Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A New Look - and Books

I've got a bit bored of my blue blog so have been playing with the blogger template-designer.  Ideally I'd like something a bit jungly to reflect my current surroundings, but they didn't have anything like that so I've gone for the books option.

We're both keen readers and here in Brunei we have the luxury of being able to indulge in plenty of reading...  yes, we spend a time every weekend reading by one of the swimming pools that we frequent, but there's also nothing to watch on TV!

We brought a dozen or so novels with us in our air-freight, assuming that our shipping from the UK (containing about 250 novels...) would arrive within weeks of us...  Well, we've been here for nearly 8 weeks now, and we've just heard that our container has just left England.  It's due to be here at the end of October, God willing, insha'Allah, fingers crossed, etc, etc!

Until then we're managing fine with our reading matter, between the Loan Service Community Centre Library, the Yacht Club library and borrowing books from friends.

 In the last few weeks here are some of the books I've been enjoying:


Eat Pray Love - Inspiring, warm, witty, moving.  Can't wait to see the film.  And visit Bali!

A Homemade Life - Inspiring, warm,witty, moving...  and with recipes!  One of my favourite bloggers, one of my favourite books.

Her Fearful Symmetry - Inevitably didn't quite live up to the Time Traveller's Wife, but still a gripping read.  I loved the Highgate Cemetary setting.

Join Me - Irritated me slightly when I first started it, but sucked me in with its infectious enthusiasm and then heart-warming result.  I cried as I read the final pages.  What a sap - but I think I too will become a 'joinee'!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Monkeys and Mosaics

Every now and again we wake up to hear loud thumping on the roof of our house.  It confused us for a while, but now we know it's just some of the neighbours coming to call!

video

The video's only 4 seconds long  - I hope it works.

This troop of macaques live in the jungle around the Base and are fairly regular visitors to our street.  They can be a real nuisance - recently they took the lid of our dustbin and threw the rubbish around the garden, and they have twice now swung on the wires coming from our house, causing us to lose the 'phone and internet connection...  and yet I can't help liking them!

They're fascinating to watch, like a bunch of mischevious children, and it's easy to pick out certain 'characters' within the group.  There's the boss, a large male variously known in the street as Big Al, or Big Mac, and then there's Doris, an older female who often hangs back from the rest of the group, hoping for you to throw her some food in sympathy.  Then there's a bunch of cheeky 'teenage' monkeys who are always play-fighting and throwing themselves around.  I particularly like the mothers with their tiny babies - they're so protective of them, but the babies really just want to go and explore.


Here's a group picking grains of uncooked rice out of the grass (I occasionally throw them a handful).


And here's Doris, whose baleful look earned her a piece of papaya when the rest of the troop had scampered off into the jungle.

Today there was no food for them though.  Instead I patrolled round the garden in my pyjamas, trying to scare them away from swinging on the phone wires.  It seemed to work and they ran away to cause havoc elsewhere.

I have a day off today - a Public Holiday for 'Teachers' Day'.  What a nice thought!  We teachers always like 4-day working weeks.


I even got cards from 2 of my class, and a little box of chocolates...  Although perhaps some more work is needed on my name?  Pleased to see he's spelled it correctly,  now we just need a 'Mrs'.


Success!

I've enjoyed a bit of a lie-in and am off out for a coffee with Paula later this morning.  Paula lives on the same street as me and runs mosaic classes which several of us attend.  I've been going along for a few weeks now, and last night I was delighted to finish my first piece - a mat for the table, or perhaps to use in the kitchen?  I haven't quite decided, but I love it and feel quite proud that I made it!  Thanks Paula!


I promised that I'd post it on my blog with a mojito on it, but as it's 9am I thought it was just a little early... so here's my breakfast on it instead!


Toast with peanut butter and sliced banana.  Not quite as exotic as a mojito - but I'm sure it won't be too long until I have one of those too.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Laab

We have always eaten quite a lot of Thai food even back in the UK; it's a cuisine we both enjoy.  Here in Brunei of course the necessary ingredients are much easier to find, so we're able to cook and eat Thai meals more often.

Laab is one of our favourite Thai dishes, but it requires no special or unusual ingredients, so is simple to prepare in whatever country you find yourself cooking!

I say there are no 'unusual' ingredients, but perhaps the addition of toasted and ground uncooked rice might seem odd to many!  It does give the finished dish a somewhat gritty texture, but that's not something we object to.  Try it and see.  I think of the toasted rice as giving the finished dish a slightly 'nutty' taste.

We serve it in one of two ways - either with some crisp lettuce leaves (Little Gem work well) or wedges of steamed white cabbage.  You spoon some Laab onto the leaf and then use the leaf like a sort of shovel to transport the Laab mouthwards!  Not the most elegant way of eating perhaps, but extremely satisfying.


Ingredients

half a pound of pork or chicken mince
4 tbsp water (or stock, or water with chicken stock from concentrate)
1 bunch of spring onions, chopped - we like to cut them into approximately 2cm lengths, cut on the diagonal
large handful of mint leaves
1 chopped red chili (Thai birdseye)
small handful of uncooked rice, toasted and pulverised in a blender or food processor
glug of fish sauce, to taste
1 lime - juice of half a lime to go into the laab, and serve the other half cut into wedges on each plate to squeeze over as you wish

To serve - crisp lettuce, or wedges of steamed cabbage

Toast the uncooked rice in a dry frying pan until medium-brown.  Let it cool then blitz in a blender or food processor until well-ground.

Put the mince into a pan - no need to add oil, just add the water (or stock).  Simmer until cooked through and the liquid mostly evaporated.  You don't need the mince to brown at all.

Turn off the heat.  Add all the other ingredients and stir well.  The mint leaves will wilt and the spring onion soften slightly though still retain most of its crispness.  You could also add coriander leaves if you wish, although I prefer to let the flavour of the mint come through unimpeded by other herbs.

Taste to see if you have the right balance of lime juice and fish sauce, then serve with a wedge of lime on the plate and a bottle of fish sauce on the table.

As this is so quick to cook you need to start steaming the wedges of cabbage (if you serve that instead of lettuce) at about the same time as you start cooking the meat.

This could be made a little in advance, but we have learnt from experience that the toasted rice mustn't be added until the very end of the preparation, as it goes very stodgy as it absorbs the liquid in the dish.

As you can see, it's a pretty healthy dish with no fat other than what is in the meat.  I always feel quite virtuous eating it - and yet it doesn't feel like you're doing without, it's so tasty and zingy.

A similar recipe can be found here at the excellent Thaitable.com website.


Excuse the slightly too-dark photos, the lighting in our kitchen isn't great, and I was keen to get the Laab to the table so we could eat!  I can't be doing with 'styling' my food when I'm that hungry.  :-)

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Sweet Things

Just a couple of things to share today...

As if we needed telling, we have proof that Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate from Britain is the best in the world!  A couple of weeks ago we went to the Naafi, the store on the British garrison in Seria, about an hour away from us.  They stock all manner of British foodstuffs (including - shhhh, don't tell the Muslims! - Pork Scratchings!) and we took the opportunity to stock up on some Cadbury's.


We already had some bought-in-Brunei Dairy Milk at home (made in Malaysia, or Singapore, I can't remember which) so decided to do a taste-test.

And could you 'Taste the Difference'?


You certainly can!  Next to the UK chocolate, the Asian stuff tastes very strange - quite acidic ("like bile" as Rob described it), and not nearly so creamy.  So I know where I'll be buying my chocolate from now on.

We had a similar experience in Canada - the Dairy Milk sold there was also made to a distinctly different recipe.  It tasted more like Hershey's (which is not a compliment).  I'm sure there's a good reason why Cadbury's use different recipes in different parts of the world, but it is very odd when you taste them side by side.

In other news, remember my sweetcorn post?  Well, we finally tried the Sweetcorn flavoured Potongs.


They were actually very nice.  The flavour is pleasant - though I did find it a bit disconcerting to find whole kernels of sweetcorn in my ice-lolly!


We're still mentally scarred from the Durian episode...  it may take us a while to try the Durian Potongs!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Slow-Roast Asian Chicken

A while back, whilst still in the UK, I picked up a free recipe leaflet in Waitrose.  One of the recipes included was for a slow-roast Asian chicken.  We went through a phase of cooking it often, but then stopped as it slipped our minds and other recipes were discovered.

However, since being in Brunei we're finding that chicken is our main source of protein and we're eating it a lot.  We had a sudden flashback to this chicken recipe, but as our shipping from the UK (including all my recipe books...) has yet to arrive - and I couldn't find the recipe online - I had to work from memory.

Fortunately it worked - better than worked, it was even nicer than we had remembered it!  The key to its success is, I think, the addition of toasted sesame oil.  Be sure to buy toasted as it has the most incredible flavour - the untoasted oil is bland in comparison.  Of course when we were searching for it here, none of the sesame oils were labelled as 'toasted' but we went for one labelled 'fragrant' and it was perfect.


Here - again from memory! - is what you do.

Slow Roast Asian Chicken

Ingredients:

1 whole chicken
an inch of ginger root, sliced (don't bother to peel it)
6 cloves of garlic (just slightly crushed, no need to peel)
3 star anise
2 onions
250ml chicken stock (from concentrate) - or just boiling water
2 or 3 tsp toasted sesame oil

Slice the onions and place them in the bottom of a roasting tray.

Place the chicken on top of the onions, and put the slice ginger, garlic cloves and star anise inside the cavity of the chicken.

Pour over the hot chicken stock - or boiling water.

Tent the chicken with foil and place into a low oven (150C - lower for a fan oven) for about 3 hours.  A little longer won't hurt at all, that's the joy of slow-roasting.

Half an hour before you want to serve it, remove the foil, drizzle over the sesame oil and turn the oven up to 190 degrees C.  Put the chicken back in the oven for half an hour or so, until the skin is burnished and crispy.

Serve with plain rice and a vegetable of your choice.  We like to shred cabbage finely and then steam it with a very small amount of water.  When still al dente we strain it and stir through a chopped chili and a teaspoon of sesame oil.


OK, it's not beautiful - far from it!  I forgot to even take a photo until I had served it up, hence it looks like it's been in a fight.  But it's what it tastes like that matters, and this tastes great.


A spoonful or so of the flavourful juice made this meal complete.  And it made enough for 2 evening meals for the 2 of us.  Simple and delicious!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Hari Raya Part 3 - Open Houses

The Bruneians (and maybe other countries in the Muslim world?) have a great tradition during the season of Hari Raya - that of 'Open House' parties.

These are exactly as you might guess, a time when friends and acquaintances are invited to visit and eat a meal at your house.  The invitation usually spans several hours and you just drop in whenever you can during that time.  Unusually - to those of us used to the dinner-party style of entertaining - you are only expected to stay about half an hour.  Go in, get food from the buffet, eat,  leave.  This means that you can go to several in one day... if you can manage all those meals!

Last weekend we went to two Open Houses on Sunday afternoon, both connected to my school.  The food was amazing at both, and we had a very sociable time as many of my colleagues were there at the same time.

Last night however we went to an Open House at the Officers' Mess here on the camp where we live.  We had heard a rumour that there might be a very special guest making an appearance, and when we noticed that the speed-bumps through the camp were being removed yesterday afternoon we knew it was true...  Yes, the Sultan of Brunei himself was coming (and he clearly doesn't like his car journey to be disrupted by speed bumps - who does?!!)

The Mess was brightly lit as we arrived...


And inside there were decorations galore, mainly in green and gold, the colours of Hari Raya Aidilfitri.


There was a great band playing traditional music:

 
We were highly impressed by the food that was being served in the tent behind the Mess.  There were even fresh Roti being fried.


We sat and ate with a Bruneian family, and chatted with a couple of the young officers who were officially hosting this event.  They had barely slept for days, organising everything, and decorating the Mess.


Suddenly the young officers were called to line up in formation...


The guests began forming an excited line too - the sense of anticipation was palpable. 


We joined the line too!  Why not?!

And preceded by a flurry of camera flashes, in walked the Sultan himself, followed by his son the Crown Prince.


He was casually dressed and made his way along the line, greeting everyone and shaking hands. 


We stood there excitedly, mentally repeating our greeting ("Selamat Hari Raya Your Majesty") and hoping that Rob was managing to get a few shots of our royal meeting (Rob had generously chosen to stand back and be the photographer, as he got to shake the Sultan's hand last weekend at the Palace!)


You can see from my broad grin that I was very excited - it's not every day that you get to meet a member of the royal family, and I've now met the Sultan, the Crown Prince and the Sultan's wife, and all in one week!


After his photo-call with the officers, the Sultan sat down to eat with the General, but then made his way round the Mess again, mingling and chatting.  He came and spoke to us again too and asked us how long we had been in Brunei, and how we were liking it.  Of course we were suitably complimentary - and obviously ended up talking about the weather.  We are British after all!


It's been a very happy Hari Raya!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Hari Raya Part 2 - A Trip to the Palace

It's not every day you get to meet your country's royalty...  but if you're Bruneian you can do it at least once a year!  Every year at Hari Raya Aidilfitri the Sultan of Brunei generously opens his palace to the public for 3 days for a 'meet and greet'.  Rob went yesterday along with the rest of the Bruneian Armed Forces, so I went along this morning with several friends from school.  What a great experience - although definitely one to do with a group, as there was a lot of waiting around.

Not only do you get to shake hands with the royal family,  but you also get a free meal!  The Bruneians love their macam - food - and this was clearly in evidence as we arrived at the palace and immediately joined the queue scrummage for the buffet.


We soon discovered that most Bruneians are not schooled in the British art of queuing...  it was elbows out, and every man/woman for themselves! 

The first excitement was the gold-trimmed crockery:


Smart!  There were then about 8 different food counters where you could get rice and all manner of different curries.


I managed to fight my way through to several of them and ended up with a plateful of delicious food - buttered rice with cashews, a spicy beef curry, a more mellow lamb curry and prawns with lemongrass.


It felt slightly surreal to be eating this for breakfast at 8:30am, but we had got up early to get to the palace in good time so we were certainly hungry enough to do it justice!

The Bruneians in general have a very sweet tooth so of course there were plenty of sweets at the 'Cakes and Cookies' counter.


I opted for a fabulous bread and butter pudding with cherries (my photo of it was very poor so I won't post it - but trust me, it was delicious!)  I was initially tempted by the vivid yellow jelly until I inspected it a little more closely...


Yes, that's pineapple, grapes and raspberries on the top... and sweetcorn on the bottom!!  Not for me thanks!


We moved on after the meal to a vast waiting hall where we were all seated in numbered rows.  We sat here for well over an hour, quietly digesting our breakfast and waiting to be called forward.  It was beginning to get a little dull, but everyone around us was incredibly friendly.  A couple of people asked if they could take photos with us which was very flattering!  We also made friends with this little chap who was fascinated by my camera and desperate to see the photos I took of him.


I loved his outfit, and hat (known as a songkok). 

As soon as our row was called forward we leapt up in excitement... only to be lead to another queue, which lead us to another waiting room!  Luckily this one was air-conditioned and very ornate so it was a pleasure to sit here for a while.


As you can see, the woman and men were separated for most of the time.  The men get to meet the Sultan and the male members of the royal family, while we women were meeting the Sultan's wife (is she the 'Sultana'?!) and the other ladies of the royal family.

Again we were moved on to - you've guessed it - another queue! 

 

This could have been incredibly tedious, but I have to admit that I was really quite enjoying it.  We were able to chat, amongst ourselves and to the Bruneians around us (including one of the parents from our school and a couple of very smiley little girls!)  It was also fascinating to be inside the palace - so much to look at. 

The Bruneians were all dressed up to the nines - it's traditional to have new clothes for Hari Raya - and really were a stunning sight en masse.  I loved this family in their matching bajus.


When we finally arrived in the same room as the royal ladies it was all over very quickly compared to the 4 hours we had spent waiting.  However the Sultan's wife was charming and asked us where we were from, and whether we were all teachers.  Clearly there wasn't time for much of a chat, but considering the poor woman was standing there for hours on end shaking hands with literally thousands of people, she was utterly gracious and elegant, smiling at all comers.  The princesses likewise were delightful - very glamorous.

As we left we all received a gift - appropriately enough it was a cake!  It was in an embossed yellow box which everyone carried proudly out of the palace.


It really felt like quite an honour to attend and be part of this celebration.  I heard on the radio today that over 17,000 people had attended yesterday morning alone!  By my (very vague) estimation about a third of the entire population of Brunei visit the palace over the three days.  I think this tradition is unique to Brunei and a privilege to be part of while we're living here.

Our Hari Raya cards from the Sultan will certainly be taking pride of place in our living room!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri!

This term at school is the longest of the year (starting on August 9th was particularly painful!).  However, it's also the term with the most public holidays - I think we have 5 or 6 4-days weeks, which always feel like such a treat! 

This weekend marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and is known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri.  Ramadan has been an interesting month here for us.  Obviously we're not fasting (as if!!) but it has impacted on us in many ways - nicely in that Rob has been working 'Ramadan hours' which means finishing work at 2pm every day, but it's also made life tricky trying to get settled in as all government offices also close at 2, so it's been well nigh impossible to get many admin jobs done. 

Many of the Muslim children at school have been fasting, some in my class - who are only 7 years old.  2 of the girls in my class have only fasted for a couple of days a week, and only on the days when they don't have PE or Swimming, but 2 of my boys have fasted for the entire month, meaning that they don't go outside for breaktimes, or take part in any physical activity at school.  They are not allowed to eat - or even drink - in daylight hours, so have been getting up at 4am for breakfast, then not eating again until the evening call-to-prayer at 6:30pm.  I've been pretty impressed by this... until one of them informed me that if he fasted all month he was getting an iPad!  (How touching to see such religious devotion in one so young!!) 

So Hari Raya Aidilfitri started last night...  but we didn't know that until it happened!  In many Muslim countries the dates of the start and end of Ramadan are chosen each year and fixed, but here in Brunei they still do it the traditional way and wait until the new moon is sighted.  This meant that last night we were all waiting to hear whether we would have to go into work today (Friday) - we heard at 8pm that the moon had been officially sighted, so we knew that we would have Friday and Monday off work.  Had the moon not been seen, the public holidays would have moved to Monday and Tuesday next week.

We had made Hari Raya cards in school and I was very touched when 2 of the girls told me that they had made them for me:


Glitter-tastic! 

I was even more touched when another lovely girl in my class presented me with a Hari Raya gift yesterday - some gorgeous peanut biscuits and a special card:


No, you're not mistaken, there are a few biscuits missing...


I got caught in a traffic jam on the way home from work yesterday.  It was 2pm and I hadn't had any lunch so I got stuck into these!

This weekend is very special here in Brunei because it is the only time of year when the Sultan opens his palace to the public.  You can queue up to visit, and the men get to meet the male members of the royal family, while the women meet the females.  You are presented with a small gift, and also get a meal!  Rob is going tomorrow as part of the Armed Forces, and I may go along on Monday.

It's also a time when many Muslims hold 'Open House' parties.  We have already been invited to 3 this weekend, which is very exciting.  It's considered prestigious to have as many visitors as possible - for one party we have even been given a half-hour time-slot in which we must attend!  I'm really looking forward to experiencing these celebrations.

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri everyone!

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Durian

I've always been intrigued by Durian, the famously stinky Thai fruit.  My brother once sent me a photo which he took whilst living in Thailand - it was similar to this...


... although I think his also included 'no dogs' and 'no guns'!

Anyway, it appears that Durian are currently in season.  We've been smelling them every time we enter a supermarket.  They have a very strange but incredibly pungent scent, best described as smelling like gas, maybe something rotting, or some kind of chemical.  Rob and I were trying to describe it whilst in the car last week, when we suddenly found ourselves driving past a municipal rubbish dump.  We both inhaled the smell and exclaimed "Durian!" 

They're very odd looking fruit - I couldn't resist a shot with one in the supermarket recently.


As you can see, they sell them whole, halved and in segments of varying sizes.  They're incredibly expensive, with a whole Durian costing up to $30 (about 15 UK pounds). 

I couldn't help but think that something so expensive must have something to recommend it.  I have seen lots of people buying them, so they're clearly popular.  And they're in season - I won't get the chance to try one for another year.

So I bought a piece.  The smallest piece I could find.


It was squidgy and almost silky in texture.  It kind of looked like a raw chicken breast, and the flesh was soft and custardy.


Obviously it smelled gross, but surely once you get it past your nose it'll taste OK.  Right?

Right?


WRONG!!!

 It tasted as vile as it smelled!  Totally revolting.  Pungent and acrid, a kind of chemically taste that stuck in your throat and brought on the gag-reflex.

 
Truly the most disgusting thing I've EVER eaten!  I look like I'm about to cry in this photo.  Which sums it up really. 

Needless to say it went straight in the bin...  the OUTSIDE bin.

You win some, you lose some!  Just take it from me, this one's just not worth it.