I’ve swallowed pills and tablets of every colour chemistry can conjure up.
I’ve swallowed gruesome liquids in colours that defy description.
I’ve swallowed food the wrong way.
I’ve swallowed my pride.
I’ve swallowed my words.
I’ve even swallowed a tall tale or two.
But I absolutely, totally, 100% refuse to swallow Bird’s Nest Soup.
Why? Because it is, literally, the nest of a species of the swift (Aerodramus fuciphagus). A swift is not the same as a swallow, but as the Chinese word for the swift and the swallow is yen (燕), I’m taking the liberty of dove-tailing the two.
Back to the nest. Yes, nest – a bird’s home for laying eggs and bringing up baby birds. This nest, unfortunately for this particular swift, is made of its saliva and shaped like if you cupped one hand, and sized about 8cm across.
The nests can be found high up in caves in parts of Malaysia, Thailand and even Bali. Once it was discovered that these nests were edible, hunters climbed up to pry the nests loose; if harvested before eggs are laid or hatched, they were clean and easy enough to prep for sale. Because it is a lucrative business, artificial nesting boxes are now used to farm even more nests.
It is believed that consuming the nests is good for health, beauty and longevity. Indeed, it is a delicacy served at auspicious occasions like birthdays and Mother’s Day. I’m not sure anyone realises the supreme irony of destroying a mother’s home in order to gift it to another mother.
Today, the nests can be bought in bottles and gift packs, ready-cooked in rock sugar, honey or any variation of sweet or savoury preparations. The biggest importers are said to be the US, China and Hong Kong, where a bowl of Bird’s Nest Soup can cost up to US$100.
I was offered this soup while on a tour in Thailand and did think it looked intriguing. It resembled a bowl of translucent jelly-like oatmeal. Then I asked what it was …
Nope, didn’t touch it then, and still not touching it now. It’s not the saliva that I find hard to swallow; it’s the fact that it’s somebody’s home.
It was barely 9:00 am and it was already one of those mornings. The printer had a mysterious paper jam that nobody could find, the photocopier had run out of toner but nobody knew where the spare was and if there was one, the discussions were frustratingly unproductive … you know, those mornings.
Then the message came for us to head to the break room. Our automatic response was: what else had gone wrong now?
Turned out: nothing.
One of our colleagues had brought trays of muffins in various flavours and wanted us all to partake before they all got cold. And he (yes, he) had also refreshed the coffee makers so the first cups were on the way. The man had woken up early to bake because he felt it was ‘the right day’.
He was a tad late for work but nobody minded, not even the boss. He had completely turned the day around with one giving, gracious gesture. Thank you.
Some years ago, I sustained an injury that required walking temporarily with a cane for balance and support. With my usual impeccable sense of timing, I was booked on a cruise that would be sailing during this recovery period.
I had two obvious choices – cancel or proceed with cane. The family (and the doctor) felt a cruise was leisurely enough for me to manage, provided I was careful during embarking and disembarking. So off we went.
My movements were slower than I would have liked and stairs were unfriendly obstacle courses, but the relaxed atmosphere made mobility less of an issue than I had feared. Until the buffet line.
I don’t remember how I ended up separated from the family but there I stood before the row of serving dishes, wondering how I would hold onto my cane, my plate and dish my food.
“Did you want the chicken or the beef?”
Young Lady Passenger spoke from behind me, smiling cheerfully. “Chicken? If you pass me your plate, I’ll get it for you.”
I remember staring at her, startled into silence. She must have thought I was really, really slow. Which I was, obviously, in more ways than one.
“What else, Auntie? You want veggies? Pasta?”
I protested that I could manage and that she should get her own food but, nope. She heaped my plate, and then left the line to carry the plate all the way to my seat.
I have never forgotten that act of kindness and unselfishness. If you happen to be reading this, know that I remain extremely humbled and grateful. Thank you.
Paul Simon had a dream: he wanted to cook for his President someday. He also dreamed of opening his own restaurant where he would cook dishes from his mother’s recipes; but that would come later.
A graduate of ASPN (Association for Persons with Special Needs) Delta Senior School, he was employed in a leading hotel as a cook, where his mild intellectual disability was not an issue to him, his supervisors or the hotel guests.
In December 2017, Mr Simon was interviewed for an article celebrating the International Day of Disabled Persons. In it, he mentioned his two dreams.
On 24 January 2018, Mr Simon fulfilled one of these dreams. The President had read the article and had her staff contact him, extending an invitation to cook for her. So, on that day, that’s what he did. He cooked and served a three-course lunch for President Halimah at the Istana (the official residence and office of the President). And joined her for a chat as she had her dessert.
Thank you, Madam President, for that invitation and for making a dream come true.
Egg. Perfectly formed, self-contained, nutritious, a cradle of life … is there anything more perfect than this?
‘Egg’ – the noun – has survived centuries of use but remains relatively unchanged from the Middle English ‘egg’ and its ancestor, the Old Norse ‘egg’. A simple word, it has contributed to a range of expressions over time: good egg, rotten egg (reportedly 1848), egg on your face (reportedly 1936), nest egg. It is part of relevant advice today: don’t put all your eggs in one basket (Cervantes in Don Quixote, 1605) and it is also an insult: go suck an egg (1930s).
‘Egg’ – the verb – represents encouragement, e.g., egg someone on. The thing is, the Old Norse etymology of ‘egg’ is the same as ‘edge’. So to egg someone on, back in the day, was to edge someone on, i.e., to provoke or drive to the edge. Technically, therefore, you could egg an egg to the egg. But I digress.
‘Egg’ – the food – is even more, well, egg-citing. Its cooking methods are diverse: hard-boiled, coddled, poached, fried, scrambled. It is integral in souffles, custards, soups and drinks. And let’s not forget caviar.
‘Egg’ is a poster child of cultural diversity: Huevos Rancheros, tamagoyaki, century egg, omelette, frittata. If you’re interested, see here for international breakfast egg recipes! By the way, while a London firm claims to have invented the Scotch Egg in the 1700s, it was apparently already being served during the Mughal Empire, founded in 1526!
‘Egg’ has synonyms. Kind of. I’m thinking of ovum, roe, spawn.
‘Egg’ becomes a tool for vandalism when it is thrown at someone’s house, i.e., egging. I know of a much-hated teacher whose students once cracked raw eggs on his car; it was parked in the sun.
‘Egg’ is part of folklore and tradition. It is said to cure illnesses, hangovers and foretell the future. It symbolises new life, birth and resurrection. The Chinese, for instance, distribute hard-boiled eggs dyed red to friends and family to celebrate a baby’s first month or first year.
‘Egg’ is a decorative item – who can ignore the beauty of an ostrich egg lamp? Or a Faberge egg?
‘Egg’ has cult followings – an egg yolk called Gudetama has spawned restaurants, merchandise and a near rock star status. And who has never heard of Humpty Dumpty?
I’d love to hear how the egg features in your culture. Please do share by leaving a comment!
For as long as we’ve lived in the neighbourhood, we’ve had Sunday brunch at the coffee shop whenever we could. It wasn’t a large shop; just seven stalls offering drinks, vegetarian noodles, congee, prawn noodles, wanton noodles, Indian food and economical rice.
We were generally happy to eat from each stall in rotation. It got to the point even the stall owners knew whose turn it was to serve us. However, the Munchkin had an affinity for the wanton noodles and often ate it for weeks in a row.
This stall was run by a couple. Uncle prepared the noodles: dry, braised, with or without chilli, cooked soft or al dente just the way the customers ordered. Auntie did the plating and garnishing, often also delivering the bowls right to the tables.
But Auntie did much more for us. Over the years, she cut the Munchkin’s noodles into short little strips so it was easy for a child to scoop with a spoon. She made Uncle boil the noodles longer so they would be softer. She added extra sauce. She smuggled out extra wantons. Later, it was vegetables. When there was a moment to spare, she would sit with us for a chat.
The Munchkin had wanton noodles the day before leaving for college. Auntie cried and offered all sorts of advice about living alone. Even Uncle, whose voice we’ve pretty much never heard, said, “Study hard!” from behind his giant soup pot.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then I’m beyond thankful Auntie (and Uncle) and my family live in the same one. Thank you, Auntie.