The One on Finding a Place Called Home

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Photographed by Noor Iskandar

The past ten months has been nothing short of freedom and independence to me. I enjoy the ability to pack up and leave for another country in an instant. I enjoy the flexibility of working on my own. And most of all, I enjoy the fact that I am alone responsible for my own happiness.

Recently, Singapore has been crowned Lonely Planet’s top travel destination for 2015. I stopped in my tracks to read the article on my phone to be sure that my eyes were not deceiving me. Yes, I sure do love my country, but what have I missed about my homeland that makes it a top destination for travelers from around the world?

I thought about what makes Singapore so attractive to foreigners. Some said it was the efficiency that impressed them, others loved how safe this country is and the rest just enjoyed Singapore’s little quirks. There was a New Yorker I met in Morocco who got so excited when I told him I am from Singapore, “Dude! Your subways are like fifty years into the future!”

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Man sleeping on the job, Chefchaouen, Morocco, 2013

When I travel, I look for experiences that I cannot find in Singapore. I seek adventure. I seek the wilderness. I seek ruggedness. And most of all, I seek the country life. Perhaps I have always been the kampung girl at heart, preferring the outdoors to city skyscrapers and air-conditioned malls, and my idea of retirement is having a home with enough land for me to grow vegetables organically with love and a butcher who knows me by my name and choice of cut.

I love traveling in ruggedness, not having plans for the day and just sitting down somewhere with a drink and a book to read. I have been approached by fellow travelers asking me about my religion and why I chose to cover my head with the hijab. I make friends with people from all over the world and make it a point to keep in touch just in case I drop by their hometown in my future travels. I thrive on spontaneity and randomness – it makes me feel less guarded and wary, of which I usually am.

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Angkor Wat, Siam Reap, Cambodia, 2014 

Last year, I left Singapore for Europe without a job waiting for me back home. I wanted to do something crazy and bold. I wanted to know what it feels like to be invisible and not know what to expect. I left Singapore for a trip to open my heart and mind. I left Singapore without attaching my heart to anything, or anyone for that matter. I left Singapore knowing that there was a possibility I would not come back.

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Brighton Beach, Victoria, Australia, 2014

In my pursuit to find myself, I realize I enjoyed being anonymous and not having any worry for the uncertainty that lies ahead of me. A friend once told me that this lack of worry is because of a heightened faith in God – like what they say, do not pray for God to make things easier for you, but pray for the strength so you can go through challenges better. When we travel, we learn to let fate take its course while we take a back seat. In essence, we accept whatever happens to us because God has already willed for it happen in our lives, anyways.

Halfway through my month-long trip, I broke down. I was missing my family. I missed my mother, my three cats, my sisters and brother. Most of all, I was missing my nieces and nephews a lot. When I got home after 28 days away, my room was filled with about a hundred balloons. My brother would probably kill me for telling the world about this but he blew each and every one of the balloons. I went over to my sister’s place with presents for my nieces and nephews only to be greeted with hugs, kisses, and fights as to who gets to sit on Aunty Ida’s lap.

My then four-year-old nephew Yan Yan looked me in the eye and asked me, “Where did you go for so long, Aunty Ida? Don’t you love me anymore?”

There are a million reasons for you to go away, but find one that keeps you coming back – I found mine.

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Mia Familia, 2013

This article first appeared on The Shawl Label’s Sisterhood Project on http://www.theshawllabel.com.

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Reminiscing Europe: Freshly Baked Loaves of Bread

What do I miss most about Europe apart from the wonderful weather? The bread. There is just something about the loaves of bread I had while traveling the continent last year. The crisp cracking sound of the bread as you bite into it, and the moist and soft texture of the insides – you could eat the bread just on its own, but spreading a little butter and jam seemed like heaven on earth to me. When I got home, I knew my standard of quality for good bread has gone off the roof. I’ve tried buying bread from local bakeries and even the upscale ones in the heart of expat living here in Singapore. Sadly, none of them satisfied my extremely decadent tastebuds. In local speak, the European bread I had spoil market for the bread made locally.

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My friend, Shireen, has an amazing mother who makes bread almost every weekend. We call her Ahjumma Shima, partly because she love her Korean dramas and also that is her Instagram handle. If you want to see pictures of lovely bread filling your instagram feed, do follow her @ahjumma_shima. Each time she uploads a picture, I almost lick my phone screen call her up for the recipe.

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While in Paris, I had the chance to attend two baking courses with La Cuisine Paris; a macaron baking workshop as well as a baguette and boulangerie workshop. The chef taught us to make bread using fresh yeast, so as usual, I had to substitute the finest ingredients for mediocre ones. Le sigh. Anyhoos, this bread recipe is pretty amazing, and I’m glad it worked really well for me. I am one who usually has no patience to wait when it comes to food (yes yes is it so hard to believe haha). I had to distract myself while waiting for the bread to rise by watching Big Bang Theory (of which I tend to scare my mother with the occasional bursts of laughter). I got this recipe from An Oregon Cottage. I could not find whole wheat flour, so I used whole wheat German rye flour instead. Still tastes awesome!

Now wait. I’m beginning to think this German rye flour is the secret to delicious bread…

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Wholewheat Soft Bread (Makes 2 loaves)

  • 6 to 6-1/2 c. whole wheat flour (I used wholewheat German rye flour)
  • 2-1/2 cups warm water (don’t use hot water! it kills the yeast!
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons instant yeast
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons vital wheat gluten- aka bread improver (you can omit this)
  1. Combine water, yeast and 2 cups of the flour in a mixing bowl. Set aside to sponge for 15 minutes.
  2. Add honey, oil, salt, (gluten if using), and 4 cups of flour. Mix until dough starts to clean sides of bowl. Change to dough hook (or turn out to knead by hand), and knead 6 to 7 minutes (10 by hand). Add only tablespoons of flour if dough sticks to sides, being careful not to add too much.
  3. Form into two loaves and place in greased 9×5″ pans. Allow to rise in a warm place for about 60 minutes (1-2 inches above pans). Preheat oven to 350 ten minutes before rising time is done.
  4. Bake for 30 minutes, rotating halfway through if needed.
  5. Immediately remove from pans to cool on a rack.

Ibu’s Black Forest Gateau

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Last week, my family and I celebrated my mum’s 59th birthday. Ever since I embarked on a baking journey, my mother has been bugging me to bake her favorite cake – The Black Forest. We used to buy them from neighborhood bakeries, not bothering about the contents of the cake. Learning to cook and bake has made me a more conscious eater – both in terms of what I put in my mouth, and in terms of halal ingredients used. I know some bakers might disagree with me, but I am still reluctant to use vanilla extract, or anything that contains alcohol.

So upon learning that most Black Forest recipes use Kirsch, a kind of brandy, I stayed clear of them. My mother has been deprived of her favorite cake because of this although the durian cake I made last year was quite a hit with the family.

Finally, this year, I mustered the courage to make her favorite cake. I was intimidated because I thought it would be very difficult. Little did I know I just needed a good recipe, and patience to make the cake.

I got the chocolate sponge recipe from Sailu’s Kitchen, and adapted it to make it extra tasty. The whipped cream frosting is my own, and I got the maraschino cherries from Phoon Huat.

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Black Forest Gateau

For the cake:

  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 1 and a half cups caster sugar
  • 3/4 cup Valhorna cocoa powder
  • 1 and a half tspn baking soda
  • 1 tspn baking soda
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 cup full cream milk
  • 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
  • 1 tspn vanilla essence
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 1 and half tbspn instant coffee powder
  • 2 eggs

For layering:

  • 2 cups whipping cream (I used Red Man)
  • 1 tbspn of vanilla essence
  • 2 tbspn caster sugar
  • 1 jar of maraschino cherries
  • Shaved chocolate
Method
  1. Heat oven to 175 deg centigrade. Grease and flour two round 8-inch pans. (I’d recommend lining the base with greaseproof paper)
  2. Mix the coffee and hot water together and set aside.
  3. Beat melted butter, sugar and vanilla essence till well combined and sugar has dissolved. Beat in eggs slowly until well incorporated.
  4. Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and powder and salt. Add into the batter slowly.
  5. Gradually add in the milk and coffee into the batter until well combined. The batter will be very watery, DO NOT WORRY.
  6. Divide the batter into the two tins. Bake in the oven for 35-40 mins, or until skewer comes out clean.
  7. Leave the cake to cool for at least two hours before layering.
  8. Meanwhile, beat whipping cream, sugar and vanilla on a medium speed for about 5-6 minutes. I realised 7-8 minutes may be a bit too long, so do watch out for the cream before it becomes butter.
  9. Chop about 10 cherries into small pieces. When cake has cooled down, cut the cake into layers. You would want to layer the cake, followed by the cream, then cherries.
  10. Finish layering and then frost the cake as desired. Decorate with whole cherries and shaved chocolate. (I used crushed Kit Kat because I forgot to get dark chocolate heh)
  11. Cool in the fridge for about 2 hours before serving.