In Chinese, many characters have the ‘wood’ (木) radical on its side. Aside from common words used for things made out of wood – chair (椅), bed (床), shelve (柜) for example – many of them are words for different sorts of trees, such as the pine (松), plum (梅), oak (橡 or 栎), and of course the subject for today, the cypress (柏).
A long lived tree relatively common in Sichuan, this conifer must have been quite a familiar sight to Du Fu 杜甫 when he lived in Chengdu as a refugee from the chaos in the north caused by the An-Shi Rebellion. (You can read more about this here.)
Before managing to escape, he was in truly hot water in Chang’an, former capital of the Tang Dynasty which had fallen to the rebels. This is because, as a previous minister in the Tang Court, he had submitted advice against An Lushan, warning against giving him enormous military authority over all Tang forces in the northeast. The advice was not heeded; the authority backfired horribly, and Du Fu nearly died for it.
In comparison to those days, living in peaceful Sichuan must have been a considerable relief. But Du Fu remained outside the mainstream of politics despite his ambitions, and instead became a poor, wandering poet. We are, of course, much the better for it.
A beautiful rendition of the poem, in the cursive calligraphic style. (Reads from up to down, right to left)
It is true, what they say – first you get something, and then you find a use for it. So now that the big black monster of an oven is sitting in the kitchen, it seems problematic not to use it for something. Cakes, well, they’re nice the first three times round. Sunday roast cuts can be difficult to obtain, and in any case potatoes aren’t a family staple and what’s cooking for if not the family?
So prawns it is. I like prawns – they are one of the few things Singapore has that you really need to look hard to find in London, big succulent white shrimp (not tiger prawns) that go brilliant coral rather than the equivocal pink that smaller shrimp grudgingly give when cooked. Once that centrepiece is in place, the rest is mostly playing by ear; suffice to say I was looking for something a little Thai.
The first attempt at this was problematic; trying to find the right time for cooking prawns in an oven turns out to be surprisingly difficult, and we ended with something edible but rather too dry. Here is the improved version, where the prawns kindly provide a nice rounded savour to the tartness of the limes, all in a handy liquid for drizzling on white rice or noodles.
A bit of pedantry here: some also call it the Lunar New Year, but the Chinese calendar isn’t exactly lunar. It’s lunisolar, which is why the months roughly line up with the Western (solar) months. A fully lunar calendar, like the Muslim one, will have its holidays wandering all over the place on a Western calendar because it goes by its own rhythms.
… what were we talking about again? OH YES. So it’s the day just before the Chinese New Year now, and how remiss it would be of me if I neglected to write something about the biggest day in the Chinese calendar. Here goes!
Well, what does one do with an oven? The fact is that, growing up, we never had an oven at home; in Singapore, and across much of East Asia, the stove dominates cooking to such an extent that I never felt I was missing anything.
Then I went to London, and mostly used ovens to heat up yesterday’s pizza, but then I came across this: a recipe for salted caramel brownies from Smitten Kitchen. After thoroughly enjoying the well-written article, I set my mind on making this brownie.
That was a year and a half ago (thereabouts), and since then I’ve made this brownie a few times, with a few tweaks (there’s enough sugar in that caramel already) for special people, parties and the like. So it only seems fitting that it would be the first thing I make with my black, shiny monster of a new convection oven.
This might be mildly heretical, but I personally prefer my brownies to move more towards the cake end of the Gooey-Fluffy continuum; so the biggest change to the recipe as I make it is the self-raising flour. If you’re more the full gooey type, forego it. If you’ve got your own preferences (and why shouldn’t you), then adjust the ratios however you like. Go live your own life, for goodness’ sake!
I’m used to a city that goes completely silent for Christmas – have become used to that after just two years. There’s something thrilling about knowing that, right after the craze of office parties and the great tinsel floods (and before the insanity of the Boxing Day sales) there is an eye of the storm where everything, everything, is closed.
So it’s a time for walking, under mostly iron-grey skies and in miserable weather; it’s a time when the streets are a lot quieter than the parks and gardens which haven’t got gates. Dogs and children need walking, no matter what day it is. The hills ring with laughter, and the malls are deathly silent, and even the public transport is not working…
Of course, Singapore doesn’t have that tradition. Trying to find a really quiet place is probably impossible in this insane hive, but one can try – it’s the places where people live, strangely, that are the calmest. No one is where they live, it seems; we are all where we buy, or work to earn the means to buy, or watch with a mind to buying. Is that wrong? Well, I suppose it’s normal.
Mmm, mandarins. Wonder what they’re like inside.
Honestly, I’ve been feeling rather down lately. Weltschmerz, perhaps – though fortunate indeed is the person who is comfortable enough to be worrying about the world, also!
Anyway, while being mopey and idiotic, I came across this essay which I studied a decade ago and have not read since, until today. Liu Ji 劉基, better known by his courtesy name as Liu Bowen 劉伯溫 (1311 – 1375), was a strategist, scholar, geomancer and one of the key founding members of the Ming Dynasty which would rule China for nearly three centuries. Well, if I’m going to start translating prose pieces, this is as good a place as any.
Born in the late Yuan Dynasty as a southern Chinese, which was the lowest social rank under Mongolian rule due to their protracted resistance to conquest, it is perhaps no surprise that Liu Bowen would rouse himself to write this essay; besides being biased against the likes of him, Yuan rule by the time of his adulthood was already a shambles in general. Sometimes it’s scary how many parallels there are with our time.
We may be centuries ahead in so many things, but the ugly albatross around our neck that is idiocy – whether governmental, corporate, or personal – never gets dropped.
Okay, enough moping. Essay!
Well, so the world – or at least a subset of the world that enjoys both 21st century amenities and 19th century sentiments about entitlement, social order and the way things should be, the lucky bastards – has been abuzz over the royal baby.
Except he’s no longer the royal baby, he’s George! Nice choice of name there given the rather colourful Georges that Britain’s had. (Incidentally, the character of George in Blackadder is real. There was a Prince Regent, whose father the King was indeed bonkers in his later years, and who was quite well known for being a party-goer. He did commission the Royal Pavilion in Brighton though, and that is a very nice building, so I guess it all balances out if you’re a prince, eh?)