In a couple of hours, I will be 23. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves that birthdays are no longer worth celebrating, there is no denying that we will acknowledge the day on which we were born. We can say that it’s just an arbitrary day to which we ascribe an arbitrary meaning, but isn’t it the case for just about everything else?

23 seemed a much more onerous number than 22. It’s on the fringe of having a consistent adult life. Questions about the meaning of things seem frivolous. Responsibilities weigh in on decisions. It wouldn’t be a forgiving decade. Chance has it that I have so many unanswered questions. While conviction grows ever stronger, so does doubt.

The fork ahead never seemed so apparent. I thought I have chosen, but choosing is a never-ending chore. And there are no wrong paths. I could have mistaken this fact; it might just be a belief that I wouldn’t deny myself.

I’m turning 23, and all that is palpable is my hollow hope, my blind courage, and my insecurity. So much for this conviction – I can hardly speak my mind.

"But I am young no longer now; for sixty years my heart's 
been gone. 
To play its dreadful music there, beyond the valley of the
sun.
I watch with envious eyes and mind, the single-souled,
who dare not feel.
The wind that blows beyond the moon, who do not hear 
the Fairy Reel.
If you don't hear the Fairy Reel, they will not pause to steal
your breath.
When I was young I was a fool. So wrap me up in dreams
and death."
The Fairy Reel, Neil Gaiman

I’d wished myself a fool anyhow. A 1000 times over.

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Oh kids, aren’t they a noisy bunch? Mid-afternoon, the bus that gets to the train station would be packed with students on their way home. The top deck, without the close supervision of the bus captain, would overflow with their excitement. Surely, it’s their favourite time of the day; it’s a momentary relief from teachers, parents and expectations. Even the most studious children would forget about their homework until they get home. Some share glorious feats of slaying the great green gargoyle in their virtual quests, others sneak treasured snacks amongst their closest pals. The common denominator is their chatter – loud, sincere, and unrestrained.

It shouldn’t be surprising that many aspects of our living experience follow an inverted parabolic path. In our childhood and adolescence, we crawl and climb and hop to higher grounds. At some point, the roads take a turn downhill, often sooner than we would expect them to. Independence is one example; the sweet taste of the first paycheque would hardly portend the need to have someone else change our diapers when we are all decrepit and broken. Other factors that are associated with independence, such as ability or income, follow the same pattern.

Reticence is another. As we grow older, we speak less of our minds, and perhaps more lies. Could we be less verbally expressive on the whole, as we pass into adulthood? A study of the average number of words spoken each day by people of different ages would be interesting. Past the tipping point, one wouldn’t be too far from being that nagging grandmamma or that grumbling grandpapa.

No doubt I’m generalizing, and over-simplifying. If there was only a single turning point in life, it would be too predictable, too easy. Only in the twists and turns we are lost and found, and then there are those who wander.

I’d wished that I could speak my mind more often, although it wanders off every now and then.

Ham and Brie sandwich from The Provision Shop

Ham and Brie sandwich from The Provision Shop

Inspired by this drool-inducing video kindly (or perhaps insidiously) shared by some precious friends, I have set off on a pilgrimage of sandwiches. Midweek, I have munched on three sandwiches that had some sort of cheese in them. It started with one of Ham and Brie at The Provision Shop, because I was at Everton Park for a bag of beans from Gitesi, Rwanda, after giving away the last of my Kochore beans. There was berry compote in it, which wasn’t a bad idea because its sweetness aptly lifted a potentially heavy meal. What wasn’t welcomed was the half-hearted service. That let the food down, but anyone could tell the front-of-house was crestfallen. Could be a broken heart, or a tough day at work – I’m sure we all have days like that.

I had my second sandwich from Breadyard – a frequent haunt, in part due to proximity, in another, acquaintanceship with the owner. I had the Ham and Cheese sandwich, an alternative from my usual Duck and Orange because of this pilgrimage. Ivan, the owner, was there himself on Tuesday to put apple slices in the sandwich. Another splendid idea which does justice to his dedication to baking wholesome bread.

Tomato and Mozzarella sandwich from Necessary Provisions

Tomato and Mozzarella sandwich from Necessary Provisions

The third was Tomato and Mozzarella, at Necessary Provisions where I have opted to get some revision done, but ended up writing this post. Fresh tomatoes espoused to the supple cheese, with a side of well-dressed greens, could hardly go wrong. Then there were the cinnamon rolls which I couldn’t resist.

These sandwiches made satisfying meals, but they aren’t ‘grilled cheese sandwiches’ per se. It is hard to find something so simple in the fancy cafés these days; I’ll have to make do. Eons ago I had an actual one from Simply Bread, which was decent, but lacked the oomph. Perhaps it’s time to head to the fromagerie and spend some time in the kitchen.

N.A.O and Café Dumo

N.A.O and Café Dumo

If I had some sort of talent in putting paint on canvas or gyrating my lanky figure to music, I would have gone to the School Of The Arts, SOTA in short. Because it has such a beautiful campus. Fortunately, I had no such gifts, nor was SOTA opened when I left Primary school. Back in the days, choosing which school to go to was a much simpler feat. I had gotten very interested in some kind of chess called Go (or Weiqi), from reading this Japanese manga – Hikaru no Go. So I’d set my mind on this particular school which was famous for their Go club. My exam score barely gave me a place in this school, just as I made it into the club by pure chance. Funny how things have worked out.

Nevertheless, the establishment of SOTA was a commendable feat to encourage our people to be more accepting of ‘alternative pathways’. It is not the most ideal; students have to take the International Baccalaureate at the end, so they have to split themselves between passion and obligation. Yet it is a compromise, given the state of our culture – in which qualifications mean a great deal. I would love to witness the day when we can tell our children to be who they want to be and be honestly proud of it, although that is quite unlikely by current projections.

I had a discussion some weeks ago with a botanist mentor/friend over dinner, about how in cities we cannot expect the obsession with money and mentality of hoarding to simply go away. Not even with any form of government intervention (in a free/sort-of-free society that is). Imagine how different the conditions are in a smaller town. It isn’t difficult to find one’s purpose in being a painter, a farmer, a postman, or a baker. For instance, through his humble hands, the baker kneads bread out of flour, water and yeast for his neighbours who lie in their soft beds while he works the dough. In a city, all notions of such romance are dispelled as bakers scramble over meagre profit margins, which probably wouldn’t suffice to raise their families. Material wealth takes centre-stage; aspirations limit themselves to enterprises and financial institutions. It’s all about capital, resources, and efficiency. In the most efficient economy, the only conceivable bakeries are the factories.

Ironically, our consolation lies in our inefficiency. We can’t work like robots (at least, not yet). We fall in love, and we fall out of love; we are seduced by utterly inefficient notions such as spending an afternoon with ume-scented green tea and lovely cakes in the company of friends. (You saw that coming, didn’t you?) We need only to head over to nowhere but SOTA to be seduced by my favourite patisserie in this condemning city – Kki Sweets.

Kki Sweets started out on Ann Siang Hill, and after an 8-month-long hiatus, it re-opened in SOTA. So much has changed, so much hasn’t. At its new home, full-length glass windows and simple, wooden furnishing exudes a comfortable openness. The owner only made the welcome warmer, as before, treating everyone like neighbours. And the influence of Japanese patisseries extends beyond its hospitality; the cakes are concise and light, focussing on getting the simple things right. Some of my favourite cakes are still there, notably the onigiri, although it wasn’t available on this visit. But luck has it that I could have my fork on the N.A.O, a dainty strawberry and pistachio mousse cake, and Café Dumo, a balanced coffee entremet, for I have missed out on these two back then.

There are new offerings, but I couldn’t really be sure.  The incumbents are great, but like all food places, innovation and improvement are necessary. Prices are steep, relatively, but not unjustified, for both the chefs’ dedication to their craft and the impossible rent prices. Its tea selection is limited, but sufficient and apt for its sweets. Better coffee would retain more customers, because their palates are getting pickier with the saturation of cafés. Understandably, a standard espresso machine is a heavy investment, for cost is always an issue in a bustling city like Singapore.

On our part as consumers, we can be more discerning. If we want places like this to stay, because it is not just a business, then we have to acknowledge that our support makes a difference. Everyone will have their own favourites, and it’s always sad to see them go. Yet I hope that Kki Sweets is here to stay, for its simplicity, its charm, and its warmth is the kind of love we would want to fall into.

Kki Sweets
1 Zubir Said Drive
SOTA #02-01

https://www.facebook.com/kki.sweets

A couple of days ago this was on my feed: Hanging with High School Hank from the vlogbrothers. Who? John and Hank Green, if these names ring a bell. VidCon? Nerdfighteria? The fault in our stars? OK I’ve not read the book or watched the film, but you would probably recognize the last mention. Check out their original channel, or watch vids from their CrashCourse channel and you’ll probably learn more things than can be taught in business school pffft! (OK no hating this time around, considering how grim the previous post was.)

On a lighter note, I thought I should make a list of “Things to achieve in Year X”. I know I’m not in high school any more (sigh) but hey! I’m still young! (right…) So here goes nothing!

2014: Bake an awesome birthday cake.
2015: Finish The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.
2016: Be free.
2017: America!
2018: Chocolate.
2019: Work somewhere in Spain/France.
2020: Make bread.
2021: To the edge of the world.
2022: Buy an espresso machine.
2023: The Great family meal.
2024: Israel/Syria/Egypt, if there’re still there.
2025: Learn a new language.
2026: Live 10 days without any communication device.
2027: Cook eggs.
2028: Send 10 letters.
2029: Invent a new snack.
2030: Balloons!
2031: Run.
2032: Keep running.
2033: Venice, if it’s still there.
2034: Stay on a boat.
2035: Visit a coffee plantation.
2036: Wish upon a star.
2037: Write something and get it published.
2038: Read a novel overnight.
2039: Northern Lights, if there’re still there.
2040: Look forward, if I’m still here.

Yeap so I guess that’s a pretty long list. No particular reasons for anything, just whatever that comes to mind. It will be nice to look at this list again, a few years, decades down the road. (Hello the 40-year-old-me, this is you when you’re 23. Can you imagine you’re actually typing this with your fingers when they have yet to invent a consciousness translator?)

For most parts of my life, as short as it is and for as far as I could remember, learning has never been a chore. Quiet joys comes from deriving mathematical models, identifying historical significances, or understanding how water, flour, yeast and salt transform into bread. There were times when I had tried to tear down the doors of my classroom in kindergarten, and when the cane was a study companion. Yet, I have never taken learning as an obligation to achieve some other goal. It is a necessity in itself, as much as it is a desire. For if one could not learn, then one couldn’t be better. If one couldn’t be better, one could only become worse.

Of late, school reeks of rusty metal bars, and curriculum paints the classroom walls a sombre grey. Even so, the nail-scratched markings counting down the days wouldn’t fade. Projects are the shackles, and class participation – roll calls. Resolve is the colour of the uniforms that could only fade; motivation is the meagre light that penetrates the high walls – present, but without warmth.

In the usual case, two paragraphs of cathartic indulgence wouldn’t suffice. One would expect some contorted transition to whimsical talk of coffee or cakes (or both all the better), almost always forcibly so. Today, I’m having ice-cream instead. Maybe, just maybe, there is this little inner imp trying to orchestrate despair so that my old friend would take pity and visit me. O blind courage, where art thou?

Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis

Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis

In one of Will Smith’s celebrated films, The Pursuit of Happyness, there was this line that I could recall:

“I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”

Amidst an ongoing debate on the pervasive ‘paper chase’ in my country, I thought it was apt to revisit this quote. The socio-cultural sentiment, that qualifications are sieves which separate the successful from the rest, has affected me personally. I am stuck in business school, when I’d rather be in the kitchen. While I am encouraged that there is such debate, it is equally difficult to conceive any imminent change in perspectives. One step at a time, but we must also consider how we relate success to happiness. This is an age-old concern, yet we are still so blind.

Rat race or paper chase, is happiness its attainable goal? Or are we doomed to Sisyphus’ fate in an absurd pursuit, in which we must imagine ourselves happy? Who is Sisyphus anyway? Why does he have such a difficult name to pronounce?

In seeking these answers, let’s not neglect the obvious fact that Sisyphus didn’t have any cake while we do. Because if we can’t have happiness, we can have cake. Let us eat cake.

Last summer, my pursuit has brought me to Tokyo. I didn’t know much about Japanese pâtissiers; I only had chez Hidemi Sugino on my ‘must-visit’ list, thanks to his fame in the blogosphere. By little coincidence, I stayed two blocks away from his unassuming shop. On my third day in Tokyo, I decided to join the queue only 15 minutes before opening. This indifference was duly punished as the signature cake – ‘ambroisie’, was snapped up by those who came even earlier. Disheartened, but unbeaten, I chose four other petits gâteaux to share between my Dad and I. Three days later, I made another visit, only to miss the signature again, but two other cakes made up for that.

All in all, I tasted six cakes out of the 20 over that were charmingly displayed on the cake counter. (You see, I always had a thing for cake counters.) Each of the six has its own merits, but I was particularly inspired by the Framboisier. No photos were allowed, so words will have to suffice. Simply put, this layered cake accentuates our love for raspberries. Alternating layers of buttercream and jaconde offer soft and creamy textures on the palate, while the centre slice of jelly and garnishing raspberries present the refreshing and tangy aspect of this red midsummer gem. A layer of craquelin which sits atop the cake provides a crunchy distinction. With its shades and hues of red, and perfect layering, this cake grabs glances and robs hearts. As a whole, there is contrast, balance, and elegance, notwithstanding the fact that all elements comprise raspberries. Such is a dessert in which the ingredient humbles the chef, and the chef does justice to the ingredient.

The rest of the cakes were delights too. Amber Noix was a classic combination of chocolate, caramel and walnuts. Sous-Bois­ made another berry heaven. Tartelette au caramel passion, a bountiful tart of nuts and dried fruits wallowing in a smooth and rich passionfruit caramel, complemented by a quenelle of vaporous crème Chantilly. Charme was griottes, enough said, and Geometrin had an interesting, enlightening pairing of grapefruit and mint. Perhaps they weren’t all mind-blowing, but in chez Sugino I realized how simplicity doesn’t preclude ingenuity. After all, it takes most skill to execute the basics well beyond perfection.

On my first visit, Chef Sugino walked into the salon de thé from the kitchen. The gray hues of his hair suggested a certain frailty, at the same time an evidence of his dedication in decades. In his chef jacket, apron and clogs too, he glanced across the room in all modesty. He approached two boys accompanied by their mother for an afternoon treat, and they traded some words. I was too far away to hear anything, nor could I understand. Yet from the humble grin Chef Sugino revealed as he returned to the kitchen, I could imagine that to be his happiness, if not, close enough.