Spicy Sweet and Sour Asian Eggplant & An Amazing Dinner to Remember

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Hairy Crabs from Shanghai

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Chef Deyen brought back 20 live hairy crabs from my hometown Shanghai, and knowing that I’m from there she invited me to enjoy the crabs with her.  I thought we were just going to get a few friends together in one of our apartments and eat the steamed crabs with minced ginger and vinegar.  That’s often what I do when I go back to Shanghai during crab season.  It’s always casual — everyone digging in with their hands, smacking their lips and licking their fingers as they eat.  I told her that I would bring a dish or two just in case someone didn’t like hairy crabs.  A much coveted delicacy for people like me, hairy crab is not everyone’s cup of tea. 

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Me, running around with my little camera

When I arrived at the appointed apartment, I was surprised to see that the dinner table had been exquisitely laid out with white table cloth, purple orchids and placemats made of leaves.  Our head chef Collin and Deyen were busy cooking an elaborate dinner.  My first reaction was that I should just hide the eggplant and fried rice dishes I cooked. No one needed to know I brought them.  But in the end, our chefs convinced me to serve the eggplant, and kindly complemented my cooking.

This was by far the most sumptuous and memorable dinner that I have had since we began filming Marco Polo.  The food was absolutely delicious, and the company was the best kind — people who truly love food and eat with great joy, gusto and bravado.  In my opinion our first time hairy crab eaters could out eat any Shanghainese men who have grown up on hairy crabs.  We pigged out like there was no tomorrow. 

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Our producer and host for the evening, Tim Coddington, owns a very successful winery in New Zealand.

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At work today, one of the ADs came to take lunch orders from the actors as she usually does.  When she saw me, she simply said, “Deyen suggested the avocado quinoa salad for you.”  I almost laughed.  Deyen knew what I ate last night. 

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My healthy redemptive lunch

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Now, about the eggplant that I cooked.  It’s a dish rooted in my Shanghainese (sweet) upbringing and Szechuanese (spicy) ancestry.  I have cooked it quite often in the past.  At home, I usually steam the eggplant or microwave it in a sealed container to soften it.  Then I stir fry the garlic, chili, ginger, red onion and tomatoes until aromatic. Then the cooked eggplant is added into the wok and mixed with the other ingredients.  But this time, I fried the eggplant.  It is more flavorful and the dish looks prettier.

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Spicy Sweet and Sour Asian Eggplant

Ingredients:

3 long Asian eggplants

5 cloves garlic, pressed

2 green chili peppers

4 red Thai chili peppers

4 slices peeled ginger

3 small Thai red onions or 1/2 small red onion

6 – 8 cherry tomatoes

Oil for frying

Ingredients for sauce:

2 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoon brown sugar

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Preparation:

Cut eggplant into 2 inch sections and then quarter them into wedges.

You can either leave the chilis whole or cut them in half lengthwise.  I halved 1 red chili and 1 green chili and discarded the seeds, and I left the rest chili peppers whole. 

In the pan or wok, fry eggplant wedges in batches on medium heat.  I did it in 3 batches.  Let fried eggplant dry on 2 layers of paper towel in a plate.

Use the oil left over from the frying to stir fry the garlic, chili peppers, ginger, onion and cherry tomatoes until aromatic and soft.  If you have too much oil left in the pan, discard all but 1 tablespoon for the stir fry.

Pour the sauce into the wok, and add the fried eggplant back.  Toss to coat and let cook for about 2 minutes.  Serve hot.

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Coconut Chocolate Mousse Tart with Crunchy Granola Crust

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There was a familiar knock on my dressing room door — a sound that occurs a dozen times a day.  I fully expected the usual call to the set when I was happily surprised by Max Kellady, holding a gift and a self-made card for me.  Max plays the boy emperor in Marco Polo and it was his last day on set.  The gifts were measuring cups and measuring spoons.  His mother has read my blog and learned that I needed them.  Thanks to them, I can finally I write recipes with a little more precision, which I haven’t done since I left my house in San Francisco.

One other gift I received last weekend was a box of Green & Black’s organic cocoa powder.  A friend brought it back for me from Singapore.

Armed with these wonderful gifts, I set out to make this coconut chocolate mousse tart.  I have shared on a previous blog a no-bake chocolate mousse tart that is also raw.  This tart is gluten free, vegan and does not require baking, but it is not raw. 

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Coconut Dark Chocolate Mousse Tart

Ingredients for crust:

3 packs Nature Valley crunchy granola bars (I used Canadian maple syrup flavored)

1/4 cup coconut oil

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Ingredients for Filling:

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoon 100% cocoa powder

2 cups + 2 tablespoon full fat coconut milk

2 tablespoon coconut oil

1/4 cup molasses sugar or brown sugar

1 scant tablespoon agar agar flakes

1 teaspoon vanilla paste or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

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Preparation:

Crush the granola bars into fine bits and mix them with coconut oil.  Press it to a tart dish lined with saran wrap.  

Leave the pie crust in the freeze while you prepare the filling.

Blend all filling ingredients in a blender.  Boil it on low heat for 10 minutes or so for the agar agar to melt.  Let it cool for about 10 minutes before pouring the filling into the tart dish with the crust.  Chill the tart in the fridge for 2 hours before serving.  Or leave it in the freezer for about 30 to 40 minutes before serving.

I served the tart with some pomegranate and fresh pineapple.  Pomegranate is in season and they are extremely sweet.  And I love the vibrant and cheerful colors of the warm weather fruits.

The recipe makes 8 servings.

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Coconut Panna Cotta with Fresh Mango

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My homesickness becomes worse over the weekends.  I was talking to one of the young actors yesterday about the caravan life we lead and how I’m not exactly cut out for it, even though I have been doing this since age 14.  She said that this life is like a long summer camp.  I suppose it used to feel like that for me, too — this charming and much prolonged adolescence.  That was before the children were born.

As I’m typing, Audrey is about to leave the house for her karate tournament — one of the activities that she is passionate about. The girls are extremely busy at this stage in their lives.  Angela is applying to college and Audrey is applying to high school.  Grades must be impeccable, essays knockouts, standardized tests 99 percentile, extracurricular activities packed full.  The kids must show such achievements as applicants that they would hardly need any more schooling.

Earlier today, a friend emailed me an article from The Economist about the state of college admission for Asian Americans.  It opens with: “MICHAEL WANG, a young Californian, came second in his class of 1,002 students; his ACT score was 36, the maximum possible; he sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration; he got third place in a national piano contest; he was in the top 150 of a national maths competition; he was in several national debating-competition finals. But when it came to his university application he faced a serious disappointment for the first time in his glittering career. He was rejected by six of the seven Ivy League colleges to which he applied.”

This is anxiety inducing information. Just because Angela is a Chinese American, she will need to have 140 SAT points out of 1,600 more than whites to get a place at an Ivy League university in the US.  We have taught them that you could achieve anything with hard work.  We lied.  In the end, race is one of the major factors in determining whether she will be admitted to her dream school.

There is not much I could do about their race or many other aspects of their lives even if I were home, but I could cook healthy, delicious, brain stimulating food for them, I could drive them around for activities or I could just sit there and wait for them to summon me and do whatever they need me to do.

When I started writing tonight, I was going to talk about how I took solace in the slow and methodical preparation of food, how it is a form of meditation — one of the most intensely enjoyable alone time for me.  I got side tracked by the concern over my children’s future.  Now that I got the anxiety off my chest, I will return to the theme of food. 

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The yearning for my children awakens in me a maternal urge — a boundless desire to give or simply to feed someone.  I remember flying to LA for a meeting after giving birth to Angela.  I stopped by at my friend Janet Yang’s home and she was not in.  Like me, she had also just given birth to her son.  When I heard him crying, breast milk oozed out of my bosom.  I took him in my arms and fed him to soothe not only him but myself.

I’m glad I have found some takers for my food.  Their appreciation is very gratifying for me.  Now I just need to find some take-out boxes.  Empress To Go!

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The fact that I don’t have an oven in the kitchen presents an interesting challenge and opportunity.  I am learning to make no-bake desserts that are healthy and tasty.  Today’s coconut panna cotta with diced fresh mango is made with very simple ingredients — the golden combination of coconut and mango, and it turned out to be very delicious.  I invited two very discerning dessert lovers over to try it, and they inhaled it.  Truth be told, I actually got lucky with the panna cotta because I didn’t use very strict measurement, which is usually crucial for the perfect creamy texture.

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Fresh coconut and agar agar

Coconut Panna Cotta

Ingredients:

1 young coconut, juice and meat blended to a smoothie

1/2 cup milk

(Or you can use a can of coconut milk + 1 cup milk of choice)

45 g sugar (I used 15 packs of sugar from my tea tray. I would use xylitol if I had it.)

1 tsp vanilla paste, or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 to 1 1/2 tbsp agar agar (I used the a pair of scissors to cut the long strands into short strips.)

Fresh mango

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Preparation:

Cook the all the ingredients in low heat until the agar agar is melted.  Pour the mixture into desired container and let cool.  Refrigerate for an hour before serving with diced mango.

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Soba Zen & Mango Bliss

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A publisher friend from Singapore came to visit me today and brought me a whole stack of beautifully bound cookbooks.  We sat in Starbucks chatting about our love for food while all of a sudden we noticed a patch of translucent blue in the opaque grey sky — a thread of white cloud laced in it.  This is the first time in weeks since I last saw blue sky.  Our hungry eyes fed on this little piece of heaven as if it was the most delightful thing in the whole wide world.

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I returned to my apartment feeling like celebrating this day with less haze by making something special from my newly acquired cookbooks, but I found that I didn’t have most of the ingredients required in the recipes.  I must go find ingredients this weekend.  After taking stock of what I had on my shelves and in my fridge, I was able to prepare a very Zen like simple meal for lunch.  It was clean, refreshing and delicious.

Inspiration struck when I went out to the balcony and saw that my Ipoh mangos had ripened in the warm weather to perfection.  I would make tropical vegan desserts with fresh mangos and fresh coconuts!  

They turned out magnificently. A couple of friends came over after work and enjoyed the desserts so much that they all had seconds.

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No-bake Coconut Mango Mousse Cake

Ingredients:

2 fresh mangos (save half a mango for topping and decoration)

1 to 1 1/2 young coconut meat (depending on how thick the coconut meat is)

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil

Sugar to taste

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Mint leaves for garnish (and it taste great with the dessert)

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Preparation:

Scoop out the coconut meat from the shell.  Blend with coconut oil and sugar until smooth.  Leave in a flat bottom container rubbed with coconut oil.  (I used a rectangular plastic take-out box.)

Leave the box in the freezer for 30 minutes while slicing the mangos and blending them with coconut oil, cornstarch and sugar.  Add the mango mixture to the same container on top of the congealed coconut mixture.  Put it back to freezer for another 30 to 45 minutes until congealed.  Transfer to the fridge before eating.

The coconut oil will begin to soften at room temperature.  It is important to keep the cake in the fridge.

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Coconut Mango Chia Pudding

You can find mango chia pudding recipe from of previous blog.  The only difference is that I used a whole fresh coconut instead of any milk.  I blended the coconut juice with the meat and use that instead of milk.

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Soba cucumber Salad with Soy Wasabi Dressing

Ingredients:

Soba noodle

Japanese cucumber

Soy sauce

100% pure black sesame oil

Rice Vinegar

Wasabi paste

Fresh lemon juice

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Preparation:

Cook Soba according to package instruction.  Drain and rinse with cold water. Add a little sesame oil to coat.

Please reference my previous blog for the soy wasabi dressing.  The recipe called for mirin, which is a Japanese rice wine, but I didn’t have any today.  I added a dash of lemon juice instead.

It’s maddening how I still haven’t found measuring cups and spoons to give precise amount of ingredients, but it was fun to experiment, tasting and adjusting as I cooked.

Lunch Break for the Hungry Empress

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My friend Russel brought to set my favorite local food — a Hakka dish call Lei Cha, meaning pounded tea.  It is made with chopped baby Bok Choy, green beans, cabbage, tofu and roasted seeds served in a green minty broth with rice or rice noodle.  It is light and healthy, yet very satisfying.  We broke for lunch more than two hours later than scheduled (yet again,) and I was ravenous.  After devouring the Lei Cha in a matter of minutes, I went on to eat the quinoa pumpkin salad with prawns and the flaxseed veggie sandwiches from our Marco Polo kitchen. 

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It was a good thing that I was only off camera after lunch because I couldn’t put my belt back on with all the food that I had consumed.  And I was in such a food coma that I could barely stand up. One consolation is that all the dishes were made with healthy and fresh ingredients.  And I have also foregone snacks on set, because I am boycotting palm oil.  The palm oil industry has been burning thousands of acres of rain forest everyday, dooming this region in a haze, a literal gloom every year during this season. Today, schools here were shut down again because of bad air pollution. 

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The haze today

Delicious Indonesian Home Cooking

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My friend Russel and his wife Judy invited me to their house for lunch today.  Their Indonesian housekeeper Yati is a fantastic chef.  I have had the pleasure of sampling her food many times before, but never took any photos because the food smelled and looked so enticing that I was always too eager to begin eating.

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Yati was frying the chicken when I arrived at their house.  The whole kitchen was so aromatic that it put my salivary glands in overdrive.  She explained to me that the chicken had first been marinated and boiled before being fried.  Historically, the Indonesians didn’t keep raw meat because it would spoil quickly in the hot weather.  The meat had to be cooked immediately, then left to be cooled either under a net on the table or in a screened cabinet.  It will later be fried at meal time or whenever one is hungry.  Be it cuisine, architecture or art, it is interesting how the core of any enduring style evolves from function.  We change, we improve, we create new forms and narratives, but we always return to our original reason, our ancient roots for sustenance and inspiration.

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Today’s menu:

Semur Daging Sapi (Tangy Beef Stew)

Ayam Goreng Kuning (Golden Fried Chicken)

Tempeh Goreng (Fried Tempeh in black sweet sauce)

Sambal Goreng (Vegetables in sambal)

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Tempeh glazed in a sweet and spicy sauce

Indonesian cuisine is amongst the most intensely flavorful of all foods. Yati uses a myriad of fresh spices, many of which she grows in the back of the kitchen — turmeric root, galangal root, coriander, candlenuts, lemon basil, chili peppers, shallots, lemon grass…  Her freshly made sambal sauce is especially good.  It could make anything taste delicious.

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After today’s lunch, I could see myself coming back to Russel’s house at mealtime very frequently in the next couple of months. 

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Russel is a very successful and renowned photographer in Singapore. We became friends almost 26 years ago at the inaugural Singapore International Film Festival.  He was the only friend I actually met in a bar.  I don’t drink and almost never go to a bar; I am also extremely shy and never talk to strangers.   For some reason I was at the hotel bar that day and Russel came over to introduce himself.  He just started out his career as a photographer and he was going to have a photo session in LA, where I lived.  It must be his warm, cheerful and straightforward personality that put me at ease with him.  Throughout the years, he has been to many of my film sets and I have seen him warm up many of his subjects and make them feel comfortable to produce his best work.  Since that day, Russel and I have collaborated on many magazine shoots, but more importantly, we have been pigging out together whenever we see each other.

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My first shoot with Russel in LA

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photographed by Russel in Phuket

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In Singapore

My Amazing Work Lunch

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I had a long day at the studio today — starting at 6:40am and getting home at 8pm.  There will be a lot of dialogue to memorize for tomorrow, so I will make this a short post.  I fear wordy scenes and much prefer the way my character was last season — a taciturn presence.  English is not my mother tongue.  Though I’m fluent in it, it is an acquired fluency.  I love acting — and having done it for four decades, it is almost second nature — but now and then I can still be stumped by English dialogue. 

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from Marco Polo season 1

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Since I didn’t have time to cook today, I will share with you my delicious lunch from Marco Polo kitchen.  We broke for lunch a few hours later than scheduled (again), but the food stayed miraculously fresh.  And these dishes could be enjoyed either warm or cold.  Our chef Duyen is beginning to know my taste buds.  And from the growing quantity of the food, she must have also learned of my great appetite.  The soba noodle salad with prawns and tempeh was the kind of healthy lunch I would make for myself and my family at home.  And I will most certainly get the recipes for the raw flax & chia seeds crackers with artichoke dip and sun dried tomato cashew dip.  The semi-sweet no-bake berry-nut mousse cake is also a healthy dessert I will try to make myself.

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There are many more types and choices of foods at the buffet lunch line, but I love to just walk into my dressing room like the hungry wolf, and be surprised and spoiled. 

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Coconut Mango Rice Pudding

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The local schools have stopped classes for a few days because of air pollution, and all of us have been advised to stay indoors whenever we can.  The forecast is that the haze will last for at least another month. To chase away the gloom, I set out to buy some flowers for the apartment.  According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty.”  Immortality seems too enormous a claim, but I do believe in beauty’s curative powers.

I love orchids and have always had them around the house when I am home.  I naively thought there must be amazing orchid selections in this tropical town, but it turned out that people here don’t really care about orchids. 

First I went to a florist, but they carried mostly silk flowers and some cut fresh flowers.  Then I went to a nursery that had a couple of pathetically drab hanging orchids that would only make one sad looking at them.  According to the owner of the nursery, orchids are not worth the trouble because no one buys them.  He sells mostly bonsai trees that symbolize longevity, or “money trees” that bring wealth.  I ended up buying a small “money tree” from him simply because it’s got robust green leaves.  The third place I visited did have a few small orchids — the kind Trader Joe’s at home sell for seven dollars each including the porcelain pot. This flower shop sells it for sixty five ringgit each.  That’s the price of a full body massage for an hour.  I’m puzzled by the fact that flowers or other plants are considered extravagant in a place with such abundant sunshine and water. Or “extravagant” is the wrong word completely — perhaps flowers or plants are simply irrelevant in people’s lives here.  This town was build on land that a few short years ago was tropical jungle and plantations, but now the pool in this luxury service apartment is decorated with plastic trees. 

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My two orchids fit perfectly into my two tea mugs

After my orchid hunting adventure, I made myself a coconut mango rice pudding.  Malaysian mangos are in season.  They are so sweet that I hardly need to add any sugar to the dish.  I made the black rice with half coconut milk and half fresh coconut water.  When the rice is cooked, I added the sliced mangos and mini bananas.  Simple and delicious. I imagine a little ground cardamom powder would add another dimension to the pudding, but I haven’t yet stocked up my little kitchen with spices.

With my orchids and my pudding, I could almost forget the hazardous haze outside my window. 

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Ingredients:

Black rice

Coconut milk from can

Fresh coconut juice

fresh ripe mangos

mini bananas (optional)

Pinch of salt

Sugar

Preparation:

There is no measuring utensils in the kitchen.  I  made the rice pudding by feel.

Cook the rice with coconut water  and a pinch of salt according to package direction.  Add coconut milk, sugar and stir and cook until creamy.  Turn off stove and stir in sliced mangos and bananas.  Garnish with more fresh sliced mangos and bananas.

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The merit of the dish is the quality of the mangos. These mangos made the simple recipe worthwhile.

Marco Polo Kitchen

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Chef Duyen making green papaya salad

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Fish wrapped and baked in turmeric coconut milk and fresh herbs

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I had a tour of the Marco Polo kitchen and met the people who cook two meals a day for many hundreds of us cast and crew.  It was pre-lunch hour and the whole place was an organized frenzy — every pair of hands was busy slicing, chopping, stirring, tossing, kneading, frosting.  I was surprised to see that our morning sausages are actually homemade from our own kitchen.  Every cooking station fascinated me and I lingered for quite a while.  I wanted to stay longer, but felt like a sixth toe and somehow in everybody’s way.

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Homemade sausages

When I first arrived in the studio, I met our assistant head chef Duyen Hackett and she asked me what I would like to eat when I am filming.  I said simply delicious healthy food — without much expectations because of previous experiences.  Therefore I was happily surprised by what I found waiting for me in my dressing room at lunch hour.  The fusion flavored foods she had prepared for us in the past few days were really tasty and healthy.  We are sometimes many hours late when we break for lunch and the dishes have often been sitting in my room for quite a while before I get to it, but they have all been quite yummy.  Or have I simply been too hungry?  I’ve always finished everything on my plates.

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Lunch was over two hours late, but the grilled dory fish, shrimp avocado mango salad was still yummy

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We are in an area where fresh seafood is abundant.  After all the pork knuckles that I ate in Europe, I was ready to switch to fish.

Duyen has promised to give me a few of her favorite recipes in the next couple of days. I will share with you soon!

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Lady’s Fingers & Some Other Musings

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On the long flights that I took recently, I was able to re-read Wuthering Heights.  I found the saga from more than 200 years ago surprisingly readable — a bit like watching a TV series, except no one has to actually film it.  It’s no wonder that was how they passed idle time and lived vicarious lives in the olden times.

After spending a few days in Shanghai with my parents, I arrived in our final location: Iskandar, Malaysia.  The whole area was a tropical jungle only a few short years ago.  We finished filming Marco Polo 1st season here last summer, and there has been many new buildings erected since I left.  There are large floor-to-ceiling windows in the newly erected concrete structures that rely on around-the-clock air-conditioning. Compared to the traditional houses that rely more on low thermal building material and natural ventilation, these are definitely not sustainable.  I am staying at a brand new building where I have four air-con units blasting all the time.  My apartment is not designed with the northeast or southwest wind in mind.

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View from my floor to ceiling window

 It seems to me that architects often design the kind of buildings that sell the best at the moment.  I suppose most of them are not ambitious visionaries who give posterity any consideration.  I’m afraid that the commodification of everything inspires myopia in our creative vision — be it architecture or movie making.  After my Communist era, there was a period in my life when I worshipped the market.  I have now grown weary of it and fear it’s ever growing reach.  We are limited by the perceived commercial viability in everything we do.  Perhaps that’s why this blog is important to me.  I cultivate this tiny piece of land to grow and share what I love, and not what will sell in the market.

When I began typing, I was planing to write about the verdant tropical greens, the alternating blazing equatorial sun and passing showers, the nicely appointed apartment and the beautiful infinity pool, but instead my mind veered into a less optimistic place that resulted in this ranting.

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Traditional Malay house

Let me end on my favorite subject. Since I have not yet had time to stock up my kitchen, I had blanched lady’s fingers and instant noodles for dinner.  After blanching the okra for about 1 and half minutes to 2 minutes, I added a little premium oyster sauce and pure black sesame oil.  Sometimes that’s all it takes, especial if the vegetable is garden fresh.  Have you ever seen any lady’s fingers as fresh and as long as those?  

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Oyster sauce and sesame oil is like the Chinese version of balsamic and olive oil

This is a region famous for piquant and pungent foods from a confluence of Chinese and Malay cultures.  I look forward to share my discoveries with you soon.