July 2008

Summer semester has quickly drawn to a close with my examinations over a few days back.  This wasn’t a particularly fantastic semester from a friendship point of view, but nevertheless provided me with some opportunities to solidify my relationship with a couple of ‘old’ friends, people whom I have had met last semester but never had the opportunity to get to know them better.  In fact, thought that the semester ended on a whimper instead of a great ‘bang’ ala my first semester.  The ongoing ‘big move’ by the Arab Language Institute (ALI) to the new campus miles away on the outskirts of Cairo also lent a kind of poignancy to the overall atmosphere among staff and students alike.  But in any case, there were interesting moments and memories, and I can always boast too that I was one of those from the last batch to study at the ALI in downtown Cairo prior to its move.   

Despite an inauspicious start, the cell group has also started to settle down and the sessions should be pretty interesting and fun once the whole group gets back together post-summer holidays.  It was truly an international group – 2 Americans, 1 Canadian, 1 Malaysian, 1 Australian and myself – just like many groups that I am involved here in Cairo, and one must truly keep an open mind and open heart to learn and accept cultural and other subtle differences.  Speaking proper English for a change helps a lot too.  Jokes that work in Singapore does not always work in a multi-cultural setting and one has to constantly ‘re-invent’ to stay relevant.   

Travel-wise, I have also done zilch for the past two months, for the simple reason that my good friends are no longer around and there seems to be no reason to travel with ‘strangers’ anymore.  Funny how when I was younger, its all about “adventure” and I would backpack alone for a couple of weeks in Western Europe.  Now, I would rather hole up in my apartment than travel alone.  But there will be many such opportunities, be it visiting friends and/or family, over the next three years.  So no regrets there.

As for my Arabic, as expected I do have a long way to go.  Reading and writing have improved and would probably ranked as my stronger aspect, followed by listening and finally speaking which is my weakest link.  It has to do with the fact that one can pause to think and re-read the Arabic words but in speaking, I have to do the translation in my puny brain before speaking them out, and mind you that kind of long pause is just not normal in a conversation!  Also, the sentence structure and grammar do not necessarily follow English and hence my sentences do come out sounding awkward occasionally.  Well, at least I no longer freeze when I see the Arabic script and the words no longer look like “worms” to me now!  It is a beautiful language that provided me with an insight into the Arabic culture despite its complicated “rules”.  Hopefully, there will be time to continue on a part-time basis in the later part of this year.  

That’s that I guess in a nutshell for the going-ons the past two months.  Going to the airport now.  Later then. 

Nasi lemak, char kuay teow and chicken rice beckons …  


Bernie Ecclestone

President and CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration, Bernie Ecclestone is considered the authority in F1 racing and known in the media circles as the “F1 Supremo”.  A brilliant marketing man, this is possibly one of the most powerful and rich man in modern sporting circles, able to dictate the terms and conditions to governments around the world for hosting rights to his F1 races.  Catch him in person this coming September when Singapore hosts the inaugural F1 Night Race at the Marina/Suntec area.


Bernie Taupin

While he is not as well-known as Elton John, the talented Bernie Taupin is the lyricist and one half of Elton’s songwriting team responsible for hits such as “Candle in the Wind”, “Rocket Man” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.  His collaboration with Elton has spanned four decades and are one of the longest songwriting relationship ever. 


Bernie Mac

Two-time Emmy Award-nominated American actor and comedian, Bernie Mac is best-known for his own sitcom called “The Bernie Mac Show”, partially based on his own life.  He was also involved in numerous Hollywood productions, like “Transformers”, “Ocean’s Twelve”, “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle”.    


Bernie Utchenik

You would probably have eaten his food many times, Bernie “The Botak” Utchenik is partly responsible for ushering an era of “damn good (ang moh) food at a damn good price” into the heartlands.  Prior to his foray into the F&B line, he was working in an offshore oil service company in Singapore for a number of years before opening his “Bernie Goes to Town” pubs.  Subsequently, he started his first “Botak Jones” store at Tuas and has never looked back since, with a current grand total of 10 outlets across the island.  You can catch this chap sprouting pearls of wisdom about how good his food is at all major radio stations on a daily basis.        


Read this article below on this Friday’s edition of Today – a whimsical take on nostalgia by a self-confessed closet retro freak.  Coming off my recent post on the same subject, I thought that it was an interesting enough read to be posted here.  Enjoy.


Confessions of a Retrosexual

Coming out of the retro closet can be so liberating

plus editor 


I CANNOT continue living a lie. I’ve tried so hard for so long to be just like the rest of you — but I’m not. And I know I’ll never be. It’s time I accept who I am and be honest with myself and the people around me. So here goes:

Mum, dad, I have something I need to tell you: I am a retrosexual..

I know I’m supposed to be hip and in the know considering what I do for a living, but I can’t help it — I’m just attracted to old stuff. Yes, there is a chance that I may be discriminated against by bigoted cool kids with their fancy downloads of obscure songs from French people who make bleepy dance music that R2-D2 would write if he had hands. But, I have to be proud of who I am — and my Wilson Phillips CDs.

It’s not a phase I’ll grow out of. Come to think of it, I’ve probably known of my tendencies since I was a child. The signs were all there. I would buy tickets to watch Terminator, but all the while James Cameron was blowing up trucks and things on screen, I’d be sitting in my circle seat, clutching my Skittles, thinking about how badly I wanted to rent Breakfast at Tiffany’s on video. But what would my friends say? Oh, children can be so brutal.

And nothing has changed, all these years later. Just the other day, I caught myself humming the theme song to The Golden Girls in public. A girl with an edgy, lopsided haircut turned to look at me with the expression of someone who’d just been told a Stegosaurus had been discovered in Tuas. I froze and frantically tried to remember the lyric to the new Rihanna song, but all I could think of was Madonna’s Take a Bow.

Edgy Girl smirked and sauntered away, texting on her phone at 500-words-a-minute — probably laughing about me to her equally edgy friends in that modern SMS language that has eliminated the use of passe vowels (“jst hrd smthng vry fnny”). I stood there, feeling fully exposed, naked in the understanding that even my use of punctuation in a text message was ancient.

It was then that I realised I couldn’t pretend anymore. I wasn’t fooling anyone with my act. I mean, for goodness sake, my blazers have shoulder pads in them. I’m Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. I’m Stock, Aiken and Waterman. I’m a body perm.

And it’s fine by me. So what if 97 per cent of my iPod is filled with music released from when “electronic music” was the sound a Casio watch made when you punched its tiny buttons?

In my opinion, things may look prettier today than they did in the past — mainly thanks to Photoshop, CGI and the discovery that carbohydrates are evil — but movies, music and TV shows in the year 2008 have nothing on its ancestors.

We had the Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles; kids today have High School Musical 1, 2 and 3. We had Twin Peaks; they have Lost. We had Wayne’s World; they have The Love Guru. We had Melrose Place; they have The O.C. We had the full cast of Sesame Street; they just have Tickle Me Elmo. We had the Star Wars trilogy; they have Jar-Jar Binks.

I’m happy I’m stuck in the past. Technology is growing at a faster rate than we can think of new ways to work with it. Cinemas are filled with old ideas stripped of their original charm and spirit, repackaged in a shiny, new CGI box. Pop tarts are being manufactured at an alarming rate, made from a dusted-off Madonna mould and air-brushed till they are American Idol generic, safe for mass consumption. If it has all been done before, why don’t I just go directly to the source?

There’s wisdom and euphoria in the past — and it fits me like my shoulder pads do.

So, yes, I’m a retrosexual and proud of it. I like my muppets and my Flock of Seagulls and my vowels. Go ahead and laugh all you want. Sticks and stones may break my bones but you’re the one stuck with Miley Cyrus.

To cater to the fickle and cosmopolitan taste buds of Singaporeans, you may have noticed a greater variety, coupled with more niche cuisines sprouting up around our little island.  This is not merely restricted to the haute couture restaurant scene.  Even heartlanders can now enjoy foie gras, escargot, belgian waffles and fondue at the hawker centres and coffeeshops.  Another case in point is our pasar malams (the food section).  Not confined merely to muah chee, tea eggs, corn-in-a-cup and ‘power’ nasi lemak any more, you can now get your fix of octopus balls, taiwanese fried chicken chops and kebabs from our own travelling food hawkers at a neighbourhood near you.

Speaking of kebabs, you must have seen those rotating vertical spits at the pasar malams where the chef (typically a Middle-Eastern looking guy) will slice off thin pieces of meat and stuff them into garnished bread.  If I am not wrong, the versions sold back home at our night markets are Turkish in origin and known as “doner kebab”.  Everytime I passed by a pasar malam, for some bizarre reason, I have always wanted to eat one (I sometimes think I have a Middle Eastern urge in me).  Nevertheless, at about S$3.50 to $4.00 a piece, I find it a tad pricey considering that it did not looked entirely ‘authentic’ taste-wise. 


Living in the region of kebabs, Egypt of course has its own version called the “shawarma”.  Over here, it is mainly offered as a street/snack food sold in small food shops (with a small bar counter for ordering and standing room for eating), with the spits at the front of the stall.  Every shop will have its own version of the shawarma, with variations in the base condiment(s) spread on the bread as well as the marination used on the meat.  Even the bread used can vary from burger buns to french bread to pita bread (though most shops offer a few for the customer to choose from).  Like the Turkish version, the huge slab of meat on the spit has garnishes like tomatoes, onions and peppers stuffed or stuck onto it, providing both flavours and decorations as it is slowly turned and roasted.  

Upon ordering, the chef will skillfully carved the chosen meat (lamb, beef or chicken are typically offered here) into small slices and do a ‘stir-fry’ on the hot stove in front of the spit, mixing diced tomatoes, onions and what-not with the meat.  A layer of sauce, such as tahini, is slobbered onto the chosen type of bread, before this is lightly toasted over the same hot stove.  The meat is then stuffed into the bread and voila, you have the humble shawarma. 

Having been here for a few months, I have savoured a few shawarma stalls and find the one at “Barakka” in Zamalek (Brazil Street) the best so far.  Its tahini condiment is smooth and taste great, while the addition of pickles adds a nice crunch and sourish taste to the savoury meat filling of the sandwich.  Again I may be wrong but they also seemed to have the most choices of bread, with the Arabic bread a nice variation (see picture below).  No other stalls that I have tried so far does it the same way as “Barakka”.      Best of all, there is this particular chef there who is a real professional when preparing the shawarma for me – skillful and patient, he treats each order like a work of art!  With a smile to boot, it is always a nice complete customer experience patronising “Barakka”.

Yummy?: ****1/4 (out of five stars)

There is something about shawarma that brings out the carnivore in us.  Like the ubiquitous hamburger, a shawarma is a sandwich that one will not tire of eating (at least for me).  At about S$2.25 here for a “L” size shawarma, this is value-for-money too.