Saturday, December 14, 2013

’Twas the night before Christmas

I USED TO BELIEVE IN SANTA. Christmas was the most magical time of the year. My parents made sure of that as they covertly prepared for Santa to arrive and leave gifts for us.
   By early December, the anticipation of the imminent arrival of Santa Claus would start building. Mum would put up a modest tree and I was enchanted by the home-made decorations and baubles. Later on I would take over this role and we always used a tree with twisted wire over green bristles. I would make some of the decorations and the treasured boxes of painted baubles, snowflakes and angels would be unwrapped again. The tree would be topped with a star and lit with wondrous flickering lights. I couldn’t wait for it to get dark so the lights could be turned on and I would sit on the rattan chair and take in this whole magical tableau.
   The Carmelite nuns would present the family a Nativity crib and that would be placed under the tree. The nuns would create the scene from cut-out Christmas cards. The crib would be thatched and the scene completed with straw in the manger where the baby Jesus lay.
   The anticipation would get too much and I would hang up my stocking (a woven rattan bag or a batik sarong hooked up against the door knob of my bedroom door. I would examine the stocking at various times to see if Santa had come for a reconnoitre. Mum and Dad kept on telling me not to be over-anxious, I would scare Santa away.

YES, I WAS SO EXCITED ON CHRISTMAS EVE! I was told to go to bed early as we had a big day ahead in the morning. Mum and Dad would get ready to go to Midnight Mass. I would climb into bed under the mosquito net. Mum and Dad had left the bedroom door open and through the mosquito net, I could see the lights on the Christmas tree flickering away as I tried to count how many phases it went through.
   Mum and Dad made sure that I knew they had left out a glass of beer (for Santa) and milk (for the reindeer). As I drifted into Christmas slumberland, I could hear faint scrapping outside. I was too nervous to get up and peek out the window as  didn’t wish to scare the reindeer crew away and miss out on Christmas presents. I found out later it was Dad who would brush the rough bristles of the big broom over the rough concrete.

’Twas the Night Before Christmas
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name...

and so the poem by Clement Clarke Moore continues.
IT WAS LIKE AWAKENING from the best childhood dream. It’s barely half past five on Christmas morning and I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The Christmas tree lights were still flickering. I could make out my covering mosquito net looked different! I gazed up and there it was, Christmas presents and toys hanging from the mosquito net.
   I would yelp with delight and started calling out to Mum and Dad, “Santa has been! Santa has been!” Mum and Dad would come rushing in, and shared in my excitement, though I’m sure they would have preferred some more kip as they returned from Midnight Mass just before 2am.
  I would take in the wonderland I was in and instead of tearing down the mosquito net, I unhooked each toy one by one, excited and happy beyond belief. I didn’t want Mum and Dad to help, I wanted to savour the moment. My parents just watched me, they had given their son the best Christmas ever, until the next Christmas of course, until one of my older cousins told me that Santa didn’t exist. Childhood innocence died that fateful day.
   But there’s more, the stocking sarong hanging on the doorknob was filled with presents as well, chocolates and confectionary that couldn’t be hung up inside the mosquito net.
   Mum and Dad would indulge me as I darted from door to under the mosquito net. I began to take in all the gifts I had been given and I didn’t want that moment to end, ever.
   Of course no scene would be complete without confirming the fact Santa and his team of reindeer had been. The beer glass would be half full, all the milk was gone because there was Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem and of course the leader of the pack, Rudolf!

THIS IS THE FIRST CHRISTMAS we will spend without my Dad. It will be all the more poignant this Christmas as we remember him, and what Mum and Dad has done for us as the best parents you could ever wish for. I will always treasure my most precious Christmas memory, and yearn for the times when the world was less brutal than what life has thrown up for some of us now.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Geraldine Johns reviews L’oeuf

You sometimes have to wonder: why would anybody set up a new café. And why would anyone visit? Clearly, people on both sides of that equation are still prepared to take the plunge. And on this occasion, at least, we are all the better for it
   L’oeuf sits in a nondescript bit just off Mt Albert Road. It has as neighbours a Chinese takeaway, a Mobil Mart and the Sound Hope Chinese Clinic. It is not Ponsonby or Grey Lynn, but it’s evident some inner-city habitues have already claimed this place as their own. For very good reason.
   L’oeuf has a nice and simple fit-out offering a space of enveloping welcome. It’s only new, but the cvs of chef-sibling owners Jasper and Ludovic Maignot, together with Jasper’s partner Celeste Thornley offer an assurance you are in experienced and safe hands.

   There are a few cake and pastry delicacies at the counter – all made on site and all of come-hither proportions, but it’s the menu we’re interested in. The dishes have names – which makes my heart go clunk (why can’t they just describe them?). It will swiftly be lifted. Consider the Cambodian (sweet black banana rice on salted coconut cream); the Russian (lemon vodka-cured salmon tartare on thick toast with poached egg and cream cheese) and the Geisha (noodles, cabbage, daikon, pickled ginger, with options of tofu or chicken).
   In my own case the title is self-evident. This is the Nest: walnut-crumbed soft boiled eggs sitting in a filo nest – true – sitting pretty on a beetroot ketchup, rocket salad and feta base. It is truly a picture to behold. “Too gorgeous to eat,” says a new-found friend at another table who has independently chosen the same. She is wise to persevere, however; it’s a rewarding medley of both harmony and contrast.

   My patron wants the simple stuff: Soldiers. Herein lies an exercise in how something that doesn’t work out right can in fact be effortlessly amended. The eggs are not soft-boiled as  promised; the dish is removed sans quibble, but with apology. They get it right the second time round, and deduct the price of the tea off the menu. 
   Simple, lovely and good. That’s all we wanted – and on this occasion, that’s what we get. L’oeuf earns more points for being devoid of the pretensions of some addresses closer to the city while still delivering tastes and service of upper-end proportions.
   The coffee is Atomic. That means it may be to your liking. Or you might have been so spoilt elsewhere you may have another preference. The tea is leaf, which is creditable.
   The brothers Maignot are doing a very good job here. Their efforts are mirrored on the floor by competent wait staff. There lies ample reward in an address of this ilk. It just goes to prove that sometimes you can have all your, er, eggs in one basket. 
✪ Geraldine Johns

4a Owairaka Avenue, Mt Albert.
Phone (09) 971 4155
Hours: Weekdays 7am – 4pm; Saturday and Sunday 8am to 4pm. 
Closed Tuesday.

Bring a plate, it’s Christmas!

IT’S BECOME a pre-Christmas tradition, a gathering of like-minded friends. Now the grown-up children come with their parents, and that is testament to the fact that they still think it’s cool to hang out with us oldies but more importantly, the food is as good as you can get.
   The menu is planned a month ahead, there is an email thread of culinary proportions as we suggest what we would like to cook for ho-ho-ho. As we all hail from shores afar like Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, the menu reflects our counry of origin but then there’s always some who have been here so long they are more comfortable with the local cuisine. For someone who doesn’t cook much or worried the cooking would mess-up their minimalist pristine kitchen, they subtefuge and sneak in a dish from a restaurant (the pak thong ko being the case in point). Or they are banished to culinary backwater by making a fruit platter. The men this year surprised everyone by making dishes of considerable aplomb. Fred cooked a mee goreng that’s as good as KK Malaysia. He must have a really hot wok! With help from parents, Frances produced a roast duck to rival Grand Harbour.
  The young ones made bruschetta (with salmon and cucumber topping). We had been snacking on kwa-chi (melon seeds) and peanuts in shell. No gathering is complete without JJ’s crispy roast pork. She’s never been allowed not to make it.
   YHL’s pineapple salad is another favourite, the ingredient that makes it is the salted preserved plum, a singboi that many expectant mothers crave. Rosemary’s salmon had an Asian twist, julienne ginger and spring onions. Such a great idea to use ginger.
   As mentioned earlier, Fred’s Mee Goreng was one of the star turns. It had all the ingredients, prawn, taupok and the mee cooked to fragrant perfection in a very hot wok. Vegetable dishes included a stir-fried eggplant and a seaweed cucumber salad.
   The hit of the evening was cooked by one of the young ones, Frances. Dad carved it to a very appreciative audience. It was stuffed with glutinous rice, cashew nuts and salted duck eggs. Genius! What’s not to love? It was the first dish to go as everyone wanted to try it.
   Fred’s knowledge of Taiwanese cuisine had seen him produce this bean, tofu and carrot salad. No gathering is complete without a curry.This chicken rending was made by nonya specialist YHL. Rendangs are notoriously labour intensive to make and this is truly the defining nonya dish.
   Georgia made a Thai beef salad with a fish-sauce dressing, topped with chopped peanuts and sliced fresh chilli. By the time the dessert dishes were unveiled, there wasn't much room to fit in the sweeties. But the fruit kebabs eased us into the sweet treats coming up.
   There was pak thong ko (white honeycomb steamed cake made with rice flour, sugar and yeast ), a sticky lemon tart, and a nonya sago cake, abuk-abuk, made from sago pearls, made green with pandan flavour and sprinkled with grated coconut.
   JL produced her speciality, strawberries with mascarpone and watermelon granita and JJ a Malaysian favourite, sago pudding with palm sugar and topped with coconut cream. We just had to try all the desserts.
   As our host said, the evening was better than anything you can have in any restaurant. I have to agree. There will be another get-together coming up for Chinese New Year. We can’t wait!