Monday, December 7, 2009

If Julia Child could see us now...


Julia Child requires no introduction. The American chef, author and TV personality introduced French cuisine to mainstream society in the US.  Her best-known cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking published in 1961, also became the basis for the recent bestselling book and Hollywood movie, Julie & Julia. 

Julia Child and I both went to Smith College.  She graduated from Smith College in 1934, me sixty-two years later.  This prestigious liberal arts college is the alma mater of famous authors: Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem. 

Studying at Smith is a special experience, learning with the best women in America and the world. I was astounded to know there were more than a hundred valedictorians in my entering class as a first year.  No doubt, the students here were oozing with talent and intelligence. But to many non-Smithies, this prestigious liberal arts college was known for its glamour. Immigration officers frequently teased me, “Where are your gloves and pearls?”, since Smithies traditionally wear a strand of pearls.   And there was no denying that First Ladies, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan, both studied here. 

Indeed, I can’t complain about being spoiled there- living in charming houses instead of dorms, Friday afternoon tea with chocolate dipped strawberries and freshly baked cookies, and candle-light Thursday night dinners.

Yesterday, I found myself in the company of two Smithies.  Two weeks ago, I gave a talk in the National Musuem, talking about how Nothing Goes to Waste in the Filipino Kitchen.  At the end of a workshop, a lady approached me. “You’re from Smith, right?”  I’m Cathy from Smith, Class of ’86.  Two weeks later, Cathy, myself and Lin Lin gather at Bukit Timah to shop for ingredients for the lunch we were about to cook.  Lin Lin is a Singaporean, a year my senior at Smith.

 Left to Right: Lin Lin, Me, and Cathy (thanks to Lin Lin for this photo)

We did not have any recipe in mind, instead we hoped to gain inspiration from what was available in the market.  Lin Lin was our gracious hostess, sharing her home with a proper oven. (Most flats in Singapore don’t have ovens equipped for serious baking or cooking).  Lin Lin was our knowlegable guide to the delicious finds at Bukit Timah market, a ten-minute walk from her home.  This enclave of Singapore is home to many international schools, and a popular residential area for expats.  The market naturally caters to their specialized food needs.  Unlike other markets in Singapore, this one has herbs: thyme, rosemary, dill, basil, and oregano for $2 a bag.  It is a bargain compared to the usual $2 for a few sprigs charged by most groceries. 

Cathy purchased Brussel Sprouts, her favorite winter vegetable.  There were figs, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, mushrooms, and a plethora of western fruits and vegetables. Rarely finding these in Singapore, Cathy and I were impressed.  The organic carrots still had their leaves on, making them look like Bugs Bunny’s signature snack.

                                             What's up doc?

Next to the organic vegetable vendor, my eyes laid on the most beautiful vegetable I had ever seen.  It looked like a floral arrangement as big as a dinner plate, with curly green petals.  “Fuguisa,” the vendor told me is its Chinese name. It means “Fortune Vegetable.”  The food stylist in me could not resist buying them.  I immediately bought three of them.  The uncle told me they are great for stir-fries, and are available only during the weeks leading to New Year. Whether it was going to bring me good fortune, I was not certain. 

                      Amused by the fortune vegetable

 I was getting attached to the pretty fortune veg, I almost didn't want to cook it.

Cathy verbalized how buying fresh fish intimidated her.  I shared tips to check on its freshness. The eyes must be clear. The gills must be bright red. The feel of the scales not slimy, and the body must be firm. 

Veering away from the usual salmon, we chose a silver pomfret.  We decided to bake the fish with the fresh dill, lemon, and garlic.  It was accompanied by garlic mushrooms, roasted carrots, and stir-fried Fortune vegetable with Chinese wine, pepper, and light soy sauce. 

                   A pair of silver Pomfrets all set and ready to be baked

As we washed the veggies, chopped, and cooked, the conversation flowed. A few hours before, we were all strangers who shared the same alma mater with Julia Child.  By the end of the meal, as we sipped Lin Lin’s favorite Rooibos tea, we were tightly bonded. 

     A quick and Easy, healthy home cooked meal from Bukit Timah Market

We all agreed how wonderful it is to connect with Smith Sisters.  It did not matter if did not share the same cultural heritage. Despite coming from a Korean, Singaporean, and Filipino heritage, we were still magically connected.  Together we all walked out of Lin Lin’s flat. Her backyard was very much like a Kampung, a traditional Malay village. She pointed to the pandan leaves, the Thai Basil plant, and the bitter gourd growing in her neighbor’s backyard. She encouraged Cathy and I to pluck a few pieces of herbs to take home.  And we did.

Indeed, it was a beautiful Saturday!  “If only Julia Child could see us now,” I thought.



  1. What a lovely story Maida. Smith College obviously has a soft spot in your heart and it is great that you met fellow alumni even though you didn't know them while you were a student. It is that common bond that makes you "feel at home" isn't it?

    Hope you are well. I'm busy being a mum so I haven't been writing much (no luxury of sitting at computer for long). Joan is getting married in Paris this weekend - we couldn't make it. xoxo

  2. Thank Michelle. Indeed, it makes it feel like home even in a foreign land with my Smith sisters. Its wonderful.

    Stay happy and regards to the adorable little one and to the hubby.


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