Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Babysitting Mia & Maddy

I got to babysit a four and six year-old for an afternoon. Their parents dropped them off with a gigantic bag of snacks and a movie. But, I had other things in mind. I gotta admit. Sometimes I go overboard with what I have mind.... in the four hours I was left with these kids, we did some arts and crafts, played "pretend" (as in, let's pretend we're all swimming in the ocean) - child's choice, not mine..., played hide-and-seek (even though there's a limited number of spots I could possibly hide) - also, child's choice, not mine..., we went outside and picked tomatoes from the garden, and we baked cupcakes. 

Maddy went to town with my box of stickers. Telling a story of fishies swimming towards a present at the bottom of the ocean. What's inside the box, only she would know. On the table in the photo is Mr. Text Man. She told me his name with such attitude, as if it's it was totally unbelievable that I didn't already know what his name was when I asked. Maddy can be a little DQ (DQ = drama queen), but she also has this amazing capability of stealing everyone's hearts. She's so fun and so funny. She'll laugh with you one second, and then the next second, life somehow becomes dramatically miserable for her (simply because our attention had been diverted to her sister for just a split second). Her thing of the moment is performing "Let It Go" from Frozen, but only in whispers because she's too shy to belt it.

And then there's Mia. I seriously feel like I've missed out on the days she grew up. What happened? The last time I saw her, she was this energetic monkey who wouldn't stop. And now, she has poise. She can sit quietly to draw (something she absolutely loves to do right now) or she loves being quizzed on her additions skills. She has a caring and understanding nature especially when it comes to her sister. She explained to me that her sister is the way she is because she's still too young to understand or too young to express herself properly so that's why she's sometimes cranky. Where did the baby in Mia go? She's so grown up now.

After about twenty rounds of hide-and-seek, the redundance was driving me a little nuts. Not to mention that my body actually aches when I'm trying to contort into an unimaginable shape so I could fit and hide behind the TV. I'm way too old for that game. So, before Mia goes on to decide who should be the next "it" person for another game of hide-and-seek, I quickly shouted out, "Who wants to help me bake cupcakes??". 

I got two very enthusiastic "Meeee!!".

Siblings will be siblings. Majority of them love each other. But at that age, everything still has to be "fair". 

"But why does Mia get to do it?".

"Maddy, I think it's my turn now!". 

So, I had to count to five each time they took turns stirring the cupcake batter. To be fair. And it was quiet again. 

Maddy is still a little young to understand it all, but loves to be hands-on. She mixes the batter with such determination. Stirring isn't mixing, but flicking flour everywhere. Juggling between giving them instructions, mediating the "fairness", making sure the dough stays inside the bowl, and taking these photos, I've developed a bigger appreciation for what parents gotta do. But I loved every bit of it. 

I threw the cupcakes in the oven to bake for 10 minutes while the girls ran over to the piano to play (or really... to literally bang on the keys).

Once the cupcakes were out, it was time to frost. I knew this could either be fun or a disaster. Either way, we'd give it a shot anyway. Mia chose to frost her cupcakes yellow.

Maddy mixes the pink icing.

While Mia was meticulously putting on each cupcake confetti, and placing them with much precision...

...Maddy was eating the sprinkles by the handful. No pictures of her in action because I had to dump my camera, to grab her hand before she took another mouthful. Even though I allowed her to eat one or two of the sugar hearts, she would take another handful each time I turned away to help her sister. What a cheeky monkey! So that is why one of her cupcakes had a sprinkle pile on top (because she quickly released the handful of sprinkles when I was just about to catch her eating some more), and the rest were more minimalistic because I eventually moved the bowl away and limited her assess to the decorations. It was pretty cute.

All in all, I think the girls had a great time. 

When I dropped them off to their parents, and the girls handed their cupcakes to their mom, she commented, "Great! Next time, auntie Amie will teach you guys how to make me a turkey dinner!".

I then pictured Maddy drinking the gravy by the bowlful.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Coffee Bun

Dan and Bran told me about these coffee buns that were absolutely amazing in Asia. It's a chain you can find almost anywhere in Asia... and lucky for us, there are two locations near us also. However, Dan and Bran also says they're not quite the same here as they are in Asia. They visited the Coquitlam location a few weeks ago, and says they just weren't has soft and fluffy as the ones they had in Taiwan.

As we were sauntering around Lonsdale Quay killing time before a concert we were going to attend later on, Dan mentions that we were very close to the second location. Using the trusty google maps, we followed the moving dot on Dan's phone... and found, "The Coffee Bun".

Because of their mediocre review about the Coquitlam location, I was iffy about trying them. But Dan says, since we're here.. you might as well try one and say you have. So I walked in with not very high expectations. It comes in quite a few different filling flavours. I chose the red bean one, but other flavours include almond, cream cheese, chocolate, hazelnut, earl grey, custard, and oreo.

When the server handed me the paperbag holding the bun in it, I almost squashed it. Expecting a bun very much like the Chinese pineapple buns from the Chinese bakeries, I thought it would be just as dense. (see thumb hole in my bun in photo above and below).

I sunk my teeth into my first bite of the coffee bun, and .... Oh. My. Gosh.

It was heavenly. It was still warm and the texture was much more fluffy and soft than a regular pineapple bun. The coffee "crust" on top of the bread had a very apparent coffee flavour, but it wasn't too strong or too sweet. I thought the red bean filling was a perfect choice, but am curious what the other flavours would taste like pairing with the coffee topping. Dan and Bran shared one too and said it was much better than the one they had at the Coquitlam flavour, and this is pretty darn close to the one they had in Taiwan.

I could see why they would rave about it and want to try it here too. They really are so good. They advertise to bake new ones every 30 minutes, hence why you are guranteed to have a hot batch. I might just have to make a trip to Lonsdale Quay soon again to have another one of these delicious coffee buns!

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Calling all Vancouver foodies!! Especially those interested in traditional Japanese food. This hidden gem is a MUST TRY. 

I am pretty lucky to have hardcore foodie friends that don't mind me tagging along with them on their foodie adventures. I had the privilege of tasting the most authentic Japanese soba noodles you could find in the Vancouver area. I was so pleasantly satisfied and excited afterwards about this find that I couldn't wait to tell you all about it!

VanSoba is really hidden. In fact, the Japanese chef cooks in a shared kitchen in a cafe called "Ethical Kitchen". The story I've heard is the chef had originally cooked out of a tiny kitchen in a small grocery store next door to Ethical Kitchen named Tama. But because of the lack of space and the lack of power of a real stove of an actual kitchen, he had moved next door to share space with the said cafe. What makes his soba so special is that he makes the fresh buckwheat noodles himself, which is a very difficult task in itself (says local Japanese chef, Tojo). And because these noodles are freshly made by himself, there is only a limited supply everyday. The last time my friends went hoping to try these noodles, they were sold out by 1pm because of its popular demand, and they were left disappointed with no more noodles to try. So, we decided we would trek out there right when it opened. At 11:30am.

Ethical Kitchen itself has its own charms. It seems to promote organic living and cooking with fresh produce that they mostly grow themselves. I had a housemade ginger and orange lemonade along with my soba noodles, and it was perfectly refreshing for the summer day. They also sell a variety of baked goods and packaged "fruit kimchi's" and brew their own kombuchas. They seem to be closely knit with the Japanese establishment right next to them. 

Soba noodles can be served cold with a dipping sauce or hot in a broth. According to wiki, it takes three months to harvest buckwheat, so it sure is no easy and quick feat to make these noodles. Dan chose the zaru soba, which is the cold version, while Bran and I both chose the hot one served with a side of tempura. But first off, we started off with tamago. And boy, let me tell you about the tamago.

Tamago is a Japanese type of omelette made from folding many layers of egg. And the ones that were made by VanSoba were nothing like any tamago I've tried. Unlike the ones usually found in popular Japanese restaurants in Vancouver, it is very fluffy and not sweet. A sweet Japanese lady, whom we believe is the chef's mother, served us each dish with an explanation of how to eat them. This tamago is not sweeten, and served with a side of soy sauce. She said if we prefer, we could dip it in the soy sauce, but she suggests that we don't. The layers of this tamago is so delicately thin but when you bite into it, you can separate it into each fine layer. It was so light that it was like putting an egg cloud in my mouth. I didn't get to try tamago when I was in Japan, but my friends claim that it is very much like the ones they've tried on their trip. Just typing this makes me want to try it again.

Then came our noodles. Dan was first with his zaru soba. The Japanese lady explains how it is traditionally consumed. You grab a little bit of noodle with your chopstick, and dip it in the tsuyu sauce. (The tsuyu sauce is a mixture of dashi, soy sauce and mirin). If you like, you can take a bit of wasabi and green onion with your noodles before dipping. She says, "eat it quick or the noodles will become soft". After you finish the noodles, she brings over a small teapot with some of the buckwheat water that the noodles were cooked in.. with which you can pour into the tsuyu sauce and consumed as a soup. "The buckwheat water is very good for your health," she explains further.

I love how simple it is. The noodles are presented in a traditional way. It was laid out on a sieve-like bamboo tray (which is called the "zaru" - hence the name). The flavours are clean and the noodles have a bite to them. You can definitely taste the difference between these handmade noodles versus the packaged ones cooked by other local Japanese restaurants. The green onion and wasabi adds a bit of freshness and kick to it, which is perfectly balanced by the well-seasoned tsuyu sauce.

Then came our hot soba noodles with tempura. The Japanese lady explains that we could add a little bit of hot spice to it if we like but not too much. Again, it is important to consume it quickly before the noodles become soft. 

I liked breaking up my veggie tempura and dipping it into the broth before eating it. The veggies were finely shredded, lightly battered and fried to super crispness. Oh man. It was so good. The only complaint I would have is that right after you finish your last bite, you are already wanting more and making plans in your head of when your next trip back would be!

After finishing our delectable meal, we walked over to the Japanese market next door named Tama. It is cohesive with Ethical Kitchen in that it sells only organic and locally grown products. On its wall is a list of all the local farms that they are partnered with. You can find some interesting Japanese produce that you would otherwise not find at a regular supermarket. 

Nozawana is a Japanese leafy green of the turnip class. It is often pickled in Japanese cuisine.

Their Japanese staff are friendly and eager to explain anything you are curious about with their Japanese selections. 

Tama has a small kitchen where they serve vegetarian bento boxes. (Something I want to try next!).

Dan bought some genmai mochi brown rice cakes. The Japanese lady in the store explained that you eat it by dipping it in a little soy sauce first. It is best consumed fresh, but if you keep it for the next couple of days, you can put them in the oven to heat up. It will puff up bigger and become a different texture.

Outside the Ethical Kitchen is also a small patio and garden. You can enjoy your food outside while watching them tend to their garden of where they get their fresh ingredients. 

And of course, you have to stop and pet the super adorable shiba inu lazying around on the patio deck. 

Overall, it was a great dining experience where I got to enjoy some really yummy food and learned a little more about their more traditional or homey foods. Yelp gives it a solid five stars with only four reviews. Perhaps not everyone has heard of it yet. Definitely a hole-in-the-wall hidden gem worth checking out. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Is Not Stupid

The ALS ice bucket challenge is not stupid.

There is skepticism and criticism about how genuine the reason behind why people are catching on. The articles about skipping the water wastage and just donating... or the complaints about rich celebrities not giving clear instructions to donate... are missing what this fundraising movement is doing. There are endless fundraisers that ask for donations and charities that work so hard to raise awareness... that haven't been able to reach the magnitude of this single ice bucket challenge. And why do we need to do this? Because research requires money. And any step towards finding even better support and treatment for those affected, if not a cure, is a major, major step.

I don't personally know anyone with ALS. But like ALS, I know, or have known, people who also suffer from progressive, degenerative diseases. My mother suffers from Parkinson's. As a family member of a loved one who suffers from a progressive disease that has no cure, I cannot even begin to explain what this means to me.

If you're familiar with the ALS ice bucket challenge, you may have seen personal videos of people who are suffering from the disease explain what it is like for them to live with it everyday. I could only tell you how it is for their families.

I had an almost perfect childhood with a comfortable home, loving parents and sibling, and I went through highschool and university living through all the stages of growing up happily. When I graduated. I convinced my parents to let me live in a different city to experience independence. I had (and still have) an amazing group of friends. Life couldn't have been any better. I didn't know life any other way but to be pretty darn good. My parents were a big reason for that. Life's challenges were all temporary. And the sun would always shine through the clouds eventually after each blip and life would have its perfect days again.

Then came my mom's diagnosis. I'll be honest. I didn't know how to deal. And it took me not days or months to figure it out... I'm still learning. Everyday. This wasn't just a little blip that would go away the next day, it is something that I very much spend every single day thinking about. I spent countless days fighting internally with myself. About every thought that crosses my mind. About acceptance. About balance. About gratitude on what I do have. About myself. About my mom. About growing up. About the future.

I've always known my mom to be someone who's strong. Stubborn even. She fights for what she needs, what she wants... what's right for her family and herself.  She's helped me fight all my worries growing up. She was my go-to person when I needed strength. She was the one who always told me that everything will be okay. So... needless to say, watching her struggle, trying to keep that strength and fire going inside her, as the disease progresses... is beyond heartbreaking. It was almost overnight where I felt our roles have switched. I was the one telling her over our afternoon coffee that "it will be okay". Inside though, I was thinking, "will it?".

She wanted to chop up carrots one evening. I stood in the kitchen not assisting, just watching. Always giving her a chance first. Her will power and stubbornness tells her she can do it. Her hands and her mobility tells her otherwise. With any task she struggles with, I watch her intently waiting to see when or if I needed to intervene. I asked if she needed help chopping the carrots. She replied with a determined "no". But, she couldn't do it. Her anxiety has now made her hands shake and tremor even more. She walked over to the sink, gripping the side of the counter with her shakey hands, lowered her head, and closed her eyes to hold back tears. The disappointment, frustration and pain she felt inside at that moment... I felt them too. I picked up the knife and I started chopping.  "That's okay, mom. I can chop the carrots, but I don't know the recipe. You have to finish it. That's something you can do, that I can't do." She resumed back to the cutting board and helped slowly picked up the chopped carrots and put them in a bowl. I walked away after, and let her continue.

I want to be there for her for those moments. To give her the strength and the encouragement she needs. Just like how she's done for me countless times before.

This isn't about me or my life... but why the ALS ice bucket challenge is not stupid.

 I saw first hand how my uncle suffered with Parkinson's and succumbed to it. When my mom was diagnosed, the memories of my uncle's trials came rushing back. The only solace I had was when the neurologist, the same doctor who treated my uncle 20 years ago... said that treating PD now is so different from back then. There has been many more advances in medications, treatment, and support systems since. He reassured my mom that she has many more options than my uncle did. And for that, I thank all those involved with doing the work to make it better for those having to deal with this progressive degenerative disease.

However, it costs money. And that is why any fundraising can make such a difference for those in need. The ALS ice bucket challenge has raised over 2 million dollars in two weeks. The growth in awareness has been tremendous. I've now watched videos from across the world, and people pouring donations big and small. Yah, so there are people who are doing the ice bucket challenge just for the sake of dumping cold water over their heads and some aren't donating, but you know what? Who cares. The idea behind this is not to try and make everyone righteous. But to reach out to those who can make a difference. For each person who chose to dump water over their head, even if just for fun...  if that can continue to spread awareness, then the more support there will be. Just care about those who are doing it for the right reasons, those who are donating because these videos have reached them... and know, even if there are some that still don't know what ALS is, there are thousands and maybe even millions more that do know now and have supported because of this challenge.

This is what we are all capable of. Don't let any other article stop that.

Please continue your donations for ALS and/or any other charity of your choice.

www.als.ca (the ice bucket challenge has since crashed their website, but they do provide a link where donations can still be made).


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Jack Johnson Concert @ Deer Lake Park

The weather this summer has been pretty amazing. We've had a lot of perfect mid 20 degrees celsius days, giving us Vancouverites lots of time to enjoy our great outdoors. I love the fresh air, the warmth of the sun, and the many opportunities of having people around me just kickin' back and enjoying the same thing. This summer, outdoor concerts has seem to be my thing. What is a better way to soak it all in than being surrounded by the luscious greenery of this beautiful city while enjoying some great tunes? 

So a few friends and I spent a gorgeous evening in Deer Lake Park for the Jack Johnson concert.

Concert started with an opening performance from a group called ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra). I loved their guitar work and their catchy tunes. Then, there was Jack Johnson. Perfect music that soothes you to contentment everytime you listen to it. I'm glad he played some oldies like "Banana Pancakes".  

Blue skies. Yummiest homemade kettle chips ever. Chillin' on the lawn. With the greatest company. Amazing concert. One rather stellar summer night.