the lawn to work on my book, and while wrangling a particularly knotty sentence I looked up and realised I was surrounded by Regency cosplayers, present for the Keats Festival.


Here they are demonstrating Georgian music to an interested audience. Being a Philistine in all matters musical, I quietly beredar-ed and spent the rest of the afternoon on the sunny lawn. The house is kind of boh tat, because you have to pay £5 to enter, but the gardens appear to be free and they are very pretty.

Baking triumphs

Today I applied myself to the challenge of making a green tea Swiss roll, and I am inordinately proud of the result. Behold!




I am a great big ball of vanity. The cake itself is not too difficult — it does involve working with peaky egg whites, but I always figure with this sort of thing that either it will go well and it will rise, or it won’t go that well but the cake will still taste good. (And you can see from the pockets of air in the cake that I mixed my egg whites in with no very skilful hand.) The whipped cream is also easy to do — the recipe tells you to put but 3/4 of a tablespoon of sugar in it, so you worry that it is not sweet enough, but actually the cake is pretty sweet so together they are perfect.

What is hard, and what I worried about when contemplating doing the cake, was the purely mechanical aspect of the roll — getting the cake into that shape without breaking it or turning into a cream monster. But Cooking With Dog helped me!

I don’t know if you know Cooking With Dog? I introduced Cephas to it today and he started LOLing, to my sister’s puzzlement.

“It’s just a normal cooking show,” she said. “I watch it to see the cooking. I wouldn’t link it to my friends, it’s not funny. The dog isn’t even doing anything.”

“How can you say he’s not doing anything?” I said severely. “The dog is hosting.”

Dog was very helpful with my Swiss roll mechanics today! Thank you, Francis.


I started following Singaporean writer Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago and feel pretty good about that as a life decision. You can follow his updates even if you’re not friended (it does, alas, require you to have a Facebook account), and it is worth the price of entry if you are at all interested in local literature. His most recent status on pantun and peribahasa (Malay poetry and sayings) referencing apes, monkeys and slow lorises is a good example — my favourite of the ones he lists is:

Seutas rotan ditarik, bergegar hutan belukar, riuh bunyi kera dan lotong

‘A rattan stem is pulled, the forest underbrush shakes, the outburst from the macaques and langurs is deafening’. If someone is guilty of wrongdoing, he or she will receive an earful from friends and relatives.

If they taught Malay literature like this at school I think people would be a lot more interested lor. (Not that I didn’t enjoy Konserto Terakhir, mind you. Surprise almost-incest always jazzes up one’s school reading!)

And a final picture


Which requires no explanation.

Many cakey returns

23 Apr

It was my birthday yesterday! Some people wished me many cakey returns. It is for these people that I post the following pictures.

Cake #1: a Japanese strawberry green tea shortcake, made using this recipe + a healthy heaping of matcha. I made it myself! The advantages of this are a) you can make precisely the sort of cake you would want as a birthday cake and b) when Skyping with your parents you can lament that you are so badly off, so neglected by your spouse and all your loved ones, that it is necessary for you to make your OWN birthday cake. Alas! Alack!


Lunchboxes and literature

3 Jan

I used my Aladdin bento box for the first time today! I’ve got the two-storey version, which comes with a top compartment for soups and a larger bottom compartment, into which you can slot a half moon-shaped container so you can keep your rice and cai separate. It claims to be able to keep your food warm for up to five hours (or cool if that is how you prefer it), which is convenient as we don’t have that many microwaves at work.

I put some edamame in the top compartment, along with a hardboiled egg, and filled up the bottom with kimchi fried rice, giving the rice a blitz in the microwave before I set off. It worked pretty well! The rice wasn’t quite hot, but it was warm, and edible enough. The things I will do differently tomorrow are:

  • cook the edamame in advance and chill them, because when you put them into the lunchbox immediately after cooking they get a bit soggy
  • put the spring onion for garnishing the rice in the edamame compartment and only add it to the rice just before eating, so it doesn’t get wilted by the heat
  • heat up the rice until it is EVEN HOTTER before packing it
  • put in less rice. Wah, very full after lunch today.
  • (perhaps include a piece of delicious banana bread Cephas has just made, by way of dessert)

I am going to buy myself a bento cookbook. :D Perhaps the Just Bento one? Do let me know if you’ve got any recommendations.


You may enjoy these Notes on K. S. Maniam’s The New Diaspora in the New Village zine, discovered via hipsterbabas. (The original essay is here — I haven’t read it yet.) K. S. Maniam is a Malaysian Indian novelist and playwright, and the essay “explores the problems of internationalising community literatures, using the multicultural situation in Malaysia as a sort of model”.

I do not understand all of what Maniam is saying, and the notes seem scarcely shorter than the original essay itself lor. But what I have managed to grasp is interesting. I am doubtful about this idea of a new diaspora, an elite minority whose task is to make sense of the problems of multiculturalism and globalisation by somehow rising above its ethnic and cultural origins — but perhaps I misunderstand the argument. Anyway, it is comforting to see discussion of these issues one has been grappling with personally, feeling quite at sea.


Today I hit 50,000 words on the novel! My aim was to hit that word count by the end of 2012, so I am a couple of days late, but eh. \o/! I really made this post just to say this, but got distracted by lunchboxes and literature.

The first draft is growing alarmingly fragmented; I am run away with some subplots and don’t know what to do with others — and I think I have written one scene at least twice. But these are things that can be fixed on the next go-round, right? We soldier on.