Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book review: The Nightingale

In love, we find out what we want to be
In war, we find out who we are

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a historical fictional novel set in France with World War II at its crux. Winner of the GoodReads Choice Awards for Historical Fiction in 2015, it has been gaining steady buzz since its release in February of 2015. The book has also earned spots on several bestseller lists, and was optioned for a screen adaptation by TriStar Pictures last year.

The novel chronicles the lives of two french sisters and their relationship with each other at the time of German occupation of France during the tumultuous WWII. It is a poignant tale that sheds light on the women who remained in the shadows under the Nazi regime yet played significant roles during the resistance movement. It highlights the extraordinary traits of womankind such as unbridled courage, selflessness, sacrifice, endurance and forgiveness.

I must admit that this is the first book I read on kindle. I have never been keen on eBook readers but made an effort with this one because it had been heavily recommended. I am old fashioned in the sense that, for me, nothing compares to the look, feel and smell of a print book in my hands. It actually makes reading physically pleasurable and serves as a long-standing reminder of one's intellectual journey. I would any day prefer to sit down with a book inhaling its musty pages rather than stare down at a screen. I think it is a tragedy of epic proportions that local brick and mortar bookstores are meekly closing their doors thanks to the technology that introduced online retail. Oh well! I'm sure my grumbling changes nothing so I might as well get with the times. It wasn't as bad an experience as I expected it to be though (don't take that to mean that I have become a convert!). My love for print books will always remain an undying one. 

Vianne and Isabelle are two sisters born to French parents. Their ordinary lives come to a screeching halt after their beloved mother dies and their father Julien (a broken man after the World War I), abandons them and packs them off to live with an unkind stranger at their ancestral home of Le Jardin in the quiet village of Carriveau. Vianne comes to terms with the harsh reality and finds solace in a local lad Antoine while young Isabelle struggles to comprehend the turn of events and becomes unmanageable. Caught up in her own personal problems, an emotionally unavailable Vianne neglects her little sister who is unceremoniously cast away to boarding school. 

While Vianne settles into a life of quiet domesticity at Le Jardin with Antoine, her sister is thrust into a life of desolation. Rebellious, willful and impetuous by nature, Isabelle makes a habit of running away from boarding schools, convents and finishing school, frequently getting into trouble and sneaking out of windows and onto trains. 

When Isabelle has finally had enough of her vagabond lifestyle, she returns to her father in Paris only to be shunned again and sent to live with her sister in Carriveau. By then, the world is upended as German troops march into France. Isabelle is forced to make the harrowing exodus out of Paris amidst gunfire and bombings along with a newly acquired companion, Gaëtan. Back in Carriveau, Antoine is dispatched to war leaving Vianne alone to fend for their young daughter Sophie. The Germans take over the village with a Wehrmacht officer Wolfgang Beck billeting at Le Jardin. Isabelle is furious with the Nazi intrusion and desperately wants to aid in the struggle for freedom but Vianne, fearing for her daughter's safety, only seeks survival. Being of opposite temperaments, the two sisters come to loggerheads over several matters during the trying times. When Isabelle, staunch in her beliefs, is offered to play a noteworthy role in the French Resistance, she grabs the opportunity. She starts off by distributing anti-Nazi propaganda but then moves on to more perilous missions. Aided by her father and a group of freedom fighters, she goes by the code-name 'The Nightingale' and secretly shepherds downed allied airmen out of France, beyond the treacherous Pyrenees mountains under the Nazi noses into neutral Spain. 

While Vianne struggles to pull through and keep Sophie from harm's way in a city under siege where oppression is at its peak, rations are scarce, winters are unforgiving, disease is rampant and even one wrong utterance can spell death, Isabelle and her compatriots go on to save the lives of several men. During one of Isabelle's rescue attempts, she finds herself in Carriveau and unintentionally puts Vianne and Sophie in grave danger. In the ensuing mayhem, Beck is killed. Vianne is enraged with Isabelle and turns her back on her sister for her recklessness. 

The death of Beck brings a most unwelcome guest, SS officer Von Richter at Le Jardin who is abusive towards Vianne and makes her life even more deplorable. By then, Vianne has adopted the three-year-old Ariel, the son of her Jewish best friend Rachel (who gets deported to a concentration camp) and shields him from the inquisitive eyes of the Nazis and their collaborators. War brings out an unprecedented surge of courage in Vianne and right under Von Richter's tyranny, she starts sheltering Jewish children to save them from the fate of certain death in concentration camps. Meanwhile, Isabelle is finally captured and brutally tortured into revealing the name of The Nightingale. As a final attempt to be the father he had never been to his daughters, Julien confesses to being The Nightingale and is publicly executed by a firing squad. A severely battered Isabelle is then sent to a concentration camp in Ravensbrück as a political prisoner. 

As the war comes to an end, Vianne finds out she is expecting a child and decides to keep the bitter truth behind the conception from Antoine who has just returned home after years of imprisonment. Ariel is taken away from the family to go live with his relatives in America leaving a heartbroken Vianne. Concurrently, Isabelle is sent back to Carriveau to recuperate from her terrible ordeal. There she is reunited with her only love Gaëtan who has also miraculously survived the war. After witnessing the atrocities of the war, living through years of privations, having lost loved ones and being irreparably scarred for the rest of their lives, the two sisters face their inner demons and forge a bond after all those forfeited years of estrangement. 

Read the book for the inspiring full story, especially for the melancholic and moving ending.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Recipe of the month: Vegetarian Thai Green Curry

I just cannot come to terms with the fact that this is the first Thai recipe on my blog of six years. WHAAAAAAT?! I had to triple check to make sure! For someone who loves Thai food, goes out to Thai restaurants quite often, has been to Thailand more than once and who makes feeble attempts to cook Thai food at home once in a while....that is inexcusable no?

Oh wait....I actually have a valid reason for that. I'm quite rubbish at cooking Thai food - THERE! I said it! I find it hard to achieve that perfect balance of flavours and textures. It also doesn't help that I don't use fish sauce or shrimp in my cooking which are widely used in Thai cuisine. I have not been able to get pad thai (Thai-style fried noodles) right no matter how hard I've tried and that pains me considering pad thai is one of my favourite Thai dishes. I've been meaning to try making som tum (spicy green papaya salad) since that is another regular I order at restaurants but I haven't got around to doing it so far. Khao pad (fried rice), tom yam soup, green curry and yellow curry are about the only Thai dishes that have made the journey from stovetop to dinner table in my household so Thai cooking is hardly my forte.

When me and my husband had been on holiday to Phuket a few years ago, we stayed at a gorgeous beach-facing resort. The food at the resort was good (albeit pricey) but it was more style than substance and we yearned for the humble and rustic Thai street-food experience. One day, as we set off to explore the town on a motorbike, we happened to pass by a small shack run by an amiable elderly local woman situated nearby the resort. We decided to check it out and boy! did we hit the culinary jackpot! The menu seemed endless and there was a staggering number of options. Not to mention the prices were so reasonable and the food had that wonderfully comforting home cooked quality to it. The hospitable 'aunty' was very accommodating and even considered our dietary preferences to change some of the ingredients upon request. Our entire holiday was spent stuffing our faces in a variety of spicy and aromatic Thai dishes. It was one of the highlights of our trip and an experience I will never forget!

Actually to be honest, it is the husband who dabbles in Thai curry experimentation at home. He had previously made a really nice green curry but that had been a while ago and he didn't remember which recipe/recipes he had consulted. My in-laws were around and I wanted to cook something other than Indian food for them for a change so settled for a Thai green curry. Strong, spicy, sour, rich and aromatic....a well-made green curry tickles your tastebuds and really packs a flavour punch.

Let me tell you something....there are a million green curry recipes that you will find online! I was looking for a vegetarian/vegan recipe so that did narrow down the possibilities but there still is a mind-boggling number of vegetarian recipes out there. I consulted four and made my own version based on my intuition. This one has all the authentic trimmings of a Thai green curry- lemongrass, coriander seeds, green chillies, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, basil and coconut milk - only without the meat. I used a combination of veggies I like such as baby corn, purple eggplant, carrots & mushrooms. I don't like pea eggplants and I'm not big on tofu so those two didn't make the cut.

The curry turned out just the way I hoped it would. It was light with a strong aromatic flavour and spicy edge. Sure, I didn't get the pale green color I was was expecting - mine turned out a murky beige but it tasted pretty legit so I stopped obsessing about the color. I didn't want the curry to be too thick so I adjusted the consistency to my liking. Served with a bowl of piping hot jasmine rice, this was a meal to remember!

Okay....rambling done! Here is the recipe for a super yummy green curry that will not only tickle , but do the tango with your taste buds! 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Restaurant review: Spruce at the Fire Station, Singapore

Tucked away in the lush green landscapes of Bukit Timah, is a quaint-by-day and chic-by-night restaurant called Spruce that offers wholesome Italian and American comfort classics. Spruce has two outlets in Singapore - one at Phoenix Park and the other at the iconic old Bukit Timah Fire Station. My review here is for the latter. 

This dining extension of the original restaurant (at Phoenix park) is located very close to the condo I used to stay previously but surprisingly, I never paid a visit then even though I knew about it and a friend had even recommended it. When I think about it, I do regret not going then!

It was one of those rare occasions where the husband and I stepped out of the house for a brunch date. The last time it was just the two of us dining out was at the beginning of the year and so when the opportunity presented itself, we gladly seized it. Enjoying a meal without having to worry about packing suction plates-sippy cups-bibs, choosing a kid-friendly venue, availability of highchairs, hangry (hungry+angry) toddlers, power struggles and the inevitable big mess is a welcome change! Actually, I'm exaggerating a bit. Our kids love eating out and they are almost always well-behaved but it's still nice to get away from them once every few months....haha!

Spruce at Fire Station boasts a chic 3,000 sq ft dining area with an indoor capacity of 120 people.

First impression that comes to mind on entering Spruce is the relaxed and casual vibe. This is a place where you can walk in wearing flip flops, with your raucous kids in tow just to unwind and grab some grub. 

The interior has character because the architecture of the fire station has been retained and that itself lends a uniqueness to the restaurant. The high ceiling, white brick wall, bright red doors and accents add to the appeal of the space. 

The soaring glass windows brings in plenty of natural light and make the space look large and bright. Not to mention, the view outside is pleasant and serene. I sat facing the window and was able to take in the peaceful sights and scenes outside during the course of the meal.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Baker's Corner: Cherry Buttermilk Cake

I made this cake for my in-laws who were in town last month. I was looking for a simple tea-time cake recipe that incorporated fruit and wasn't too sweet.

The original recipe calls for fresh raspberries but unluckily, I didn't get any at the nearby grocery store. I however, did spot a box of fresh US cherries that was on sale at an unprecedented low price. Normally cherries are pretty expensive in Singapore so I scooped them up immediately.

This is one of the easiest cakes y'all will ever bake you guys. I didn't even incorporate the step-by-step photos coz I didn't think it was necessary....a child could pull it off! Moreover, it is likely that you will have most of the ingredients at home. This cake is a great canvas for any kind of berry - strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries or cherries. And what's even better is that you don't need to buy store-bought buttermilk. Making your own is a cinch (refer notes at the end). 

Keep in mind that this cake isn't very sweet since I modified the recipe to ensure it turned out that way. If you prefer your cakes on the sweeter side, you can dust the cake with icing sugar after the cake has cooled down or even go a step further and serve it with vanilla bean or a berry-flavoured ice-cream.

Easy-peasy and tastes good. I hope you don't need any more convincing to try it out!