About Cherie Altea Bitanga
Cherie Altea Bitanga finds herself constantly making food, talking about food and around people who know food. Her daily adventures go beyond her own kitchen in Singapore, spanning from the nondescript holes-in-the-wall to sumptuous dining adventures. She believes in the art of slow food and scours places in hopes of bringing home unique spices, salts and oils. She is also the occasional artist and food writer who learned how to cook early in life by inheriting culinary family traditions from her motherland: the Philippines.
For over a decade, this blogger's career as an ESL instructor provided a multicultural atmosphere working with diplomats, celebrities, nuns, priests, politicians as well as high school and college students from all over the world. When she grows up, she hopes to cook for a living to celebrate her family's culinary legacy.
Latest Posts by Cherie Altea Bitanga
I live in one of the smallest places in the world, a little island called Singapore: the melting pot of cultures, sounds, beliefs and flavours. For me, it’s life in this fast-paced city in what I call a real urban jungle — “real” because of the ultra-modern infrastructure amidst lush, thick greenery almost everywhere.
Recently, I went through a medical journey and with that comes the discomfort, the limitation of movement and, of course, a bit of pain. Although I expected that, what I didn’t foresee was the kindness from strangers around me.
Let’s start with the uncles behind the wheel driving my cab.
“Don’t rush! Move slowly!”, said the first cabbie I’ve seen in days since I got sliced and stitched up. ”Sit down first, okay?”, he cautioned, ” Then, put your feet up next”, came the marching orders of the elder driver who was to shuttle me for the first time home. He drove very carefully from the hospital all the way to our residence in the East. I thanked him for making my post-op ride comfy and he told me, as I struggled to find the most bearable position to get out of the cab, once again repeating himself, “Ahh. Take your time, lah!”
After being on house-arrest for three solid weeks, I headed out for some time on the road once again. The same distance en route for a check-up. The cabbie was already waiting in the driveway but I moved as slow as a turtle, each step deliberate as I tried to get used to the sensation each step produced, but wary about putting unnecessary pressure on my stitches. While my husband made his way down the steps, I walked down the handicap ramp. What I didn’t expect was for the driver to go in full-reverse to meet me at the landing.
Most drivers here are typically in a rush, so I apologized because I couldn’t get in the cab as quickly as I wanted. But he scolded me, saying “Ahhh, it’s okay. Go slow. Just go slow,” as he monitored the way I was positioning myself in my seat. “Okay, good”, when he saw that I’ve closed my door. As we exited the estate, I noticed him changing pace significantly with each street hump and the turns along the way.
On the days that I’ve gone out on my own, I noticed that cab drivers would adjust their car closer to me when they see me walking slightly slower than everyone else, but no longer on the handicap ramp. Initially, opening doors was a struggle, and most of them asked if I needed help. I turned them down politely because I tell them that I needed to practice and get used to moving fully once again.
One of them looked back at me and declared, “You had operation, lah.”
“You can tell, uncle?”, said I.
He replied, almost indignantly, “Yes! We know. So, no problem. We’ll drive slow.”
When I went to the same restaurant the second time after a week, the server asked me, “Are you feeling better today, ma’am?”. It caught me off-guard because I realised that the staff was actually aware of my condition. Before I could thank him for asking, he quickly asked, “Do you need a pillow? We can put a cushion for your back?”
I thanked him profusely as he came back with two seat cushions that he improvised as a backrest. The same server was generous enough, as I paid my bill, to ask me if he can call the cab on my behalf so I didn’t need to wait and stand too long on the sidewalk.
Such small acts of kindness that make a big difference — from people, in places you don’t expect but at a time I needed it most.
But I know for a fact that it’s not because I was handicapped at that time. It’s happened even when we had just moved here. I was in the grocery holding two packs of cheese of a different brand. I guess I looked thoughtful because an elderly lady shopper made conversation with me.
She pointed at one, saying “This one, better. This other one?”, her face scrunched up. ” Taste is not so good.”
“Really?”, I said.
She asked, “What are you cooking?”
“I’m making pizza tonight.”, said a more enlightened me.
“Ahhh. Then you get this” (she proceeds to pluck out another pack from the chiller).
“You see”, she pointed out, “this one only X number of grams, but for X price. You see? This one, has more. Can put more on your pizza”.
I proceeded to the check-out lane with the recommended cheese in my basket.
And why not? Not only did I get the cheese I needed, I had a fun chat with a stranger, too!
Same grocery different day, I was tiptoeing to reach a bottle of detergent in a top shelf. A woman, perhaps my age, looked at me and offered, “Do you need help? I can reach it for you if you want”.
I laughed , slightly embarrassed, but more relieved as I said, “Please, yes! Thank you!”. And another time, I was reaching up, trying to hook a bottle of peppercorns with the tips of my fingers when a grandfatherly man interrupted the feat.
“Here…”, he reached up for the bottle and handed it to me, “Is this what you wanted? I’ll get it for you.”
Years ago, I documented a trail of random kindness in another frenzied part of the world: Tokyo.
What’s more interesting is I was on the receiving end of help from harried commuters in some of the busiest subway stations in the world.
I tell people that they probably encounter helping hands but maybe they’re just too busy to notice. To many of my friends, most have grown a bit too cynical to accept my stories as fact. To them, it could merely be fiction as a result of my naiveté.
But it’s not.
And yet others see it differently: they say it’s a blessing.
A mundane act that transforms the ordinary into something truly extraordinary.
It is a pure and simple gesture of generosity.
Nothing less, nothing more.
From one soul to another, expecting nothing in return.
Something brightened my day one rainy fall afternoon on my first trip to a charming place called Boston. Although there was a bit of hemming and hawing while planning the long haul ( 20 hours!!!), stumbling upon things like these can make me forget about the fatigue and slight weather-related mood swings (even for just a bit).
Just a few days before the surprise and severe snowstorm battered the East coast late October (not the best way to introduce snow to me for the first time, I tell you), my husband took me on a stroll around the parks and brought me to Copley Square.
And there we met the bronze sculpture created by Nancy Schon: “Hare And Tortoise” — a witty and wonderfully creative tribute to all runners who attend the Boston Marathon flying in from all over.
Dedicated to one of the world’s oldest foot races, celebrates winning by virtue of perseverance, focus… and wit.
Recently, I find myself with a lot of totes hanging on a door knob. All presents from friends. Because of this, I have a tote for every purpose i.e. large grocery trips, small grocery trips, art class, for walking Jones. I don’t bother changing the stuff in it. I simply pick up the bag corresponding to my choice activity and — swoosh! — I’m out of the house!
Here’s something that actually didn’t take long to make. What took time was me obsessing my measurements and whether I’m cutting things straight. Yey to my Janome machine! It didn’t eat any of my fabric and did this work totally knot-free. After making my initial project back into sewing. When I first started working, I had all my clothes made! Then over the years, the trade just dwindled away and I was left with no seamstress. What I like best about sewing is that I get to choose and use the colors and patterns I want — be it a dress or as simple as a bag.
For this tote bag,I popped over to Craftsy dot com! There was an online tutorial I studied and went over twice showing how to make a reversible tote bag. The instruction is so clear even a sewing newbie such as myself was able to follow everything and produced something as clean as this — on both sides at that, too.
Trust me on this. I don’t sew. In fact, I only started sewing when I bought my summer colors and machine — which was two days ago.
It’s really quite amazing what a proper sewing machine (and some precise fabric scissors) can do.
Somehow, the frequent change of residence since childhood taught me to be a little… un-sentimental. It taught me how to literally throw stuff, move on, and let go of things, especially since we ended up staying in small spaces. Ergo, no storage space. In the process, toys (that I find out are of great value now — grrr!) have been given away or thrown out. This attitude and frame of mind is reflected in the way I keep house and wardrobe: minimal and down to the basics, with weekly clean-outs of receipts and random flyers, and twice-a-year spring cleaning.
Recently, however, I thought to myself that I will find my way back to these toys that I’ve lost through years. Not everything, but most notably my Fisher Price favorites, hopefully.
And I have begun my mission with a WONDERFUL hand-me-down from my good friend and classmate, whose daughter is off to college. I simply CANNOT believe that I’ve got friends whose kids are university-bound!!! Anyway. A few weeks ago, she announced that she was holding a great garage sale in Manila. I joked and said I’ll buy if she had a 3D View Master from the 80s.
Lo and behold, a part of my childhood was resurrected in a flash. She really had a View Master in her pile!!! What a fun toy to have back in the house — brings back memories of the Muppet and Sesame Street images I used to look at via this 3D camera!
Sometimes, errands need not be so bland or routine. These are very delayed pics but I did stumble upon very colorful spots during my last minute holiday shopping in Singapore’s Arab quarters along Arab Street. Since I was in the throes of moving house and shuttling back and forth countries during Christmas, I totally forgot to blog about this.
Let’s start with carpets. Very fine quality rugs and textiles line the street along Arab Street, just parallel to the artsy district along Haji Lane. Unfortunately, I am highly allergic to them but I find them very, very intricate and beautiful. Stores upon stores are covered in these exotic designs in deep hues and colorful patterns, covering the floor up to those hanging from the ceilings.
While looking for my favorite silk scarves merchant (will post a photo of my loot later on), I literally stumbled upon a tasteful perfumery tucked amidst all the textiles.
I love how they laid out the store with warm lighting to feature these artful bottles, some laid with silver or pewter (?).
Oh, and I do remember either my mom or my grandaunt having one of these on their dresser tables. The design brings us back to a different era altogether, a reminder that women did go through rituals getting primped for the day. Also these were bottles I used to see in old story books or comics (Blondie used it in many scenes, I think)
With a rich smell of musk hanging in the air, they do customized scents depending on your taste. Combine the smell with the sound of the tinkering glass beakers and men taking whiffs from each open bottle that they would sample — it was a sensory experience on its own in a place that looks like an antique apothercary.
Finally, another shop worth mentioning on the same busy road is a ribbon shop. Yes, they only sell ribbons and every single inch of the store from top to bottom is crammed and packed with ribbons of all patterns, textures and widths! Not a single patch of space was left empty and my jaw just dropped at the variety available in the store.
Arab Street is probably my favorite spot in the entire island, with its rich history, quirky finds and the life the springs from every shophouse and regulars who flock the place.
Now that the Chinese New Year is over, I started to crave seafood — raw, grilled or both. I just wanted sushi and sashimi. And honestly, I crave sushi all the time regardless of whatever reason.
Initially I was supposed to take them to one of my favorite traditional sushi restaurants: Tomi Sushi in San Jose, CA. “Traditional” means straight-up, fuss-free, no-fancy-dragon-roll and other jazzed up maki, and pretty much a scant menu offering fresh chunks of sashimi, sushi, a small selection of tempura and grilled fish. In Japan, restaurants are concentrated, and typically serve only one classification of dish i.e. ramen only, sushi only, etc.
So I found something new, one with an expansive menu, nothing too fancy but not too shabby either: Rakuzen. They serve thick, succulent slabs of sashimi and have both the traditional sushi offerings along with the more Westernized interpretations. Not to mention, their website said that they fly in their fish live into Singapore AND they mill their own rice grains. I wonder how many places can make that claim?
The agreed menu for the three of us is just to order a lot of rolls, several helping of fresh cuts of fish and a grilled squid. To honor last night’s dinner and the discovery of good food, I posted a photo, this thing of beauty: dreamy rolls of negitoro maki — minced fatty tuna belly rolled with scallions.
Okay, I know someone out there would probably say, “But I don’t eat curry!”. Well, I eat curry but I don’t eat all kinds of curry. In fact, there are only two kinds that I crave: Japanese curry, and this one above. As every curry has a different base, Thai green curry is not too overpowering or pungent. What I love about it is its mild character, sweet and very fragrant as it uses lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and basil.
THAI GREEN CURRY RECIPE
300-340g chicken breast, cubed
1 eggplant, cubed
1/2 white onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup coconut cream (not coconut milk)
1 packet Thai green curry paste (50g)
6 cherry tomatoes, sliced
1 long green chili
fresh kaffir lime leaves
1. Place some sunflower oil in a pan and sautee the garlic and onions. Mix the green curry paste and cook for a minute over medium fire while stirring constantly. Add the coconut cream and simmer for 2 minutes.
2. Throw in the chicken and mix evenly. At this point, combine 4 large lime leaves and 8 pieces fresh basil leaves. Simmer for 15 minutes. If consistency is too heavy, very slowly adjust with small amounts of water, and adjust fire as well.
3. Add the eggplants, tomatoes and one long green chili. Do not crush or slice, but add the whole piece into the pot. I let it simmer over low fire until the eggplants look soft but not withered. Just make sure it does not dry up.
4. Adjust flavor with fish sauce to get a more authentic taste, and some sugar if you want a bit more body.
5. Before serving, add more basil if preferred and garnish with fresh coriander. You can skip the coriander if you’re not too keen about it.
Typically served with steaming Jasmine rice, I opted for a guiltless option with a small bowl of quinoa
Into the Belly of a Whale. Well, that’s how I felt sitting in this very crowded but new tapas bar in Manila — like being in the dark, massive, roomy mouth of some whale on a noisy Saturday night.