Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mooncakes are out again!

Though it is only in the sixth lunar month, mooncake manufacturers have already begun selling mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Was around Tesco's to get some bills settled, and decided to walk into Tesco and see if I can get a few stuff. Lo and behold, the mooncake stalls for several companies were already set up and the sales promoters were busily pushing brochures of their products at the customers. Hmmm, this is like, it isn't yet the Hungry Ghost Festival month (7th lunar month), but the mooncake 'hungry ghosts' already can have their feast. My eyes were flitting amongst the product line, looking for a particular mooncake that I know someone at home would love to have. The salesperson from Baker's Cottage noticed that I was looking, and she quickly shoved her brochure onto my hands (mind you, her competitor from Six Happiness quickly jumped in and did the same). Then she started explaining the product line. An interesting one was a 'healthy & nutritious' choice of mooncake called Golden Bliss - delicate carrot butter skin, no sugar added to the lotus paste filling with roasted macadamia nuts, dried blackcurrents, cranberries, white sesame & sunflower seeds, and as replacement for the duck egg yolk, a pumpkin centre filling. Others were more sinful (and sounds more delicious) like Mint Hazelnut Truffle or Cheesy Choc-Oreo.

I was more interested in the charcoal powder mooncake, which I had once last year. Theirs is called Precious Black (黑龙珠) and the skin has charcoal powder, which gives it a jet-black colour.  The filling is a no sugar added white lotus paste with chunky dried longan and as substitute for the yolk, a wolfberry-lotus paste mix.

Precious Black - nice! Its been on their best sellers list for the past two years.

The skin has no taste in particular, and probably the suggestion of eating charcoal adds novelty to this mooncake. Think of it as eating carbon pills with your food. The thing with mooncakes is if you buy them early, you get nice gift boxes to go with them. So you can make a pretty presentable gift out of the mooncakes, or reuse the boxes for something else. These mooncakes came in a thick paper box with a magnetic latch. I know someone who actually collects mooncake boxes and tins, so perhaps after eating the mooncake, I can still make a gift out of the box. Now to get the jasmine tea out and have a slice of mooncake.

Mooncake box. Click here to see more of mooncake boxes in 2012.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Floria 2011 - Roses are forever... but are they???

I had a chance to visit Floria 2011 at Precinct 2 Putrajaya on Sunday, which was the last day of the floral exhibition. The theme for this year was Roses are Forever. For me, roses do conjure up the sense of romance and love, and that of exquisite scents.  So it became a must go event once I came to know about it. Roses are bred in temperate countries, and most of them have been bred selectively so that the flowers are able to unfurl their buds with minimal warmth. Put those roses in the tropical heat, they they go from a bud to totally flat out in three days max. Hence if the theme was roses, one would have to view the thematic display latest by the third day.  Unfortunately, due to work and a big distraction (though I was more looking forward for that distraction), I was prevented from going on the first 3 days. So when I went on the last day, I wasn't hoping much and was more interested in getting grafted trees for pot planting.

A yellow rose making a statement at Floria 2011.

When I reached Precinct 2 in the vicinity of the exhibition area, the first thing that hit me was the number of people busily carting plants and flowers that they have bought to their vehicles. One may be mistaken that Klang Valley folks have a serious gardening culture, or that the sellers were slashing down prices so drastically that everything was worth buying. Nay, Malaysians as a whole do not have the gardening culture. Ask them if they know the methods of propagating a certain plant, or how you should trim the plants after flowering, or what fertilisers should or should not be used for a particular plant at a particular stage and nine out of ten times you will draw a blank face. We have a buy, display and toss away culture. Hell, even the municipal councils are doing that with the flowers on road dividers. Anyhow, back to Floria, since it was the last day, I wasn't expecting the roses to do well. Despite my great adoration for roses, I think they are unsuitable as a floral exhibition theme in the tropics, unless you do it in the highlands. However, I was wonderfully surprised to find that the miniature roses were still doing well, and working their charm on the visitors.

Miniature roses.

Some of the rose beds in front of the Floral Pavilion weren't too good, and looked kind of messy. But the Solenostemon (formerly Coleus) beds were dazzling, and so were the Impatients (busy lizzies), chrysanthemums and petunias. Even the orchids were lending their weight in captivating the eyes and also the cameras of visitors.

Busy Lizzies dazzling the eyes of visitors.

Beds of Solenostemon (Coleus) and Chrysanthemums.

A closer view of the Solenostemon and Chrysanthemum bed.
Lovely orchids on display.

Petunias by the Floral Pavilion.

A bed of not so happy roses standing under the tropical heat.

The Floral Pavilion had many rose themed floral arrangements, and despite the air-conditioning, a large number of the roses were wilted or smelt like they were rotting away. There was an aroma garden setting where there were one was of roses, and the other of tuberose and lilies. Guess which one still held on to their scents on the last day of the exhibition - the lilies and tuberose.

Large yellow Chrysanthemums floating on a water bowl at the entrance of the Floral Pavilion.

A large display made with roses placed on glass vials.

The Javanese wedding arrangement was a good combination of the woven coconut fronds and roses, and looked stunning. There were many notable wedding dais designs with interesting use of flowers.

Part of the Javanese wedding display utilising roses and woven coconut fronds.

Upper section of the Javanese wedding arrangement.

Interesting use of roses in tall glass containers.

The display for fine dining floral arrangements were quite interesting, and whilst some were just the standard floral arrangements for table, there were a few notable ones with good usage of containers and roses. There were also other arrangements using roses and vegetables as well as the usual array of floral arrangements on display. Just by the exit, there was a stall that sold roses imported from Kenya, and they were lovely roses.

Fine dining display by Shangri-La Putrajaya.

Love the way the white roses are placed in the shallow container with a banana leaf wrap.

The garden bazaar sold everything from plants to fruit trees in pots to bonsai to orchids, farm machinery, crafts and most definitely roses. Besides that, there is an orchid competition display, just like in the previous Floria. The double and triple petaled Adeniums were going like hot cakes, even at the high prices. I guess novelty has its advantages.

People were buying plants like there was no tomorrow. Well, indeed tomorrow the bazaar won't be around anymore as this was the last day of the exhibition.

Roses are red...well candy striped to be exact.

A bonsai Melaleuca for sale. Look at the price tag!
The dainty Ionopsis standing out with a fiery red Renanthera in the background.

Another Melaleuca bonsai for sale. How I wish it's not about the money, money, money.

Adeniums for sale. Love the yellow ones.

Orange Gomphrena (Globe Amaranth) on display.

Spathoglottis kimballiana.

The floral exhibition as a whole was good despite using a rather difficult theme of roses in our tropical weather. I am sure the number of visitors both local and foreign must be staggering (especially the local visitors).  In the end, I only bought a pot of Vietnamese mint/coriander, better known locally as daun kesum (Persicaria odorata) as I am prone to killing them by allowing the plant to dry out.

Hopefully the next Floria will be even more exciting and perhaps a more sensible choice of theme flower. The answer to the question of the entry title is perhaps roses are forever, but the blooms do not last a whole week under the hot tropical weather. Click here to see the previous year's Floria (Floria 2010)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

When life gives you a huge huge heap of peppermint....make creme de menthe

I was getting a bit put off by the peppermint sprawling all over the balcony, even though it was nice to smell peppermint every time you walked on the balcony (especially when I stepped on the runners). So half asleep and groggy, I made the decision late Wednesday night that I will drastically cut back the peppermints, especially when other half and extended family will be arriving by the end of the week. Boy, was I in for a surprise with the amount of plant material that I had to remove.
The huge pile of peppermint parked in front of the couch with a 1.5L soft drink bottle for scale.

Stolons from under the polybag. They were growing into the adjacent bags.

What's left of the peppermint. Compare that to them in this article and over here.

So you might be thinking, lucky him, he's going to have fresh peppermint tea day and night, bath in peppermint scented water etc. Problem is, I love peppermint tea, but the menthol relaxes the gastric sphincter muscles and I get bad bad case of reflux. On the other hand, to throw away such a large amount of peppermint is sheer waste, and I can only give that much to friends and colleagues. Thus, I laid everything on the living room in front of the TV and whilst watching TV, proceeded to pick only the shoots to be given away to friends or use by family for making fresh peppermint tea. I ended up throwing 2/3 of the peppermint away.

The pile in the centre was thrown away. The one in the blue basin was used for making peppermint extract and the rest was eventually discarded, after finding no takers for peppermint.

This was packed them into a garbage bag and my oh my, do my garbage smell delightfully refreshing with the strong peppermint smell. Then and only then did an idea hit me...and I looked up in the internet on how to make peppermint extract/tincture. The idea is so that I can flavour drinks or ice-cream with peppermint flavour as it is next to impossible to get peppermint flavour from the supermarket. Then I started reading about making your own creme de menthe by adding syrup to the homemade peppermint, which sounded like an even better idea. Getting all excited, I made a mental plan to stay focused and concentrate on getting the extract first. So the first thing that I did when I got off work the next day was to go get a cheap 80 proof vodka and crammed all the peppermint in the blue basin into a 500ml Duran bottle and fill it with the vodka.

Peppermint soaking in vodka.

Now I am counting down till the end of the month to see if the peppermint extract is of any good. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer

Ahhh...more like those lazy hazy crazy days of burning peat swamp and Sumatran haze. The haze has been building up and seems to be getting worst in the past two weeks. What I particularly dislike about the haze is that it has a peculiar and somewhat acrid smell, and my poor nose and lungs have been protesting the whole day. In the past few weeks it was still alright where I am staying, though certain parts of the Klang Valley have been having bouts of hazy days. Today, even the air over here smells hazy. As an indication of how bad the haze is, just look at the comparison of the view taken from my balcony. A photo taken in March 2011 shows the skyline of with the Petronas Twin Towers and the KL Tower clearly visible. Compared that with the one taken today (12 July 2011).

View of KL skyline from my balcony - 23 March 2011

The same view today, 12 July 2011. Hmmm, KL disappeared under the cover of the haze.

Like magic, KL appears to have been lifted off the face of the Earth. Hey, this is better than David Copperfield, who could only managed to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. This is like, I can make the whole of Kuala Lumpur disappear.

What?? You want me to bring KL back? Yes, I know that David Copperfield brought the Statue of Liberty back at the end of the show. Emmm, I seemed to have lost my powers, but not to worry, the 'magic' will wear off probably in a few days and you can have your KL back. Worst case scenario, you don't get KL for perhaps a month or so, I think.... :-p

On a lighter note, whilst taking photos of the hazy view of KL, I was 'attacked' by one of my plants....the killer peppermint. The prostrate Rosemary appears to be recoiling from its 'attack', and a pinnate-pinnatifid dahlia seedling getting smothered by it

Attack of the killer peppermint. Sending out its 'tentacles' to catch my UK size ten foot.

UPDATE: The haze has been somewhat lifted by the strong afternoon breeze, yipeee!!!
Tadaaa! KL skyline is back.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street, Penang

The Guan Yin Temple at Pitt Street is locally known as Kuan Im Teng (觀音亭, meaning Guan Yin's Pavillion). It is located at one end of Pitt Street, facing the intersection of China Street and flanked by Stewart Lane on one side. The actual name of the temple is Kong Hock Keong (廣福宫), meaning the Cantonese and Hokkien (Fujian) Temple.
Goddess of Mercy Temple Penang, Pitt Street, Guan Yin Temple
View of Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street Penang during the Lunar New Year.

Since many Guan Yin temples in Penang are simply referred to as Kuan Yin Teng (e.g. 車水觀音亭), they are differentiated by the location of the temples. The Pitt Street Guan Yin Temple is sometimes know as 椰跤觀音亭. 椰跤 (Iâ-kha) most likely means Where the Coconuts Fall i.e. Beneath the Coconut Trees' or possibly the 跤 is a contraction of 跤叉 i.e. 'The Coconut Tree Intersection'. 椰跤 is the local name for a section of Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) considered by locals to be the beginning of the street.

This 椰跤 section refers to the section of Pitt Street above the intersection with Chulia Street, (Eu Yan Sang building at the corner of the intersection and Masjid Kapitan Keling nearby). Not too sure as to reasons why Pitt Street is being referred to as 椰跤, but possible due to the coconut trees in that area. When talking about Pitt Street in general, Penangites refer to the as Iâ-kha, hence Iâ-kha Kuan Im Teng (椰跤觀音亭).

The temple's foundation stone was supposedly laid around 1728 and the temple was probably completed circa 1800s. This temple built by the early Chinese settlers was originally not dedicated to Guan Yin. Instead, the temple was built for Mazu, the guardian goddess for seafarers. However, by 1824, temple records indicate that Guan Yin had already been elevated as the main deity of the temple. Regardless of whom the temple is dedicated to, it was a place where the local Chinese devotees could seek solace and plead for divine intervention.
Goddes of Mercy Temple Pitt Street Penang, Kuan Im Teng
Intricately designed and highly ornate roof decorations of the Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street, Penang.

Until today, the popularity of the temple amongst locals has not dwindled a bit, and the crowd can grow so large, especially during one of the major festival days, that you can hardly move about inside the temple without being afraid of getting stabbed in the eye by burning joss sticks. The resulting smoke from all the incense offered by devotees only serves to make the eyes of anyone inside the temple stream with tears. Perhaps this makes the devotees look more sincere and deeply in need of help from Guan Yin, therefore getting their prayers answered swiftly.
Devotees offering incense at the main altar of the famous Guan Yin Temple in Pitt Street, Penang.

Ok, who's Guan Yin and who's Mazu?
Guan Yin is always depicted wearing the Five Dhyani Buddha Crown or a crown of an Indian prince if the depiction is masculine (i.e. Guan Zi Zai Pusa - Avalokitesvara) or if it is female, she wears a shawl over her head, the hair at the top front section is raised like a bun or usnisha and always having the Amithaba crown. If not, the hair would be covered by her shawl. Her assistants are Long Nü (龍女 and Shan Cai (善財, both having serene looking faces.

Mazu, on the other hand, is usually depicted wearing the Chinese Imperial Crown (flatboard crown with tassels on the front and back, usually strings of pearls) though occasionally she has her hair in a neat bun like a Chinese princess with head ornaments. Mazu's assistants (千里眼 and 順風耳) are usually depicted as fierce looking generals (sometimes somewhat demonic, one of them with one horn another with two horns).

Oh really??
If you look carefully at the main altar, you will see that the back row has a few deities. They all wear a 'simplified' version of the Five Dhyani Buddha Crown, hence it is safe to say that the middle one (the main patron deity always sits in the middle) has got to be Guan Yin. (Two upright banners flanking her reads Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa - a confirmation of her identity).

She is flanked (in the front row, at extreme left and right) by a young female (on the left, looking at the altar) and a young male (on the right, again facing the altar). They are unmistakably depictions of Long Nü and Shan Cai. Now, that leaves us with the front row, where a maternal looking deity sits wearing the Chinese Imperial Crown, and having two fierce looking deities flanking her. This looks like the typical depiction of Mazu with her generals.
main altar, Goddess of Mercy Temple, Guan Yin, Mazu
Possible identities of the deities on the main altar of the Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street, Penang.

Ok fine, so what??
This might explain the puzzling arrangements of the incense burner for the temple. Usually for a Chinese temple (i.e. syncretic with Taoist influence), there is an altar (or free standing censer) to Jade Emperor (altar to heaven) outside the temple building. There is none in this temple. Instead, there is a censer sitting on the table more than a metre from the main door. Then there is another larger, free standing censer closer to the main offering table.

Hence it appears as if there are two censers belonging to the main deity at the main altar. The outer censer on the the table cannot be for the Jade Emperor for two reasons. One, it is rarely put under the roof of the temple (as it must 'face heaven' if there is no image of the Jade Emperor), and if so placed, it will be at the edge of the door (not more than 3 feet as to be able to 'see' the sky).

Secondly, in this temple, the altar to Jade Emperor is on the inner courtyard, at the edge of the open air well (counted as facing heaven. I know this as that is where you pray to Jade Emperor on his birthday and devotees would put their offerings there.
Inner courtyard with an open air well and the altar to Jade Emperor. Noticed how the censer is exposed to 'heaven'. By the solitary yellow Chrysanthemum are rows of  'thay sin' (literally replacement body) to represent the devotees, placed on the altar table.

I believe the two incense censer at the front can only be accounted for if one is for Mazu and the other for Guan Yin. It is after all, a sea facing temple. In the past, you can see right up to the coast by looking out of the temple (roughly in the direction of China Street). The coast in the past used to be at Beach Street, and the steps down to the water's edge at the end of China Street was called 'ghaut'. Land reclamation works by the British circa 1880 - 1904 extended the coastline outwards, and China Street was extended, thus creating China Street Ghaut.

Since the alignment of China Street Ghaut is not in line with China Street, the erected of buildings and godowns blocked the view of the sea (see this article about China Street Ghaut and also the Malayan Railway Building on the interesting story of the feng shui of the temple).
Air well at the inner courtyard. A divine glimpse of earthly matters.

Interesting facts about the temple 

The Dragon Eyes
Besides the sea facing position of the temple, there is another interesting fact about the temple that supposedly contributes to the powerful feng shui of the temple. There are 3 wells within the temple compound. Two of these wells are visible with one located outside the temple building near the old tree where one can see many old statues of deities. The other visible well is inside the temple. The third well is hidden and is actually under the front altar! These wells are the 'dragon eyes' of the temple.
View from inside of Kuan Im Teng Pitt Street
In search of guiding light...  - photo taken by LHK.
Oil lamps and joss sticks to convey the sincerity of devotees.

Inner sanctum/chamber of the main altar
When I was young, the inner chamber of the main altar was strictly for women only, sort of like a 'pink' train coach. No men were allowed into that section, and however desperate their pleas for help to Guan Yin may be, they would have to do so from the front of the main offering table. This means that only women can have access to stick divination as the stick buckets are placed right in front of the deities, on the inner chamber. Prepubescent boys are however permitted to enter the inner sanctum (else Shan Cai would have to leave too...chuckle). Even so, I remembered that when I was young, my grandmother and mother would still make me stay at the sides when we enter the inner chamber and I am not to take up space in front of the deities. Nowadays, I noticed that the temple isn't that strict on the rule of the inner chamber being for women only.
Old women and a young boy inside the inner chamber of the main altar.
Side view of the main offering table in front of the main altar. Men would just have to do their prayers here as they are not allowed into the inner chamber.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh my sweet Basil

Basil is a herb that can work miracles and lift any dull dish. Imagine what would tomato based pasta sauces be like sans basil. Not only Italian food, but just think of phở without húng quế and you will probably agree with me. I've always enjoyed a bowl of hot chicken broth with either sweet or Thai basil whenever I am feeling a bit under the weather. Sweet basil in Malaysia is an overpriced herb, and only two major suppliers produce it.

In the past, I've grown bush basil, purple basil (most of them need a cool environment to turn purple), Thai basil, holy basil and lemon basil. In February, after realising that I have not planted basil for quite some time (the reason being I would rather buy it from the supermarkets than to keep myself busy pruning and pinching them to prevent it from flowering), I dug through my 'magic box' of seeds to see if I still have any hoarded away.

I have a bad habit of buying seeds and then not planting them and storing them until they are way past the expiry date. I found a pack of unopened Sweet Basil from Yates, with the stamped expiry date of Aug 2003, and decided to scatter a handful of seeds just to see if they will germinate. And boy do they surprise you. And this would be the first time that I've grown it on a balcony of a high rise building.
Basil seedlings on 17 Feb 2011.

Since a large percentage of the seedlings germinated (I was totally unprepared for it), they began to die off one by one due to damping off from being overcrowded. So out comes the fungicide and what I was able to get my hands on at that time from the local store was carbendazim. A metabolite of benomyl, it is a benzimidazole fungicide that do exert some nematicidal effect at high concentrations (it prevents nematodes from feeding but will also make earthworms go berserk and die off, so I rarely use it on the garden).

The application of the fungicide stopped the damping off dead on its tracks, but then I noticed that it does have some phytotoxic effect on the leaves of the basil. The compound gets translocated acropetally, eventually ending up at the ends of the leaves and they will burn the leaves (you can see the burnt tips on the seedlings). In mature plants, they collect towards the edges of the leaves in the areas between the major veins, causing the area to turn dark and scorched.
Seedlings 7 March 2011 after fungicide treatment.
Basil seedlings suffering leaf tip burns from fungicide treatment 16 March 2011.

After they produced a few sets of true leaves, I selected the seedlings based on growth rate (i.e. relatively larger seedlings), and also the strength of the aroma and transplanted them into individual polybags. There were some observed variations as some of the seedlings were very prone to wilting in the tropical heat (they like the sun, but suffers from the heat).

The high relative humidity means that they can't cool off effectively with transpiration. Some were (at that stage) rather mild in terms of scent. I left the runts in a shadier location and let them fend for themselves (though they actually provided quite some amount of basil for daily pickings).
Sweet basil transplanted into individual polybags on 24 March 2011.

Fertilization with 21-21-21 liquid fertiliser weekly gets me this...

Mature plants 4 May 2011.

Big yummy basil leaves.
A sinkful of sweet basil.

For the first round of harvesting (in May), I ended chopping 2/3 of the plants off when I noticed that the leaves were changing shape, indicating that they were ready to bloom. From 6 plants in small polybags, I filled a whole sink with basil, and went on to pack some for my mom, cook a huge pot of spaghetti sauce and let the go to waste.

The second round (June) wasn't that bad and I've now gone on the daily pinching to prevent the plants from blooming. The heat and cycles of wilting (the air can be very dry - water in the morning, dry by midday) only serves to push the plants to put out flowers and end the life cycle.

Recently, I noticed a nursery selling what looks like lemon basil. The scent was very intense when you rubbed against the leaves. Acting on an impulse, I grabbed a plant, even though it has gone to bloom, and something nagging at the back of my head, telling me that there is something odd about the plant. The first thing I did was to chop off all the flowering shoots and thats when I noticed that it was slightly different from the lemon basil that I had before.
A recent addition - lemon basil.

The flower stalk looked different, though I ignored it and threw all the cuttings away. Then I noticed that the lemon scent and flavour was different - very sharp, clear lemony scent, and in my openion, stronger than lemongrass. The leaves and stem and the flower stalk were very hairy, much hairier than Ocimum xcitriodorum that I've planted before. The texture of the leaves in particular, felt very different from two previous lemon basil (presumably Ocimum xcitriodorum) that I have planted before. I passed some of the cuttings to a friend, who said it tasted more like hoary basil (Ocimum americanum syn. canum). Since I've thrown away the flowers, I would need to wait until they bloom again, to observe the lip length and the hairiness of the flowers to confirm its identity, and will leave it identified as lemon basil for the time being. It could be either hoary basil, one of the cultivars of O. xcitriodorum that is highly influenced by one of the parents, one of those promiscuous back crosses or out-crossing with another basil.

Lemon basil with very hairy internode and hairy stems.

In the end, this endeavour proves two things; it is easy to grow basil on the balcony, and secondly, I went back to fighting to keep the sweet basil from going to bloom. However, growing basil does feel like its worth every bit of effort that you put in, since you get fresh basil from your own garden, anytime you need it. No more having to hunt at the supermarkets and paying dearly for it. Well, at least for me it is.