As you know, I live in Cambodia. Since the birth of my nephew, anytime I visit the UK, I’ve taken to spending a couple of weeks at my sister’s and hanging out with my nephew (and my sister and brother-in-law). This time at 18 months old, it was an absolute delight to see more of his wee personality coming out. Thoughtful, inclusive, at times ever so sweet, commanding, wanting to be helpful and involved, he made us laugh A LOT. So I wrote this poem to capture this moment in his development.
I’m 18 months and I can do that too
I can do that too,
I’m 18 months old.
I can feed myself.
I have my own bowl, plate and hands.
“HhUM”, I say, when I want something you offer me.
“Kh-heese” is my favourite.
You’ve given me a fork and spoon?
I know what they are.
Mess makers on my face and floor.
“No.” I don’t need your help for that.
Nor when I compose on the keyboard
with my knees and palms.
I’m being post structuralist.
Stay 2 feet away from me.
I can get my shoes and bring your trainers too,
So that we can all go outside.
And I know which direction our walk should take.
We’ll walk past “mee-Ow”
Climb up ‘big step’. “o-Oh” and gingerly go
down them. Walk over black and white stripes.
‘run run run run run’
On our way to the
“Ddu- Ddu-” that go “wak-wak”.
“Ball” is my favourite game.
When I wake up, “ball” is where I run to.
I have three officially.
But a tangerine or a stacking up cup works too.
If you throw “ball” to me, I will like you.
But when you throw it on your head,
I’ll scrunch up my eyes and laugh
when it hits my head too.
I love to play with “ball” so much.
Going outside to play,
Wrapped up in my thick coat and wellies makes me happy.
I’m a good kicker. Everyone tells me,
‘Good job.’ ‘Well done.’ when I send the ball to them.
I get upset when –
I don’t understand why – “ball” runs away,
like it doesn’t want to play with me.
Uh huh uh huh HUH HUH HUH.
I make my ee-mo* run and kick it back to me.
“Der” I point to the big screen.
Why watch it on your small phone
When it’s better bigger?
Cast it “Der!”
The music makes my legs
jump and arms wave.
I love it more when we dance together.
I’ve been watching you.
How you do it.
And I can do that too.
*ee-mo: 이모 in Korean. Translates as aunt in English. This is the basic form for what you call your mother’s sisters. Your father’s sisters are addressed as 고모 (go-mo). Ah, *rueful smile* – the specificity of korean titles. For a more detailed overview on the Korean family and kinship terms, check out this blog post on the talking cupboard.
I never knew that fruit cake could be offensive. That is, until Kiley, an American friend of mine, explained that in the U.S, there’s this tradition that people tend to ‘re-gift’ fruit cakes because they don’t like fruit cakes. Hence those receiving the cake are kind of being told, “Here I’ve brought you a cake. I mean, I don’t like it and someone gave it to me. I guess you probably won’t like it too but hey, now it’s your problem. And no, I didn’t like what you got up to at the office party.” Hence, there’s offence in the giving and receiving of fruit cakes in the States.
Not so in the UK. I mean, some Brits really dislike fruit cake and would spit it out. However, most like to eat fruit cake at any given time, from celebrating marriage with a rich boozy fruited wedding cake covered in marzipan and icing to the everyday cup of tea with a sticky slice of fruited malt loaf. Shall I even mention Christmas cakes, Easter simnel cakes, Dundee cake..? My mum used to make a fruited tea loaf which was delicious when toasted and buttered.
Perhaps (if I may venture a guess without causing offence) this clear cultural divide over fruit cake is because the majority of Americans have never experienced a good moist fruit cake? I can relate! I never really enjoyed eating fruit cake very much either growing up. Much like how I didn’t really enjoy mince pies. Too rich, too sweet, too dry, too much whiskey! But I tolerated them because they were synonymous with Christmas. I’d peel off the royal icing, give it to my brother and nibble away at the marzipan (which I loved even as a small child). Sometimes I picked out the fruit when there was too much of it and the dried fruit was really dry and almost bitter. Or the alcohol overwhelmed the cake. But, from time to time, a homemade fruit cake would redeem all the bad ones for me.
Then one day at Mrs Milne’s* house, she gave us a slice of her christmas cake. Oh it was glorious in it’s moistness, flavour and simplicity. Not overly sweet. No royal icing. No marzipan. No alcohol in this one either. Just. a. naked. fruit. cake. Mrs Milne told us that it was the addition of pineapple that set this cake apart, and I believe her. Whenever I’ve used pineapples in a cake, they often impart moisture, rather than pineapple flavour to a cake.
Now, over a decade later, it’s still my go-to fruit cake recipe. I used it as my marathon training cake this time. It seemed apt to fuel up on. I left it a couple of weeks in a sealed container in the fridge while I went on holiday to Penang and 4 weeks on, it was still moist and moreish. I baked it for Christmas for Paul, one of my colleagues, because he’d been hankering after fruit cake for as long as I’d worked with him. 3 months on, he still requests I bake him one, once a fortnight, and then complains that he can’t stop himself devouring it. He likes royal icing but not marzipan, so that’s how I make it for him.
What I love about this recipe is the lack of planning required. See, I just can’t be bothered with the whole affair of soaking and feeding the fruit weeks or even days in advance. I don’t have the fridge space for it and I definitely don’t want to leave it out for the ants, cockroaches and rats now that I live in the tropics. I can pretty much make this cake from start to finish within 2-3 hours, depending on which cake tin I use. (more on that below). And now that I can source almost all of the dried fruit here in Phnom Penh, there’s nothing stopping me making this cake all year round. I still have difficulty finding mixed citrus peel and currants, but it’s so much better compared to 3 years ago. You can buy bags of mixed dried fruit in Thai Huot but they look weird with chopped red and green cherries perhaps? So I came up with my own measurements, based on looking at the proportions of the ingredients of a Sainsburys bag of mixed dried fruit.
Anyway, what’s stopping you. Go on, I dare you not to like this.
If you do add brandy, or whiskey… Then do tell me what you did. I’ve never bothered, but I might like to one day.
*Mrs Milne was my singing teacher from when I was 14-18 and one of those wonderful, life-giving, energetic, charismatic, generous Scottish women. I don’t know where she got this recipe from, so I attribute this recipe to her.
Ingredients for Naked Christmas Cake from Mrs Milne.
7oz/200g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
8oz/225g tin crushed pineapple (drained) or 1 fresh small pineapple, skin and eyes taken off. One weighs between 250-300g here in Cambodia.
2oz/50g glacé cherries, quartered
5oz/150g butter, cubed and softened
4½oz/125g soft dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
12oz/350g mixed fruit or
170g sultanas or golden raisins, as they’re called in Cambodia
68g black raisins
50g mixed peel
Brandy if required.
Chop up the pineapple* very finely and put it into a medium sized bowl. I guess you could also blitz it in a food processor for speed, but I don’t have one so it’s a knife and the chopping board for me. *If using tinned pineapple, drain the crushed pineapple first before putting it in the bowl.
Measure out the dried fruit and add them to the pineapple. If you’re going to add brandy, then add it in now. Give it all a good stir so that they mix well. Leave it as you get on with the rest of preparation. As the dried fruit sits with the pineapple, they’ll get a chance to plump up as they soak in the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 160ºC/320ºF/Gas Mark 2½. Prepare your cake tin. Because of the long baking time, I wrapped the outside of my baking tin with newspaper, tied it up with some string. I also lined the bottom and sides of my cake tin as well.
Measure out the flour in a medium sized bowl and add the chopped glacé cherries to the flour and coat them in flour. This helps the cherries not to all sink to the bottom of the cake.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. I use a hand mixer on high speed for about 5 minutes. Next beat in the eggs one by one. Then lower the speed and mix in the flour with the cherries. Finally, add the fruit. You can continue with the hand mixer, or using a spatula, fold in the fruit or give it a good stir. Whichever way you choose, make sure it’s evenly mixed in.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and level the top with the back of metal spoon or the spatula. Then pop it in the middle shelf of the oven and bake… I do recommend checking on the cake to make sure it doesn’t burn on top. I’ve put suggested timings below according to cake tin sizes.
I have used various sized cake tins to make this and of course the baking time differs.
8 or 7 inch tin = 1hour 45mins. Check on it at 1 hour 15mins
split the mixture into two 6inch tin = 1 h – 1h 15mins. Check on it at 45 mins
split the mixture into two 2lb loaf tins = 45mins-1hour. Check on it at 40 mins.
This happened today
Bernardo needs putting back
Together. Erm, glue?
I had seen a small separation between the fingerboard and the neck the other week. I wondered whether the humidity was playing havoc with it. So I had an inkling that my violin would break this morning. But still, when the fingerboard separated from the neck in my hands, my heart sank. Bless him, my friend Pov said, “Glue it back together, no problem.”
Yes, hopefully. But that will done by a specialist. Bernardo needs some TLC.
I don’t understand why I’ve never put raspberries in a dark chocolate brownie before. The flavour combination is ingenious! These brownies have quickly become my signature bake since I decided to bake them 7 weeks ago, popping out my oven week in-week out.
I meant to follow BBC’s Good Food’s Best Ever Chocolate Raspberry Brownies and duly noted that they suggested mixing half of the raspberries into the mixture and reserving half of the raspberries to scatter at for the end. However, I couldn’t quite understand why I’d want to put milk chocolate into the batter and dilute the intense dark chocolatey-ness that I wanted to couple with the raspberry flavour.
So, I reverted back to my default brownie recipe. This time, I have no microwave. (However, I’ve kept the microwave bit in the instructions, in case you do). I really wanted to demonstrate how the brownies can be made using one pot. In all honesty, I never expected that this brownie would have it’s own post. But when Sarah and I bit into one, the first occasion I baked them, a raspberry just burst in my mouth. I laughed, said that they were amazing and promptly named them, Raspberry Burst Brownies.
Ingredients for Raspberry Burst Chocolate Brownies adapted from Usborne First Cookbook.
4oz/100g dark chocolate
1tsp vanilla extract
2 beaten eggs
4oz/100g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
6oz/160g caster sugar
2 tbsp cocoa powder
pinch of salt
1 or 2 tbsp of milk if the mixture is too firm.
85g-100g frozen or fresh raspberries (I find that 85g is enough)
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. Line a square baking dish with baking paper. I use a 20x20cm baking tin.
2. Melt the chocolate and butter together on a gentle heat, in a heavy bottomed pan. Alternatively zap them in a heatproof bowl in the microwave.
3. As the chocolate and butter is melting, or being zapped in the microwave, measure out the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder into another bowl. Sift the flour if you want to, but it’s not necessary.
4. Add the vanilla extract, salt and sugar to the chocolate melted goodness and mix well.
5. Add the beaten eggs and keep mixing to combine it all. Don’t worry – they won’t scramble.
6. Gradually add in the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder so that the whole mixture is well combined.
7. Mix in half of the raspberries now. With the remaining half, scatter them over the top to fill in any deficit spaces before you put it into the oven.
8. Bake in the oven for 20-25 mins. The secret is to take them out when the top is firm to touch but still wobbles when you shake it.
Verdict? They are amazing! Sarah actually told me off for not telling her how amazing they were, when she ate one a few weeks later. (But we’d taste tested them together that first time…) They are that combination of sweet but sour, and a perfect flavour partnership between the dark chocolate and the raspberry. But what I love best about them is that the whole raspberries burst in your mouth as you eat them. Bliss!
About a year ago, I went to visit some friends and their hours-old baby at the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital at the riverside in Phnom Penh. Stirred by the din of our party of four’s arrival, this little boy opened his beautiful black eyes to take us in. “Hello, little one.” He stared back and then closed one eye. *LOL* He got me thinking about what it must be like as a newborn. Do they feel overwhelmed by this multi-sensory realm, full of new smells, noises and colour?
We often think of babies as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with no sense of self. And perhaps they are. But I wanted to invert that in this poem and imagine that a newborn could form their thoughts, as an adult, self-aware and with the vocabulary to match. I wrote out the first draft and then left it for a few months while life went on.
And then along came little P.
This newest addition to the family has been lovingly provided by my sister and brother-in-law, in the form of a beautiful baby boy who came 3 weeks early. In actual fact, the moment my sister told me that she was pregnant, I began to miss Owotato, as I dubbed him (a conglomeration of their surname and potato). Now, she whatsapps me photos, we google hangout and she sends me wee videos of him. But in all honesty, what I long to do is hold him and blow air on his face! In the meantime, this poem, which is dedicated to him, will have to suffice.
Sweet and high.
Gravelly and low-pitched.
There’s quite a few
close to me.
Shapes of different sizes
loom in. Peer.
Can’t quite make out
Perhaps if you came closer?
Too late. Out they zoom.
One of them is asking,
is it overwhelming
being a newborn?
YES! The air feels cold on my skin.
I miss the wet warmth.
Having said that,
I don’t seem to run out of room to stretch out,
and shake my fist to test it.
And – wow!
I can smell my mother’s milk.
sour notes surrounding me.
I twitch my nose
I’ve begun to use my mouth to suck
and my throat to swallow. Wonderfully,
instinctively, it knows what to do.
I’m not so sure.
I am going to practise making the moves in my own time.
I want to know how.
Shadows reach in
to hold me.
Please be gentle.
It can hurt,
I try to tell them.
But they don’t seem to understand me.
Oh hello! You smell different.
What? This one likes blowing air on my face.
Stop it! I blink.
I daren’t move my head.
that if I turn it to one side
I won’t be able to bring it back.
So, I turn
to take it all in.
This cacophony of colour
When I first arrived, I couldn’t afford to buy arborio rice here. So, in that first year, I didn’t make any risotto, one of my customary meals back in the UK. Thereafter I got so desperate for the comfort of cooking and eating risotto, I managed to convince myself that it didn’t matter if I used jasmine or ginger flower rice (a Cambodian medium grain rice) instead of arborio, carnaroli or any different type of risotto rice. I’ve merrily been making and feeding this pumpkin ‘risotto’ to many of my friends, using whatever rice I had at hand. Believe me, there were no complaints. Spicy, and gloriously ochre with the sweetness of fresh coriander. Who would turn down this dish?
However, a few months ago it all changed. My friend Robert gave me some of his delicious bacon, mushroom and spinach risotto (which I need to try cooking myself!) made with arborio rice. And the realisation of the error of my ways overwhelmed me. It just ain’t a risotto without risotto rice! How had I duped myself into thinking that this chewier, creamier textured rice could be replaceable?
So, yes. You can make this not-really-risotto, pumpkin risotto (what am I supposed to call it now?) with any grain of rice that you have. But don’t call it risotto.
It’s really simple to make. I make it a lot as pumpkins are pretty much available all year round in Cambodia, but not always strictly as a risotto. I really appreciate the fact that here you can buy however much of the pumpkin that you’re planning on cooking with: you just ask the market seller to cut off however much you need. In contrast, I don’t think that I would have made this in the UK because I didn’t really buy pumpkins. I didn’t really know what to do with a whole big pumpkin and I didn’t shop in those places that sold different varieties of smaller ones.
I adapted the original recipe to add in a bit more spice, with extra cumin, chilli and coriander. Lastly, there’s the grown-up version with the added white wine.
5 garlic cloves (but garlic isn’t as strong here, so perhaps 2 if your garlic is strong)
200g risotto rice
2 tsp ground cumin
1 litre of hot vegetable/chicken stock
125-250ml (or more) dry white wine
25g cold butter
50g parmesan cheese, grated (for vegetarians, choose an alternative or omit altogether)
generous bunch of coriander, roughly chopped up
spring onion, chopped up (optional)
2 red chilli peppers
salt and pepper
optional lime wedges to serve
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4/Cut the pumpkin into fairly even 1inch/2.5cm cubes. As you can see from the photo, I don’t worry too much about being precise. Coat it with 1tbsp of vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for about 30 mins.
Meanwhile get started on the risotto. Crush the garlic and chop up the onion. If using spring onions, then finely chop up the whites of the spring onions, reserving the green part as a garnish for later.
Heat the rest of the oil on a gentle heat in a medium sized pan and fry the onions, garlic and spring onion until the onions are soft.
Now add the cumin and rice, being careful not to let it catch on the bottom of the pan. Stir so that every grain of rice is coated in the spice.
Add the wine and let it deglaze the pan, by stirring it around the bottom of the pan.
Next, adding the stock about a ladleful at a time is the accepted wisdom but I’m pretty imprecise about this. I think that add however much you need so that it just covers the rice and the rice won’t burn at the bottom of the pan. Stir and stir until the stock has disappeared this helps release the starch from the rice). Then add in a bit more stock. *As you’re doing this, multi-task with step 7.* Continue until the rice is cooked but still has a wee bit of bite – this is al dente. Add another generous ladleful of stock, this helps to create a sauce, and the butter. Cover with the lid to help the butter melt.
Check on the pumpkin and remove from the oven once they’ve been baked. Grate the cheese, roughly chop up the coriander, finely slice the chilli peppers and the greens of the spring onions (if using).
Once the rice has been cooked, add the pumpkin, cheese, coriander, spring onions and the chilli peppers. And stir through to mix well. If you’d like a bit of zest, sprinkle some lime juice on top. Et voila – enjoy.
The verdict? A satisfying meat-free meal, which my friends, khmer and western, enjoy eating. I especially like this paired with kimchi.
So, this blog post is about how I’ve been putting one foot in front of the other, in restoring my mental well-being. Quite literally in fact, because running is one of the things that I took up again to make myself happy.
First, I recorded in my journal my hot season depression and the thoughts I had begun to believe about myself or had resurfaced, so that one day when I was better I could go back to it and unpick what I’d thought into truth and lies.
Secondly, I was reminded of a verse in the Bible which says, ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’¹. In light of this, I made up my mind to go back to doing the things that make me happy. Read cookery books, bake, cook up new recipes, exercise, write, sit out on my balcony, look out for faces in places, have a facial…
But believe me, when it’s 44°C (or even 36°C) and you’re a 10kg heavier than what you’d like to be, it’s hard to do any of those things.
Who wants to put the oven on and make the room even hotter than it is?
Anyone want to go swimming when the water is warm enough to bathe in?
Nobody wants to go outside and run, specially in a culture where running outdoors in not the norm.
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to slump back into the same negative thought patterns, to think that change and recovery will never come about. Refusing to believe I was stuck in the rut of depression in those first few months in July and August was such an effort. I cut out as much refined sugar that I could live without. No more khmer coffee with condensed milk for me. I mean I’m a baker, so I wasn’t ever going to cut it out completely if I could help it. But instead of baking sweet things, I baked and started selling my seeded wholemeal loaf. I convinced myself to shell out a bit more on ingredients that I liked and cooking with and tried out a new recipe every week. It took a wee while longer to get into a rhythm of exercising. Eventually, I asked exercise buddy, Miri to help me by arranging to run or bike with her at certain days during the week. It kept me accountable. And I did something that I hadn’t done in over 15 years. I got on the weighing scales every week to motivate myself to keep at it.
I also began to be deliberate about posting #domoreofwhatmakesyouhappy. Willing myself to do all those things in the heat. The more I did them, the more I realised that I needed to keep on doing things to keep me happy. And changing my routine so that I could do them in relative cool of the morning to the scorching heat of the midday sun or the sticky mugginess in the evenings, just made sense.
As a young history student, specialising in the social and cultural history of the British Empire, I had researched the hill stations in India and judged those colonials for escaping to those cooler climes.² Oh the joke was on me now. Obviously I had never lived in a hot climate before! My sympathy and empathy extended in historical retrospect. Then I realised that I was also allowed to escape to cooler climes. My nearest and dearest were not going to judge me for escaping the suffocating heat of hot season to the bracing, brisk breeze of the British Isle, to restore my well-being. Consequently, in January, I made plans for a UK break and also to receive some professional help to sift through the fact and fiction.
It wasn’t until I lived through hot season again this year, I was able to see that I had done it. I was okay. In fact, more than okay. As hot season approached, I realised that I was happy and thriving. Yes, there was baggage still to unload. Back in the UK, I would have what felt like open-heart surgery to remove and heal what had caused so much pain and was affecting me. But all that mental and physical discipline, putting one foot in front another, was paying off. The Han-Na that went back to the UK, was excited about running a half-marathon in Phnom Penh and reflecting on the two things that she really liked about hot season and she was going to miss whilst back in the UK:
There is no distinction between khmers and foreigners in that we all feel that it is too HOT.
Last year, the writing group that I’m part of asked for submissions for a Sputnik creative project, ‘What is it to be Human’. I submitted this for inclusion into their anthology of short stories and poems and it was accepted. You can buy the whole creative pack here or download the e-book for free, if you want.
I deliberately left it a year before posting this poem. When honesty shakes up a friendship, some things are better left carefully tucked away to rest so that the friendship can recover and forge forward in a new way. And then, at some point, when it’s healthy, I think these moments can be shared.
I remember that I found writing this therapeutic and surprisingly making myself write it in iambic pentameter was helpful: the discipline required in da DUM da DUM da DUM, forced me to take the time to work through each painful moment for what it was. Normally I lack the patience to do that, but I convinced myself that this was an one-off – much like the conversation below! As one of my friends remarked after the event, “It’s not like you’re planning to have these kinds of conversations on a daily basis!”
But how necessary, it was. And how my heart soared free, thereafter.
They say that the heart is purely muscle
Beating, pumping, pushing blood through highways
of capillaries and veins. Coursing life
into every member of the body.
It has four chambers. The two small ones are
called atria and the larger ones are
ventricles. The aortic valve is
what controls the flow of blood out of the
left ventricle to the aorta
(the body’s main artery). I learned all
of this in biology. So, how then –
as I’m sitting opposite you, waiting
for my drink to arrive. “Carrot shake, please” –
Does it know to pump doubly hard, rush blood
upwards to my face. Cause my palms to sweat,
hands tremble so I have to sit on them.
Somehow, it has guessed it’s impending fate.
Ah, here’s the drink. “Thank you.” Sip. Swallow.
Breath. Out. In. Steady. I need slow, sure words.
This is a delicate operation.
It will require all my skill to cut
out my heart, in one piece, adeptly
manoeuvre it from the ribbed darkroom where
feelings develop. Reveal my heart to
you so that you understand. And I don’t
have to repeat this ordeal again.
Ever! “I like you, a lot.” Words spill out,
clattering across the table like
loose change, stunning you. Eyes widen. Dumbstruck,
Your swift ripostes rendered suddenly mute.
My eyes hold yours steady and assure you,
I’m serious. Your lips make to move, but
you stop and try to work and rework out
what to say and how. I know your answer
already. I want to tell you that. And
as you laugh in nervousness. I join in.