Friday, April 3, 2009

Chapter 29: Who is Cooking?

Evolution is amazing. The man’s role has been changing with time in order to be a survivor. From mammoths hunting using spears made of sticks and stones, to fighting a war using bows and arrows, to killing hundreds using armor tanks, to destroying a whole city using atomic bomb, then to chopping up a rack of pork ribs in the kitchen. Yes, the man has exchanged his role with his woman, so that he could do the cooking while she continues with her overtime. In appreciation, the woman has even granted him a nice appellation – the new age man.

The woman said that a new age man should be understanding and romantic. He should be gentle to her and always be there for her not only physically, but also mentally. If a new age man is able to cook well, that will earn him enough brownie points for the woman to marry him.

The woman is too busy with her career to cook for her family. There are endless meetings and never ending overtimes to deal with and it will be too much to ask for if the man expected her to cook after she returns from work. The meals, house works and kids can be taken care of simply by employing a maid.

That is why we have Chen Hong from Taiwan and Jamie Oliver from England to teach the man how to cook. To teach him how to brew herbal soup for his wife who is so tired from her overtimes. To teach him how to surprise his girlfriend with a nice New York cheesecake when she was so angry with him. And to teach him how to teach his female colleague how to bake walnut brownies for her boyfriend. That was the reason why Sally was at my kitchen on a Saturday afternoon.

“Beng, is it going to be very difficult?” Sally asked while staring at the ingredients.
“No, brownies are one of the easiest cakes to bake,” I replied as I took out the baking tins from the cupboard.
“Will it take very long?”
“Yes it will, if you continue to just stand down there and stare at the ingredients.”
“Okay, what should I do first?”
“Line the baking tin with the greaseproof paper,” I said as I handed Sally a shallow rectangular baking tin and a roll of greaseproof paper.

I sipped on my coffee as I watched Sally put the baking tin on the greaseproof paper to estimate the size, then using a pair of scissors, cut up the greaseproof paper. She then attempted to press the greaseproof paper into the baking tin. As she squeezed the greaseproof paper to fix a corner of the baking tin, the greaseproof paper was torn. Sally stared at the paper, then at me. I sighed.

“Sally, before you fit the paper into the tin, you can try to fold the sides so that the paper can fit easier into the lengths and widths of the tin.”

Sally cut another piece of greaseproof paper out and folded the four sides of the paper according to the lengths and widths of the baking tin. She then pressed the greaseproof paper in lightly and cautiously. This time, the greaseproof paper was safe.

After I switched on the cooker to heat up the steamer, I turned the dial on the oven to hundred and eighty degree Celsius to preheat the oven. Then from one of the shopping bags, I took out the bar of dark chocolate and butter and passed them to Sally.

“Use the weighing scale there, weigh the butter and cut out a piece that is the same weight as the chocolate bar. After the water in the steamer has started to boil, put both the chocolate bar and butter onto a bowl and put it into the steamer. While the mixture is melting, make sure you keep stirring them,” I instructed.
“Hey Beng, why make such a big fuss? Why don’t we just put the chocolate and butter in the saucepan and boil them directly?”
“Because if you do that, the chocolate and butter will dry up.”
“Geez, this is so troublesome,” Sally sulked.

While Sally was stirring the mixture, I asked her: “Why are you baking walnut brownies for you boyfriend? Is it his birthday?”
“Yah, and when I asked him what he wanted for a present, he said that he wishes to have a birthday cake that is baked by me.”
“Is he aware that you can’t cook?”
“Nope. I didn’t tell him that. So I guess he just presumed that I could bake.”
“And he asked for brownies?”
“No he didn’t specifically say what kind of birthday cake he wanted, but I like brownies,” Sally grinned.

Just as I suspected. It was not really common for guys to like brownies. I would have chosen a tiramisu or a coffee cake.

After the chocolate and butter mixture was melted completely, I helped Sally to take the bowl of mixture out from the steamer. Under my supervision, she used an electric mixer to beat together the sugar, vanilla essence, salt, eggs, and nearly some egg shells. Sally had accidentally dropped a substantial amount of egg shells in the mixture when she cracked open the eggs but luckily I was there to scope them up. I then instructed her to sift the flour while I stirred in the chocolate and butter mixture.

“Sally, did you take home economics as a subject during secondary school times?”
“Yap, I did.”
“And didn’t your teacher teach you how to cook?”
“Yes she did, but I was not interested,” Sally sighed. “Do you know what they taught in school? Rock buns, sultana biscuits, fried noodles, stir-fried eggplants… argh, if I don’t even like these foods, why will I be interested to learn how to cook it?”
“Hey, you can’t be learning strawberry shortcake, English shortbread, fried rice with X.O. paste and grilled salmon steak at that level right?”

Sally showed me the sifted flour and I instructed her to fold it into the mixture. From one of the shopping bags, I took out the packet of walnuts and passed it to her so that she could add them into the mixture as well. I then helped her to pour the brownie mixture into the prepared baking tin and spread the mixture evenly.

I took another bigger shallow baking tin and filled it halfway with hot water from the kettle before putting the tin into the oven. Then cautiously, I placed the tin of brownies mixture into the tin of hot water. After that, I closed the oven door and set the timer to thirty minutes.

“Beng, what is the purpose of that tin of water?” a wide-eyed Sally asked.
“If we don’t do that, your brownies will have an ugly crack on the surface. The purpose of this tin of hot water is to spread out the heat in the oven,” I explained.

While waiting for the brownies to be baked, we sat down in the living room to have some coffee.

“So how did you pass your exam since you can’t cook?”
“Oh, I managed to have a borderline pass,” Sally giggled. “I knew that my practical tests will score badly so I tried to push up my marks by doing better in theory.”
“But did you really score very badly for the practical tests? What were you tested on?”
“There were two practical tests; one was sewing and the other cooking. For the sewing part, my mom did the skirt for me and I just handed it up.”
“Then you should have scored well right? Unless your mom’s sewing skill is just as bad?”

For that comment, Sally hit me on my arm.

“No, the skirt was fabulous. But the sewing test had two portions. In the second part, everybody was supposed to thread the sewing machine one by one and show it to the teacher.”
“And you didn’t know how to thread a sewing machine?”
“Yah,” Sally blushed.
“Then how about your cooking test?”
“We were supposed to bake ginger bread for the cooking test and we did the test in the school kitchen so there was no way to cheat,” Sally stuck out her tongue. “My ginger bread turned out to be a total failure. I mistook the salt as sugar and I forgot to put baking powder into the mixture. Worse still, the ginger bread was burnt.”
“Erm… and I assumed that your teacher had to taste everybody’s ginger bread to give marks, including yours?”
“Yah, poor teacher,” Sally giggled.

“Anyway, I don’t see any purpose in taking home economics classes,” said Sally. “I don’t see any need to learn how to sew or cook at all.”
“I could understand the sewing part. But you do need to learn some basic cooking right?” I disagreed.
“Well, I can cook Maggie noodles,” Sally grinned.
“Hey girl, after you got married, you can’t expect your husband and kids to eat Maggie noodles for lunches and dinners right?”
“Huh? Why must I cook after I got married?”
“You can’t be expecting your husband to do all the cooking right?” I raised an eyebrow.
“No, silly! Of course not! I think my future husband will kill me for that!” Sally laughed. “There’s always the maid right?”

Thirty minutes had passed. I took out the baking tin from the oven carefully and put it on the table to cool. Sally and I looked happily at the brown and fragrant brownies that looked simply delicious.

“Can I cut it now?” Sally asked.
“No, let it cool first. If you cut now, the brownies will stick to the knife.”
“Hey, baking is not that difficult after all!” Sally realized. “All it takes are some mixing and then just shove it into the oven!”

Yeh, baking or any kind of cooking is never rocket science. Maybe somebody should tell the woman that cooking together with her man can actually be fun.

Chapter 28: The War of the In-laws

The tension between mother in-laws and daughter in-laws has existed for centuries all over the world. Movies and books have been written based on this unique relationship between two women. These stories can be comical, depressing or even horrifying. And everyday, the same drama is actually happening in somebody’s family somewhere out there. Perhaps the tension is created because somebody has to accept a stranger into the family and share her son with this person, and somebody has to treat a stranger like an elder and respect her wishes just because she is related to her husband.

When I stepped into the house after work and saw just my dad alone at the dining table, I knew that something was amiss. It was unusual for my dad to take dinner alone.

“Dad, where is mom? Has she gone out?”
“No, she’s in the bedroom. She has got no appetite for dinner.”
“Is she sick?”
“No,” my dad put down his chopsticks and continued. “Her old school mates called her up today for a chat, and they asked about Ah Hao.”

That was a very valid reason for my mom to lose her appetite. It was a taboo to talk about Ah Hao, her youngest grandson. It never failed to sadden my mom and made her cry upon the mention of Ah Hao. At the beginning of the year, my younger brother had walked out of my mom’s life, taking along his son Ah Hao, under the command of his wife.

My younger brother Charlie had met his wife Alice in his first job and she became his first love. Alice was a very independent gal with a strong character. She had left her family after she graduated from the polytechnic, due to some disagreement with her father. Since then, she had not been visiting her family except for the Chinese New Year. On the other hand, my younger brother Charlie was a quiet guy with a soft character. Among the three of us, he was the most pampered since young and my mom would always give in to him. With such combination, Alice was destined to be the one who dominated.

Alice was never willing to share Charles with anybody else. Even before they were married, Alice had restricted the amount of outings that Charlie had with his friends. Eventually, Charlie lost contact with most of his friends, even his good friends since secondary school times. After they were married, the couple got a flat at a distance away from our flat and Charlie shifted out, out of my mom’s sight for the first time in his life. Becoming Charlie’s wife had caused Alice to be increasingly possessive. Whenever Charlie was not working, she wanted him to spend all his time with her. Their weekly visit to my parents became monthly, then eventually quarterly.

Then one day, Charlie called my mom up and told her that Alice was pregnant. My parents were exhilarated and they tried to help out in any way that they could. Those were the happier moment that my mom remembered because the couple would pay a visit almost every month. My mom would then brew some herbal soups for Alice, hoping that the soups would make her and the baby healthier and stronger.

Nine months later, Alice gave birth to a baby boy who was named Ah Hao by my dad. Alice was very weak after giving birth and her legs were so swollen that she could hardly walk. Although Charlie took annual leaves to take care of her and the baby, he was not experienced enough and it was also too knackering for him. To help out the couple, my dad traveled everyday to their house to cook lunches and dinners for them. As for my mom, she stayed at their house to take care of Ah Hao. She would wake up and feed him at night so that the couples could sleep. It was a very tiring task but she did it without complaint.

Eventually, Alice’s leg was not swelling any more and she recovered adequately to take care of Ah Hao. One day, she suddenly remembered that Charlie and Ah Hao only belonged to her and nobody else, and hell just broke loose.

My mom was preparing lunch in the kitchen while Ah Hao slept in the baby cot in the living room. Suddenly, he woke up and cried. My mom rushed out to the living room and saw Alice holding Ah Hao, trying to calm him down with a pacifier. However the pacifier did not seem to work as Ah Hao only cried louder.

“Come, let me hold him,” my mom stretched out her hands to take over Ah Hao.
“No!” Alice shouted at her and held Ah Hao back. “Ah Hao is my son! Why should I give him to you?”
“What are you talking about? I’m not trying to take him away. I’m thinking of calming him down and stop him from crying!”
“I can stop him from crying! I’m his mother!”

My mom was stunted. But she was even more shocked when she heard the next sentence from Alice.

“Please leave my house. You’ve been too busybody and influencing Charlie too much. I want you to stay away from my husband and my son! I don’t want to see you anymore!”

And that was the last day that my mom had seen her son and grandson. Charlie had not been calling my parents, let alone visiting them. When my dad called him and asked him to come back with Ah Hao, he refused and said that he did not want to agitate Alice. When my dad suggested that my mom and he wait at the void deck below their flat and Charlie could take Ah Hao downstairs for them to take a look, Charlie refused and said that Alice might not like the idea. Since then, my parents had lost a son and a grandson.

Rose had another different sad story to tell. She met her husband in their university times back in India. Eventually they fell in love and he proposed to her. In India, both couples are required to have the same social and financial status before they could be married. Both families must be as rich, or as poor. In Rose’s case, the two families were as rich and well respected. Thus there was no opposition to the marriage and the both of them were married under the consent of both parents.

After they were married, as a traditional India wife, Rose stayed at home as a housewife. And because it was a traditional Indian family and her husband was the only son, her in-laws stayed with them. There was a honeymoon period when everybody appeared to be friendly towards each other and quarrels were unheard of. Then one day, Rose’s father in-law passed away, leaving her mother in-law behind. That was when Rose’s nightmare began.

Since her husband’s death, Rose’s mother in-law became cantankerous and thoroughly disagreeable to live with. While her husband was at work, Rose would prepare lunch for her mother in-law and herself, just like what she did when her father in-law was around. However, though her cooking skills had not changed, her mother in-law had.

“What is this?” Rose’s mother in-law asked as she stirred the bowl of red substances with her spoon.
“Vegetable masala, mom” Rose replied as she put the next dish on the table.

Her mother in-law took a sip of the vegetable masala then spited it out on the table. She then took a morsel of chicken from the chicken bemisal that Rose had just put on the table. After a few bites, she spited it out too.

“Your masala and bemisal taste so terrible! How do you expect me to eat these kinds of food?” she berated at Rose.
“But mom, you used to like these dishes!” said the shock Rose.
“No! I didn’t used to like these dishes. I just didn’t want to let you know.”

Rose’s mother in-law then left the house, probably to have her meal outside, and returned about an hour before her husband returned from work. During dinner, her mother in-law complained to her husband that Rose was so lazy that she did not cook lunch for her and did not do much housework as well.

The same drama repeated almost everyday, but luckily for Rose, her husband chose to believe her. Though he just nodded his head when his mother raged on and on, he apologized to Rose privately and told her to hang in there.

A few years later, Rose’s mother in-law passed away. Till the day that she died, she still disliked Rose and did not stop complaining about her to her son. Rose was glad that it was finally over, but she was also sad that her mother in-law still had not accepted her till the day she died.

On the other hand, Ju was a very fortunate woman. Because her husband was the eldest son, her mother in-law was staying with them. They had been living in harmony and arguments were few and easily forgiven. Though they had a maid to take care of the house work, her mother in-law would cook occasionally for the family. During Ju’s pregnancies, her mother in-law even brewed expensive bird’s nests and herbal soups for her. Similarly, Ju treated her mother in-law with respect and care. When her mother in-law was sick and weak after a surgery, Ju applied for a month’s leave to take care of her personally.

Once, Rose asked Ju how they managed to love each other.

“Hahaha… it’s actually very simple,” replied Ju. “The two of us treat each other as friends more than the relationship of mother in-law and daughter in-law. In this way, we are both more forgiving to each other’s mistakes, and we respect each other’s opinions.”

Just as Ju had proven, it is not impossible for a mother in-law and her daughter in-law to live in harmony. They just have to understand that one is not there to snatch away the son’s love and the other is not there to possess the husband’s time. Hopefully one day, Alice could understand this theory.

Chapter 27: Sorry, We Are Fully Booked

With our mind set on going to South Korea, the next step would be to book our air tickets. Nicky searched the Internet and noted down the telephone numbers of two major travel agencies. He picked up the phone and dialed the first number.

“Hello, SD Travel. How may I help you?”
“Hi, I would like to enquire on the flights to South Korea.”
“Hold on while I put you through to ticketing.”

Nicky was put on some call waiting advertisements and a few minutes later, a guy with a husky voice answered the phone.

“Hello, can I help you?”
“Hi, I would like to enquire on the flights to South Korea.”
“Which airline are you looking for?”
“Singapore Airlines.”
“How many people are going?”
“There are five of us.”
“Which day do you want to depart on?”
“On the twenty-second of December.”
“On which day do you want to return to Singapore?”
“On the third of January.”
“Okay, hold on a minute.”

Nicky was put on some more call waiting advertisements again and a few more minutes later, the guy with a husky voice returned to the phone.

“Sorry sir, the flights on Singapore Airlines are all fully booked for that period.”
“Erm… then how about Cathay Pacific?”
“Also fully booked.”
“We don’t have any Quantas flights going to Seoul.”
“Okay, so which are the airlines left with vacancies?”
“You can take GE Airlines. Anyway it is cheaper.”

It seemed like we were defeated by the quick Singaporeans again. Singaporeans’ favorite pastime for December is to travel with their friends and families. With the school holidays and Christmas season, it is a good time for the parents to bring their kids out to see the world. Tour packages to popular destinations like Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Hong Kong and of course, South Korea, can be easily snapped up pretty early. That means you have a higher chance to see a Singaporean than Mickey Mouse in Tokyo Disneyland in December.

I remembered that when I was a kid, my parents used to take me overseas for the holiday break as well. However those were simple and inexpensive bus trips to the various parts of the nearby Malaysia, like Genting Highlands, Cameron Highlands and Penang. Kids nowadays are so much more fortunate. Due to fierce competitions and opening of air routes, air tickets are getting cheaper and Singaporeans are traveling further. In the past, traveling to the United States of America was a privilege reserved only for the rich. In fact, if you could afford a trip to Bangkok, you must be earning quite a bit. Now, most kids would have already been to Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan and some even Europe. My little nephew was only nine years old, and he had already seen the snow in Toronto. But this kid had no idea where on earth was Cameron Highlands.

When Choi finished his conference call and walked over, Nicky told him that we had managed to book our flight on GE Airlines. Choi’s eyes opened real wide. His look definitely did not bode well for the airline.

“Why are we flying on GE Airlines?” Choi asked. “Can’t we take other airlines?”
“Nope, the rest are already fully booked,” Nicky replied.
“All fully booked? Even Singapore Airlines?”
“What’s wrong with GE Airlines?”
“My friend had been on Korean Airlines before. Their seats are freaking small! And you won’t have your personal television panel! You’ve to watch your in-flight movies on the shared projector screen with the other passengers and you can’t switch channels!”
“What? No personal television?” Sally hollered.
“Nicky, are you sure that all flights on Singapore Airlines are fully booked?” Choi asked Nicky again.
“Yeh, that’s what the travel agency guy told me!”
“Maybe it is because of the vast number of tour packages going to South Korea? I heard that most tour packages have been fully booked,” Kah Leng suggested.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Choi. “Our travel agencies are not that generous. I don’t suppose they will allow their customers on those tour packages to travel on Singapore Airlines. That will eat too much into their margins.”

Choi closed his eyes, lowered his head, and folded his arms. A minute later, he looked up at us and said: “Maybe we should try our luck on the Singapore Airlines website directly.”

With a few typing on the keyboard and a few clicks on the mouse, Nicky launched the Singapore Airlines website. He keyed in our traveling dates, the number of passengers and clicked on search. About a minute later, a table appeared with several dates, timing and prices on it. There were vacancies on the Singapore Airlines flights.

“Geez, that travel agency guy lied to me!” Nicky was miffed.
“I don’t think he lied to you though,” I said. “I believe that Singapore Airlines has allocated certain number of seats to the different travel agencies in the country and saved some for its direct sales on the Internet.”

With the website, we were glad that we could choose our departing and returning dates and times comfortably, without having the travel agency staff to put us on hold while he did the checking.

“Let’s take this one that departs Singapore at 11:45p.m. on the previous night and arrives at Seoul at 6:55p.m.,” Kah Leng suggested. “In that case, we won’t waste our day time flying.”
“But that’s the most expensive flight!” Nicky objected. “Look! If we were to take this night flight, it’ll amount to S$1,200 per person. However, if we were to take the morning eight o’clock flight instead, it’ll only cost us S$750!”
“Wow, that’s a five hundred dollars difference!” Choi exclaimed.
“Yah, I think it is not worth it as well,” I commented. “I could give up the five hours lead time to save five hundred dollars. And anyway, the problem about night flight is that, even if you could reach the destination earlier, you’ll most probably be too exhausted from the night flight to enjoy yourself in the morning.”
“Oh… I thought we could save some time,” Kah Leng mused.
“Hey girl, relax! We’re not on the Amazing Race! We’re there to rest and relax! Why push yourself so hard?” Nicky patted Kah Leng’s shoulder.
“Okay, let’s take the eight o’clock morning flight then,” Kah Leng gave in.

“Then how about the returning flight? Which timing should we take?” Nicky asked.
“Take the latest one!” Kah Leng insisted. “If I can’t reach there early, I want to leave there late!”
“Hahaha… Okay, I’ll tick the latest one at 16:20pm,” said Nicky as he continued to book the tickets.

Finally, we had booked our air tickets to Seoul successfully. It was then the time to talk about accommodation.

“Hey guys, let me tell you this before you book our hotels,” said Kah Leng. “I don’t like small hotel rooms. There was this once when I was given this free hotel stay in Hong Kong when I booked a flight that had a stopover in Hong Kong. That hotel was so small that I could not breathe in it! Just a few steps from the room door, my feet could touch the bed! There was no wardrobe to put my luggage and there was only this fourteen inches television that was built into the wall! And that’s not the worst part. The bathroom was so small that I could barely turn when I showered! Choi, I think you’ll be stuck in that bathroom cum toilet for sure!”
“And I assume that you checked out of the hotel immediately by the next morning?” I asked.
“Of course! I gave up the one more night free stay in that hotel and checked into Ritz Carlton!” said the exasperated Kah Leng.

Kah Leng had this obsession over Ritz Carlton hotels. Her preferred hotel to stay in every city was Ritz Carlton. She had stayed at the Ritz Carlton hotels at Philadelphia, Dubai, Hong Kong, Bali, Kuala Lumpur and of course Singapore. When she was in London for holidays last year, she wanted to stay at The Ritz. However she was forced to give it up because the room cost four hundred pounds, which is equivalent to over a thousand Singapore dollars.

“By the way, I heard that there’s a Ritz Carlton hotel in Seoul,” said Kah Leng.
“Yah, there is. And my friend had stayed there previously,” said Choi. “But the room rate is rather expensive. It’s about four hundred Singapore dollars for a night.”
“That sounds reasonable to me,” said Kah Leng.

The other four of us stared at Kah Leng with our eyes wide opened.

“Erm… Kah Leng, we’re not really thinking of a luxurious tour in South Korea,” I said.
“We’re actually thinking of staying in some three or at most, four stars hotels,” Nicky added.
“But don’t worry though. We’ll try to get those whose rooms are not as small as the one that freaked you out in Hong Kong, okay?” I tried to console her.

Kah Leng pondered upon our words for a while, and then smiled and said: “It is okay, guys. I’ll stay in Ritz Carlton Seoul when I tour Seoul again with my boy friend in the future.”

Nicky picked up the phone again and dialed the number of the second travel agency on the list. That agency was known to have pretty good deals for accommodations.

“Welcome to CZ Travel. Please press one for packaged tours, two for free and easy and three for ticketing.”

Since there was no option for hotels booking, Nicky pressed three.

“Please press one for U.S., two for Europe, three for China and four for South East Asia.”

Nicky pressed four.

“Hello, how can I help you?”
“Hi, I would like to enquire on South Korea hotels, in Seoul.”
“Okay, hold on a minute.”

While on hold, Nicky heard some typing on the background noise, followed by the lady on the phone asking somebody about hotels in South Korea.

“Which day do you want to check in?”
“On the thirty-first of December.”
“On which day do you want to check out?”
“On the third of January.”
“How many rooms?”
“Two double occupancies”
“Okay, hold on a minute.”

A few minutes later, the lady returned to the phone and said: “Sorry but there’s no more vacancy at the Seoul hotels in that period.”