Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving: Finding Gratitude in Grief

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. This year has been a tough one for me. I have experienced more loss and grief in the past 12 months than I could ever imagine. And I have known friends who have experienced the same.

At the time, when these things were happening, I asked all the same questions featured in those thin pamphlets about grief: why was this happening to me? Why can't I have a break? Why are the people I love being taken away from me? I began to think that my good fortune brought bad luck. So whenever anything "good" happened to me, I'd be terrified. I thought that I was being punished.

So I tried to bargain. "I'll do X if it means that X doesn't die," I pleaded with the universe. "I'll give up X if you keep X safe," I muttered under my breath on my walk home from the tube, talking to the sky. People must have thought I was insane. I kept this bargaining up for a while until it was clear that, well, that's just not how life works.

I had to relinquish control.

Then I came to the stage of acceptance. I accepted that I had no control over these tragic events. That they weren't a result of something that I did or did not do. Were they senseless? Unjust? Unfair? Of course. But it wasn't my fault.

After I accepted this, I tried to find gratitude in these experiences. It was hard. When I was hurting and suffering the most, my friends and my husband told me, "You'll get through this, you're strong." But I hated hearing that, because I didn't feel strong. I didn't feel like I could get through it. "I can't," I wept. Then I gritted my teeth and I did. Not out of anger, but out of determination.

I was also grateful for these friends, both old and new, who told me I could do it. Who sat at my front door with bagfuls of groceries waiting for me to get home from work so they could stay with me after a funeral when John was travelling. Who brought me a plant with a note that said, "Fresh start." Who texted me to say, "I'm thinking of you today! It's okay to be sad!" Who did not leave me alone.

I was grateful for you: you, who gave me permission to think aloud on this blog, alongside my jarring posts about trips abroad and pretty bracelets and indulgent supper clubs. You, who shared with me your own stories of loss and grief - some of which were so moving, I cried silently while reading them.

So, today, I am thankful for this year. I will not think of this year as the "terrible year". I will think of this year as the year I realized my own strength.

And I will be grateful for it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

#GetIntoSingapore: Where to Stay in Singapore

Singapore is filled with some of the world's most beautiful luxury hotels. From the largest infinity pool in the world at Marina Bay Sands, to the hotel that originated the Singapore Sling (Raffles), to the five-star Fullerton Bay Hotel, deciding where to stay can be a challenge, especially since there are some smaller, stunning boutique hotels as well. Visiting two contrasting hotels for an extended stay is a great way to “#GetIntoSingapore”. John and I got the best of both worlds when we chose the newly constructed Westin Singapore for the first part of our trip, followed by a stay at Naumi boutique hotel, part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group.
I chose the Westin for its incredibly grand aesthetic: from the sweepingly high-ceilinged lobby to the stunning rooftop pool and spacious rooms, I wanted that experience of being in a high-rise, slick hotel - something I wouldn't normally choose in other destinations, but felt like experiencing in a lively city like Singapore. More importantly, I chose it for its proximity to Lau Pa Sat food market and Gardens by the Bay - two destinations that were at the top of my "must-visit" list in Singapore! Location isn’t too critical in Singapore, as it’s very manageable in size and easily navigated by public transportation or air-conditioned taxi.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted with the Westin’s floor-to-ceiling windows, which overlooked the bay. Our room was large enough to accommodate a lounge area and work station, which was convenient as John actually needed to work! We had a spectacular view of the bay, especially at night. 
Fresh off the plane and eager to scope out the hotel's rooftop infinity pool, we headed upstairs almost as soon as we'd checked into our room and marvelled at the amazing view of the city. It might sound cliched, but I felt so … alive when I jumped into that pool and surveyed the bright lights with John. As I floated gently in the water, I thought to myself, 'How amazing is this?!"
By then, we'd built up some hunger, so we headed over to Lau Pa Sat (a mere 5-minute walk away) for some amazing street food in a sparkling clean, indoor hawker center. As my stomach was still a little delicate from the flight, I chose one of my childhood comfort foods: fishcake soup noodles. The clear broth was as nourishing as the kind I remembered from my childhood, and the man who served the noodles to me had a smile as kind as my grandpa's. I excitedly ordered two rounds of sugarcane juice (great for hot climates; it's super hydrating and delicious to boot!) and then we devoured some char siu bao at the dim sum stall ... just because. 
At this point, we knew we were risking overdoing it a bit, but before we left, we stopped for some satay at one of the enticing stalls set up outside the market. On the evening we visited, the entire street was closed for the satay stalls and people were up late laughing, chatting, drinking, and enjoying generous stacks of chicken, mutton, and prawn skewers accompanied by dishes of satay sauce. With each stall claiming its own "secret" satay recipe, competition was on fire ... literally, as I caught some of the satay masters at work!
Full and barely able to keep our eyes open, we headed back to the hotel, where I posted this photo of me feeling exhausted, happy, and exhilarated to be in Singapore.
When we moved to Naumi a few days later, I was a little sad to leave the Westin and that beautiful pool ... but my momentary sadness was forgotten when we stepped into Naumi's uber chic lobby and were shown to our swanky room, equipped with Apple products and chargers so we didn’t have to worry about pulling ours out. 

While our "Habitat" room wasn't huge, the space was intelligently used. The mini bar was cleverly concealed in a sliding cabinet (with hanging wine glasses and all), which pulled out to reveal an array of complimentary treats. The lit-up island in the middle of the room tripled up as a sink, vanity table, and fridge. Under the bed we found an iron and ironing board as well as a yoga mat – a great idea for anyone who wanted to get a morning sun salutation in on the rooftop before breakfast. I was also a huge fan of the rainfall shower head and luxurious Malin + Goetz toiletries - one of my favorite NYC-based beauty brands.

Location-wise, Naumi is optimally located in the Central Business District, placing it in close proximity to the beautiful Chijmes (a former girls' school now reimagined into a complex of high-end restaurants, cafes and bars), Bugis Junction shopping centre, and of course, the iconic Raffles hotel itself. We also decided to walk to Little India, though even a 10 or 15 minute-walk in the Singapore heat is enough to make someone sluggish and dehydrated. Singapore is the only place I've visted where residents stand in the shade of neighboring trees, a few feet away from the pedestrian crossing, when waiting to cross the street because it's simply too hot in the sun!
Since we were spoilt for choice by the terrific food options in Singapore, we didn't dine in either of the hotels' restaurants. However, we still helped ourselves to the breakfast buffet and waffles made-to-order at Naumi one morning. Their homemade kaya on toast (a type of coconut jam that's popular in Singapore and Hong Kong which I love) did it for me; so simple, yet so delicious. 
I really enjoyed staying in two different hotels that had such different vibes; it was lovely to experience Singapore this way and something I'd highly recommend doing if you ever visit!
Do you tend to stay in one place when you travel and use it as your "home base"? Or do you like to move around? Let me know in the comments below!

This post was written on behalf of Thomas Cook and the Singapore Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Find out how you can Get Into Singapore by booking a trip with Thomas Cook here.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Travel Talk: A Weekend Escape to the Kentish Countryside

Happy Monday. How was your weekend? We had a relaxing one: we visited friends in Tunbridge Wells and took an impromptu trip to the Kentish countryside for a short stay at a B&B.

We stayed at the beautifully restored Woodpecker Barn in Lamberhurst, a former barn owned by retired professional violinist Martin and his Icelandic wife, Halla. It had the most incredible garden and two pretty suites upstairs for guests to stay in, each with its own living room and bathroom.

In the morning, we'd have these delicious breakfasts, accompanied by fresh pear and apple juice from the pear and apple trees in Martin's garden, plus herbs also freshly plucked from the garden.

I loved the fig jam that Martin and Halla made from the figs found just outside their house. Everything tasted so fresh and delicious and every so often, Halla would pop her head around the door to ask if we'd like another round of toast (the answer was always a resounding, "yes, please!").

On Saturday morning, we decided to take a walk through the neighboring fields to the closest pub (despite Martin warning us that it might be a bit "squelchy squelchy" and neither of us had brought wellies).

Sure enough, about half an hour into the walk, while I tried to navigate sinkholes of sticky mud, I made an error and my foot sank ankle-deep into a puddle of mud! I panicked and shrieked, stepping into other mud-holes in the process while John laughed at me some distance ahead. The advantage of sinking your feet ankle-deep into mud, I discovered, is that you don't quite care where you step next, so I just trekked on - mud and all.

I joked about getting trench foot, but after an hour or so, we found our destination: a friendly pub with a roaring fire.

I squeezed next to John near the fire and devoured a bowl of French onion soup and a thick-cut BLT sandwich while locals trickled in and sought shelter from the blustery cold (it had snowed a few hours before!). It felt so cozy and wintery!

Back at Woodpecker Barn, we took our muddy, wet shoes off outside the door while Halla rushed to put them by the Aga to dry. After a hot shower, we were ready to see our friends Joe and Jodi (plus their sweet babies!) and spent a wonderful afternoon and evening catching up.

It was so nice to take a short break; sometimes, I forget how important it is to have a change of scenery.

Have you taken a weekend break recently or are you planning one anytime soon? I'd love to know!


Friday, November 20, 2015

Have a Chillaxing Weekend

Hey there! Happy Friday. I am *so* tired. I need to save up my energy though, because this right now? This feels like the calm before the storm.

I have one more rehearsal with the Royal Orchestral Society before our performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius next weekend and my part is not even close to being ready! It doesn't help that I'm sitting second desk, first violins (on the outside) which means that there's added pressure since I'm very visible to the audience! Tickets are still available here, and I'd love to see you there!

The weekend after that, I'm throwing a Christmas/birthday party at my house and then the weekend after that, my family arrives from the U.S.

Then the weekend after that? We're off to Paris and Bruges.

Then it's Christmas.

And breathe.

So this weekend, we're visiting friends in Tunbridge Wells but we also spontaneously booked a stay at a teeny tiny B&B in the middle of nowhere. I plan to sleep in late, go for country walks, and eat a delicious homemade breakfast before reading for hours in the farmhouse that the B&B's located in.

Wherever you are, I hope you get to take some time out this weekend to relax before your "storm" hits.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

#GetIntoSingapore: 10 Things You Have To Try In Singapore

I am so excited to finally be able to share our adventures in Singapore with you! We had an incredible time getting to know Singapore as part of Thomas Cook’s and the Singapore Tourism Board’s #GetIntoSingapore campaign. It was so surreal! One minute, we were in cloudy, grey London ... the next, we were lounging by an infinity pool as Singapore's bright lights twinkled below us. With that said, here are 10 of my favorite moments in Singapore - 10 experiences that you just can't miss while you're there. 

Take a dip in a rooftop pool

Singapore is home to a bevy of spectacular rooftop pools with stunning views of the city - the most famous being the infinity pool at the top of Marina Bay Sands resorts, which is the largest in the world. While we didn't get up to the top of Marina Bay Sands during our visit, we were lucky enough to enjoy the beautiful infinity pools at The Westin Singapore and luxury boutique hotel, Naumi - which both had beautiful city views of the bay and beyond.

Cool down with a delicious mango ice kachang 

After a day of sightseeing, we were hot and exhausted. Our guide for the day, Lynette, introduced us to a Singaporean favorite at Maxwell Food Centre: mango ice kachang, a shaved ice treat flavored with sweet, multi-colored syrup and topped with fresh chunks of mango. If you make it to the bottom of this icy dessert, you're rewarded with sweet red beans and grass jelly (two popular ingredients in East Asian desserts). So delicious, but one that needs to be eaten quickly before it turns into a rainbow soup, given the hot and humid weather!

Have a Singapore Sling in Raffles' Long Bar
Raffles Hotel is one of the most beautiful examples of colonial architecture I've ever seen. Aside from the hotel, the Raffles complex also houses several luxury shops, where guests and visitors can get their retail fix. But more importantly, it is home to the Long Bar, where the famous Singapore Sling was created. It’s also the only place in Singapore where littering is allowed: you’re encouraged to throw  your peanut shells on the floor, a tradition that dates back to 1915 and one that I didn't feel entirely comfortable doing until I'd consumed about half of my Singapore Sling! 

Pretend you're in Jurassic Park at Cloud Forest, Gardens by the Bay
We woke up early one morning and raced to Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay so we could beat the crowds. The early start was worth it, since it meant we had the place to ourselves for about an hour or so! Set to mimic mountain-top conditions, Cloud Forest is a truly wondrous display. We took the lift to the top floor (aptly named, "Lost World") and worked our way down the winding walkways as we were confronted by a majestic waterfall (the largest indoor waterfall in the world), dripping stalagmites, and stunning living walls which were filled with vibrant flowers and lush vegetation. 

Watch the Supertree Grove "Garden Rhapsody" Show at Gardens by the Bay
The Supertree Grove - a futuristic, man-made collection of "trees" that stand up to 16 storeys high – is featured in nearly every photo of Singapore. It's even more impressive at night, when the trees transform into a light show, complete with music. Fun fact: there's a restaurant at the top of one of the trees, plus a 28-metre long walkway that connects two of the Supertrees - not your average treehouse!

Get up close and personal with lions and giraffes at Night Safari
Some of the best things in Singapore happen at night: Night Safari is something everyone told me I had to do when I got there. Sure enough, John and I headed over after dinner one evening (the optimal time is after 9:30, when it's less crowded!) and hopped on a tram that encircled the zoo, taking us right up to stunning flamingos, scary hyenas, sweet elephants, and my personal favorite - the Malayan tapir. The animals are very dimly lit so that they can sleep (though most of them are nocturnal), but we still had terrific views as they snoozed, grazed, and wandered about.

Luge downhill at Sentosa Island before relaxing on the beach
Sentosa is home to Singapore's most beautiful beaches, luxury resorts, and theme parks. Never ones to opt for the "usual" experience, we left our beach towels at the hotel and bought passes for the downhill luge instead (sounds much scarier than it actually was), racing down two windy, paved paths and pretending that we were in MarioKart. From the bottom, a "Sky Ride" took us back up to the top (this was much scarier than I thought!) ... where we did it all over again.

See the beautiful orchids at Singapore's Botanic Gardens
Not to be confused with Gardens by the Bay, Singapore's Botanic Gardens is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts 74 hectacres of botanical and horticultural treasures. The National Orchid Garden has the largest display of tropical orchids in the world and it's here that you'll find SIngapore's national flower, the beautiful Vanda Miss Joaquim, as well as the "Celebrity Orchid Garden", which features the hybrid orchids created for visiting celebrities and dignitaries, such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Catch the sunset at Singapore's highest rooftop bar, 1-Altitude
As you know, I love catching a bird's eye view of whatever city I'm in, including my own! Singapore was no exception. John and I found the highest rooftop bar in Singapore, 1-Altitude and got there just in time for sunset, which was magical. The bar has a super laid-back and friendly vibe, plus the staff were more than happy to help us with a sunset selfie! Over delicious cocktails, we watched as the sun went down and the city's lights flickered on, displaying a magnificent, twinkling cityscape. Definitely one of the most thrilling views I've ever taken in.
Have you ever been to Singapore? What did you do there? I'd love to know! Next week, I’ll be sharing with you my favorite shopping destinations in Singapore.

This post was written on behalf of Thomas Cook and the Singapore Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Find out how you can Get Into Singapore by booking a trip with Thomas Cook here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Christmas in a Scoop of Ice Cream: Simply Ice Cream

Despite my occasional lactose intolerance (ugh), I'm a sucker for ice cream. And when I heard that Kent-based Simply Ice Cream  made flavors like Christmas Pudding, Cinnamon, Coffee and Kentish Cobnut Fudge, I cleared out my freezer to make space for this indie ice cream producer.

Of course, this wasn't my first introduction to Simply Ice Cream - I'd run into them earlier in the year at the Foodies Festival, where we tried some of their delicious Toffee Waffle Hazelnut ice cream.

Based in Kent, Simply Ice Cream still makes their ice cream the old-fashioned way: by hand and in small batches. Their natural, locally sourced, no-additives ingredients have won them multiple Great Taste Gold awards. They also make bespoke flavors on request like Turkish Delight (yes, please!) and Fig and Honey (yum!).

Since I'm in the process of planning a Christmas / birthday / housewarming party in a few weeks time, I've been frantically combing the internet for Christmas decorations, Christmas-related recipes and basically ... anything Christmas related. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with Christmas pudding depending on my mood, but dipping a spoon into Simply Ice Cream's Christmas Pudding ice cream made me feel like I was sitting at the dinner table on Christmas Day, just after everyone had pulled open their Christmas crackers.

Along with this, I also loved the classic Dreamy Vanilla (one of my favorite flavors as a child) and the subtle Cinnamon, which also evoked thoughts of the holiday season.

My favorite, however, was the Coffee and Kentish Cobnut Fudge. It's so hard to find coffee-flavored ice cream in the UK! And this tasted a lot more like real coffee than the kind I usually have in the US (sorry Breyer's, Dreyer's).

Finally, the Mango, Lime and Passionfruit surprised me: its creaminess (these ice creams are ultra creamy) reminded me of kulfi and was something I instantly thought would work well as a dessert after a curry.

As of today, Simply Ice Cream is stocked in nearly 400 outlets across the UK, including select Waitrose and John Lewis Food Halls. Click here if you're interested in finding your closest store.

Are you an ice cream fan? What's your favorite flavor? Would you try Christmas Pudding ice cream? Let me know in the comments below!

Simply Ice Cream generously sent me a selection of their Core and Special flavors. All ice-dreamy opinions are my own!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guest Post: Thanksgiving Green Bean Casserole by Katie Walter of Two Aprons

I haven't featured a guest post in a long while! But with Thanksgiving around the corner (the 26th, for all you non-Americans!), I've been debating whether or not to host a little Thanksgiving get-together at my place.

One of my favorite side dishes that's traditionally served on this American holiday is green bean casserole, which I've always made the lazy way i.e. using Campbell's mushroom soup and skipping the fried onions altogether.

Fellow American Katie Walter, who pens the delicious food blog, Two Aprons, has a mouth-watering recipe for an updated green bean casserole, which she's been generous enough to share with us.

Here's Katie's recipe for this yummy Thanksgiving side:

"As an American living in London, Thanksgiving is the holiday when homesickness creeps in most.  At Christmas, I miss my family, but there are cozy pubs with Christmas lunch, ice skating rinks galore, panto, Christmas markets, etc.  At Halloween, the Brits don't decorate their homes in orange lights or put out motion-sensing zombies (unlike suburban America), but there are kids trick-or-treating, carved pumpkins, and the occasional costume party.

But Thanksgiving in London is difficult.  Being on a Thursday, life continues as usual.  There’s no lazing around the house during the day, chatting and playing games with friends and family, watching football, post-dinner walking and/or napping.  It’s a typical Thursday with work and school. 

However we can still gorge ourselves silly!  

Green bean casserole is one of the most traditional and revered of Thanksgiving dishes.  Yet when I finally fixed it myself (the beauty of Thanksgiving is everyone typically brings a dish, so someone else always made it) the reality hit that the majority of ingredients come from a can.

That’s not how I cook - and I think more and more people are getting away from canned, processed foods and cooking with whole, fresh foods.  So I set about updating this age-old favorite.  Canned green beans are replaced with fresh; condensed cream of mushroom soup is replaced with a homemade mushroom cream sauce and finally the topper of boxed “french fried onions” is swapped out for homemade fried onions.

I cooked this last week for an early Thanksgiving celebration with my parents who were visiting from Wisconsin.  My dad couldn’t get enough (honestly - he had it for breakfast the next day!) and he’s about as traditional as you get.  So if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas (goes just as well with a Christmas turkey) give this updated classic a try.  Sometimes it’s good to play around with tradition.

Updated Green Bean Casserole
Makes 6 servings (or more if part of a big Thanksgiving / Christmas spread)

Note:  A wider (as opposed to a deeper) 2-quart dish is preferable as it will allow the crispy onions to spread out more.  But use whatever you have - it’ll taste the same regardless.  Keep whole nutmegs (they’re round and about the size of a plum pit) on hand and grate as needed.  I use a microplane grater but you can also use the smallest holes on a box grater.  Tastes so much better than ground nutmeg from a spice jar.
Crispy Onions:
Vegetable oil (as needed, about 16 oz or 450 ml)
3 tablespoons plain, all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced 

Green Beans and Sauce:
1 pound (450 grams) green beans, rinsed, trimmed and cut in half
2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter
12 ounces (340 grams) mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup (240 ml) chicken broth
1 cup (240 ml) half-and-half / single cream

Preheat oven to 400°F / 200°C. 
To make the crispy onions:  Heat a 1/2 inch or so of vegetable oil in a large skillet (approximately 12” or 30 cm diameter) over medium-high heat until a drop of water flicked into it will hiss and sputter.  While the oil is heating, place flour in a medium-sized bowl and season with salt and pepper.  Toss the onion slices in the seasoned flour.  Grab a handful of onions, shaking off excess flour, and fry in the hot oil in batches until light golden brown, about 3-5 minutes per batch (onions will get more color when they bake in the oven). Remove with a slotted spoon, letting excess oil drip back into the skillet, and place on a paper towel-lined plate or tray. 

To make the green beans and sauce: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the beans and cook for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately plunge the beans into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.  (Beans may still seem a bit firm, but they will cook more in the oven.)

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to give up some of their liquid, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and nutmeg and continue to cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute. Add the broth and simmer for 1 minute. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the cream. Simmer gently until the mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, approximately 6 to 8 minutes.  Stir in green beans and remove from heat.  

To assemble the casserole:  Transfer the bean/mushroom mixture to a lightly greased 2-quart casserole dish.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Sprinkle with crispy onions and return to the oven for 5 more minutes or until casserole is bubbling and onions are a shade darker.  Serve immediately.

Adapted from Alton Brown and Smitten Kitchen

Thank you so much for sharing, Katie! I'll definitely give this a whirl next week. If you're looking for more Thanksgiving inspiration, check out Katie's other Thanksgiving recipes for Herbed Oyster Stuffing and Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Wine. Warning: may induce a food coma!

Photos © 2015 Katie Walter.

© angloyankophile

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