Saturday, July 31, 2010

beginning of fishhead curry

i have mentioned in an earlier posting that my moving around all over the island has lead me to uncover 'new' things. in fact, since my retirement i have made a lot of 'discoveries'. for example, i have learnt a lot about the flora and fauna that i come across during my nature walks, so much so that i have been approached to co-author a book on common trees in singapore. i have also come to realise that in spite of our short history, we are rich in heritage.

of course, you do not have to be a retiree to learn new things but somehow when your mind is not pre-occupied with work, you are able to see things in a refreshing new light.

last week while exploring the race course road area and after talking to some of my old friends, i have found out something about the beginning of the fishhead curry dish.

muthu's curry restaurant is synonymous with this very popular indian dish. in fact, muthu's has won accolades for having the best fishhead curry award. i used to think that the first owner of muthu's must have been the pioneer of this dish. that was before one of my friends told me that when the shop first opened shop along one of the lanes off race course road, it sold the traditional south indian dishes. he used to pay between $1.20 and $1.50 for his lunch which consisted of rice, vegetables and a portion of either fish or chicken.

according to another friend, the pioneer of fishhead curry was the owner of gomez curry, which preceded muthu's curry, apollo banana leaf and our makan place. however, there was something else surprising that he told me. the chef who cooked this dish at its restaurant at selegie house was a hainanese man. he used to eat there when gomez curry, which started at sophia road, opened up a branch. i did a check on the internet and it proved that my friend was correct.

fish head curry was first concocted in a small restaurant in tank road about 30 years ago (in 2002). the brainchild of an indian man, gomez, the head of the fish was used to suit the local taste. fish head was not particularly an indian delicacy. understanding it to be a favourite with the chinese, gomez tried this dish to please his chinese customers. since then, the dish has become a hit in singapore and across the causeway. (extracted from singapore infopedia)

across the causeway, in johor bahru, there is a restaurant - kim loong restaurant on jalan wong ah fook - that is popular for its fishhead curry. each time i walk past the shop, it is crowded with customers.

i just hope that another country will not try and claim this dish as one of their traditional dishes.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

a driving test - a homorous tale

initially, i had wanted to do a comparison between the driving test that we oldies were subjected to in the 60s and 70s and the driving test today. then, i suddenly recall a story related to the driving test that was making its round in those days. it was so funny that i think it is worth re-telling here. i would think this hilarious incident actually took place.

in those days, the driving test was also made up of two components - the theory and the practical parts. this funny incident happened during the theory part. back then, it was not a computerised touch screen test like what it is today. when i did my theory test in the 70s, it was the pen/pencil and paper test.

however, i was told that in the 60s, they had this 'push car' test. in this oral theory test. you have to verbalise the steps and actions that you will take in a given situation.

i did the written test, so i do not really know how the push-car test was conducted. i imagine there was a scale model of roads with intersections, traffic lights, single continuous lines double white lines, broken lines, zebra crossings and buildings like schools and so on. the tester would place the small model car on the board and instruct you to manoeuvre the toy car from one position of the board to another.

so, this person was given the instruction to 'push' the car from one place on the board to another. he duly carried out the move. however, when he had finished, the tester commented: how come no sound from you at all?

the second time, the testee went through the same motion but with added sound (vocal effect): eenng, eeenng, eeeennnng...."

when the tester had stopped laughing, he told the testee: you are supposed to talk about some of the traffic rules, like slowing down when you are in a school zone, signalling when you are changing lane or making a turn and so on.

Monday, July 26, 2010

an honest durian seller

although i like to eat durians, i am wary of durian sellers. many singaporeans lament that honest durian sellers are hard to find. many of these durian sellers are actually fly-by-night operators who will try to make as much money as they can during the durian season. they tend to be very pushy; you may intend to buy two fruits and then end up buying more than you have bargained for. some do not display the prices and charge you according to 'how you are dressed' or 'whether you live in the neighbourhood'. there are others who will short change you by lumping and dumping the unripe fruit or over-ripe fruit together with those you have picked.

so if you come to know a durian seller whom you can trust, you must make sure you do not lose his contact. get his mobile phone number. luckily, i found one two years ago and i would seek him out when the season came around. however, sometime in april this year, i saw another vendor occupying his place outside the 7-11 store at woodgrove. i was worried and prepared to forgo eating durian until i find another honest seller.

knowing that mr su, the honest durian seller, would only resume his durian business when the season was in full swing and when good durians were readily available, i waited until the beginning of july to call him on his mobile number. he told me his new location was not far from his former spot; he was now at block 326 woodlands street 32.

most of his durians come from the state of johor, from the districts of tangkap and kluang. when the supply from these areas dry up, he sometimes get durians from the state of pahang. the durian lorries will usually deliver the durians to his stall at around 2 or 3 p.m., that is when his make-shift stall opens. his durians are usually sold out before 7.00 p.m. he sells a range of durians, from 3 fruits for $10 to $11/kg for the more exquisite varieties like mao shan wang and kim hong. he also stock d13, d24, d101 and ang hae (hong xia).

like most durian sellers today, he will pry open the husks and pack the durian in a styrofoam box. for d13, d101 and ang hae, he sells them at $10 a box. the foam box is the squarish type. it is big enough to hold the fruit of two large durians. however, most times, i get the fruit from as many as three medium-sized durians.

mr su will volunteer to point out the distinguishing features of the different variety of durians that he sells. he will teach you how to identify the different species. he is also familiar with customers' preferences. according to him, most ladies prefer sweet to bitter durians. that is why d13 is very popular with his woman customers.

he hails from kluang in johor and during the off-season he works on his oil palm plantation in kluang. besides durians, the other fruits that he hawks include langsat, mangosteen and rambutan.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

the breadfruit - sukun

i have blogged about the breadfruit tree here. i am blogging about it again because when i was in kota kinabalu, at the open-air market, i realised that the fruit is quite popular in sabah. at least popular enough for it to be sold at the market. in singapore, you will not be able to find the sukun - the local name for it - at the supermarkets and most markets. if you are lucky, you may be able to get one from geylang serai market.

also, over in kota kinabalu, at the filipino market, they were selling breadfruit fritters which i managed to get, many years ago, at a stall in haiq road food centre. my friend and former colleague just informed me that the fritters are available at hajah maimunah in joo chiat. the fritter tastes a bit like tapioca (ubi kayu) but it is more fibrous.

i was told by another friend that the ripe breadfruit can be used as a substitute for potato. this means you can use the breadfruit to cook curry dishes in which the potato is used.

as i have mentioned in the earlier post, the breadfruit tree is not that uncommon in singapore. you can find it growing on its own in wasteland, by the roadside and in some private gardens. i think the breadfruit belongs to the same family as the jackfruit.

it is quite easy to identify a breadfruit tree by its large leaves. the breadfruit has unusual shaped leaves. they are more or less cut into 5 to 10pointed lobes. the leaves are glossy on top and have stiff hair on the underside.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

johor state mosque & royal mausoleum

there are more than 70 mosques in singapore; however, there is one mosque here which is maintained by the government of johor (masjid kerjaan johor). where is this mosque?


the masjid temenggong daeng ibrahim also referred to as the telok blangah johor state mosque is on telok blangah road. this mosque was previously a reception hall of the temenggong's residence. it is a small mosque with a pentagonal-shaped ceiling.

next to the mosque, on slightly higher ground, is the johor royal mausoleum. how many singaporeans are aware that the temenggong (temenggong abdul rahman) who negotiated the treaty with sir stamford raffles is buried in this mausoleum?

others who are buried in this mausoleum include his son temenggong ibrahim and close members of the family. the last member of the family to be buried there was ungku mohammed khalif (died 1900), who at one time lived in the building used for radin mas school. he was a well-known figure in singapore sporting circles. he was the younger son of temenggong ibrahim and thus a grand uncle of the late sultan of johor.

according to my friend, the late sultan of johor would visit this mosque and mausoleum every hari raya puasa to pay his respect to his ancestors. wonder if his sucessor will continue this tradition?

behind and beside this building is the graveyard where the followers of the temenggongs were buried. only a handful of graves appeared to be receiving attention while the rest seemed to have long been forgotten.

this backyard was where a special bathing area of temenggong abdul rahman was housed. a stream from mt faber (telok blangah hill) used to flow to this bathing area. today, there is no sign of any running water.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

chapati - north indian roti

both chapati and prata are considered "roti" but prata is the ubiquitous one whereas you may some problem seeking out the chapati stalls in singapore. a good bet (to find one ) is the serangoon area, at the junction of norris road and serangoon road. the coffee shop looks rundown but there is always a crowd of customers chomping on chapati.

after the train journey from johor bahru to tanjong pagar, we had chapati with keema at the railway station canteen.

chapati is staple to northern indians and pakistanis. it is bread made of whole wheat flour ('atta') and cooked on a tava (a flat skillet). the flat skillet is much smaller than the grill plate that is normally used for toasting pratas. it is smaller in size than the one used by the popiah maker for making popiah skins.

at 50 cents a piece, chapati is slightly cheaper than prata. i find it healthier than prata because not much oil is used in the making of the dough. in fact, you can do away with the oil when making the dough.

chapati is normally served with meat and vegetables. you tear the chapati into smaller pieces, fold it the shape of a cone and press the keema or whatever into it.

i like the smell of chapati because it wafts me back to my kampong days. we had a 'bengali' neighbour who seemed to be preparing chapati every other day. i do not think he used gas to heat up the tava; he must have used charcoal or firewood.

some people may mix up chapati with thosai or naan. thosai is a south indian pancake and naan is normally baked in a clay oven.

Friday, July 16, 2010

a train ride into history

come july 2011, there is no chance of taking a train from this station in johor bahru to tanjong pagar in singapore anymore. in fact, the malaysian authorities have plans to convert this old train station into a museum when the stop is moved to the new ciq complex.

i have not had that many experiences riding on the malaysian train. i have taken the overnight train to kuala lumpur a number of times. i have been wanting to take the shuttle to kluang but have not got about to doing it yet. today, we rode the 1012 train from johor bahru to tanjong pagar. my malaysian friends have told me that their trains are not punctual; today, the 1012 train showed up at 1100.

we had purchased our train tickets at a counter in the new ciq building. you could also buy your ticket from the old train station. although the train was supposedly due at 1045 a.m. the immigration counter did not open until 5 minutes before the arrival time of the train. however, after clearing immigration, we were not allowed on the platform, but were directed to an enclosed area. we had to wait another 15 minutes before the train finally pulled out of the station.

the travel time from johor bahru station to tanjong pagar is about one hour. add in a compulsory stop at woodlands checkpoint, which lasted about 15 minutes, and we arrived at tanjong pagar at 12.20 p.m. along the way, we were thinking about the land that would be available for use after the tracks have been cleared, the inconveniences that would be removed and the revaluation of properties beside the railway track.

we had chapati with keema at the railway station canteen. it has been a long time since i had eaten chapati. actually we had wanted to have nasi briyani for lunch but the long queue put us off.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

leaves for treating aquarium water

when my friend, a tropical fish hobbyist, told me about the curative qualities of the leaves of the sea almond or ketapang tree, i was naturally skeptical. according to him, the old, dried leaves of the sea almond when placed in the water release a certain chemical which is beneficial to the fish. the anti-bacterial substance not only lowers the pH of the water, it also creates a soothing and conducive environment for the fish. the colour of the water is also changed by the organic acids that are released. the water becomes the colour of tea, resembling the black water of their natural habitat.

i also remember when i kept siamese fighting fish in my younger days, we would try to simulate the natural habitat for the fish by keeping the water light brown in colour. we would do this by putting dried leaves in the water but i do not think they were not the leaves of the ketapang tree. again, according to my friend, the substance released by the ketapang leaves help the fighting fish to recover from its injuries faster.

today, i was finally convinced that the leaves indeed are able to enhance the condition of the water to benefit the fish. i was at qian hu at jalan lekar when i saw them drying a lot of the leaves of the sea almond in their compound. if the professionals use these leaves to treat the water, then it must definitely work.

however, it seems like the water conditioning works for certain species of fish and not all fish. bettas, discus and arrowanas are said to respond well to chemicals released by the leaves. another claim is that it helps to induce spawning among these types of fish.

if you have been to qian hu - which i visit once in a while - you will notice that most of the trees that are growing around the ornamental fish farm are ketapang trees. the ketapang tree is a deciduous trees, shedding its leaves twice a year, during the drier seasons. i have blogged about it here. incidentally, i find that qian hu has fish to suit all ages. the toddlers go for the longkang fish; the bigger children feed the carps; and the adults feed the spa fish with their dead skin.

Monday, July 12, 2010

where are these 2 blocks of flats?

the two blocks of flats (shown below) look like hdb flats. in fact, they were built by the hdb but the land belongs to the malaysian authorities (ktm). most of the cars in the parking lots have malaysian, mostly johor, registration plates but there are also a few singapore cars. i think the hdb has no jurisdiction here, so there is no need to display the hdb or ura coupons.

from afar, they may be mistaken for hdb flats but once you get closer, you can see that the flats have not been well taken care of. in fact, you get the feeling that the place is going to be abandoned soon. the two blocks are accessible to all and sundry. however, the area beyond the fence is out of bounds because that is where the malaysian trains are shunted.

i remember visiting this area in the 60s. i had a schoolmate whose father worked for the malayan railway. they lived in the quarters provided by the malayan railway authorities. the grey blocks of flats were given names like kedah, perlis and perak. these state name blocks have since been replaced by melati and kemuning.

how are these two blocks of flats?

Friday, July 9, 2010

the filipino market in kota kinabalu

this building houses the filipino market. it used to be known as the kota kinabalu handicraft centre. most of the stalls are managed by filipino immigrants. also called the pasar filipino, it is located along tun fuad stephen road. besides local souvenirs and handicrafts, you can also find handicrafts from other south-east asian countries.

just behind the complex, facing the waterfront, is the open-air market. it reminds me of the santok weekend market in kuching. it may seem like a maze but there is actually some organisation in this mess. the bbq seafood and chicken wings stalls are not dificult to locate. just look for the smoke and let your nose lead you to where the tantalising smell is coming from.

away from the seafront, you find stalls selling fresh produce as well as dried food. you can get 5 large buah kedongdong for rm$1.00. mangoes are in season and every fruit stall has lots for sale. there are also durians but they are not plentiful and the fruit that i tried tasted rather bland.

most visitors seemed to go for the bbq seafood and chicken wings. the seafood included whole fish, prawns, king-sized tiger prawns, squids, flower crabs and even lobsters. the well-marinated chicken wings cost rm$1.20 a piece. a medium-sized yellow tail cost around rm$13.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

bidayuh longhouse in the borneo highlands

i had wanted to visit the annah rais longhouse when i went to kuching in april this year but it did not fit in with my schedule. so, this time around, william offered to take me there. ian's grandma and lucy came along.

we drove along the road leading to the borneo highlands resort to get to the annah rais village, a distance of some 48km. the road was built specially to facilitate a safe and pleasant travel for former prime minister mahathir when he went to kuching to officiate at the official opening of the resort. i was told he owns a house at this exclusive resort.

initially, we drove past some buildings housing living quarters, army and police camps, a hospital and a prison but after that we did not see any more concrete buildings.

when we arrived at the annah rais village, we were greeted by two bidayuh women in their traditional costumes. we were each offered a small glass of home-brewed rice wine. the bidayuh longhouse is different from the iban longhouse. it is actually a series of houses built attached or very close to one another. the open area between the two rows of houses was covered with bamboo slabs. building materials consist mainly of bamboo, timber and the leaves of the nipah palm (attap).

among the things we saw which reminded me of the past were the rubber sheets hung up to dry and the machine that was used for pressing these rubber sheets. we also stopped to watch this elderly woman weave a basket using material found around the village.

although they still use firewood to so some of their cooking and they retain some traditional art forms, there is clear evidence that they are very much in touch with the globalised world in the form of satellite dishes. most of the able-bodied young people have moved to the urban areas, leaving the very young and old in the village.

some relics of the past are still lying around in one of the houses. the skulls of some victims of the headhunters are still being exhibited, kept in a metal cage.

another touted attraction within the village is the hotspring. we had to travel about 800m to get to see the hotspring, which is located by the side of the river. although we could see bubbles coming to the surface, the water was not as warm as we had expected.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

proboscis monkeys and fireflies

on the day before our departure from kota kinabalu, we opted to visit the klias wetlands to catch a sight of the proboscis monkeys and the fireflies. the alternative was to go river rafting along the padas river.

the tour operator, a contact of one of our group members, had offered us a special rate for the monkey and firefly tour.

the place set in a rustic environment had things not expected to be found in such a place - solar panels and a fish spa.

we travelled more than 100km from our hotel to reach the wetlands. we started from our hotel at 2.00 p.m. and reached the sanctuary at around 3.30 p.m. gongs were sounded to herald our arrival (or maybe it was a signal for the hired ones to dress up as monkeys). we were also welcomed with some light refreshment - finger food and beverages.

at around 4.30 p.m. we boarded the 10-seater boat for a cruise down the river. the water of the river that flows through a mangrove area was murky and you could not see the bottom at all. our smaller boat allowed us to get closer to the river banks for a better view of the monkeys on the trees.

proboscis monkeys are found exclusively on the island of borneo. the have the longest noses of all primates. in elderly animals, it can reach 17.5cm. proboscis monkeys live in mangrove, lowland, riverine and swamp forest. they are excellent swimmers.

the boatman was an excellent spotter of monkeys and other creatures. 50 metres after setting off, we saw the first troop of proboscis monkeys. they were on a tree very close to the bank of the river.

moving to the other bank, our attention was directed to some movement in the water. it turned out to be a smooth otter swimming underwater, surfacing now and then.

after a few more sightings of the proboscis and 'beckham' monkeys, we were back to where we had launched off. dinner was buffet-style.

after dinner, we boarded the boat again. as was the case with the sighting of the monkeys, we did not have to travel far to come upon the first cluster of lights on the trees. however, as there was a full moon in the night sky, the illumination was not as brilliant or spectacular as it would have been.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

air travel in the 70s and today

how air travel has changed over the years! but this picture of passengers on the tarmac boarding a plane brought me back to paya lebar days. i do not remember walking directly into the plane via the aerobridge when i first boarded a plane in the 70s. i remember walking, unprotected from the elements, from the airport building to the waiting boeing 737.

i first flew in a passenger plane when i was in my 20s. the other day, when i was flying budget from kota kinabalu to kuching, young school children in uniform were taking the plane as though they were on a bus. it was quite evident that that not their maiden flight as there was no photo taking, excited chatter and unfamiliarity with the procedure.

these days, hardly anyone take snapshots of their friends or family members when they are in the cabin of a plane. in those days, when travelling by air was more like a kind of a privilege, you would see holiday makers taking pictures.

even before the advent of budget airlines, by the late 70s, plane travel had become less exclusive and glamorous. before that, the rich and famous who flew across continents, especially across the ocean from america to europe or vice versa were referred to as the 'jet-setters'.

planes have grown bigger. first came the 747 jumbo jet. for a while, there was the concorde. these days, we have the a380. however, bigger planes have not resulted in more space for the economy class passengers. in fact, i feel more squeezed than before. that is the reason i always opt for an aisle seat; otherwise, if i am seated next to the window, two persons will be inconvenienced each time i need to answer nature's call.

in the past, nobody really bothered about what you hand-carried into the plane, as long as it was not some explosive stuff or some dangerous weapon. after the september 11 incident, metal and sharp objects are forbidden. subsequently, liquid and gels are limited to certain amount and they have to be packed in a regulated way.

one other change is the way we booked our tickets. in the 70s, we would get our air tickets through some tour agencies or we would go to the airline office to buy the tickets. today, most of the time, i book my ticket online. i also choose my seats online and check-in using the internet.

however, because of goverment regulations and competition, the price of an air-ticket has not gone up that much over the years. in fact, in some cases, the air-fare has become 'cheaper'. air-port taxes, however, have increased many folds in most countries.

pilgrims bound for mecca boarding a plane at paya lebar international airport

(picture from national archives of singapore)