Celebrating 10 years of the Sambal Lady / Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen

Today, we made the trek out to Flatbush, Brooklyn, for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Sambal Lady, also known as Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen. To optimize for families and young children, Auria and her beer partner Josh decided on two dining sessions, one at 4pm and one at 7pm. So we choose the 4pm slot to ensure Pookster got home at a semi reasonable time to sleep.

We’ve been attending Auria and Josh’s joint Malaysian food/beer events for the last three years: the first year in 2021, I was about seven months pregnant with Pookster. Last year in 2022, we came out on a very rainy September evening for “Laksapalooza” and parked Kaia in her car seat under an umbrella on Auria’s deck once she fell asleep; this year, Kaia is walking, and we brought her in a stroller. The meals are always held in Flatbush right in Auria’s massive backyard. It’s always a bit of a novelty for us to be in anyone’s backyard here in New York City, as you rarely think of New York City as a place where you’d not only see detached, multi-story homes (this one has FOUR levels if you include the basement!!), but also large backyards with decks! And feeling quite suburban, Auria’s green thumb certainly shines in her backyard: she grows massive pots of Italian and Thai basil, makrut lime, endless other herbs, and elephant ears, amongst other seasonal vegetables.

I’ve always loved cooking for small dinner parties we’ve hosted over the last 11 years of being together. But I have rarely, if ever, prepared meals for more than 10-12 people. So when I think about preparing a massive dinner party for a group of 50+ the way Auria does at these events, all I can think about is total chaos. How do you cook at scale while also ensuring high quality? Is there going to be enough food? Can we ensure that each dish will be served at the correct doneness and temperature? But Auria’s been doing this for the last 10 years, so this is one of her big joys and specialties. She outsources a lot of help, including rented furniture, front-door security, setup, and cleanup. She asks supportive friends for extra help in the kitchen and also hires additional kitchen help. And with having her beer friend Josh involved, she doesn’t have to worry about drinks or booze since he and his people will cover that. Auria also has industrial sized pots and pans to cook her massive portions of food. Tonight, the menu included spinach and chickpea fritters served with mango coulis, her signature and much loved beef rendang, white rice, Malaysian cucumber salad, and a stir-fry of fried tofu puffs and vegetables. And as a seasonal touch for dessert, she also brought back 200 white lotus seed paste and red bean moon cakes baked by a local Chinese bakery in her hometown of Seramban, Malaysia, which she visited just a few weeks ago (since yesterday was Mid-Autumn Moon Festival).

Much to my dismay since Kaia has been on a heightened level of toddler selectivity this week, Pookster ate nothing at the event other than a large chunk of red bean mooncake. That actually did make me happy, though, since that was Kaia’s very first mooncake as well as her first time having red bean. It made me feel happy that her first mooncake was made in Asia (mmmm, Chinese food in Malaysia) and made at a bakery that has Auria’s stamp of approval. I didn’t get to talk much to Auria directly since she was running around everywhere all at once to ensure everyone was happy and things were going well, but she did tell me she’s an originalist when it comes to mooncakes given her upbringing: white lotus seed paste and red bean are her favorite fillings for mooncakes, and they are also some of the OG Cantonese flavors for mooncake. These were made a little different with the addition of small watermelon seeds, which I’d never had before. What a nice and unique crunch!

In the last few years, I have seen other brands of kaya jam that are imported from various countries in Southeast Asia, but when I think about potentially trying them, the thought disappears after a second or so when I look at preservatives noted under the ingredients list, or when I think about how the flavor would compare with Auria’s pandan kaya jam. Why bother fixing what’s not broken? We named Pookster after Auria’s pandan kaya jam, after all, so it will always be close to our hearts. Auria had previously asked if I had tried another “modern” kaya jam that I’d gotten a lot of social media ads for, but I told her this same sentiment: Meh, why bother trying it when I know this one is so good? Auria even mentioned this during the short speech she gave at the event, to which Pookster started clapping and yelling “yayay!’ like crazy. It’s like Pookster inherently knows.

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, aka time to eat mooncake

Growing up, I had no idea what Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was, but I did know that at around the same time of year every autumn, I could expect to eat moon cakes. Around September of every year, my grandma would buy boxes and boxes of Cantonese style moon cakes as gifts for family and friends. In return, we (surprise surprise) also received endless boxes of moon cakes, as well. I never understood the cultural importance of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival then. I just enjoyed eating the moon cakes. Since our family is Cantonese, I was really only ever exposed to Cantonese style mooncakes at home. It wasn’t until I was in college when I realized that there are many regional differences across not only China, but different parts of Asia, for mooncakes. Just a couple weeks ago, I finally had Thai style moon cakes, which are really more like mini round flaky pastries with a filling. And apparently, Shanghainese moon cakes are similar to these Thai ones, as well! I feel like I’m always learning new things about my culture and variations of the food I grew up eating.

It wasn’t until college that I officially learned what “Mid-Autumn Moon Festival” even was. Historically, the festival marked the time of the year, in autumn, when families would gather to enjoy the fruitful reaping of rice and wheat, and they would mark this with food offerings made in honor of the moon. The day that Mid-Autumn Moon Festival falls is always an evening of a full moon. So today, families will typically gather and have a delicious feast. And at some point of the day, they will cut moon cakes into small pieces and eat them together with tea. The moon is a symbol of harmony and unity, and so it’s considered auspicious to eat moon cake during this time of year. Moon cakes are always round, just like the moon (not unique, but you get the idea). Families eating moon cake during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is basically signifying that their family is unified and complete.

Since my grandma died, our family never really did anything for Mid-Autumn Moon Festival other than buy moon cakes around the same time each year. But I would like for Kaia to understand the cultural significance of these Chinese holidays since they are part of her culture. This year, for the first time, I actually went down to Chinatown specifically to buy moon cakes, specifically ones that I special ordered via email from Kopitiam, a Malaysian cafe/restaurant that was making snow moon cakes based on demand. I ordered five: two durian, one taro, one black sesame, and one white lotus seed paste (the last one is the most traditional Cantonese filling, and my favorite one growing up that I was exposed to).

Snow moon cakes, in the last several years (as long as I am aware), have become all the rage during Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. They’re basically like the modernized version of moon cakes: they have the same round shape, the same beautiful molds, but instead of a shortening or butter-based crust on the outside, snow moon cakes have a “shell” that is made of mochi or glutinous rice flour. They are instant eye candy and are just stunning to look at. And the moon cakes that are being made by places like Kopitiam — you know for a fact that they’re not taking any shortcuts or using artificial anything. I cut two, the durian and the taro, and Chris and I shared them. I offered a bite to Kaia given the holiday, though I’d normally never give her anything with added sugar. Initially, she seemed intrigued, but when she got close enough and watched us eat, she said she didn’t want any. It’s okay: I still want her exposed to these things, and at some point one day, she will be tempted.

Succulent terrarium

When I was young, I used to dream about having a garden where there would be multiple sections: one section would have all my roses, another section would have all my bulbed perennials (lilies, tulips, and the like), and a last small section would have little herbs and vegetables. Sprinkled throughout the garden would be fruit trees. I had no idea where this imaginary garden would be in the world, but that was my little gardening fantasy.

Well, fast forward several decades later, and here I am in New York City, with no front or backyard. The two living plants that are in our apartment are on the window sill in the kitchen. One is a spider plant that had been propagated from a friend’s fruitful spider plant. The second plant is an aloe vera that was gifted to us as part of a gift package when Kaia was born. And now, we have two more plants: two tiny succulents that came as part of a do-it-yourself terrarium set that my manager designated a virtual team building event today!

I will admit: I was a little happy to do this activity even though we were all virtual. It’s fun to do things that require a certain level of creativity, even if we are not all together in the same physical space. and the end product does look quite attractive. I have it displayed now on the window sill in the second bedroom by Kaia’s bed. The plants I actually do have today are a far cry from the vision I had as a child, but they do still make me happy and bring extra life and brightness into the apartment.

Daycare administration drama

The age-old debate in Facebook and Reddit mother and parenting groups continues: which is better: daycare or nanny? In general, I’m happy we had a nanny until Kaia was at least 12 months. if I had to do it all over again, I probably would have stopped our nanny relationship once we went to Australia in December and started Kaia in daycare in January when we came back. That was the point when not only did our nanny start taking us for granted and let go of a lot of her known responsibilities, but also when I felt like she just wasn’t keeping up with ensuring Kaia was doing age-appropriate, developmental activities. If there is one thing I absolutely do not miss, it’s having to manage a household employee and her constant insolence; it’s a far bigger burden than I ever previously had imagined.

While daycare certainly has its own set of challenges, it’s been nice that whenever I’ve had feedback, I can deliver it to the teachers directly and to the administration, and therefore there is always accountability (this certainly was NOT the case with our nanny). We’ve seen a lot of change since we’ve given feedback at our chosen daycare. But daycare isn’t necessarily always stable, either: our center director quit due to mental health challenges about two weeks ago. It was completely sudden and out of the blue. We really liked her and found her to be really responsive and empathetic. There have been rumors of witchcraft (if you can believe it or not…) amongst the teachers at the school. And just today, the main teacher (there’s a head teacher and an assistant teacher in each classroom) of Kaia’s classroom got fired. She sent a message in the daycare app to all the parents of her students, stating that she had just gotten fired for using her phone yesterday, and she loved us all and was sorry she did not have a chance to say goodbye.

I spoke to the center owner when I went to pick up Kaia late this afternoon. He said that this teacher did not pass her performance review. She had regular behavioral issues, was not fully focused while in the classroom, and had been gossiping about administration staff to the parents and giving one-sided stories that were unfair. Granted, I never really noticed any of this even with camera access to the classrooms, but daycare politics are like any other workplace: he said/she said stories and a bunch of workplace bs. I said I’d take his word for it, but for the most part, since the center director had quit suddenly, we have seen a lot of inconsistency and poor communication from the administration and would prefer more transparency.

Is this a little nuts? Yes. But… Regardless, I still prefer this to having a nanny.

How diaper changing has evolved in public New York City bathrooms in Kaia’s 21 months of diapering

Once upon a time when Kaia was around four months old, we started going out around the city regularly with her. What we quickly found out, or rather, were reminded of, was the fact that most businesses in the city are not at all friendly to mothers and babies in that a changing table in the restroom is nearly unheard of. What this ends up meaning is that I end up having to take out Kaia’s changing pad, lay it out on a gross New York City bathroom floor, and change her on it (once we got home, I’d throw the changing pad into the washing machine). Then, since she wasn’t yet crawling, I just had to hope, hope, hope that she wouldn’t roll over or try to touch the dirty floor. I’d swat her fingers away when she’d try to get her hands on the floor. At around six months, she started rolling. This is when I had to prevent her from rolling OFF the mat while changing. It just kept evolving: at around 8.5 months, she started crawling, and I’d have to sing to her and get her to do anything to stay on the mat. Occasionally, I’d fail, but that would just mean that I’d not only need to wash my hands after a diaper change, but also hers.

Diaper changing has gotten easier, though, since she has started walking. Now, she seems a lot more cooperative during outdoor changes. She’s always keenly observing whatever dark, miserable bathroom we are in. And as soon as I tell her we’re all done, she immediately gets on her feet and starts wandering around while I wash up (Pookster now walking means I never have to worry about her rubbing her hands all over a gross floor again!). The cutest thing that always happens is when I sit down to pee, and she is so weirded out by the tight quarters we are in that she immediately walks back to me, places both her hands on my knees or the tops of my thighs, and starts moaning as though she’s scared. In other words, she has to remain close to me to feel safe and protected. I find it absolutely adorable and endearing, and I always coax her and tell her that she’s safe; we’re just in the bathroom so we can both pee and clean up, and we’ll be outside soon where there’s more light and space. It’s a strange thing to enjoy, but I do enjoy these short, sweet moments when we’re together and close, and she’s feeling vulnerable. I love my sweet baby.

TooGoodToGo – finally trying it out

Last year, a friend of mine gave me a referral to sign up for an app called TooGoodToGo. The idea behind the app is that many restaurants and grocery stores have fresh food that is left to go to waste at the end of the day, so instead of throwing it out, they can instead charge customers a small fee to take a “grab bag” of food home. I thought that most grocery stores would donate to shelters and people in need, but I suppose that not every food-related business has the resources to facilitate this type of assistance. Either way, when I reviewed which businesses interested me within a short walking distance of us this time last year, I was dismayed at the small list of options. I did not want to do a grocery store (too big of a grab bag, and I could easily get a bunch of stuff I’d never want to eat, or things filled with artificial colors and flavors), and the restaurants nearby that participated were so generic. So I passed and never used my referral offer, which would have given me one free grab bag.

Well, Chris learned about this app this year, so he downloaded it and got us two “test” grab bags: one was from Morton Williams, a grocery store nearby, and the second was near Breads Bakery, which finally was participating at the location close to us. This is what we got:

Morton Williams: Florida Natural orange juice – 52 oz. container, bag of hard-boiled eggs (6), one container of vanilla yogurt, one 8 oz bag of shredded mozzarella cheese

Breads Bakery (Lincoln Center location): Lemon loaf cake, two sesame bread sticks, one mixed vegetable and sunflower seed salad

The orange juice and the lemon loaf cake made both grab bags “worth it,” but I would never get vanilla yogurt with fake sugar in it (ugh), nor would I ever buy pre-shredded cheese (to keep the shape, the shredded cheese is usually coated with some weird, artificial stabilizer that I do not want to get into here). Chris likes to drink juice, but he doesn’t care for plain orange juice. So while it may occasionally be worth it and you can get lucky, I’d stick with businesses that have a much smaller selection of things you’d like, and NOT do a grab bag from a grocery store again.

Kaia’s growing vocabulary and awareness

In the beginning, I was keeping a running list of Kaia’s words, but now, I can’t even keep up anymore. She says new words (and seemingly understands them) almost every single day, and more and more, she is putting words together. She watches me in the kitchen fiddling with things, and she says, “Mummy cooking.” She knows possessives now, so she likes to say “Mummy’s shoes!” or “daddy’s hat!” and “Kaia’s (insert literally everything of hers).” Today, she grabbed Chris’s hat and said “This is Daddy’s hat.” She identifies when I’m brushing or flossing my teeth. She declares when Chris is showering. She also preemptively identifies that we’re going to tell her she can’t do something: “No Rachel!” “No phone!” “No, Kaia!”

What I really love (well, this sentiment has not changed, but it’s just gotten more fun) is when we read together, and I stop before the end of the sentence to let her finish and say the last word or two. It’s really cute. She’s not only remembering but she seems to know the meaning of many of these words, which is really gratifying to watch. She does this with books we haven’t read it months, too. She even surprised me the other day when I was changing her diaper and singing the chorus of “Mouse Loves Big Rice,” a Chinese song, and she started singing along with me. She’s heard this song over and over since she was a newborn, but this was the first time she’d ever shown any affinity or understanding of what I sang. I find it so sweet. Every time something like this happens, I wish I could just have a camera recording the entire moment so I could capture it forever. But alas, it doesn’t always work out. I always try to replicate it subsequently, and of course, my little cheeky baby runs off to her next thing to discover or plow through. And of course, she loves to give me her little cheeky smile, laugh, and then yell out, “Cheeky! Cheeky! Cheeky baby!”

Rainy weekend days in New York

The weather forecast looked quite bleak for the weekend. It looks like based on a tropical storm coming in, most of the northeast of the U.S. would be covered in rain. This is never fun for us, as we like to be out and about, going from one place to another in a chosen neighborhood that Chris randomly picks. When we saw the rain, Chris got dragged down and didn’t originally want to go out. I insisted we go out, even if it wasn’t that far: why the hell are we going to let a little drizzle prevent us from going outside? It reminded me of many pathetic people I’ve met who have bailed on social plans simply because of a little rain. So what – your whole life has to stop because of some water coming down from the sky? It’s not like it was hailing or as though sheets of rain were coming down nonstop throughout the day.

So we went out — down to Brooklyn to the DeKalb Market Hall. It looks like a lot of other people had a similar idea to us: the place had lots of people roaming around and sitting to eat. The streets actually had a bit of foot traffic. And before we headed back home, we stopped and sat at Debutea, the same bubble tea spot we visited just last month that makes all their own boba and does everything from scratch. Given the rain, the place had very few people in it, which was nice for us, since it meant that Kaia could more freely roam around and not bother anyone. One cute thing she did was she knocked into someone who was seated and scrolling on her phone, and as soon as she bumped into the chair, she immediately said, “Sorry!” The woman was so engrossed on her phone, though, and barely noticed the bump or the fact that a tiny human apologized. I had never witnessed Kaia proactively apologize for anything she’s done, so it was cute and fun to watch.

Day 2 of waking up at 6am to ensure 1 full hour of exercise

I had another 9am meeting this morning, so for the second day in a row, I woke up at 6am to get down to the gym by 6:20 for another intense workout. Right now, my gauge for whether my workout was good is if my heart rate is in the “heart rate calorie burn zone” (I measured it the first few days this week, but now I have a good way of gauging based on how I feel), and if throughout and at the end, if I still have sweat coming down my eyes (a really annoying feeling, but one that is strangely gratifying because I know I’m pushing myself).

Was it hard to wake up an hour early? Yes. But I know I can keep doing if if I keep my mind at it. I was able to do it over ten years ago, so I know I can do it now. While waking up early is not a fun or painless thing for me to do, what I’ve felt the last two days is far less rushed than I normally feel. I actually feel like I have more time to shower, get ready, and go through emails. I have more time to prepare tea when I want to do a double boil of chai. I don’t feel anywhere as time pressed. It’s nice to get on with my morning in a more leisurely manner rather than bulldozing through actions.

We’ll see how I can keep this up.

A “surprise” Zoom call that is met with dismay

This afternoon, my aunt texted me to ask if I had time at 7 tonight for a quick Zoom call. She said that she was able to get temporary unlimited call access on Zoom, so she wanted to surprise my mom with Kaia and me on video during their scheduled Bible study. She said it wouldn’t be more than ten minutes. 7pm is usually when we start getting Kaia ready for bed, so I agreed as long as it would be quick.

Honestly, I wasn’t even sure why my aunt thought this would be a good idea. A couple of times over the years, my aunt has brought the phone over to my parents when she’s FaceTimed me, and my mom has never responded positively to it. She always says video is unnecessary. She shies away from the phone and tries to hide her face. She waves her hand and says “No! No!” to get the phone away. She doesn’t seem to understand the value of video calls. I’ve suggested doing Zoom multiple times since Kaia has been born so she could at least see her live, but every single time, my mom has refused.

So predictably tonight, when we got on the Zoom, my mom was immediately unhappy. I sat Pookster in my lap, and as soon as my mom saw us, she didn’t even smile or say hi. Instead, she frowned and said, “No, this is unnecessary,” as though we couldn’t even hear her. It was so rude and awkward. Does she realize that we can hear everything she’s saying? Who acts like that when they see someone? She cannot handle surprises, and she never behaves well when people try to do these nice things to make her happy. Everything has to be some dramatic negative event for her, something that people “push” her into that she doesn’t like.

It was just so stupid in every way possible. I constantly get asked by friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances if my parents have any plans to visit, or if we do video calls. And I always say no because it’s the truth. You’d think that my parents would want some direct contact with their only grandchild, but no. They rather see pre-recorded videos of her rather than seeing the actual person in the flesh.