October, 2007

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I've become a senile old man

blog-ah-pek.jpgThere’re actually both upsides and downsides of getting older by the years. On the downside, there was that time round outside Hougang Mall when a flag-seller referred me to as “Uncle”. On the upside, I get to start counting down on one hand the number of years SAF can call me back to finish by 7 High 3 Lows. Funnily, I still think I’m as mentally alert as I was say 10 years ago.

All that changed just this afternoon. We were heading towards Raffles City Convention Centre to pick up tickets for my Graduation Ceremony the following day, when I crossed the red light, and WHOMP, hit another fellow driving a pretty new Honda Civic making a right turn.

So, OK all of us occasionally miss red lights. Heck, I’ve even teased Ling here before about how she’s missed seeing two red lights in the last year. But check out what was going on in mind at the time of collision: I did see the red light, but the red light did not register a “Stop the Car You Dumb Ass” message in my mind. In fact, my mind comprehended the red light, for some unfathomable reason, as “All Clear – Go Go Go”.

At least in Ling’s case it’s unavoidable that you miss seeing things now and then what with the amount of distractions on the road. In my case, if that’s not a sign of my going senile, I don’t know what is.

The middle-aged driver in the other car was alright albeit a little shaken. The collision was slight as I saw his vehicle just as I cleared the junction and reacted fast enough to swerve to the left. The Honda Civic had some scratches and the front bumper came out a mite.

All that said, I’m really thankful that I didn’t kill or hurt anyone with this little accident. If nothing else, our Latio survived almost unscathed with just a very faint scratch. These things must be built like tanks!

“Oi dearest; out of tune lah! (II)”

blog-cy-piano.jpgSeeing that Ling’s shared about her experience of learning music, I figured I should put my take on it too.

Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, basically refers to the ability to tell a note without a reference note first. So e.g. whenever I hear a piece of music, I can tell immediately what key it’s in, and also accurately replay the melody on the correct key on the piano as well.

blog-cy-piano.jpgWith perfect pitch, I sailed through the aural component of my ABRSM exams every year while studying music (Ling in contrast had big problems – see what she said haha). Sight-reading was also really easy for me. It was sort of funny. I remembered the group aural exam components my music teacher at Grade 8, a Mdm. Ler Hui Siam, got us to do. I was the only boy in the group, and she’d usually tell me to give the poor girls a chance as I was always the first to yell out the interval as soon as she played it.:)

That said, while the ability is pretty rare – apparently as few as 1 in 10,000 persons – it’s not indicative of musical ability. What the girls thoroughly trashed me in were the practical components. Being male, I just didn’t have the same kind of dexterity they had. I was always envious of how beautiful they could play those Clementi, Bach, Mozart and Chopin exam pieces. I barely squeaked through the practical components of each ABRSM exam while the girls were heaping merits and distinctions in every exam. In fact, I was usually the lowest scoring student in my piano teacher’s class!

Still, what I lost in finger agility when it came to the practical component, I managed to somewhat compensate in expression and piece dynamics. At the later grades, I routinely disregarded the Crescendo and Diminuendo markings my piano teacher made for me on my score sheets and went with my own ones, often after hearing the recordings of those examination pieces on my then still small classical music tape collection.

For certain, it’s funny how things turned out. After getting myself really immersed in classical music from the mid 80s onwards, my ambition was to be a professional classical musician. My dreams invariably revolved around playing Mozart’s piano concertos at the concert hall, or singing the part of Figaro from his opera Le Nozze di Figaro. Unfortunately, my parents always and still do regard music-making as an interest and not as a profession that can pay the bills. So, I went with my other continued interest – which was computers – well, the rest of it is history.

All that said, I’m glad that more than 20 years after finishing my grade 8s in Pianoforte and Theory, I’ve returned to playing the piano very occasionally – in our bible study group. OK, so I squirm, hesitate, protest when I’m asked to play – but once (and only when!) the initial fears get overcome, a small part of me feels joy in being able to make music, even if the music-making is not rendered with the same skill as I could muster in the early 90s.

Ann from our small group was asking the other day during a home visit if Ling and I could manage a duet at some time, and that nearly freaked Ling out. But who knows? With enough of that “secret” practices she’s remarked in her entry, perhaps that could become reality at some point.:)

And oh yes; the picture in this entry is one of the only two pictures ever taken of me on the piano. This one was taken during 100th Founder’s Day service at Anglo-Chinese School in 1986.:)

“Oi dearest; out of tune lah!”

I’ll just keep on humming. :)

With his rare gift of perfect pitch, Yang would often just snort “out of tune” from under his breath. I have long come to accept the truth about my musical nature; me = nothing very musical actually. Given that music is not in my blood, I’m deeply grateful to my mother who forked out her hard-earned money to support me through 8 years of piano tuition during my school days. I did enjoy playing the piano despite the fact that my parents’ ancestors did not have the ‘tao (3) gei (2)’ (musical notes) genes. It was no wonder that I often did badly in the aural section of my piano exams. Anyway, just playing at the piano has given me years of pleasure (& years of frustration to my family members who had to bear with the repetition of pieces and countless mistakes). Thank you, ma.

blog-2007-Rivervale-CIMG2685-guitar-piano.JPGThe piano at our place now is my very first piano bought with the collective savings of us three siblings – my 2 brothers and I. It was about 1.6k then. A cheap Yamaha piano which went through a major repair a few years ago, it is a pity that I seldom touch it now. One of these days when darling dearest is not around (for he will surely criticise my inferior playing technique), I shall while my time away hitting at the keys once more and sing myself silly. :D Music can be very up-lifting to the soul.

Besides piano, I had the privilege to pick up the guitar-playing too – and that during my JC (Junior College) years. Playing in an ensemble was a great experience. Just a bunch of like-minded, amateur musicians making music together – what joy! Those were treasured moments I recall with fondness. Dad bought me a guitar and I liked it very much. Whenever I lugged the guitar to school for afternoon practices, I felt like some sort of an expert musician – wah, cool siah (hee, some childish notion in my head then).

I used to teach some general music (ya, even though I was supposed to be “out of tune”) before I became a full-time science teacher. I attended a guitar course for teachers to brush up my playing skills and quite out of the blue, got a prize for being the ‘best student’ at the course. I had serious doubts about my guitar trainers’ judgement but still, the prize thrilled me nonetheless. It was a brand-new guitar! But really, what use do I have for 2 guitars? There’s only one of me.

My sister in-law suggested something wonderful recently during one of our get-together sessions. Instead of exchanging Christmas gifts, you know, the normal thing people do during the Christmas season, she suggested that we contribute our gifts for a missionary’s outreach work to the poor children in Asia. I was excited because 1) it was a super-meaningful gesture to the poor, 2) my 2nd guitar could finally be a blessing to others. It is my hope that this gift will make sweet and joyful music with the little ones.

Matt, I hope that you won’t mind me giving away the extra D-string you bought for the guitar while you were here. I’m sure it will come in handy for the missionary. Once again, I thank you for thoughtfulness of buying the back-up string! :D

A Good Buy

blog-2007-Rivervale-DSC00003-Cars-album.JPGAs much as he tried to play it down, I know that darling was very happy with our latest acquisition. A colleague saw our new car and told me that she, too, had placed an order for Nissan Latio just over the weekend. Another colleague who’s a driver walked over to me the other day and commented on all the good points of Latio and said she wished she was still driving one; she’s driving a Lexus now.

Many are put off by its ugly exterior – its bulky body with an awful-looking ‘backside’. But once you get into the car, its ‘inner beauty’ wins the day. Its so spacious for a 1.5L car. Plus, the interior layout gives a posh feel. Darling and I were very pleased with the intelligent keyless feature – just leave the car key in your handbag / pocket, you can just open the car doors without the remote and turn on the engine without inserting the key into the slot. And this is what we like best: the boot can be opened by a touch pad – no more fumbling for key or going over to the driver’s seat to reach for the latch to open up the boot. You can lock the car from the boot-side too, and keylessly.

There are three other features we like about our new car: its quiet engine, fuel economy and UV & infra-red light protection. Keep it up, Nissan!

Still, I’ve missed our Honda Civic after selling it. I mean it has been with me for almost 5 years and had seen my ups and downs. I felt like I’ve abandoned my car. Now, it must be a sitting duck tucked away in some mechanic workshop waiting to be shipped to another country as a 2nd-hand car. It feels like abandoning a pet. Rather sad. I just hope that the next owner will take good care of it.

Chilli Burns

It is no joke to be burned by a tiny, red fruit – the chilli padi.

blog-chili.jpgIt happened to me on one of those days when all the hard work poured into cooking turned out disastrous. Yeah. I was into Thai food and the desire to prepare Thai fish cakes was on an all time high. The recipe called for the chilli to be seeded and sliced. So I “act hero” by using my precious bare fingers to detach the chilli seeds and placenta (those white strips where seeds are attached too) before slicing. I even rubbed my cheeks with my hands soon after. You guessed correctly – it did not take long for the fiery chemical of the chilli to send its searing heat throughout my fingers and cheeks!

Thank God for the Internet! Immediately, I went on a Google search for some remedies for my chilli burns. After reading up on the properties of the culprit chemical (capsaicin) and a forum on how to relieve chilli (they call it ‘pepper’) burns, I tried applying aloe vera gel, rubbing on cut surfaces of onions and rubbing with rice vinegar. Wow, I must say that the last two methods really worked wonders! My agony was almost gone with the vinegar while the onions significantly reduced the sting. Since onions and vinegar are common kitchen items, these are very handy in treating chilli burns indeed. I read that cooking oil can also remove the pain. I didn’t try that as I disliked getting my hands oily.

Capsaicin is alkaline in nature. I think it might be the acids found in onion and vinegar (ethanoic acid) that neutralised the effect of capsaicin. Cooking oil is used by others as capsaicin is oil-soluble.

Next time, I should wear gloves before touching chilli again.

Carrot Cake

This is not the Western cake with the stredded orange root. It is an Asian dish. Actually, its name is quite a misnomer as the main ingredient is raddish. There’s no carrot involved at all.

I got the recipe from my colleague who enjoys baking and cooking. Spent 4 hours in total for preparation and actual cooking on this dish today (could be shorter but I was feeling unwell). O boy, what a relief when the final product was decently edible!

For those who have the time and patience to spare, here’s the recipe.

Carrot Cake: Pan-Fried


Raddish – 2 large ones weighing 800g

Chicken broth – 1 packet (330ml) or 1 cup

Rice flour – 250g

Corn starch – 100g

Vegetable oil – 2 tbsps

Chinese sausage – 2 sticks

Dried shrimps – 40g

Dried / fresh shitake mushrooms – 14

Seasoning: vegetable oil (1 tbsp) + salt (1.5 tsp) + white ground pepper (0.5 tsp) + 5 spice powder (1 tsp)


1) Pre-soak dried shrimps & dried mushrooms until soft. Grease an 8″ x 2.5″ round tin pan or 8″ x 8″ x 2.5″ square tin pan.

2) In the meantime, peel raddish and shred it. Put it into a big pot and add chicken broth to cook it for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.

3) Dice mushroom and dried prawns into small pieces. Set aside

4) Dice Chinese sausages coarsely. Set aside.

5) Strain cooked raddish to collect its ‘juice’ in a huge bowl. Top up the raddish juice with water to make up to 4 cups. Add seasoning and stir well. Set aside to cool. Reserve the cooked shredded raddish for later use.

6) Heat up 2 tbsp oil into a wok (or deep frying pan). Add Chinese sausage and fry for a while. Add dried shrimps and mushrooms and fry until fragrant. Turn off the flame and leave it in the wok.

7) Sift both rice and corn flour into the cooled raddish juice and mix well. Alternate sifting and stirring to avoid formation of lumps. Important: Ensure that no lumps are formed. Sieve the mixture if necessary.

8) Heat up the wok again and add the cooked raddish. Stir to mix evenly with other ingredients. Once raddish is heated, gently stir the flour mixture and carefully pour it into the wok. Stir continuously until mixture become paste-like. Dish it into the greased pan.

9) Steam on high heat for 1 hour.

10) After steaming, carefully remove the cooked carrot cake by inverting it onto a plate. Wet knife with water and cut it into square pieces of about 1.5 – 2 cm thickness. Wet knife each time to make a clean cut.

11) Add oil to a pan to do shallow-frying. Fry until carrot cake is just about golden brown and crispy.

12) Serve on a plate lined with paper kitchen towels to absorb excess oil. This pan-fried version is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Thai sweet chilli complements well with this dish. :)

Alea jacta est (continued)

(This one’s continued from the last entry.)

I didn’t find McCullough’s subsequent books as refreshing as the first, so aside from computer city-building games based on the Roman empire, over the last decade I didn’t find similarly engaging material to sustain my interest.

blog-rome1.jpgThat’s until recently when I had the opportunity to catch the first season of HBO’s highly acclaimed TV series, Rome, which seems to have drawn a great deal of inspiration from McCullough’s novels. Ling has watched quite a few episodes of the series with me, and though she’s remarked at how vulgar the series is, seems equally fascinated too.

The series takes place in a smaller time frame compared to McCullough’s novels: specifically the beginning of Pompey Magnus‘ fall out with Julius Caesar,and finishes with Octavius Caesar’s ascendancy. Truth to tell, there’s a good deal of expletives-use (though still far less than any given season of The Sopranos), and both female and male nudity – though in order to reach the local shores here, the DVD set has been butchered by way of mosaic blurring. But that’s Roman civilization for you: they thought little of homosexuality, having young boys as lovers was fashionable, as was the wasteful and brutal civil wars the Roman politicians and generals waged on each other.

The TV series is as good an introduction to Julius Caesar’s time as you can get once you get past the Asterix comic books and The Bard’s romanticized retelling of Julius Caesar’s last few days. You get reasonably authentic looking costumes and sets, and a relatively accurate retelling of the major events in that timeline. For folks who become truly interested to read up more, there’s always the novels, which you can find a list of right here.:)

Oh, and finally; astute fans of the Asterix comic books will have seen before the title in these two posts: “Alea jacta est”. It’s Latin and means “The die is cast”. This quotation is attributed to Julius Caesar as he led his army across the River Rubicon in Italy, marching towards Rome in defiance of the Roman Senate’s order for him to relinquish command of his forces and return to Rome to face charges of treason. Thick stuff eh?

Alea jacta est

blog-rome2.jpgThis one’s a long post, so I’ll need to break it into two posts.

Two of the most powerful non-fictional books I’ve ever read are Citizen Solders by the late Stephen Ambrose – the book was incidentally one of the inspirations for Saving Private Ryan – and the other, The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough.

I remember that my first encounter to the Romans of old came from abridged historical novels in my dad’s collection that I read when in lower primary. It wasn’t long thereafter that I was introduced to the Asterix comic books and how a small village of Gauls continued to resisted the might of Gaius Julius Caesar. Now, of course all that was fiction, but it was a colorful introduction for my young inquiring mind then to read up further on this ancient civilization, and that reading interest has continued two decades since.

I first read The First Man in Rome in 1991. I didn’t buy the book from recommendation or reviews, but really because it concerned a time of history I love reading about, and at nearly 1100 pages, it would have been a lasting read. The book has been classified as historical fiction, but it’s so well researched and the characters all historically-based that I count it more non-fiction than fiction.

The book was the first of seven in the series, each one of them equally thick. The First Man in Rome started the saga with a retelling of Julius Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius: his political and military triumphs, and alliance and friendship with his protege Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The book ended with the birth of Julius Caesar, and the start of Marius’ disagreements with Sulla, which in the overall arc of history was the first rumblings of the earthquake that eventually led to the Roman Republic’s downfall.

This book even had its own several dozen-pages glossary in which the author explained the several terms of reference, historical footnotes, and her justifications regarding the dramatization of several characters and events in the book’s timeline. I still have my nearly 16 year old copy of this book now, though it’s become all brown from weather and age, with well-thumbed through pages.

(Continued in the next entry!)

What to do with excess, over-ripen bananas?

Yang can attest that when it comes to buying groceries, I tend to over-estimate or ‘over-buy’. Of course, my rationale is “What if the thing I need turns out to be insufficient, dear?”. Then we would fuss over the item concerned and I would pull of long, sad face if darling dearest thwart my ‘plan’. Hee hee.
I love delmonte bananas and ‘pang(1) chiow(1)’ (short and sweet bananas). Bananas are energy-rich foods plus got good minerals such as potassium ions to help relieve stress, vitamin C to combat diseases and fibre for healthy colon! For those weight-watchers, a diet of bananas and skim milk might help reduce some weight too. :)

One fine day, I had problems finishing my over-ripen bananas. As I was thinking of ways to be creative in order to minimise wastage of good food, the idea of making banana milk shake popped up. So I went online to do the usual google search for recipes for the beverage and found a few. They are all about the same actually.

With some fresh milk in my refrigerator, ground cinnamon powder, vanilla essence, honey and ice, I was good to go! My first ever banana milk shake.:) I had this blender-cum-ice crusher which I bought a few months ago and could finally put it into good use. The result was a cool, delicious and satisfying health drink which kept me full for the next 2 hours. The recipe for the banana milk shake is as follows:

blog-bananas.jpgBanana Milk Shake for 2


1 large, ripe delmonte banana

300 ml chilled Meiji fresh milk

1 round tbsp honey

Dash of ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp vanilla essence

4 ice cubes


1) Blend all ingredients until smooth.

2) Add ice cubes and hit the ‘crush ice’ button for a few seconds.

3) Serve in chilled glasses. Optional: Garnish with mint leaves. Enjoy!

Note: If there are still too many bananas left, peel off the skin and place them in a zip-lock bag and keep it in the freezer. Can use them for future banana milk shake or eat them as a cold snack!

Cotton Soft Japanese Cheese Cake

I have been trying out cheese cake recipes lately. I prefer those lighter versions while Yang likes the heavier, creamier types.

blog-cheese-cake-CIMG2553.jpgI found a very good recipe for the cotton soft Japanese cheese cake from this website. I followed the recipe almost 100% (minor difference: I used white caster sugar instead of fine, granulated sugar). If you’re getting Kraft’s Philadelphia Cream Cheese (most supermarkets here only carry this brand of cream cheese), I recommend the tub version. It is softer and much easier to dissolve in hot milk than the block type (really tedious). For fresh milk, I always go for Meiji full cream fresh milk – a bit more fats but the taste is so delicious!

Some tips for beginners:

  1. When whisking the egg whites with cream of tar tar and sugar, use an electric mixer (medium speed) if you have one. Beating with a balloon whisk can be really exhausting especially for the ‘tai-tai’ type.
  2. To achieve ’soft peaks’ for the whisking after sugar had been added, the volume of mixture should increase 6-8 folds and the texture is like pure, white cream. Soft peaks should form when the mixture falls off from the beater. Avoid whisking further as it will give sifter texture. More information on whisking egg whites can be found here.
  3. Ensure that the eggs, butter and cream cheese are at room temperature before use.
  4. Prepare the water bath: Place a bigger tray filled with warm water to a depth of ~1 inch (this is the water bath) in the preheated oven. Put the cheesecake baking tin into the water bath. Start baking. You may need to top up water during the baking period. But only do so when the cheesecake is into 3/4 baking time! Otherwise, you might get cheese biscuits!
  5. Ensure that your baking tray for cheese cake does not allow water to seep in from the bottom.

Try this recipe if you love soft Japanese cheesecake. :) Happy baking!