of service

February 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

Lately, I have been deepening my yoga practice. 11 years of relationship with the mat and somedays, it feels like we just met. It has seen me at my most vulnerable state sometimes when I am weeping or almost on the verge of throwing up after a long night.

“The body is tired, why do you still push it?”, it asked.

Other days, I am as strong as a puma. Zipping from adho mukha svanasana (downward dog) to chaturanga dandasana and head straight to multiple parsvakonasa (side angle poses) for sun-salutation sequences. By the time I step off the mat, I am sweating profusely and feeling vibrant.

Somedays, the mind is so exhausted it can barely allow the limbs to feel connected. Telling my leg to move across from one side to the other is such a chore. How does one part feel so heavy and isolated when everything is so intact? 60 minutes of yin poses later, every part feels united again.

This journey of mine started when I was working as a waitress in a family run cafe. It was small and quaint but the hours were quite brutal yet satisfying. I attended an evening Hatha class that required no pre-experiences with yoga. The breathing techniques and slow movements were the complete opposite to my daily routines. Little did I know then that, it was exactly what I needed. A yin to the yang. I would cancel my social appointments just to attend the classes. My peers could not understand how important it was and I showed no regrets for not meeting up with them. Working in the hospitality industry it was already very hard to keep a social life. Your friends are your customers, the purveyors, the delivery men and perhaps the public transport conductors. Your colleagues become your community.

I left Singapore to England to further my studies, but found myself creeping back into the kitchen. A weekend job at the local fish and chip restaurant to make ends meet. Double shifts during the holidays to juggle out finances but occasional getaway before the term starts. But every evening, I found myself on the mat before dinner time. A half an hour or hour worth of asana by the heater in the winters and with the windows down during the long Indian summer. Reflecting, recuperating, reviving and grounding the soul.

It also was not soon, that I left the academic world and ended up in a culinary school across the North Atlantic Sea. I learnt the fundamentals of chiffonad-ing vegetables and whipping up fresh full cream in a French institution but with American accents. I found a liking for patisserie and most of all, questioned the philosophy of a meal.

What is it to create a meal for others that is so instinctively gratifying?

We all love food, there is no doubt. But why is it that for some of us, we love feeding people? After a whole morning in the kitchen, preparing meals, cleaning counter tops over and over, waiting for orders to come in and receiving a simple gesture of “thumbs up” can be the most fulfilling emotion.

There is unpleasantness in peace. As the only female Asian in a Mexican men filled kitchen, the communication was tough and the jokes were made. The silver lining were staff meals, Mexican cuisine is family oriented. The large amount of fried rice with cumin and tomato sauce, tomatillos salsas, fresh guac and refried beans were often set out in the communal table before service. A reoccurring scene I can narrate and witness in almost every decent restaurant.

There is almost a certain standard of service given when such display of genuine camaraderie is present between staffs. Everyone might get on each others nerves but certainly know how to sit down and share a meal together.

At the end of the day, I would go home and end up on my mat. Recounting the dockets and play out the sequences of putting the dish together; counting my inhales and exhales while following an Ashtanga sequence for 60 minutes. The morning practices are the hardest. They say it is best to practice in the mornings but I just could not deliver my best on the mat. My feet cannot seem to touch the ground. Why are my heels always so distant from earth when 90% of it is always on it?

The discipline and relentless attitudes were brought on my mat. When a chef says 5, you bring out 5, if not 6, just incase one fails on you. When a customer expects a meal within a certain time, you deliver before. The unsympathetic notion I brought upon my work was good, only until.

It was not until years later that I realised, you do not have to deliver your best on the mat. Being on the mat is enough.

Well, did it not just take me a decade to pen that down?

Since last September, I have immersed myself into a different academy. But, as always, it did not take me long to find myself working in an eatery again. Even then, I needed a different challenge. One that is always changing their menu depending on the farmers or fishermen, then handed to the kitchen where the cooks play with ingredients and then to the front.

The front, I have yet to learn how much influence can a dish make with its first impression. How to keep them coming back for more and refining the service. The gratitude is still the same, but it is not from a place where you wait to receive. It is from within yourself that you find recognition and thus, giving it to others.

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My one concern is to improve the quality of your conscious awareness and your ability to exert control over it under worldly conditions. All else is confusion and meaningless gabble. When the system, dogma and language blots out the light, some energy has to be found to let it in again. Dwell in this light and share it with those capable of receiving it. Whether you call it peace love or self-control is immaterial.

There is only one light. 

-John Gent

 

 

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heritage

August 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

IMG_9344.jpgIt has been barely 24 hours since I touched down, my head is still lingering in a heritage sphere. One would wonder how deep an impression a city would make after a couple of days. How my feet remembers the little lanes between a main street, or how my heart allows the scent of cumin spices to pursue the next dining destination, exploring the preserved local architecture, or simply just letting the island’s indecisive weather depict our routines.

Penang has always had a special place in my heart. As a younger family, we would visit relatives and friends over the holidays or special occasions. All other random visits would either be a result of serious food cravings or missing good company.

This trip emerged slowly. We had no plans for anything but to spend quality time together. We spent the days mostly sleeping in till unlikely hours and waking up to local food on the table. An array of char kway teow(fried wok-hei filled noodles), steamed local sweet corn, nyonya kuehs (sweet treats), freshly sliced pineapples and homemade kopi. Then we would head to Hin Bus Depot, an old bus depot turned art exhibition centre, for yoga, a photography event/workshop or a walk around the flea market.

The flea is filled with artistic vendors, recreating traditional prints, clothing, food with new materials or homegrown products. A nasi ulam stand calls for own grown ulam (herbs), freshly folded into turmeric rice and sprinkled with tempeh crumbles. A bookshop decorated with old tiles painted with images of historical sites and calligraphy stationary sets. At this point of the day, I am already feeling spoiled with an abundance amount of good food and great company in an immensely enriching environment.

A kefir soda maker and her daughter who manages the art space behind; a graphic designer turned bartender/cook who runs the retail shop, The Swagger Salon; local beer brewers, Red Door ; Wholey Wonder, vegan/yoga studio; and the resident cat, Eugene.

Where was I when all these home-grown talents were transpiring?

Somewhere at the other side of the world, searching for answers to questions I yearned to understand.

How do we make ourselves relevant to society? How do we preserve what we have and still change what is needed? What is needed?

All things are relevant. All these are subjective to its own usage. Money. Materials. Time. Distance. Food. Clothing. Art. Car. A house. They all mean something to us fundamentally but conjured up different interpretations.

I used to think that having three meals a day was a necessity. But realised we could make our own eating choices without looking at our watches but simply by asking ourselves, are we hungry?

I used to believe that growth is tearing things apart and letting new materials take over. But learnt that growth can start from understanding what the past gave us and using new materials to help preserve its authenticity, without damaging or hindering what the original maker had intent for it to be. Now that’s, craft.

 

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Some evenings were spent dining out but when circumstances allowed, I could feed the family. One of my favourite family meals dishes comes from Nigel Slater’s first Kitchen Diaries. I initially made this as a psychology student in Leeds. We had a big house party with young college students, which called for simple finger food and cheap beers or cider. This time, Lemon Peppercorn Roasted Chicken Wings were paired with sautéed seafood, fried rice and pork rip soup. A rather intimate and slow affair compared to the youthful days. We also took the chance to bake cakes for tea. A staple Grapefruit Yogurt loaf and vegan Chocolate Banana Walnut brownie. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them its dairy & egg-free. I couldn’t bring myself to understand how rich and moist that loaf was. It was perhaps the best vegan chocolate cake I’ve ever concurred. They say, wisdom comes with age. Perhaps, baking experiences are the similar, so to speak.

On a sleepy Sunday, I woke up early and followed his mum to the local ban san (a hokkien slang for wet markets). We walked around the busy street with vendors trying to get our attentions, buyers grabbing  fresh produce, ingredients, snacks, and so forth. I stumbled upon an old bakery, where they still use their barehands to fold wet cake batters, proof breads and use margarine for nostalgia.

I stood at the counter too long to their likings and observed them manoeuvre from counter to counter. Their quick punching on proof doughs, prudence in tipping breads out from hot pans and carefully wrapping cooled pastries were so well orchestrated. I wonder how long they have been doing this. I wonder how many times the lady had asked me what I want when I lost all awareness while in the baker’s trance. She finally grew impatient, and left me alone. I continued staring gleefully at the perfectly season deck ovens, stainless steel trays and arrays of pastries. How long have we been doing this in our own backyard and yet search for greener pastures to create trends? Have we grown impatient or bored of ourselves? How does creativity prevail while we have little appreciation for authenticity or simple craftsmanship?

The food we eat these days has heritage. It is nostalgic for the flavours, textures and environment. But the food we ate, sometimes have little nutritional values. We were cultured to adapt to this because we were at war or perhaps not so well informed. While I go on commenting about how we should take care of our own well-being, I sometimes wonder if I should stop caring. For people don’t care what they put in their bodies and when I say too much, it isn’t well-received.

A little sadness sank in that evening. Sitting outside staring on the quiet streets, asking myself how can we continue to educate or bring awareness when people don’t want to? Because being ignorance is blissful and we could continue living in a egomania society, breading excessiveness and immorality.

I always say, how you do one thing is how you do everything. Pour enough sauce for your salad or chee chong fun; buy one not take advance of buy two get one free (there is no need); take what you need and leave what you don’t. Our heritage is narrowing, because our education is advancing without teaching ethics or mindful-living. I feel grateful for meeting passional collective individuals on this trip. A little light to capture essence of hopes for a better community.

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August 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Baking this lovely cake is a ritual at our space. I remember meeting her family for the first time. They rolled up to our shop and was delightfully surprised that we had a gluten free option sweet for her son. Week after week, we became a weekend treat after their long family walks. Five years later, she is one of my closest friend and most inspiring woman I know.

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When this came out from the oven yesterday, I knew it wasn’t my best. I had lost touch of the whisk, spatula, melting time, temperature and essentially, the kitchen. I haven’t been doing this for a long time and also felt so at home. How can one feel so lost at home? It takes a while to get myself familiarised with Gerard, Sam and Blu. I remember their particular manoeuvres. Holding onto the off/on button while reducing the speed; pressing one side of the mixing bowl down so that the whisk can ease into the egg whites better; never preset the temperature because he is always faster than you think.

All these familiaritires spoke closely to my heart. Afterall, 4 years of long hours in the same space, how could it possibly not?

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I love being able to tell the story of a simple cake and how it brought us customers who became very close friends. I love being friends, forging bonds over simple meals and being their daily bread/coffee. Beyond these, I am also a home cook who is obsessed with tinkering ingredients, temperature, methods and re-adjusting recipes. “A little more salt for this today”,”a little more of that than that”, “that didn’t look like that before, why is it this way today?” There is a certain expectation we live up to. More often that not, we are our worst critic by putting ourselves down and then comparing to others. But truly we know that comparing ourselves isn’t as bad or good, until we are better than the last meal we cooked. The goal as a cook is to always be better than your last cake or dish.

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A couple of days ago, I caught up with a friend where we spoke closely about being authentic and drawing positive energies. It is so easy to get sucked by naysayers or the rat race. While we are obsessed with what the media portrays and how we should live our lives vicariously through theirs, we also unwillingly blend into the social norm. So what if we are a no reservation place or do not believe your gossips about this other person you are talking about? Perhaps if we all have an open mind or heart about the next thing we hear of something new or old, we could all be better for ourselves and others too.

Here is to “not living to the status quo, giving unconditional love and having the courage to be your authentic self”.

I am leaving this country, again. Yes this time its full throttle, no visa drama and just left with packing. It feels a little bit like how Nancy Silverton left Canpanile. A year ago, that relationship didn’t work and someone had to go; so I left, even when I wasn’t ready to leave emotionally. It was the lost of the space that made me a little hollow. I had no idea what to do, so I travelled, did odd jobs and found home ground somewhere else. I’m still on this journey. One thing I learnt this week about being yourself, be daring enough to pissed people off.

Want a beer?

*oh yes, we named our equipments*

2132 let’s start talking

July 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

We don’t talk about it. We avoid it. We are afraid of it because the world we are in build us up to be strong and good.

What is strong and good?

The last week has been an absolute struggle. After taking a few days off to be on the yoga mat, coming back to this island seems like scalding myself with hot water. Ever since then, I have been the nursing the wounds. The time on the mat appears to have taken a thick layer of skin and exposed, vulnerability.

I went to bed last night with a heavy heart. I have done what most insomniacs would tell you not to do: read on your phone. But as I read that one of Sydney’s most acclaimed chef, Jeremy Strode, has taken his own life; I kept the screen open and gave a deep thought about my own.

Early this week, I have been going through an emotional rollercoaster. I have been mostly upset about the work attitudes, society misconceptions, health ignorance and the hustle. As I explored the feelings and thoughts, usually through breaking down on a yoga mat or on the way back home listening to a melancholy tune, I realised it stemmed from rejection.

Much earlier this month, I have been rejected by a group of people that I trusted-wholeheartedly. The betrayal feels painful. I had devoted myself into something hopeful, with time and heart. Corporate, as they say. Chopping off the tree trunk and cutting the chase.

This week felt lonely. I wasn’t alone mind you. I am surrounded by physical beings everyday and have people around. But there is a difference being in a room full of people and feeling lonely at the same time. We, hospitality folks, work long and odd hours. We sacrifice family/friends time to earn a living and feed other peoples’ friends and families. At the end of the day, we are left with our group of kitchen family and our real family, who are often asleep already or too tired to deal with our emotions/tiredness. Our kitchen family changes, because not everyone can deal with the pressure and work culture. The line cooks and servers replace themselves like the next music charts every month. When you finally realised this and turn to your own friends, they have already forgotten about you and booked their own next vacation.

A few days ago, a high school friend felt the need to apologise for asking about my work life. She mentioned that I was apprehensive in my replies. “I have been in this industry for ten years, I am constantly on the dining floor, my replies are short because I am engaging with customers and sometimes holding a hot pan”, well I didn’t text the later part but you get the idea. “You are right I should have known better”, she said politely.

But I knew by then, there was already a misunderstanding and un-returnable damage. Years of not being there (for them) and years of not understanding (for me). So after service is done and dusted, there left the individuals who return to their devices and talk to loneliness. It is no wonder depression is such a taboo and yet, profound culinary issue. It is no wonder that chefs like Benoit Violier, who ended his own life after not achieving another Michelin star and Jeremy Strode, drown themselves passionately into cooking because they don’t know otherwise.

Admittedly, I have changed. I have became tirelessly exhausted, a little more impatient (just a little) and also more aloof with meeting up. I have also felt nonchalant when people don’t have time to reach out, but also have high expectations of closed ones to empathise with my work schedules. How can they meet? Well they do, behind the line, where we stand for hours, the emotions meet. There is a certain drive that we have and love for being in the service industry, which makes us feel whole. When a dish is made perfectly, presented on the table at the right temperature, paired with a right beverage and enjoyed as it should be. There is something magical when the crew is in sync, where everyone knows their roles, follow one another’s movements and no one is sloppy. The evening is played out like an orchestra in its element. The right notes are precisely hit simultaneously and timely. There is nothing like a perfect dinner service. It is a melody.

For us, well perhaps just me, I endeavoured to seek this tune over and over. I could replay it, improve it and play it night after night. For most chefs or restaurateurs, when they find the right people/food/dishes, they yearn to recreate, experience this fine moment and share it with the world.

I woke up today, feeling a little better. There are creases in what I do and have, yet there is joy at taking a step at a time. For this road and push is lonely, but we should talk about it. We should be able to create an environment for one another who share the same sentiments with food & service, and also be able to be open about our happiness and sorrows. If its being strong and good, I strive to be the same with empathy and kindness.

Let’s start talking.

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June 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

“If you read stories, you get to see the entire world. And not just the stories you find in books and film, but the stories of strangers sitting next to you on the subway or in an ordinary restaurant. You can find the world in your own story, too – you just have to keep your eyes open.”
― Steve Dublanica, Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip-Confessions of a Cynical Waiter

I remember reading Waiter Rant, right after culinary school. It was the soft cream that finished off a simple butter cake. Something I looked forward to at the end of every shift as a pastry cook in a small French/Californian restaurant of 5th Ave at Santa Monica. He wrote about his observations around the restaurants and his life as a waiter. I admired his audacity to speak out in an invincible voice for the large group of us who went unnoticed behind the line. I adored the way he reflected on society’s perceptions of the service industry. Though they were mostly, rants, they were truths.

They say the truth sets you free. In many ways, they do. But truths are like art pieces, which beauty lies in the perceptions of the beholder. In a place of ranks or solitude, one looks through their own glass to define what is and not. In many ways, the truth doesn’t set you free. The present moment does. I could tell you that the slice of cake is awfully bad for you and you could jolly well believe me because that is the truth to you right at that moment. Does that set you free? No, it holds you down with guilt and displeasure. But if you accept being in the moment, you would have been honest enough to yourself that the slice of cake is bad and the awareness would bring you nothing but peace.

I have kept a resilient heart and soul with the adventures. Something to keep me absolutely grounded at this moment is being with the greater crew. Everyday I learn something new about them and how we can be better for ourselves. No one stands alone and do well for him/herself. You got to find something good out of them and encouraged their strengths. For the sandless ocean bay community, I’ve grown to find some friends which share common grounds.

I have given up defining or stereotyping things/people/events. The world is too big of a place for us to narrow everything into corner stones. The moments we live daily is truly what we have and can only sincerely appreciate them when they are accepted fully.

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Sometimes on my off days, I visit one of my favourite parts of this island. In many ways, we grew up eating these little ang ku kuehs during tea time or after school. You can find them in the corner snack stall in our canteens and at a local bakery on the way home. There is a particular kueh-kueh stall at my parents’ hometown in Taiping, Malaysia, which makes the softest and most fragrant traditional ang ku. While I reminisce those little moments, we have moved on to a different culture. Back in the big city where locally roasted coffee is proudly served in little neighbourhoods and traditional bakes are still integrated our daily lives. We are redefining coffee moments. A Colombia El Mirador and Kenya Kagumoini brew with mung bean paste wrapped in glutinous rice pastry at our favourite coffee shop.

Ji Xiang Confectionery
Blk 1 #01-33 Everton Park,
Singapore 081001

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April 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

You are too honest, she said.

Well I have been very transparent with my life with people I’ve met. I have been quite real with everyone and the downfall is, people do get tired of listening to your stories. Over the week I’ve reflected on friendships that have failed to withstand the rough weather. How often do we go about our lives to reach out to others only to see a two blue ticks, a “read” with timestamp and ill-reciprocated responses? It’s not the best feeling in the world. You try again but no respond. It leaves you wondering why you even bother, what you have done wrong or perhaps they honestly are just busy with their lives.

But we always say we make time. The priorities change and everything kind of just moves on. I hold on to things and people dearly. There is a certain sentiment that a moment shared between two people or more that I somehow appreciate. While the souls or physical existences connect, and intertwined but are ghosts to my daily routines now.

Coming to terms with distant bonds have been hard. In this city I had wished to call home but have not seem to established a sense of belonging. I have had them and still have very found memories of laughters and joy with hose that had withstand the tide, I am so grateful for. But leaving and coming back to them, doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

We sat down at the dining table last week and questioned authenticity. I just could not bring myself to accept the fact that some people are what we thought of them to be. Our minds love to play tricks on us, we delude ourselves into anything possible and anything factual. Facts and fiction walk a fairly thin line depending on which end of the spectrum you are on.

But the truth lies when the blue two ticks don’t get a respond, or a phone call doesn’t get returned, you ought to close that chapter and start a new page.

Almost two years ago, someone told me I couldn’t be what I am. I couldn’t run a space, I can’t write a cookbook, I can’t run because I have no endurance. I shouldn’t be vegan, I shouldn’t say what I feel and I shouldn’t be what I endeavour to be.

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This morning, I ran for an hour and almost hit the 10km mark. Last week, we finished off a menu that was solely written by women. I am still on a plant based diet and living just fine.

We are all afraid to disappoint others’ expectations. It takes us a while to realise that we are deluded with our own imaginations formed by our upbringing or exposure. We are all so fearful of failing or falling short. Not meeting deadlines, not getting to the finishing line etc, the greatest disappointment is nothing but letting yourself down.

“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The weekend is here again, soon it will be gone. The little pet project I have been working on is setting off. There won’t be weekends on weekends, and breakfast on breakfast. I start to wonder the lives others’ live. For those that enjoy the daily 9-5 and holidays, there are those at the other side of your world that make those hours for you. But instead of letting that get to me too much, I’m starting my own set of routines for after beer runs, yoga sessions and quiet sharing reads.

The kitchen crew I work with now are mostly Malaysians. And as much as I can’t love my own country’s political federations or climate (please don’t say one malaysia), I do love our people’s resilience to life. They also have a very good sense of humour when a crisis hits. The jokes are on us but we love the attention, perhaps that is why we have the best Comedian on Earth.

So here goes to the new page.

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You can be my beurre noisette to form a great cookie or folded into a simple muffin batter. Thank you for always being a text away, sharing your day and making my day count. Looking forward to form a community of modest cooks and great humble beginnings. We have been procrastinating this for way too long!

April 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

This week has been a long ride. There were undeniably questions of how long can one trust the process, how honest are we to ourselves and etc. Well, it shouldn’t be that doubtful but the energiser bunny’s battery level was depleting.

I had spent an insatiable amount of time with food (more than the average joe). I eat it, I write about it, I research it, I plan other people’s meals, I cook/bake/alter etc. I could go on until the cows come home. After a while I start viewing it not as a mean but either a form of art or business/passion. One could have a bad relationship, just like spending too much time with one person and you could end up wanting space. The roles are mixed up and somehow along the way, the respect or trust can be lost.

There was a time where I wasn’t very proud of myself and the relationship with food turned sour. I lost all interest with eating/cooking. I was frail, insecure about my decisions and was pretty low. Tired of feeling so exhausted all the time, I took the step to take responsibly of my own well-being. It started with preparing meals at home, buying groceries, salads, making sandwiches, changing white rice to brown rice and eating less processed/refined junk. I brought food wherever I went. There was really no excuse of “oh I can’t find healthy food”,because I was prepared. It was then I realised that if you could take ownership of your own health then why can’t you do the same with the other aspects of your life? We often victimise ourselves into bad situations but don’t we all fall short to see that the situation is negative, because we allow ourselves to let it be.

So my friends can have a bowl of deep-fried tofu/fishballs in chicken stock curry egg noodles while I have mixed rice, sautéed vegetable with fresh salad leaves. They can make fun of the diet, they can decide not to hang out, they have chosen to order more vegetables, they have taken notice of their own diets and some have even wrote to me how I’ve changed theirs. Somehow I am thankful for those that have been more aware of themselves. As much I would love to say, you are what you eat, you truly are, how you eat. If you are the sort that eat chicken breast and can’t run a mile, you are that piece of meat as it is. If you are the sort that takes time to enjoy marinating the piece of meat and have it with brown rice sautéed in garlic or oriental greens, perhaps you would learn to appreciate a different side of life. After all, people who love to eat are always the best people.
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Soba noodles with ceylon spinach: Veggie Stack, replicated from an original tofu veg stack made by a best friend from Canada who loves his bacon way too much for his own good

 

With the people who loves food, comes with different sort. Eating is an intimate activity. Perhaps this is why there are people we constantly declined to be on the same table with and those who are always there when we have our daily staples.

I came home late last evening after hours in the kitchen, just in time for dinner and enough time to bake for the next morning. I reflected on these thoughts of how food has altered my way of lives and those around me. I thought of how small I am in making a change and how much more I want to be. More change soon to come but for now, here is a vegan, gluten-free banana bread made with chia seeds, walnut powder, sorghum flour and coconut oil. I am leaving out the recipe for another day.

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