Monday, October 24, 2016

What The Cleaning Women See

Went through a compilation of 43 short stories written by Lucia Berlin (1936 - 2004), edited and with an introduction by Stephen Emerson'A Manual For Cleaning Women: Selected Stories'. These stories have been published in magazines and journals, but I've never read her writings. Bought this book based on the strong praise for Lucia Berlin's writing. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)

The author doesn't sugarcoat the stories. They're gritty, grim and realistic. I love them. She tends to write in first person narrative; as much as I tend to think these are different women and protagonists, they might really be her life experiences at different stages and under varied circumstances. The Guardian wrote that apparently Berlin's own eventful life provides enough subject matter for her stories,

Berlin appeared to fit many lives into her 68 years. Brought up in the remote mining camps of Alaska and the mid-west, she was an abused and lonely child in wartime Texas; a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago; a bohemian loft-living hipster in 50s New York; and an ER nurse in 70s inner-city Oakland. By the age of 32 she had been married three times, had four sons and was battling a chronic alcohol addiction.

I wondered if 'Her First Detox' was about the author's real-life experiences too. She used third person narrative to tell us Carlotta's story, about how she has blackouts, seemingly likes Jim Beam, and has four sons who know her problem with alcohol.

The story that lent the title to the compilation, 'A Manual for Cleaning Women', is less action-packed. It tells readers the lives of cleaning women of that era, what they do and what they think. It seems all proper and rather boring. But in those mundane details, lie the author's powers of observation.

(Cleaning women: Let them know you are thorough. The first day put all the furniture back wrong … five to ten inches off, or facing the wrong way. When you dust, reverse the Siamese cats, put the creamer to the left of the sugar. Change the toothbrushes all around.) My masterpiece in this area was when I cleaned the top of Mrs. Burke’s refrigerator. She sees everything, but if I hadn’t left the flashlight on she would have missed the fact that I scoured and re-oiled the waffle iron, mended the geisha girl, and washed the flashlight as well. Doing everything wrong not only reassures them you are thorough, it gives them a chance to be assertive and a “boss.” Most American women are very uncomfortable about having servants. They don’t know what to do while you are there. Mrs. Burke does things like recheck her Christmas card list and iron last year’s wrapping paper. In August.

I found 'My Jockey' hilarious. It could have turned totally sexual. But the modest little story focused on giving comfort to another human, as done right by the protagonist's job as a nurse. When she's at Emergency, she always gets the jockeys because she speaks Spanish, and the jockeys are almost always Spanish-speaking, and rather injured each time they come into the hospital.

I like working in Emergency—you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys. They’re always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful X-rays. They break bones all the time but just tape themselves up and ride the next race. Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian’s X-rays. 
Get him to X-ray, Dr. Johnson said. Since he wouldn’t lie down on the gurney I carried him down the corridor, like King Kong. He was weeping, terrified, his tears soaked my breast.  
We waited in the dark room for the X-ray tech. I soothed him just as I would a horse. Cálmate, lindo, cálmate. Despacio … despacio. Slowly … slowly. He quieted in my arms, blew and snorted softly. I stroked his fine back. It shuddered and shimmered like that of a splendid young colt. It was marvelous.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

'Decadance' by Ohad Naharin

The one performance I quickly bought tickets to at Esplanade's da:ns festival 2016 was 'Decadance' by Batsheva Dance Company. It's put together and choreographed by 64-year-old Ohad Naharin, and I'm a huge fan. :) Still, I bought tickets late because I wasn't sure about travel plans. Glad I made it! 😍

There was a fun pre-show solo and group jig. 'Decadance' is made up of 11 vignettes extracted from Ohad Naharin's repertoire of works in the past two decades, for example, 'Kyr''Sadeh21' and 'Secus'. As a result, it was an eclectic range of music played. Hehehe. When the strange techno remix of electronic artist Marusha's 'Over the Rainbow' and Dean Martin's 'Sway' came on, the dancers had members of the audience up on stage with them dancing in this excerpt of 'Zachacha'. Very nice!

The illusion of beauty and the fine line that separates madness from sanity, the panic behind the laughter and the coexistence of fatigue and elegance.

The opening sequence was danced to 'Echad Mi Yodea', a familiar thirteen-verse song traditionally sung and for me, heard at Passover. This version is sung by Israeli rock group Tractor's Revenge. You literally sing from One to Thirteen. Great for remembering numbers in Hebrew. Oof. 'Eh-khahd' is numeral one in Hebrew. 'She-NAH-yeem' is two, but feminine pronounciation is 'she-TAH-yeem' and so on. (Translation here by Behrman House Publishing.)

The contemporary pieces are explosive and technically demanding. In Ohad Naharin's trademarked style 'Gaga'. This piece was mainly presented by the Company, not the Ensemble. The 17 dancers moved brilliantly, using their bodies in ways only contemporary dance movements allowed. There was utter freedom, yet complete control. What a superb performance. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

DOMVS by Gabriel Fratini

I'm pretty glad DOMVS has stayed in existence at Sheraton Hotel, serving up good food all these years. I have a soft spot for it. Now that it has come full circle with Chef Gabriel Fratini at helm again, of course I have to schedule a few meals at the restaurant.

The current menu at DOMVS isn't fixed. It completely depends on what the chef found at the market that morning. There aren't any printed sheets for food or drinks. For champagne and wine, take a stroll around the restaurant At a really reasonable S$128++ per person for a six-to-eight-course dinner, I can't complain! Tonight, the man and I  had no dietary preferences (I took an antihistamine pill!) and left it to Chef Gabriel to decide our dinner specifics. I spied a table with spaghetti as their pasta, so I gotta return to try it!

We had eight courses for dinner, including an amuse bouche and a dessert platter. The trio of appetizers held cured tuna and salmon. But that felt...forced. If it's pesce crudo, I'm partial to cured hamachi (or kingfish) rather than tuna tataki or salmon-whatever. So no, the appetizers didn't work for me. Not with shredded foie gras in the mix. I'm undecided about burrata sitting atop a scallop too.

I appreciated the grilled octopus with avocado and braised beef cheek with cannellini beans. Fish was dependably good in the sense that it was beautifully cooked. The seabass was firm and fresh, and was very enjoyable with sprouts and corn. That is exactly how I want my fish to be, consistently gorgeous, every time. :)

The man was completely bowed over by the osso bucco ravioli that came with a little segment of marrow. He unceremoniously ditched the utensils and managed to get all the marrow out with his fingers. Hahaha. Then there were grilled lamb chops with polenta. A total winner too. Perfectly medium and full of flavors.

While I'm still not a fan of wine, I'll drink it on some days. It all depends on the mood. I have a few trusty favorites across the regions, old world and new. They tend to be all-cherries, deep, dark and plum full-bodied reds. Easy to drink. I'm particularly fond of Italian reds from Bolgheri. Next to Tenuta San Guido (which produces Sassicaia), I also like Tenuta dell'Ornellaia very much. At dinner tonight, the 2006 Ornellaia appealed over the only year of Sassicaia (2011) the cellar currently had. I was hoping for a 2009 Sassicaia. Oh well. The 2006 Ornellaia is now 10 years old and would have matured well. It accompanied the meal beautifully.

Another 18th of October passed, joyfully and quietly. In this manner, we marked another year of marriage. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Pina Bausch's 'Nelken'

This year I didn't see anything that's a 'must-watch' at the Esplanade's da:ns festival. Maybe one upcoming performance. All other tickets were bought at the last minute. At the friends' urging, I joined them at Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's 1982 'Nelken' (German for 'carnations'). Indeed, the stage was a dense field of carnations pink and red, and the dancers weaved among them, effectively trampling the flowers.

While contemporary dance theatre isn't terribly new as a form of expressionist styles, it was rather ground-breaking as tanztheater in the 1970s, during era of choreographer/artistic director and dancer, the late legendary Pina Bausch (1940 - 2009). I'm lucky to have seen some of her works in London, as well as 'Nelken' when it had a larger cast before the esteemed choreographer passed away so suddenly from lung cancer. But I was so young then; it's a treat to watch this production in Singapore now, post-Pina Bausch.

We're free to interpret 'Nelken' however we want. There're the familiar themes of self, the struggle for individual identity among a group, authority versus natural playfulness, chaos versus orderliness, and holding on to happiness. Debunking stereotypes, basically. Pina Bausch pours heaps of emotions into her works, and asks the same of her dancers. This piece is no different. Quite pleased that I managed to eke out time to attend the performance. It would have been a shame to miss it. Pina Bausch is a trailblazer of her time, and also of this decade. Her works are original and as experimental as any other of the genre.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A French Menu At The Top Table

Before the season closes at The Top Table of The Culinary Institute of America Singapore (CIA), we bravely returned to taste its French menu at lunch. I'm not hot about traditional French cuisine in general, no matter how many Michelin stars a restaurant has, but I'll attempt this batch's cooking to support the students.

The table could go crazy over whatever they want, but I picked the safest items on the menu. It's can't go wrong with tartare de saumon prepared tableside. Even sipped a little of the friends' consommé royale. Clear chicken soup lah. Very chicken-ny. :P The friends declared the shrimp cake with pickled celery and remouladé, the day's selections of charcuterie and sautéed frogs' legs and all fine.

We liked the côtelettes d'agneaugrilled lamb chops that came with potato gratin and braised endive that we ordered seconds. The confit de canard was more than edible. The crisp salt-cured duck leg was nicely done and not tough like rubber. It wasn't as salty as I expected. Accompanied by parsnip purée and Puy lentils, the dish delivered exactly what was expected.

The one disappointing dish was the sole en papillote. It was terrible and we couldn't finish it. I had no idea what kind of sole it was supposed to be. Overcooked was one thing, but the fillet itself was kinda stinky and over-salted. Imagine if I had let them pour the tarragon beurre blanc over it, I might as well eat a slab of butter with a mouthful of salt.

Said delicious grilled mackerel.

Thank goodness the special of the day that came as another fish of grilled mackerel with cous cous redeemed the fish station. Hahaha. It was an Indian mackerel; totally a kembung! They grilled it perfectly with curry powder, which was clever. Went really well. Plus the fish was clearly fresh. It wasn't the least over-salted. We loved it.

And the table made it to dessert and petit fours. That strawberry basil sorbet was interesting. I passed on the macarons, sponge squares and crème brûlée. My dessert was a hot cup of coffee, and I gingerly sipped a green tea (West Lake Dragon's Well, 西湖龙井) because the students decided to source the teas from a Chinese tea shop and put them on the menu.

That's it for us sampling the food this season at The Top Table. There's another internship on the horizon for the students before they graduate. Thanks for the earnest service and thoughtful menus, and good luck to all would-be graduands stepping into the culinary world over the next year and a half. I'd love to taste the food that comes out of your kitchen then.

Seen on one of the walls at the CIA campus.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Morrissey Again

When I looked at the dates of Morrissey's tour for a reason why he shifted the Singapore date from 15th to 17th, I realized that Bangkok's 18th is cancelled and he probably doesn't want/need to stay in Singapore so long till his next show in Melbourne on the 22nd. WIN LOR.

I haven't forgotten how annoying the last Morrissey show was. Dunno why I allowed myself to be dragged out to this one. I was like...why you bother coming again, Morrissey?!! Do you aspire to be like Air Supply or Rachael Yamagata?! He did request for a meat-free venue from organizers and the audience, and trust him to also screen a video of what goes on at slaughter-houses, finishing with a giant caption on screen- "What's Your Excuse? Meat is Murder".

Doubt Morrissey has forgotten about the crazy Singapore humidity at Fort Canning, but a stage this time atop the Green Roof of Marina Barrage brought a steady breeze and a better view. He still changed three shirts. Hahaha. Same count as the previous time in Singapore. This time, we had pints of a refreshing golden ale of sorts in 'Heaven Knows I Miss-An-Ale Now', a Manchester-style beer brewed by Archipelago Brewery specially for Morrissey and tonight's gig-goers. Neither the man nor I bought a S$50 tour tee or a S$25 shopping tote. Hurhurhur.

I'll say it again, Morrissey isn't the The Smiths. However, this round, I found him less irritating on stage. It could also be due to the fact that he only made the audience wait for 30 minutes and began the show at 8.30pm. The organizers did say that the show would begin at 8pm. We turned up at 8.15pm. Hahaha. The man was happy because he hasn't seen Morrissey live till tonight. Well, none of us have seen The Smiths since they broke up in 1987 when we were way too young to be out gallivanting at gigs anywhere.

Monday, October 17, 2016

'The Second Sunrise' by Raka Maitra

Dancers in 'The Second Sunrise'. Photo credit: Websites of Esplanade and CHOWK.

I'm completely unfamiliar with the dance form of odissi or orissi. But I like the idea of a performance combining dance and poetry, with classical musicians playing live, and also to music provided by Bani Haykal and Zai Kuning. Thanks to diva Morrissey swopping his Singapore date, I managed to catch 'The Second Sunrise' by Raka Maitra and CHOWK Productions at Esplanade's da:ns festival 2016.

The dance takes its name from the 1983 war anthology 'A Second Sunrise' written by renowned Tamil poet Rudhramoorthy Cheran. Yeah, I managed to get a translated copy of it to flip through before watching the performance. ✌🏻This copy is translated by Lakshmi Holmström with a foreword by Sascha Ebeling. The 36 poems bear witness to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict and subsequent civil war, full of pain, confusion, angst and hope. Cheran's war anthology began with 'A Rainy Day' written in 1976 and 'The Sea' in 1977, both of which seem to foreshadow the coming storm.

Through odissi, the dancers' gaze reached far and wide, their movements telling of the despair and destruction of war, and the second half, focusing on the specific poem and the burning of Jaffna Library symbolic through the collapse of a bookshelf, the visual and sound shattering the peace that many tried so hard to keep, even as the other half of the country erupt in violence and madness. I really enjoyed the performance and how it portrayed the poems.

The poem 'A Second Sunrise' was written on the occasion of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, destroying thousands of rare manuscripts and books, eventually sparking off a full scale civil war that raged for more than two decades and officially ended only in 2009.

A Second Sunrise (1981) 

No wind that day;
even the sea was dead,
no waves rising.

As I walked along,
feet burrowing deep in the sand, 
I saw another sunrise.
In the south, this time.

What happened?
My town was set on fire,
my people lost their faces;
upon our land,
upon the wind that blows upon it,
an alien stamp.

Who were you waiting for,
your hands tied behind your backs?
The fire has written its message
upon the clouds.
Who waits, even now?
From the streets upon which 
the embers still bloom,
rise, march forward.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

PUTIEN At Marina Square

Our friends took us to a new-to-us restaurant, PUTIEN (莆田) at Marina Square. I've eaten at its original Kitchener Road outlet many years ago and remember nothing of it. Somehow PUTIEN is never really on my dining radar. Today, they've expanded to a number of outlets conveniently located across many malls in town, and in different cities. Its cuisine hails from Putian (莆田市) in Fujian Province in China, sited near the coast between Fuzhou and Quanzhou. The menu offers a change of palate to the usual Cantonese-style dishes. We left it to the friends to order.

Out came Drunken Cockles (一品醉蚶) which I merrily inhaled because of its garlic and chlli sauce. Mmm. The Shredded Meat with Buns (黄金荷叶包) were fun. Fried mantou and onions. We packed the buns ourselves. Winner. The fried version to the other Hokkien version of 'kong bak pau' (扣肉包)- braised pork belly in soy and eaten with steamed buns. The familiar Spinach with Salted Egg and Century Egg in Superior Stock (上汤苋菜) was not great. The table loved the Stir-Fried Yam (酥炒芋头); I'm not hot about it because, yam, and its outer layers were caramelized with sugar syrup so it was weirdly sweet. They couldn't resist snacking on its signature Oyster Omelette (一品海蛎煎). That was interesting because the dish didn't contain starch and the oysters were stir-fried with egg white instead. Quite tasty.

Had carbs via its much raved about Fried Heng Hwa Bee Hoon (兴化米粉) and the in-season Stewed Yellow Croaker Rice (黄花鱼焖饭). Those were good! Not overly salted. They went perfect with the chilli sauce. Oh my! The chilli sauce! I really liked pairing it with food. I doused it over everything. Tangy and spicy. Great flavors. I'd return to its outlets solely for this chilli sauce. In fact, I love it so much that I bought two bottles home.

PUTIEN's signature Fried Heng Hwa Bee Hoon (兴化米粉).