Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

This historical fiction novel has been on my Goodreads 'To read' list for a while. I'm so glad that I finally got around to reading it. Once I started it, I finished it at breakneck speed!

The author of A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini, was born in Kabul, Afghanistan to a diplomat father and teacher mother. In 1980, shortly after the start of the Soviet–Afghan War, the family sought political asylum in the United States and took up residence in San Jose, California. Hosseini did not return to Afghanistan until 2003. 

The Afghan-American physician turned author followed his hugely popular debut novel (The Kite Runner, 2003) with a story highlighting the indomitable spirit of women living in war-torn Afghanistan. To date, all Hosseini's novels have been at least partially set in Afghanistan and has featured an Afghan as the protagonist. Hosseini is also a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency, and the founder of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a not-for-profit organization which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

The title of 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' comes from an adaptation of a 17th-century poem 'Kabul' penned by Saib-e-Tabrizi which ironically spoke of the beauty and cultural triumphs of Afghanistan.

"One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls." 

The year is 1964, the setting is rural Afghanistan. Five year old Mariam spends her childhood in an isolated kolba (a mud hovel) with her embittered mother on the outskirts of the city of Herat. She eagerly awaits the weekly visits from her father Jalil whom she adores. Mariam’s illegitimate status excludes her from leading a normal and relatively privileged life as a member of Jalil’s burgeoning family in Herat. As a teenager, she desperately seeks the acceptance she desires but a devastating incident sees her married off against her will to a much older shoemaker named Rasheed. Reeling from betrayal and rejection, Mariam initially finds solace in her new life in Kabul but as time passes, she descends into a pitiful existence, subject to the whims and fancies of her orthodox and increasingly volatile husband. Her inner turmoil is mirrored by that of her world outside as Afghanistan continues to be a chessboard of power politics.

Laila is a young girl born a generation later than Mariam. Born and raised in Kabul to liberal parents, Laila is no stranger to love, freedom, education and ambition. Her happy and carefree life is made better in the company of her beloved childhood friend Tariq. But after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, violence between the rival warlord factions erupt and begin to devastate the life of ordinary Afghans. Rockets rain on Kabul reducing homes to rubble and people to scattered bits of flesh. Mariam’s life dramatically changes when an orphaned and grievously injured Laila comes to recuperate in her house. With no one else to turn to and nowhere else to go, Laila dispiritedly becomes a part of the dour family. 

Although initially at odds with each other, the two women gradually forge a bond of friendship and mutual respect. Laila’s children bring a previously unknown joy to Mariam’s life and she begins to assume the role of mother and protector. The two allies try to make the best of their wretched situation, muddling through life united against the relentless physical and emotional abuse that they are subjected to by Rasheed. But post-9/11 when the Taliban arrive, an unforeseen calamity occurs that threatens the very survival of the two women. 

The price of keeping the family together requires the ultimate sacrifice….

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Brunch at Crown Bakery & Café Singapore

For almost one and a half years, courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have had to meet our friends in a way that adheres to the changing social gathering mandate. I am the kind who is ever-ready to host a gathering for all of my common friends (the more the merrier, right?) but since that hasn't been possible, every few months I have been catching up with them in small groups or one-on-one. Oh well! 

I was scheduled to catch up with my favourite cafe kaki for brunch. Keeping convenience in mind, we usually end up in the Bukit Timah area. Having previously been to Choupinette, Kara Cafe and Atlas Coffeehouse, we settled on Crown Bakery & Café.  

Crown Bakery & Café is a collaboration between Singapore’s plants and flowers retail giant, Far East Flora Holdings Pte Ltd, and Japan’s top-notch artisanal bakery, Signifiant Signifié. An amalgamation of local retail experience, Japanese baking expertise and European bread heritage, gives it a boost in the local bakery and café scene. 

Crown Bakery & Café opened its doors to the folks of Singapore in 2015. The establishment began with the beliefs that bread can be healthier - without the use of artificial food flavouring, colouring, preservatives, harmful additives, and chemical improvers. Crown bakery has mastered the art and science of sourdough and natural leaven to craft all bread served at the bakery. Using superior ingredients such as French mill wheat flour, Hokkaido Kitanokaori flour, German sourdough, French butter and direct-from-farm honey in their baked goods, Crown bakery offers European-style bread that are wholesome, delicious and pleasing to the local palate. Over the years, it has becomes not only a favourite amongst locals but also the expats, especially those living in the Bukit Timah neighbourhood. 

That morning, it started to rain and the rain eventually turned into an incessant downpour. My friend was on time but I ended up reaching 20 minutes late. Located at the nondescript Crown Centre along Bukit Timah Road, the cafe welcomes only walk-in customers and do not take in reservations for seats. Due to the pandemic, indoor dining was restricted to 3 tables and even outdoor seating was limited. The heavy rain probably worked in our favour because we were able to get a table without the customary weekend crowds. 

I liked the color scheme of cerulean blue, white and black, French style decor and layout of the cafe. The cute "crown" light fixtures caught my attention almost immediately! 

The bakery has a retail area that displays the baked goods, condiments and desserts. The rest of the space is relatively small with some tables indoor and some outdoor for dine-in. If dine-in is not an option, you can always choose to take away the range of artisanal breads. 

The menu has a satisfactory selection of soups, salads, sandwiches, breakfast & brunch dishes, mains, pasta, desserts and beverages. You will need to order at the counter and pay first. Customers are given a buzzer that indicates when the food and drinks are ready for collection. 

My friend ordered several different kinds of bread to da-bao (take away) for her family. Some of the recommended breads are Kaori Ciabatta, Crown Bread, Earl Grey Brioche, Earl Grey Croissant and  Hainanese Chicken Bread. 

For dine-in, this is what we ordered,

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Baker's Corner: Citrus Loaf Cake

You know, even though I frequently complain about living in the tropics because of how hot is ALWAYS is, I do see the many advantages. For starters, we can perpetually live in comfy cotton tees and shorts which is great! (not to mention, flip flops are acceptable footwear almost everywhere 😛). We don't need shovels (for anything other than gardening), we don't need Vitamin D supplements, we can go swimming, cycling and hiking whenever our heart desires, we can ferment any kind of food imaginable, we can live on ice pops, froyo and summer coolers plus we have all-year access to bright and fresh produce among others! Now that I think about it, life in the tropics is actually pretty good! 

I saw this Spring Citrus Loaf Cake on Instagram recently and I decided that I wanted to make it right away. Just by looking at the photos, I knew this cake was going to be super moist, fresh, sweet and zingy. Citrus fruits have such a bright and sunny spring/summer vibe don't they? Lucky for us lot, Singapore has all-year summer, so any time would be a good time to make this cake.  

I LOVE citrus-based desserts (lemon sorbet is bae!) but I understand that they are not to everyone's liking. Out of curiosity, I did a poll on it on my Instagram Stories and to my surprise, an overwhelming majority turned out to be Team Citrus in the dessert department! So I'm expecting a lot of you try this cake okay? 

This Citrus Loaf Cake turned out just the way I imagined it would. I tweaked the original recipe only slightly. I already have a Lemon Syrup Cake on my blog. But this cake packs a double whammy of citrus tang with the added goodness or orange which not only brightens and sweetens the cake but gives it that lovely orange perfume. The citrus glaze is a welcome addition too! My family loved this cake (my kids even took it in their lunchboxes) and it was polished off at record speed. 

The food blogger in me wanted to spruce things up a bit so I added extra lemon and orange zest on the top of the glaze for decoration. I later felt it was unnecessary since the zest magnified the tanginess and even imparted slight bitterness which resulted in overkill. In the spirit of full disclosure, I just thought I should let y'all know! You can add a wee bit of zest into the glaze and stick to orange slices for decoration. 

Here is the recipe for those interested. Fasten your seatbelts for a citrusy ride. Pucker up folks!

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Recipe of the month: Vegetable Spring Rolls

Hello y'all! I hope you have all been staying safe and in good health. 

Today I'm bringing you a recipe that has been in my drafts folder for a gratuitously long time! I had optimized this recipe, noted the ingredients as well as method down and framed a draft post a really long time ago but due to my procrastination with the photography, the post had remained in limbo. Last weekend I finally got around to taking some pictures (not that the quality of the pictures do any kind of justice to the delay *sighs*). 

Spring rolls are something that are made in my household pretty regularly. Sometimes my domestic helper makes them and other times I make them myself. Everyone likes them (kids included) so we make them as a starter while entertaining guests or else just for ourselves as an addition to Chinese-style fried rice, noodles or jasmine rice with Thai curry. 

I use store-bought frozen spring roll pastry sheets to make spring rolls. If you live in my part of the world, I recommend the large 8.5" sheets from Spring Home which are suitable for vegetarians. Seriously, they are so thin, pliable, so easy to use and they give great results so there isn't any need to bother making your own (unless you really really want to!). Once I thaw the spring roll pastry sheets, I prefer to use them all up by making a large batch and subsequently, freeze the uncooked spring rolls in 2 or 3 individual glass containers so we can enjoy them in batches. If you have never made spring rolls before, don't be intimidated. Spring rolls are in fact very easy to wrap (I find them much easier compared to samosas or dumplings). 

The spring roll wrappers are different from egg roll wrappers, just so you know. The covering of an egg roll is thicker with lots of small bubbles whereas the covering of a spring roll is lighter, crispier and perfectly smooth. Also, the spring roll sheets are different from the rice paper sheets that are used to make fresh spring rolls

For the spring roll filling, I like to keep things simple. I use cabbage, carrots, spring onions (whites + greens), garlic, ginger, chilies and fresh bean sprouts. I like to use shitake mushrooms as well since they impart that umami flavour that I like but sometimes it so happens that we have guests who do not like or eat mushrooms so I omit them to be on the safe side. You can either cut the vegetables by hand or use a mandoline slicer. You can even add in tofu or vermicelli noodles if you want - there is not set formula so knock yourselves out! I flavour my spring rolls with soy sauce, vinegar, a touch of sesame oil (you want to be very careful with this ingredient!), brown sugar, white pepper and black pepper. The veggies are cooked until they are just tender but still retain a slight crunch. After frying until golden brown, the spring rolls turn out shatteringly crisp. Served along with sweet chilli sauce, they taste absolutely delicious. You can take my word for it! 

Check out the recipe below. Do try and give me your feedback.