What is more valuable than gold in the Netherlands?

One can per customer per day

One can per customer per day

Holland is suffering under the weight of its own reputation as a paradise for lactose aficionados. Baby formula shortages have been causing screaming frenzies and fights in stores for several years now. While it is true that some people have been buying formula to “export” to China, it is totally confounding as to why producers have not been able to keep up with the demand. At supermarkets nationwide, Nutrilon-brand formulae are kept in tight security, next to the packs of cigarettes at customer service (!!). Nutrilon is now a rationed product – Asians pick them up under intense scrutiny.

Stores here have taken to discriminating against people of Oriental origin, deliberately targeting them as raiders of the lost ark. There have been discrimination suits leveled at retailers and yet the war goes on. At Kruidvat, you have employees refusing to sell milk to Chinese people, while across the street at De Bijenkorf, you have sharply suited employees hired for their Mandarin-speaking abilities. In short, they shun Chinese custom at the cheap and cheerful drugstore, while they pad the red carpet for Beijing busloads vis-a-vis haute couture.

On its way to sacred status in NL

On its way to sacred status in NL

Yesterday night, there was another burglary at Petit-Homme’s crèche, targeting the formula stock. The baddies made off with a heap of baby formula and other knick knacks like iPads and cash. It is almost as though we were living in a communist regime where the shortage of basic necessities leads to anarchy.

This is quite the problem for Dutch retailers yet it is a huge opportunity for producers and everyone else on the distribution chain to capitalize on torrential demand. It is hard to understand why people in this day and age are still fighting tooth and nail over milk.

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Our 72 Year Old Waiter

Monsieur preparing our steaks

Monsieur preparing our steaks

At Restaurant Vincent in the centre of Brussels, if you don’t know what to expect, it’s certainly nothing like what you would expect. If I had only three words in my elevator pitch, I’d probably describe it as a “historic steak house”. But I’m not sure that would capture the nostalgic tile frescoes on the wall depicting nautical crusades, the converted rowboat-tables that ensure a close-knit diner à 10, or the clanging-kitchen-meets-starched-white-linen paradox.

Not roast ducks

Not roast ducks

I wasn’t wearing my glasses when we peered through the window, so I initially thought we had landed outside a Chinese restaurant as all manners of steaks and joints were dangling on meat hooks in full sacrificial glory. By 19:45, the dining room was packed with all sorts (i.e. not just Eurocrats or tourists).

Filet with green pepper sauce

Filet with green pepper sauce

Our waiter was genteel, brisk, and refreshingly disinterested in any sort of sales pitch. He was also as old as the establishment looked. (It turns out that Vincent is actually 100 years old). I think I have finally experienced the epitome of perfect restaurant service. Monsieur was respectful, efficient, and discrete. He never once interrupted our conversation and he always caught our eye despite the bustling demands of shoulder-to-shoulder famished diners. At 72, it was his 29th year working here, which means he started at 43. Apparently he takes it easier now, but I wondered what it is like co-working with a team of waiters all at least a generation younger than him. Uniquely, the waiters are also part-chefs as steaks at Vincent are flambéed en salle – which means you get to stare at your dinner sizzling if you’re seated nearby. Kinda like a pared-down, Belgian version of teppanyaki.

Rowing to nowhere fast

Rowing to nowhere fast

It’s a tough job. At €32 a steak in the midst of fierce competition and an international clientele priding themselves on culinary sophistication, Vincent needs to make sure they stay par excellence. With only 2 seatings per evening, a rather noisy environment, and a coziness not conducive to confidential business meetings, it can surely only cater to social diners. At 72, I would feel the pressure to perform: to anticipate needs, to move fast, to react quickly, and to perhaps even speak English. All this in a time when my eyesight and hearing are failing, my joints are aching, my feet long for orthotics or just an ottoman, arthritis gets friendlier, and my aptitude for foreign languages diminishing. I would spend my spare time babysitting the grandkids, when not shuttling back and forth doctors’ appointments. I’d like to see some more of the world but I’d still be worried about the uncertain futures and careers of my children in this increasingly competitive world. I’d have more patience having learnt that rushing gets nowhere, but I’d have less for the young impertinents. I’d know the younger staff think I’m slow sometimes (though I’m really not), but many respect me because I know all the tricks. Meanwhile, I need to sort out the steaks, the fire hazards, the fries, the sauces, the wine, and the languishing pair of foreigners oblivious to the need to vacate their table because their time is up! In the meantime, as long as the glasses are full, the food is good, and the clients are happy, another evening ends in another professional triumph.

Bravo Monsieur.

Ketchup or Icing Sugar for Breakfast?

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

One of the clearest gourmet divides between the continent and the Anglo-American world, is the need for ketchup. I can’t have ketchup without fries, the same way butter with bread just makes the union all the more holy. No one is interested in ketchup around here. Its all about mayonnaise. If you pester your servers for some, you’ll get a miniscule amount and pay at least 50 cents for a serving. I guess I’m resigned to this now and have contemplated never leaving home without ketchup sachets. Only the fear of having to mop up a gooey mess in my handbag prevents me from such folly.

Shake it, baby

Shake it, baby

We were in Center Parcs Erperheide recently. (This is a forest getaway consisting of “cottages” in the midst of lush foliage, lakes and plenty of man-made structures to amuse kids of all ages.) In March, there wasn’t much verdure to speak of but the cold nullified any longing for it as it focused our attentions on the indoor entertainment.

The highlight of any place for me is often the buffet joint. It was interesting to see every table kitted out with a vat of icing sugar (poedersuiker) but not a ketchup bottle in sight. I had to cajole the staff into bringing me some, upon which one dish was whipped out with great ceremony. (The next day I remembered to ask for two dishes.) We didn’t touch the sugar as I am particularly susceptible to scaremongering articles about child obesity, diabetes, sugar addiction, hyperactivity, dodgy teeth, etc. Our neighbours however, were shaking that bottle like there was no tomorrow. Part of why kids around here are supposed to be the happiest in the world?

No winter in Europe for me

No winter in Europe for me

Anyway, this place was a cultural jolt in more than one way. Never mind the ketchup thing as I’ve totally scaled my expectations way down and am over-the-top friendly to staff throughout the continent just to finagle this. What really shocked me was the sight of smokers throughout the park. This is a place where hordes of babies and young children roam like hens in a coop, yet cigarettes are brandished freely right outside Baluba (an amusement centre) and “smoking areas”. I mean, smoking areas!

Don't you try to fleece me

Don’t you try to fleece me

Petit-Homme enjoyed himself to the max. He was howling with delight at the baby swimming class (best €5 euros I’ve ever spent in my life) and spun himself giddy on the carousel (most short-lived €20 euros I’ve seen to date!) despite tumbling once under the treacherous hooves of his spirited stallion.

Overall, an experience which taught me yet again, that what makes you happy, is what makes your kids happy. (So don’t get them hooked on ketchup if you intend to stay in Europe for the long haul. But too late for us as Petit-Homme eats ketchup even with dim sum.)

Celebrating the Year of the Sheep in London

It has been a long time since I did anything properly familial despite Chinese New Year being the most important festival in Chinese culture. My friends and family who are scattered around the globe make fervent efforts to reunite with their parents and family-at-large, to the point where flights to the Orient around this time tend to get sold out pretty early on.

My parents are not as traditional in this respect. Over the years, life’s practicalities have taken precedence. Time and distance, coupled with all of their offspring rooting and re-rooting in different countries have allowed us only narrow wedges of precious moments together in a year.

Steamed Fish

Steamed Fish

With this mindset pervading my life in a suitcase, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to discover that my elder sister insists on blowing the embers of family and cultural traditions back into life. This year, the stars aligned for us to have Chinese New Year’s dinner together in London, where both my sisters live. mix veg

Last night, my immediate family, (with parents guest appearance via Skype) sat down to a glorious home cooked feast. Petit-Homme’s flight arrived at London City Airport just in time for him to preside at the dinner table and gobble down a giant meatball (aka lion’s head). He seems to have enjoyed his first solo flight with Papa.

Shanghainese Lionshead

Shanghainese Lionshead

On the smorgasboard: sparerib soup, boiled chicken, lions head and cabbage (a gem handed down from my Shanghainese grandmother), stir fried assorted vegetables and mushrooms, steamed fish and chillies, with ice cream and rambutans for dessert. These are dishes that we enjoyed year after year in my maternal grandmother’s home. It’s hard to believe, but my sister accomplished all this single-handedly (not the type that seeks or relishes “help” in her kitchen kingdom.) in the span of one afternoon.

There is nothing better than the vivid tastes and smells of delicious food that makes us sift out the fond memories from the rest of the bundle that sometimes prefers to stay tightly knotted up. It allows us to create our own interpretations of life that is steeped in the lineage of people who mattered to us.

Embracing the Frost in Quebec City

Rue Petit-Champlain

Rue Petit-Champlain

When I think about the cold while snoozing indoors before a blazing fire, it is hard to imagine the bitterness of numb fingers, clanking shoulders and cheeks seared by unforgiving winds. However, that’s the way of life in Quebec winters. You can always tell the tourist from the local – one  strides confidently on sheets of ice, surrounded by equally ecstatic kids – the other is bedecked from head to toe in down feathers, shuddering in terror while fumbling with his dead cameraphone on Petit-Champlain.

French Onion Soup at Le Q-De-Sac (awesome and hearty - no need for pizza)

French Onion Soup at Le Q-De-Sac (awesome and hearty – no need for pizza)

I’ve always loved the history and majesty of Old Quebec.  A few days ago, I was reminded of how this city never fails to excite. From French cafes to American family restaurants, noshing is a rewarding pastime. I didn’t have poutine (piles of fries, cheese curds and gravy – similar to the Dutch kapsalon) this time around, but plenty of beer, French onion soup and pastries found themselves in my tummy. Paillard on St-Jean is an excellent place to hang out, and the macarons are just as splendid as Ladurée. (I just can’t say “macaroon” – sounds like a cross between two types of primate. Conversely, although crêpe sounds like crap, the less vivid English pronunciation feels weird.)

Revamped Chateau Frontenac lobby

Revamped Chateau Frontenac lobby

There is so much nostalgia mixed in with hip modernity in Quebec City. The touristy shops sell all sorts of furry headgear and bearskins, but it truly is a reflection of life in the countryside. My father-in-law had a number of flappy fur hats worn down to the ground, and gifted us years ago with a black Canadian bear, who now is as close as I’ll ever get to a pet in The Hague.

The only thing missing in this brimming cultural pot – Chinatown.

Christmas in Canada

There are several things that Canada does par excellence. One of them is Christmas. It doesn’t quite matter that there are no beautiful Christmas markets, the type that exist in bountiful supply throughout Europe

spadesneiges1

Frosty the Snowman Melted into a Waterfall at Spa des Neiges

Christmas here is a delicious blend of active church services, exciting capitalism – assuaged by charitable endeavours, massive piles of food, and even more massive piles of snow. It can be excessive, such as during the mad rush pre-and-post Christmas to desperately snap up gifts or to sweep up the rest of the stuff on shelves at 70% off.

Pondering the St Lawrence River

Pondering the St Lawrence River

For many, this time of the year is incredibly inconvenient, mainly because of the blinding white sheets of snow and ice that drape themselves over every lawn, road and house. Sure its cold, but the shovels and smiles are warm. Almost everyone is on holiday. In NL, the Dutch don’t get the day off for Sinterklaas (December 5) (I find this quite strange), and Christmas has become a feuding point over one of the country’s anchor traditions (Zwarte Piet) (even stranger).  The Dutch Christmas is pretty, practical, and politically-fraught.

Maybe one day, I will learn to seamlessly adopt the particularities of the peoples in my country of abode, but for now, home is still what the heart yearns for. And as we know, yearnings are usually romantic, but rarely practical.

Merry Christmas – or as Canadians in a multicultural country are taught to say – Have a Happy Holiday Season!

Rest in Peace, Grandmother

She was the last surviving grandparent I had, outliving my maternal grandmother by over 10 years. Today, the woman I always saw as the family matriarch, passed away. Her last few weeks were coloured by several physical and emotional struggles. I suppose only the very lucky few get the chance to cross over in perfect health and happiness.

My grandmother was 90 this year. She survived the Japanese Occupation in Malaysia, bore 8 children and lost two. She taught herself to read and write Chinese in days when literacy was an anomaly. She lost her husband 24 years ago but I never saw her openly grieve. Resolute, unshakeable, intelligent, confident, and a chain-smoker of Benson & Hedges cigarettes.  I never saw her cook either – there was always help on hand.

The loss of her eldest daughter to cancer was devastating and she channeled an outpouring of love to her daughter’s son, the eldest grandson. Nothing was too much. No expense was spared. I felt the favouritism very early on. I learned to understand the Chinese culture of overt preferences for male children.

I wonder at what point aging changes us from who we are to who we were. From an old photo in her bedroom, my grandmother was a remarkable beauty. My childhood memories of her though were probably the same as how grandkids view their grannies worldwide – she was granny-looking. Always stout in her 60s and 70s, she withered to a skeletal frame in her last days.

She loved music, that is perhaps one thing we had in common. However, I did not inherit her specific tastes. I spent days as a child trying to figure out how to change the banshee squeals blaring from her stereo to a more palatable pop station. Chinese operas are not something I voluntarily enter into, but when I encounter one, the music and drama washes me with indelible childhood memories of my grandmother’s life and loves.

How I wish I’d known her better.

Is it Racist to Paint Yourself Black?

Zwarte Pieten

During the Christmas season in the Netherlands, called Sinterklaas (St Nicholas), it is common to see lots of Dutch people on the street dressed up in Renaissance pageboy costumes. What struck me as really odd the first time I saw them a couple of years ago, was the fact that they had painted themselves completely black (face, hands). Their lips were thick and ruby red. To my naïve eye, the impression was that they were trying to emulate a black person. These characters are called Zwarte Pieten, Black Peters, individuals who accompany Santa doling out mandarin oranges and kruidnoten on the streets to eager young kids in late November to early December.

My first instinct was to feel shock and disbelief, which then over the next few days gave way to a more hesitant curiosity. After all, I subconsciously rationaled, if this was a widely accepted practice here, then surely it was not considered racist nor offensive behaviour. It still sat very uncomfortably in my soul as I knew this would not have been tolerated for a second in Canada. A few more days passed and I realized the extent to which this has polarized communities in NL and beyond in recent years. The black Surinamese, in particular, have been greatly offended by it. Hence the introduction of different coloured Pieten, even a rainbow coloured one.

Though there are a few different theories which explain the “blackness” of Black Peter, I’m not sure if the costumed individuals have subscribed to any one in particular. Are they trying to look like Moors? Did they fall down from the chimney and are thus covered in soot? (what about the lips then) Are they representing the former slave freed by St Nicholas?

Many say that this tradition is harmless and not intended to be racist. As I know from the gradual erosion of my own resistance in the early days of encountering the Black Peters, the mass mindset can sometimes blind you to what is or isn’t racism. I asked myself this question: Given historical and still-existing racism towards Asians in varying milieu, if there were crowds of Caucasians in a certain country dolling themselves up in yellow face-paint and exaggerated slanty eyes, with some allusion to let’s say, freedom from railroad slavery, would I feel offended?

Unequivocally, I would be furious.

Social Habits That Lead to Charming Spectacles

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any Chinese person to know that lots of us, more than any other ethnicity in the world, wear eyeglasses. I started wearing glasses at around 13, and that was pretty late compared to my classmates and siblings. I remember many of my friends starting at around 8 years. I have a friend in The Hague whose son is 5 and is already sporting the Harry Potter look. Back then, I too longed for that ultimate accessory, but now, I’d only be too glad to be rid of them. Glasses

The influence of genetics on myopia cannot be denied. However, it seems the prevalence of specs-wearers among the Asian species is also in part due to our social habits. Or rather, our anti-social ones. The lack of exposure to sunlight as result of our focus on studying has rapidly caused our eyesight to deteriorate. (Some irony in the fact that countries like Singapore or Taiwan, with more than their fair share of sunlight would end up depriving themselves.)

I cannot deny that Asian parents (and all the clucking relatives) place an inordinate amount of emphasis on bookishness. As a kid, I was rewarded, usually in the form of cold hard cash, for excellent exam results. Though some of my fondest memories from youth were at the swimming pool, tennis and badminton courts, people rarely asked what sport I enjoyed. In fact, I was part of the few who did have frequent sport and recreational time. Most of my classmates shuttled around extra tuition classes on a daily basis and many of them were indeed rewarded by a few extra points at exam time. Those extra classes cost their parents dearly, but it was for the greater good I suppose.

In the end, your habits start early and they shape the path to your destiny. Reading and writing has continued to be a lifelong obsession and coerced me into the legal trade. While I myself have neither the aptitude nor inclination for say, rock climbing, I wonder what the future holds for Petit-Homme.

Should I Feed My Kid Insects?

Insects

Image: Levensmiddelenkrant  – Insects at Jumbo: Coming soon to a store near you

Before you rush off to report me to the nearest child welfare bureau, I should alert (or remind) you to the fact that insect-eating has now become, well not quite de rigueur, but rather curiosity-arousing in the Netherlands. As I sit here munching on my deep-fried cassava chips, I wonder if my nutritional needs could be better served by downing a few strands of waxworms. By the way, when I say “insects”, the taxonomy includes worms, larvae and the like (because that’s how it seems to be marketed).

I would love to love insects. They look disgusting but isn’t disgust really just a learned attitude? I didn’t quake at the taste of balut (duck embryo, popular in the Philippines) and century egg is one of my favourite accompaniments to a bowl of hot congee (this felled several nervy Fear Factor participants). The French stab their snails with silver escargot forks (a “locust tong” may help sales?) while some coffee snobs can’t drink their java if it’s not pressed from the poop of a civet cat (kopi luwak).  So when you think about it, there’s really nothing wrong with eating caterpillars or locusts, and they are quite dead and cooked by the time they reach your rosy red lips. I think part of our queasiness stems from imagining the poor things still squirming or fluttering their wings on the plate.

For the longest time, I’ve had a personal quest to try as many unusual food items as possible. NL is definitely not the best place to pursue this goal – until now. Jumbo supermarkets have just started promoting their insects (buffalo worm burgers, crispy mealworms) and aim to supply all their outfits with protein-packed crawlies by early 2015.

This really tests my mettle. I’m trying to hypnotize myself into embracing entomophagy – thinking of my multi-legged friends as aromatic pine nuts sort of helps but I’m not quite there yet. Like the fear of water, it is much harder to unlearn a psychological impediment that has lodged in your soul for decades. Hence, would it not be best for Petit-Homme to start diversifying his snacks early (insects even helpfully conform to single bite portions that travel well)? And, if ever famine were to hit us, or if he were to move to Congo or China, he’d thrive happily.

I’m still feeling dubious …