lundi 10 août 2009

une personne, qu'est-ce qu'elle est?

My new roommate is Iraqi, who has pretty good listening comprehension for 2 years of immersion. He's in a native-level writing class, but I've discovered that ESL classes often do a pretty poor job at reinforcing spoken language foundations (pretty important as the spoken language IS the language). One thing that wasn't emphasised in class was the pretty important phenomenon of English stress.... in fact it's not covered in non-ESL classrooms either, excepting linguistic classrooms.

Sometimes I feel that the pedagogy of English language classes are still stuck in the era before the Great Vowel Shift of the 17th century ... in the high school classroom there's no discussion of diphthongs, vowel quality versus historic vowel length. I bet the long/short vowel distinction confuses the hell out of native speaker children too. HEY look guys -- English doesn't have five vowels. It has at least thirteen vowel phonemes (some dialects have as many as seventeen). It has five vowel LETTERS to represent the vowel phonemes with. If you analyse the "long vowels" as combinations of two vowels or a vowel + semivowel, then you could theoretically reduce the English phonetic vowel inventory to eight vowels. (And then only if you make a lot of mergers ... like if you think "plus" and "the" have the same vowel quality, after ignoring stress.)

So anyway .... there's an Iraqi refugee community here in Charlottesville, but they're pretty invisible to the public. One thing I've found to be potentially quite useful for both teaching English writing and having something of mutual interest to talk about is Riverbend's blog on the war ... as a very good (and sometimes biting) English writer and an Iraqi refugee, she makes useful talking points, even though she hasn't written a new post in almost two years.

Yesterday was a somewhat good day. After a curious day out, and enjoying someone else's good cooking, it struck me as I lay down on the couch, looking at my absurdly long legs, how much I've changed. Well okay, duh right?? I mean haven't I written like 20 posts on the idea already? But visiting the homes of some other members of the refugee community I was suddenly reminded of HDB flats and the ambitions and mindset I had when I was 14 and in Singapore. And now I've almost abandoned and given up hope on Singapore, even defending the merits of living in America compared to living in Europe. I've grown up into exactly what I thought I wouldn't be.

samedi 1 août 2009

du train et de l'enfance

il court, il s'écoule; les wagons, ils roulent.
le ciel pleure – à quelle heure sera-t-il trop tard?
de revenir, de se souvenir;
quelque part, un coeur coule et déboule;
quelque part, un cerveau s’écarte.

les gares s’envolent. mais tu restes immobile
de Bishan à King's Cross
les minutes s’envolent, comme de l’huile
dans un sablier – et on savait que
l’huile et l’eau ne se mélangent jamais.

tu te souviens? tu te souviens d’elle?
je me souviens. je me souviendrai
des choses belles. des souvenirs mauvais.

tu y reviens? où vas-tu?
je ne sais pas. qui saura?
si la vie est comme le train, la vie continue
mais on se demande: sera-t-elle revenue
en passant devant ces gares de noms familiers.

jeudi 2 juillet 2009

ground beef curry, for a poor college student's budget

abstract: I merged two online recipes for this one, and tossed in a little of my own innovation. Good for 8-10 prata or about 3-4 bowls of rice -- which is for me a waking day's meal. At minimal expense and effort, depending on how fast you chop, this meal should be ready in about 30-40 minutes after including preparation time.


  • 2 onions, chopped coarsely (into sixteenths)
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped into bite-sized chunks -- keep the juice
  • red and green chilesa
  • 2/3 cup ground beef
  • generous amounts of ginger (I used about 4 tbsp or 1/4 cup)
  • garlic, coarsely chopped (or smashed to bits with a jam bottle), 4-6 cloves
  • curry masala powder or any mix with tumeric, but mixes including coriander, cardamom, etc. preferred
  • spice mix: nutmeg, cinnamon, poultry seasoning -- thyme, rosemary, sage, etc. [not essential]b
  • a drop of pandan extract (or a better yet, a pandan leaf, if you have one!) [non-essential]
  • cooking oil (solvent)
  • water
  • milk [can be skipped]
  • stir fry vegetables [can be skipped]
  • wine vinegar or regular vinegar (if you like it slightly sour -- most of it evaporates)
  • salt, sugar

1. Put the chopped onions, chiles, ginger and garlic into a blender, along with some salt and a little bit of oil (1-2 tbsp). Blend them until you get a slightly coarse but mostly-smooth paste. I used the icebreaker function for this -- fresh onions are turgid and full of water so they resist for a minute or so before suddenly going smooth.

2. Pour out the paste into a large pan that has been pre-heated to high. Wait for the first bubbles to start forming (because of the water in the paste boiling), then turn heat down to low. Stir the paste about every minute for 15 minutes. Add 1-2 tbsp vinegar at about 12 minutes through.

3. Coat the beef generously with the tumeric/curry powder and the spice mix. If you are feeling especially garlic-y, add in about 1-3 more cloves of minced garlic here. One option is to blend the beef, but I didn't do this. Add the beef to the paste, and cover the beef with the paste. If the beef is still frozen, turn the heat up to medium for about 1 minute until the ice melts or till mild bubbling starts again. After that, return to low for about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.

4. Most of the aqueous content will have evaporated by now, allowing the temperature to skyrocket. You can tell because the oil starts to gurgle vigourously even on low. Add the tomatoes and any stir-fry vegetables desired, along with any tomato juice saved from the chopping stage. If mild bubbling stops, turn the heat up to medium until mild bubbling starts again, then turn back down to low. Toast for about 1-2 minutes.

5. Add 1 cup mix of water and milk (I used a ratio of 2:1), turn up to medium until mild bubbling starts again, then simmer on low. Add pandan extract and 1 tsp sugar. I used brown sugar, but white sugar will probably work. I simmered here for about 1-2 minutes.


delicious. a sweet and savoury curry with a creamy but coarse texture, a light brown colour with tomatoes softened. Cilantro can be added to garnish. Nose-mouth-reasoning (NMR) spectroscopy confirms presence of an array of various aromatic and arguably pharmacologically-active (high-inducing) organic compounds. Photo of pan after a run with just tomatoes, half-eaten:


From my very informal knowledge of curry theory, there's basically 3 stages of curry cooking. First there's the sauteeing / frying, where onions, cumin, garlic, ginger, etc. are toasted at high temperature (125-185 degrees C). I didn't use fresh (non-mix) cumin in this recipe, but it could be included. The aqueous stage (starting with the onset of vinegar, then water) immediately reduces the temperature to around the boiling point of water (or slightly higher, as acetic acid forms a negative azeotrope with water), and then simmering (at about 85-95 deg C), generally the last stage, is used for heat-sensitive ingredients like milk.

This recipe modifies this a little in a way I find interesting. Firstly partially because I was lazy and didn't want to toast the onions first before grinding them into a paste (a hassle -- you risk overcooking and you have to fry them in batches), and because someone appears to have done it successfully with fresh onions (see references), I didn't have a very prominent high-temperature stage. The paste that's used is a mix of some oils and mostly water, and sauteed on low, the water takes 15-20 minutes to evaporate fully though where oil is present the onions probably cook at a higher temperature -- hence the need to stir constantly as to cycle the oil.

Frying fresh onion paste on low makes the paste cook very evenly, and it comes out beautifully with no sign of burning or overcooking, and the paste was still mostly white around 10 minutes and browned only slightly at 15, but with the obvious smell of the significant onset of caramelisation. I think using fried onions to make a paste is the standard procedure, to avoid having so much water at the beginning, but a beginner or careless cook risks overcooking especially since some recipes call for very browned onions. Vinegar is also usually added at the high-temperature stage, way before water, where evaporation occurs very quickly, but the effect of adding it on low near the aqueous stage is something to be explored. In effect the high-temperature stage was shifted into the middle, and then only for a very short time. There was also no real separation of the water and milk stages in this recipe.


a. I used 1 habanero and 1 serrano, but I suspect red works better instead of habanero for more flavor and less heat! Man, 1 habanero can still inflame an entire pan of curry...

b. Use whatever curry-friendly spices you have on hand, feel free to substitute. Use cheap spices -- I got cinnamon, nutmeg and poultry seasoning for pretty a buck each per bottle at the supermarket

references (inspirations):


samedi 13 juin 2009


“The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.”
-- Konstantin Tsiolkovsky


Gexin saw the Old Man’s hands. Venturing forth from his suit, they were tough and sinewy, and their veins gripped his skin like iron chains. Stains of discolouration and lines of creases bore testament to a vigour slowly withering away, but they receded underneath his skin whenever he readjusted his grip on his pen. As the Old Man continued writing, Gexin took occasional glances at the streaks of white on the underside of his arms -- the only hints of tenderness. In some ways, the Old Man’s hands were a perfect extension of his face. But his face occasionally broke out into smiles. His hands never smiled.

The Old Man had finished penning, and there was a momentary stare of silence as the ballpoint ceased its frictions against the surface of the paper.

“Sign here, please.” He sighed as Gexin cautiously took the pen from him. “What happened to you, my dear Gexin? You used to be so well-behaved. Did we fail you? Or is this your hidden nature?”

Gexin remembered this office from years back: its old tomes and ancient cedar; the sunlight that could only peek in; the electric candles that cast many shadows. Once it had seemed so vast – vast in its imposition, vast in its majesty, vast in its ability to induce fear. But now he was a little taller, a little more cynical, and the office seemed a little smaller, a little more suffocating. The awards and distinctions that decorated the office now somehow seemed less monumental, less – what was the word? Less superhuman.

“Perhaps it’s because I grew up sir.”

The Old Man frowned. But the youth’s expression did not waver.