28 August 2015

Vegetables from the Cameron Highlands

My father is visiting us at the moment and while my husband is back at work the children are still on holidays so in between visits to the vet (the younger pets were spayed last week) we are taking trips to see the local sites.

The children acted as tour guides
Last week we had a hot morning with beautiful sunshine and we decided to drive up to our nearest Boh tea plantation Sungei Palas.  On the way back we stopped off at one of the many commercial garden and vegetable centres to pick up some strawberries which are grown in the Highlands.  While they are still a treat food for us they are much more affordable than many other places as they are locally grown.

It is fun to get out and about with them
Just as we arrived the heavens opened and as I did not fancy driving the steep, winding roads back to Ipoh in the torrential rain we decided to wait it out and take a walk around the centre instead of just picking up stuff from the shop.

Beautiful Gerberas are a treat buy
Touring the garden centre was, it turned out, every bit as fascinating as the Tea Plantation.  The strawberries are grown hydroponically and are elevated so that more plants can be fitted in to a smaller area.  This hydroponic system has the advantage of meaning the fruit is safer than when grown in local soil and while I still need to wash them (of course) before eating, I don’t need to disinfect them which does impact a little on the taste of soft fruits.  

Tending the plants is a full time job and each section
has a dedicated manager and picker.
While many growing centres offer a pick your own option on strawberries (or self plucking as it is called here), the one we usually visit did not.  This means that the plants and fruit are managed by experts and the quality is very high even if we do not have the fun of collecting them ourselves.

Strawberries are grown hydroponically

The  fruit are luscious, they are picked as soon as they are fresh and brought straight to the shop for sale.  The plants are for sale as well but I can’t see them lasting a long time in the heat of Ipoh.

Every spare bit of space is utilised
In addition to strawberries the centre grows beautiful lettuce, grapes and a whole range of other vegetables.  They also grow gerberas which really cheer up the home and I always pick up a bunch as a small treat.

The lettuce is tasty and clean
There is a small café attached to the shop which sells (mostly strawberry based) treats.  We settled down to a chocolate ‘steamboat’ or fondue.  It came with the usual strawberries, marshmallows and biscuits but also with tiny cherry tomatoes.  We were a little perplexed at this choice and almost did not give it a try but the combination was surprisingly tasty and one I would have again.  The tomatoes were perfectly ripe and very sweet and the chocolate quite dark so they complemented each other very well.

An unusual chocolate fondue.

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Ersatz Expat

25 August 2015

Recuperating Pets

We have been meaning to have our little Kazakh dog Perdita spayed for some time.  While we would truly love puppies from her she is not really clever enough to be a good mother, we have no homes to pass them on to and there is no way we could keep more than one pup.  In effect it would be deeply selfish and stupid to breed from her.   Sadly every time that she has had her season and been able to be spayed we have either been in the middle of an international move, brought a new child into the home, had a nightmare finding a competent vet or been otherwise unable to help deal with a convalescent pet.

Bessie our English dog teaches Perdie the Kazakh Dog to enjoy the Beach
Last month we rescued Kismet, a tiny little kitten and made an appointment with the vet to get her fixed as soon as we possibly can.  The two younger pets bonded incredibly quickly and are now fast friends.  With this in mind the vet agreed to spay our dog at the same time.  Bessie our older dog looked rather put out when we loaded the other two into the car but this was one road trip she was pleased to miss out on.  They were operated on one after the other and placed side by side in the recovery room while they waited to come round.  When I collected them they were both rather shaky but I had welcoming meows and tail thumps while I received the post-operative instructions and made payment. 

Kismet the Malaysian Kitty
The two girls had to be crated for 8 days.  Kismet is still new to the home so is crated in the living room in one of the dogs’ airline crates at night so we were able to leave her in there quite happily.  Perdita hates being in her crate with a passion and even a comfortable bed did not tempt her in.  We compromised by placing her on the sofa and keeping her there.  She slept in the downstairs bedroom with my father (who is visiting) the first night to save her the stairs and the next few days was carried up to sleep in our bed as a special treat.

2 girls recuperating post op....
Neither pet had a buster collar as all stitches were internal (save one small stitch on the cat), unlike all our other pets they never once tried to worry the stitches which was a relief.  Previous dogs have been forced to wear collars or suffered the indignity of child’s trousers to stop the worrying.  The dog has been most indignant about being kept housebound when her older sister is allowed to go for a swim and long walks.  She has also been rather put out at being left behind when we go for runs in the evening.  She is so much younger than Bessie and a steppe hound to boot so she needs to run. Going out with us gives her the chance to stretch her legs and while she still hobbles a little she is desperate to get outside.  She is slowly getting better and should be able to go out for a family walk in the next few days.  The running will have to wait a little while longer though.

Perdie - desperate to go for a walk
Kismet coped with the crate for a few days but she is a very little kitten with a real desire to be with us.  We allowed her out for a few hours a day just to sit on the sofa with us.  Sadly she decided to be a little naughty and explore the dining table and, in the process, bust an internal and her external stitch.  The damage did not seem too bad and we cleaned her up.  The vet saw her the other day and gave her some extra strength antibiotics and says she should be right as rain soon although I will need to drive her over every few days for a quick check.  Sadly she is back in the crate for most of the day though I am keeping her in her travel crate (which has a petting flap) for a few hours so she can sit next to me while I work or on the sofa with the rest of the family and this seems to calm her down a lot. 

Joining in family fun
Through the process I have become a dab hand at feeding pets pills.  Bessie is just plain greedy and will eat any pill if offered on the palm of the hand.  Sadly Perdie and Kismet do not share this greed and need to be persuaded to take their pills.  I have spent the past few days forcing my fingers and pills down their throats and massaging them until they swallow.  Thankfully neither bite and seem to forgive me the indignity almost immediately. 

Hopefully by this time next week things should be getting back to normal.

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22 August 2015

Things to do in KL - the KLCC Aquarium

Malaysia’s capital, KL, is not far from us, no more than 2-2.1/2 hours in the car so it is a viable day trip for us.  My husband has regular meetings down there, if they take place in term time we leave him to it but occasionally they happen in school holidays and then we join him for a short break.
KL is full of interesting things to do and see.  On our last trip down we went to the KLCC Aquarium.  The children love fish, our son recently completed his PADI Seal course and can’t wait until he can dive with us in open water.  Our older daughter is fascinated by the fish and the baby just loves seeing the shapes flit by.  The aquarium is located within the KLCC complex which includes the famous dancing fountains, the Petronas Towers and the huge KLCC mall.  The entry is quite expensive, particularly for foreigners although there are discounts for residents and nationals.

The aquarium visit starts with a well laid out touch pool.  Here it was possible to see sea stars, horseshoe crabs and a bamboo shark.  The information panels were well laid out but sadly the staff member, though friendly, did not seem able to answer the questions we asked.  Shortly after the touch pools there is an exhibit devoted to electric fish  and then a jungle exhibit which included snapping turtles and my favourite, Otters!  Sadly the otters were not in residence during our visit.
The very best section of the exhibition was devoted to shipwrecks highlighting not only the sea life  that flourishes on wrecks but also provides extensive information on the various famous diveable wrecks around Malaysia. 

Welcome to KLCC....
A little further on the exhibits concentrate on jungle and forest fish around the world including fish native to Malaysia.  The centre of this exhibit is a two story cylindrical tank showcasing the larger fish – absolutely stunning.  The stairs around the tank are difficult to negotiate with a buggy but there is a lift provided for those with very small children or who use a wheelchair. 

Come and see the beautiful fish....
The oceanarium  with its 90m glass walkway is absolutely stunning – huge rays, friendly groupers and hideous eels are joined by a variety of sharks including white tip reef sharks, sand tiger sharks and tawny reef sharks.  There is a moving walkway but this takes you through the exhibit far too quickly to really enjoy it.  We stood to the side and took about an hour to enjoy this wonderful exhibit.

And friendly turtles...

Finally, after leaving the oceanarium  the display turns to some truly weird and wonderful exhibits including pinecone fish and, of course, jelly fish before disgorging visitors into the inevitable souvenir shop.  

enjoy the weird and wonderful
While the aquarium is not the best I have seen (my vote would go to Montery Bay in California and my husband’s to the aquarium in Osaka) it was certainly better than the Astana Aquarium (although given the challenges of running the aquarium that is furthest from the sea I thought they did a pretty good job) and probably superior to the London Aquarium where although the exhibits are stunning the infrastructure looks pretty tired and in need of a face lift. 


The KLCC aquarium is well laid out, the staff friendly and the information provided pitched to a fairly decent level.  It also takes advantage of the excellent parking facilities at KLCC (public transport or walking with a buggy are a no no in KL) and the chance to pick up a snack in the many restaurants in the area.  Like all aquaria the lighting makes photography very difficult, I am sure that they would do a roaring trade in specialist photography sessions with an expert - I know I would be interested.  Nevertheless all in all the KLCC Aquarium is very worth a day trip into town as a special treat for the end of term or a birthday.

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9 August 2015

Children's Shoes - A Malaysian Shopping Mystery

I am spoiled for choice in Malaysia – every mall has dozens of shops where I can buy the most dazzling array of shoes.  These range from courts to evening wear and come in every height from flat to towering and a bewildering number of flipflops (although I dearly wish I could I have never been able to wear them).  The quality is rarely high but given the heat here I tend to wear open shoes and my walking boots, office shoes etc were all bought years ago and are still going strong.  The biggest challenge I have is remembering my foot size in at least 3 different systems (3-4 UK, 36-37 EU and 5-6 American) and trying to work out which system the shop follows before I end up trying to squeeze my foot, Cinderella style into an American 3 or flounder around in a gigantic UK 6.

Shoes for the discerning 6 year old!!!!
Because I can buy footwear with no problems I naively assumed that it would be the same for my children.  How wrong could I be; children’s shoes are impossible to find.  Firstly places that do sell shoes don’t seem to measure their feet so I have to guess (in three different systems) which size they need.  Each brand has a slightly different interpretation of a size so my daughter might be a 30 in one brand and a 32 in another, it is just a case of trial and error.  The shop assistants range from the fabulously helpful who will get out every shoe in every possible size variant in order to find one that will work, to those who make us feel like we are being thoroughly unreasonable for wanting to buy shoes in the first place.

A wide range of shoes, but none are any good.....
I have hardly ever had to buy the children shoes, I am blessed with something akin to gold dust – children whose feet just do not grow.  My daughter had one pair of shoes through two years of school in Kazakhstan, they fit her just as well at the end of the two years and had to be thrown out as the cobbler could no longer repair them.  This means that I have, in the past, just bought their shoes whenever we have been in the UK, relying on the trusty assistants with their measuring boards and the sensible but supportive options offered by Startrite and Clarks. 

Heels for little girls?

Imagine my horror then to have found that my children grew out of all of their shoes a few months ago.  I had to go on a search for trainers, school shoes and sandals (I have given up on walking boots for the moment).  Black school shoes are elusive, it took me 4 months to track down a suitable boy and girl pair.  So difficult was the quest that when the Velcro closure fell out of my daughter’s shoes I went to buy a hot glue gun and Velcro strips to effect a repair rather than run the gauntlet of shoe searching once more and I have built an excellent relationship with the cobbler.  I have asked local parents at the school where they shop and they have all come back with the single word response ‘KL’.  I could drive down, it is only 2 hours away, but it seems an excessive to make a 4 hour round trip just for shoes.  It is not just school shoes that cause difficulties, all the ‘girl’ trainers have Frozen or other Disney characters on them and I have the only little girl in the world who doesn't want Elsa on her feet, sadly she does not want Ben 10 either.  I could, of course, buy proper Nike or Addidas trainers but it would be just my luck that, having forked out on hugely expensive shoes to be worn no more than twice a week, her feet would grow just to spite me!  I was going to resort to sending her to sports lessons with plimsolls (it did me no harm after all) when a family member offered to bring some cheap, plain trainers out from the UK.

Offerings are pink, princessy or unsuitably styled
Having managed the impossible and replaced all the shoes with ones that I deemed sensible enough to provide at least some support to feet and were palatable to the wearers I thought we were doing pretty well.  Then last week, disaster struck.  Our daughter has been wearing a pair of crocs sandals (not the ugly clog style but the strappy versions) and on a holiday in Melaka, while walking around the streets, she got a split in the sole of one shoe.  We went to the main mall to search for a shoe shop but to no avail.  We went to a Bata shop which carries a variety of different girl’s shoes.  After trying what seemed like every shoe in the shop nothing fit.  Some ranges (for younger children) went up to size 30 but the 30 was too small.  Other ranges (for older children) started at size 30 but they were too big.  It seems her feet are exactly the wrong size.  We tried another shop which seemed to stock an array of shoes but came up against the same problem.  The one pair of shoes that did actually fit had heels (yes heeled shoes for 6 year olds!!) so we had to decline those.  Our daughter very gamely agreed to see if her shoes would hold up for the remainder of the day but we walked them to smithereens, as we left a lovely courtyard café the shoe broke in half and our daughter was left walking with her left foot on tippi toes.  We managed to find a clog shop selling overpriced ‘ethnic’ shoes to tourists and bought a pair of costly clogs one size too small so that she could, at least, walk back to the car. 

The shoes that are suitable don't fit - the shoes that do fit are unsuitable....

As soon as we arrived back in Ipoh my daughter and I hit the shops in the nearby mall – to no avail!  All we want is a simple sandal but we found literally nothing suitable, even the Crocs shop had nothing available in her size other than clogs or very wide fit sandals. Thank goodness we found a suitable pair, a Teva style shoe that is completely lacking in feminine elegance.  It actually comes from the boy's section but we convinced her they were 'ant-man' shoes for girls and she seems happy for the moment,  I will keep looking for some more elegant sandals but these will do for the moment.

It seems like such a minor expat problem, everyone wears shoes after all but just where are the little girl’s shoes hiding?  Of course every posting has something that is impossible to find, inevitably you spend your entire time in country searching for a suitable source only to locate it two weeks before you leave!  

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3 August 2015

Home-made Hollandaise Sauce and Eggs Benedict

Sometimes you want to treat yourself with a special meal.  In our family treats often comprise bacon sandwiches (bacon is expensive here).  Salmon, on the other hand is quite easily available and I buy the odd pack of smoked salmon for salads and so on. 

We have just started our summer holidays and, as a treat on the first weekend my husband and children requested a home cooked brunch of Eggs Benedict.  In the UK this is easy to rustle up as you can buy ready made Hollandaise sauce in the supermarket.  Ok, not as authentic as the stuff you get in the upmarket hotels but good enough for a quick brunch.   Hollandaise is something that is quite hard to find in many expat postings, however, and I have got used to making it at home.  It is not exactly easy to make but the difficulty comes from the hard work required to mix it rather than the recipe being complex.   I like using toasted focaccia or sourdough buns as the base for the food but, in a pinch some wholewheat bread will do.

Eggs Benedict, not restaurant pretty but made
at home tasty!
Hollandaise at its most basic takes just three ingredients, egg yolks, butter and lemon juice.  You might see recipes that call for a vinegar and shallot reduction to be whisked into the yolks before the butter.  These are the ‘proper’ recipes but they are not necessary ingredients and my family never complain if I leave them out.

Recipe for Hollandaise Sauce:

Take some unsalted butter and cut into small cubes.  Put one egg yolk per person in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.  It should probably be a stainless steel bowl but most of the time I don’t have proper cooking equipment and I have never had any problems.  Whisk the egg yolks and, a small piece at a time, add the butter.  Make sure that each piece has been fully incorporated and formed an emulsion with the eggs before adding the next one.  If you add the butter too quickly the sauce will not thicken and, if you are not careful, will separate.  There are ways to remedy this (plunge into ice water, take teaspoonfuls and start again etc but they never seem to work for me).  The only thing that does work is to add the butter slowly and whisk hard.  Once the emulsion is carrying as much butter as it possibly can (you will be able to tell by the way it looks), slowly squeeze a lemon into the mix, half a lemon per egg yolk, give or take.  Keep whisking and the sauce will turn a satiny lemony yellow.  I then transfer it to a jug or cup and place that in some tepid water, when it is time to serve add some pepper and whisk vigorously once more before spooning over the eggs.

Hollandaise is hard work but not difficult
Poaching Eggs

Poaching eggs is one of those culinary skills that should be easy but ends up being horrendously messy.  The idea is to swirl the water and crack the egg in, it should hold together and poach gently.  It always ends up breaking apart on me so the only time I poach eggs in anything is in a chicken broth for when I am serving poached egg soup.  If I am trying to serve up poached eggs whole I use my silicone egg moulds, these sit in the pan of water and allow the egg to poach with no mess.  They tend to mean the eggs cook through a little more than when they are cooked in the water but my husband and children actually prefer their yolks a little firmer so to me it is worth the sacrifice.

My poached egg cheat!
Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict is a heavenly confection of eggs and smoked salmon.  Take the bread base (I use wheatbran bread if I cannot get anything better) top with slices of smoked salmon, a poached egg and the hollandaise sauce.  Garnish with rocket and serve with a side salad, heavenly.  I can never get mine to look as good as the products you get at the fancy hotel brunches but the taste is pretty close.


You can use ham instead of salmon in the Eggs Benedict which is useful if Salmon is difficult to source.  If you add orange to the Hollandaise Sauce in place of Lemon it is called Maltaise and if you flavour it with Tarragon you have made Bernaise sauce. 

Given that we live in the land of Pomelo I might make a variation with Pomelo juice and call it Tambunaise!  

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Ersatz Expat