I’m no Nigella Lawson although I could eat like her, but that hasn’t prevented me from slicing, dicing, squirting and stirring. But that’s the beauty of living in Singapore – one can pretend to be kitchen goddess Nigella Lawson. You just need to troop down to the supermarket to get the ingredients. In my case, it was a 10-minute leisurely stroll from my old Cavenagh Gardens flat to Cold Storage at Centerpoint where, at several times, I spent beaucoup dollars on herbs and spices, pasta, mushrooms (enoki, champignon, Portobello and shitake) couscous, wheat bread and whatever caught my fancy whenever I went up and down the aisles.
Nothing fancy in the kitchen – no dishes a la Michelin chefs, but dishes that would certainly beat instant noodles and McDonald’s takeout. Couscous was a big favorite and still is. It’s such a versatile food item that you can pair it with everything. You can pair it with vegetables sautéed in olive oil, and by this I mean the whole gamut of mushrooms that I pile into my shopping cart plus cubed carrots, diced baby asparagus, corn and peas. I normally let the couscous sit in hot corn broth for about five minutes and then fluff it with a fork after. After that, I throw in two to three tablespoons of couscous in a bowl with the vegetables, drizzling it with lemon for that tangy bite.
Or you can pair it with this pack of karaage chicken I loved to buy from the frozen section of Cold Storage. I don’t fry them – I pop them into the oven and they’re nice and golden brown within 30 minutes. For variety, I alternate the karaage chicken with chicken teriyaki. Back to vegetables, I sometimes mix couscous with steamed corn, peas and carrots (they come in a pack neatly labeled mixed vegetables) with steamed tofu cubes. The finishing touch: a few squirts of lemon. Or, sometimes, I combine this version with tuna in brine or light vegetable oil.
Moving to Bekasi, the suburban town that’s 30-45 minutes away from Jakarta depending on the traffic condition, ersatz Nigella Lawson is a bit hard put to find ingredients. There’s still cutting and dicing, but less of the asparagus and mushrooms, and more of the garlic and onion. Lemon, like asparagus is a rarity, and expensive – they’re sold at Rp1, 000+ per 100 grams. At supermarkets Hari-Hari and SuperIndo, champignons are available but they’re canned while stalks of asparagus are a rarity. The Kranji wet market has fresher vegetables than the supermarkets, but the choices are limited and not guaranteed. Ingredients-shopping is like going on a treasure hunt in Indonesia. The Xs that mark the spots are in the Food Halls of the posh Jakarta-based malls Grand Indonesia and Plaza Senayan, which are not exactly juxtaposed to one another or to Bekasi. I discovered a new grocery on a recent trip to Jakarta that is reminiscent Cold Storage’s gourmet outlet at the basement of Paragon in Singapore. Ranch Market, located on Jalan Raya Warung Buncit No. 98 at The Promenade, is stocked with everything that British Chef Jamie Oliver says are pantry essentials –red wine and balsamic vinegars, jarred pesto, maple syrup and unsalted crackers to name a few for the cupboard, spices and frozen food (vegetables and raw shrimps). [Aside: It’s indeed a culinary paradise but burns a huge hole in your pocket unless you’re a member of Indonesia’s elite.]
My latent MacGyver skills were awakened. Lacking a toaster, I placed two slices of wheat bread in the middle of skillet and waited for them to turn golden brown. Another alternative would have been to grill them like you would satay (Indonesian barbecue) but I didn’t have a brazier. I used my rice cooker when I ran out of gas for everything including boiling water for my teas.
In between my culinary adventures in Singapore and Indonesia, my mind tap danced on issues ranging from Obama, Gilson, Pattinson to ice cream. Cooking is like taking a long walk when the weight of the world is keenly felt on my shoulders. The mind wonders, straying away from the stressful and seemingly hopeless situations until it stumbles upon the pot of hope that fuels the choking gear of optimism. It’s what I call meditation in action.
To wit, Indonesia was expecting its former resident to make a historical visit to his old hometown this March but the visit has been pushed to June. His old school and house in Jakarta were pointed out to me about two weeks ago – well, it was more of the location of his old school and house. Like the locals, I can’t divorce the US President from his Indonesian roots although he wasn’t here for more than four years. Imagine the US President running around in the kampong, learning how to box from his step father and walking each day to school in his youth! I read his two books, Dreams from My Father and Audacity to Dream, while I was in Singapore. Dreams from My Father was a pleasant peek at his lives in Asia and in the US. Audacity to Dream was a peep into the former Indonesia resident as a politician who knew his office hours. On duty, he was the staunch democrat who envisioned America rising like the phoenix. Off duty, he was the bonhomous American who endeared himself to many including his political adversaries. After I read Audacity to Dream, I wondered at how he’d fulfill his promises and thought of the miracle the whole world was expecting from a man who inherited an ailing superpower country to govern.
Still on Obama, I speculated on what he would say to today’s students of Indonesia. He wasn’t that industrious student, partying the night before his exams if I remember what I read correctly. But then Obama was far from being the blunt pencil in the case. He also was not jejune and didn’t spend his time perfecting the art of making excuses. He knew the importance of reading. French philosopher Étienne Gilson would have probably cited him as an example of a scholar –one continuously learning what he has to in his area of specialization and strives to reduce his ignorance. There is a lamentable dearth in scholarship in the classroom. Although there are a few who strive to train themselves to think, the rest are lost in their own black hole. It’s really funny how some students would narrow their eyes as if squeezing their brains for, say, the definition of a word when they don’t know the word. One or two would think of consulting the dictionary while the rest wait for the meaning to drop from the universe and land on their brains.
Robert Pattinson, I read, was expelled from school. He had a hard time conforming to the rigidity of a school routine. But the good thing about this British – aside from his gorgeous messy hair and overall pulchritudinous appeal – is he keeps his mind from cobwebs by burying his nose in books. In one interview he said he’d be happy being stranded on an island with a copy of Ulysses. In another interview, he said he read Virgil’s Doomed Love to prepare for his role of Edward Cullen in the film Twilight. I picked up a copy myself – the last one at Borders, Singapore – and found it an interesting read.
If the universe would be kind to grant a serendipitous happenstance, let it be one where I get to be in a café with Pattinson exchanging book lists after which we’ll head out to Cold Stone Creamery for a waffle cone of one of their original creations. Ben & Jerry’s would also be a good option – we can discuss the creative ice cream names and come out with our own after talking about the merits of Greek Mythology. Better yet, we can experiment with couscous, mushroom, vegetables and chicken in my kitchen while talking literature and film.