Lesson From My Mother-In-Law’s Steamed Fish

The kids are back in school after the 4 day weekend break. Everyone went back to their normal routine on the 3rd day of Lunar New Year. I thought it was a pretty short break considering that on some years, school only starts on the 5th day of the new year.

We had our reunion dinner with my husband side of the family where my 78 years old mother-in-law took days to prepare the reunion dinner. Every year, both she and my father-in-law would make multiple trips to the market to stock up on groceries and fresh produce and she would spend her day, cleaning and arranging everything meticulously.

Age is catching up with her and with the renovation of their place this year, she only had less than a week to prepare everything. Still, she managed to cook up an impressive spread.

I remember those years where she would prepare Ngor Hiang and Ah Zha to gift to all her children and close relatives. Her Nyonya dumplings were unmatched and she cooked the best steamed fish.

One would have thought that steaming fish should be a no brainer. Just let the boiling water do the job, no? At least that was what I thought.

And that was exactly what she did too. She had a wok of boiling water and the ingredients she used were nothing unusual. It was almost like, her secret to cooking perfect steamed fish was … No Secret. But somehow her steamed fish always tasted better.

It was a mystery.

It took me a long while but I think I finally figured out the 2 main ingredients for her tasty steamed fish cooked to perfection,  meticulousness and precise timing.

The process starts from choosing the freshest fish and cleaning the fish. From clearing the stomach to rubbing it down with salt, rinsing and dripping it dry. Then depending on the size of the fish, the time it takes for the fish to stay over a wok of boiling water has to be just right. A few minutes too early, the fish would be half cooked and a few minutes too late you might end up with the fish being too tough thus destroying the freshness of the fish.

I realized that like learning any new skill, to gain expertise, one needs to practise, practise, practise. And the quality of practice is just as important as the quantity.

Simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills. Mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance. But instead, understanding what needs to be improved and the areas that can address these deficiencies need to be constantly worked at. My mother-in-law took years to figure out the different timing needed to steam different fish depending on the weight and size.

Greatness requires dedication and sacrifice, period. Being good at something requires a fair amount, being great requires a huge amount. If you want to be great at what you do, then much dedication and sacrifice is required.

Geoff Colvin called it deliberate practice and he believes it is this that separates world class performers from everybody else.  I agree with him and I believe that deliberate practice can be used by anyone, not just world class performers but anyone who wish to better themselves and be really good at what they are doing. You can be a football player, a swimmer, a pilot, an admin clerk, a painter, a parent, a homemaker, and in this case, it is what separates my mother-in-law’s steamed fish from everybody else’s.

So deliberate practice we shall have and may we be better every year than the year before.
Here’s to a great monkey year filled with happiness, good health and prosperity!

Huat ah!



About School

The first few weeks of school has just gone by. My 6 year old has officially joined his elder brother in the big boy school. It dawned on me that very soon my little baby would lose his chubby cheeks and potbelly, and his cutesy little feet would balloon into a size 10 like his elder brother’s. I felt the need to smother him with hugs and kisses because very soon, my little baby wouldn’t be so little anymore.

His K2 graduation photo now sits in our living room. He looks handsome in his graduation robe proudly holding his graduation scroll.

However I wasn’t really ecstatic about his year end concert. Seeing him march on stage in his graduation robe with his head held high with his scroll in hand brought a mixed sense of pride and a tinge of sadness. This seemed to mark the end of childhood innocence and the start of grueling years of formal schooling. Yet, I know the choice is mine, whether to jump on the bandwagon.

This year, we paid 60 bucks to watch him on stage dancing to the beat of some funky pop songs from the billboard charts. It was cool but I didn’t get overly excited. The teachers and children had spent the last few weeks of school preparing, practicing the songs , dance moves and speeches. The usual lessons came to a halt and they spent hours practicing and rehearsing.

On the day of the performance, the kids were asked to put on makeup so that they would look ‘better’ on stage. Of course the boys protested indignantly that ‘Boys don’t wear makeup!’.

I would have very much enjoyed a simpler concert, a song or something they had learned in school during the past year. There needn’t be fanciful costumes or props or a grand concert hall but perhaps that wouldn’t be good enough? These days, it’s not uncommon to see schools lavish on year end concerts and I am beginning to wonder over the motivation behind these.

There may be many different views on the purpose of education. Scholars, teachers, and policy makers are still trying to reach a consensus. Some joked that one might have better luck asking ‘What is the meaning of life’.

If the role of schools is indeed to train our children to become lifelong learners who are able to love, work, and act as responsible members of the community, then I wonder how a lavish graduation concert would fit in.

The teachers were visibly stressed out preparing for the big day. It was definitely not easy to get a bunch of preschoolers to cooperate and put up a performance of this scale. I could imagine how unnerving it must had been for the teachers, especially when the audience is made up of demanding monster parents.

Fast forward a couple of months later. My 6 year old is adapting well to his new school. There was no first day of school jitters and no crying. Unlike child birth, the second kid was definitely easier than the first. I am quite sure having an elder brother in the same school made a difference. For a start, he already knew some of his brother’s friends even before joining the school.

And how did we prepare him for Primary 1?

No, we didn’t cram him with worksheets or tuition classes or send him for a crash course in reading. We did make sure he knows his dollar and cents so that he could tackle his adventure in the school canteen. He was so excited on his first day of school because he got to order his own food and handle real money like a big boy.

On the first day, his buddy, a girl from Primary 2, asked him why he doesn’t buy any sweet drinks. He probably gave her a list of reasons why sweet drinks were not good for you. I still couldn’t fathom why the school doesn’t sell mineral water.

On the second day, he was too short to see beyond the first rack of food and couldn’t order any side dishes to add to his rice. If not for the parent volunteers at the canteen, he would have probably ended up eating plain white rice with a few leaves of lettuce. That happened to many of the kids. They were too flustered and it didn’t help that the canteen vendors weren’t very thoughtful in displaying the food they were selling.

On the third day, he was short changed by the canteen vendor. He was too slow to figure out how much change to get back for his bowl of noodle that cost 80 cents. But now he knows better, that it’s okay to ask for your change even if you can’t figure out the exact amount; that adults are not always right and sometime they can be forgetful.

It was a pity that the school field was closed again for construction. His elder brother who is in Primary 6 this year had gotten quite used to it. The field was out of bounds half the time he was there. As a result, the chaos at the canteen during recess time was only to be expected. When the children are deprived of the space to expend their energy (after sitting in the classroom for long stretch of time), trying to maintain order is insane and inane. Thankfully so far, the boys have been able to keep themselves occupied without getting into trouble and I have yet to receive any complaints from their teachers.

Though I am far from satisfied with how things are being run in the school, I realised that school is probably the best place for the boys to get a glimpse of real life.

Managing their expectations, taking things in their stride, dealing with adversity, finding their own solutions for their own problems, learning to be positive and focus on the brighter side of life. These are life skills that even some adults struggle with.

While the school is far from perfect, I think it has provided them the environment to pick up valuable life skills at a young age. So maybe it is not because of the school system, but in spite of the school system that our children will learn to succeed.



A French Baguette, An Incidental Bake

There was much feasting this holiday season. We had family over for Christmas dinner and friends over to warm up our new place. I found myself spending more time in the kitchen than usual. Either that or I was frantically searching for new recipes.

A couple of girlfriends came with a bread machine the other day and I was thrilled. Yes, I am at that stage where receiving kitchen appliances excite me.

After putting the kids to bed one night, I decided to check out my new toy.

I was glad that It didn’t come with a 100 page manual in 10 different languages. The recipe that came with it looked simple enough for a non baker to understand. According to the recipe, you just need to put all the ingredients in the stated order, press a few buttons and voila! A freshly baked bread will be waiting for you for breakfast the next morning. The simplicity got me even more excited. It had been a long day and I was deadbeat but I thought how difficult could it be to measure the handful of ingredients and dump them into the machine. I could do everything in a jiffy and surprise the kids with a freshly baked loaf for breakfast the next day.

I took a quick glance at the recipe and picked out French bread as it required the least number of ingredients and could finish in just less than 2 hours! (I later realized I made a mistake, it would take more than 3 hours to complete)

I carefully measured everything, making sure they were added in the correct sequence. It took me less than 15 minutes. I happily texted my girlfriends and thanked them again for the wonderful gift. And left the machine running while I packed up the cardboard box that came with the machine.

It was then that I heard a rattling in the box. I took a closer look and found a small metal piece that looked like a part that should go into the bread pan. It turned out to be the kneading paddle! My heart sank. What was I thinking, trying to knead a dough without a kneading paddle?! There goes my first loaf of bread!

The heating coil was already red hot by then and I swiftly transferred everything onto a mixing bowl. I was ready to throw everything into the trash but my friend who was still on the chat had some experience at making bread suggested that I should try hand kneading.

I took her advice and gave the mix a quick knead, much like an attempt to resuscitate. Thereafter, I left the dough in an oiled bowl and cling wrapped it. I wasn’t hopeful that what I had done would be enough to save the dough. I was quite sure I had ‘killed’ the yeast knowing how fussy yeast was. Too hot, it dies and too cold, it remains dormant.

A quick search for a French bread recipe on the Internet yield so many different recipes. Unfortunately my brain at 12 midnight wasn’t capable of finding the closest match for the recipe that I had used especially when I had to do unit conversion.

Surprisingly the dough that had been sitting in the bowl for the last hour had grown in size. Ideally it should have doubled but I wasn’t complaining, the dough was still ‘alive’!

Without much delay, I turned the dough onto my kitchen top and started rolling it out, like what I saw in the videos. I wasn’t sure but I thought some kneading shouldn’t hurt.

I divided the dough into 2 and rolled each out into rectangular shapes before folding in the sides and sealing up the edges. I made a few slashes on top like on most baguettes. The oven temperature was set to 190 degC and for the next 30 minutes, (the timing was a rough guess, an average bteween 20 to 40 minutes) I planted myself in front of the oven, anxious to see how the bread would turn out.

After what seem like a long while, the alarm finally went off and 2 loaves of good looking bread emerged. It was already 1am in the morning.

The colour of the crust looked about right but it wasn’t crispy enough and the inside wasn’t as fluffy as those we like from Cedele. I was glad they were edible and didn’t taste like some rocks or stones. It was decent enough for my boys to gobble a whole loaf for breakfast the next morning.

And that was pretty much how I ended up making my first loaf of French baguette. An incidental hand knead loaf that I wasn’t even sure how to replicate! It was a mishmash of everything that I could gather on the Internet when my brain wasn’t functioning 100%.

IMG_4986Then again, I really shouldn’t be making bread the labour intensive way since now I have an all singing all dancing bread maker machine sitting in my kitchen!


Note : In case you are adventurous enough to give this a try using the labour intensive method, these are the ingredients I used

1. Water 260g
2. Salt 6g
3. Oil 9g
4. Sugar 12g
5. Bread Flour 400g
6. Yeast 5g

Good Luck!

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