Lunch Break for the Hungry Empress



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. 


The haze today

Delicious Indonesian Home Cooking



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.



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)



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.


My first shoot with Russel in LA


photographed by Russel in Phuket


In Singapore

Coconut Mango Rice Pudding



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. 


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. 



Black rice

Coconut milk from can

Fresh coconut juice

fresh ripe mangos

mini bananas (optional)

Pinch of salt



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.


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

Lady’s Fingers & Some Other Musings


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.


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.


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?  


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.

Three 10-minute Dishes!

The teaser for Marco Polo came out on YouTube today!  This was the first time that I saw many of the footages from the show.  I worked on the series for many months in Pinewood Studio Malaysia this year.  And I can’t wait to see the finished product in Dec. 


I play Empress Chabi in the show

Johor, where the studio is, doesn’t really have much historical or cultural points of interest, but I discovered so many wonderful eateries when I was there.  During the months of filming, I found the best Malaysian Chinese food I’ve ever had, always redolent of intricate and complex spices or sauces.  I was dreadfully homesick when I was there, but now I often miss the pungent, fragrant and flavorful tropical dishes of Malaysia.



I wish I had time to cook something Southeastern Asian today to celebrate the exciting looking teaser of Marco Polo, but alas, I had to whip the dinner out in half an hour.


Tofu Skin with Shirataki


Grilled Tofu with Greens


So here are three dishes that take 10 minutes or less each to make!

Tofu Shirataki noodles with Hodo tofu skin:

1 pouch of spicy Hodo Yuba Tofu Skin (Costco)

2 pouches Tofu Shiratki noodle (Safeway)

1/2 organic red pepper (or any other crispy veggie you have in the fridge)

1 stock green onion (or celery)

1 tsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. fish sauce (or rice vinegar if you desire a more acidic flavor)

Wash Shirataki well, put aside.  break up tofu skin, mix in with Shirataki.  Add veggies and sauces.  Viola!


Heirloom tomato salad:

Wash and slice and add a pinch of salt and pepper.  Viola!


Grilled tofu with greens:

1 box firm tofu

some greens either raw or cooked

1 tbsp. oyster sauce

1 tsp. sesame oil

2 tsp. toasted sesame (optional)

chopped green onion for garnish (optional)

Cooking spray

Slice tofu into desired shape. Spray hot grill with cooking spray, grill each side for 4 minutes on high.  Prepare the greens when the tofu is grilling.  Put grilled tofu in container and add oyster sauce.  Serve with the greens.  Viola!