Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Truth or Perception?

When Guillermo and I were watching La Hora de Maquiavelo (The Machiavelli Hour) last night, it dawned on me that it is not only in politics that often perception triumphs over truth. Just off the top of my head I can already list numerous examples which maybe trivial but affect our personal and daily lives.

Guillermo had the Argentine habit of spreading queso blanco on his toasts instead of butter. For the longest time, he believed he had chosen the healthier option. An option with lower calories it may well be if one spreads butter as liberally as one is likely to do with queso blanco but it is definitely not healthier.

One would only need to read the long list of ingredients on Mendicrim (by Nestle) or Casancrem (by La Serenissima); following milk, cream and yoghurt, there is a list of substances which shouldn't have anything to do real food. Besides, if my husband follows the advice of one famous dieting food critic and uses butter as sparingly as if it were the most expensive and concentrated scent in the world, the difference in calorie count would be negligible.

For those sensitive ones who like to rebuke even the slightest perceived negative remark on Argentine life with other countries are equally bad or worse, I would say the following:

What happens elsewhere is irrelevant and such rebuke is completely missing the point because it is not about relativity. However, to silence their protestations, I would gladly supply a parallel example.

My mother uses a spread, similar in appearance to butter, called Logicol. It has a short product history; the manufacturer claims that it has cholesterol lowering benefits. The product has even obtained the seal of approval from the Australian Heart Foundation.

On the other hand, my brother who is a neurosurgeon urges my mother to stop using it since fats are known to change properties once manipulated and their damaging effects are usually kept in the dark for many years. The perfect example being margarine; once hailed as a health product and we are now told by health experts to avoid it.

A concern of perception over truth that is most relevant to me is the general but misguided perception, still prevalent in many cultures, that pregnancy is the time to indulge because one is eating for two.

I've read in a book on pregnancy that if you put two women together in an obstetrician's waiting room, one of the first things they would discuss is their weight.

I only discuss my pregnancy weight with close friends and family because one can lose perspective on this emotive issue very quickly – if you ever come across the numerous threads on the Baby Center bulletin board (U.S. based), you'd know what I mean.

Many of the ladies posting there have gained way above what is healthy weight but somehow they manage to leave the few who gained less feeling very insecure about their abilities as a mother, etc.

In a New York Times' article published a few years ago, a female journalist painted a rather harsh picture of pregnant women in New York who went to extremes so they would gain only the recommended minimum.

The article went on to quote a medical practitioner by name who described in detail how some of her patients have serious body issues – I did wonder if she skipped her ethics class on confidentiality at medical school.

The tone of the journalist implied selfishness and vanity in these pregnant women – hearing the ways some of them went about achieving their target weight, it may all be true but I have real problems with the underlying message that gaining the recommended weight implies selfishness and irresponsible behaviour in the mother-to-be.

Such propaganda is particularly annoying when most doctors advice their pregnant patients to add no more than an extra 250-300 calories per day to their intake during their pregnancy (assuming the patient begins her pregnancy at a normal weight). Too much weight gain may cause complications during delivery and trigger mild post-partum depression in the mother.

It is not so much how many calories but what is behind the calories that is the crux of the matter; a pregnant woman's diet should be packed with nutrients. A peanut butter and jam sandwich or a slice of pizza would yield the extra 300 calories but that is not as useful to a growing baby as say, a tub of yoghurt or a turkey sandwich for example.

So to fellow preggers out there who are gaining weight steadily but not excessively, as long as you are eating and exercising sensibly just shut out all the bollocks (and perceptions are just that) from the haters.

Salmon and other oily fish are an excellent source of omega-3 which is benficial to the cerebral development of growing foetuses and children.

Japanese-style Salmon

2 salmon fillets (about 200g each)
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp Mirin
1/2 tbsp soy sauce

Heat a dry frying pan. When the pan is very hot, first place salmon fillets skin side down for 5 minutes. When you see the flesh has turned opaque half way up, turn the continue frying for 1 minute or longer if you like it well done. Remove the cooked fillets onto plates.

Into the juices left in the frying pan, add the rice vinegar, mirin, and soy sauce. Stir over high heat for about 1 minute.

Spoon this sauce generously over the salmon fillets and serve immediately.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Retro Sunday Lunch

It had been a scorcher of a weekend in Buenos Aires; coupled that with a lack of sleep due to jet lag, bloating, and much lower abdominal pressure, the last thing I could face was to cook.

On the other hand, our friend Miguel's lovely daughter Gabriela was very excited about the baby news so they came over on Sunday for a light lunch. It was hot, I was tired, and Miguel is vegetarian so I cheated and just put together two salads.

In the days before "designer leaves" tossed with aged aceto balsamico di Modena became commonplace, there was iceberg lettuce and sliced tomatoes with that suspiciously salmon pink Thousand Island sauce (similar to salsa Golf); and way before that there were the Russian salad and the Waldorf.

Ensalada Rusa is still available in this land; it is also a favourite of Miguel's so that was a no-brainer. The Waldorf salad makes a good summer's lunch but I wasn't sure if raisin, apple and walnut would go down well with my two junior guests so here is what I did:

I first boiled a small pan of water with celery leaves, peppercorn and star anise. When it came to the boil, I immersed two chicken breasts into the water. I turned off the heat immediately (butterfly the breasts so they cook more easily) and let them sit in the hot water bath until the water cooled. Chicken cooked this way is very tender.

I just chopped the stalks of the celery into tiny pieces. I cubed the chicken breasts into chunky pieces and mixed them with mayonnaise and a light sprinkling of paprika. You can save the broth for cooking.

On the subject of mayonnaise, I promise you that you will never have shop-bought again if you tried home-made – they are completely different and you can guess which one tastes better. It is a simple and beautiful alchemy of oil and eggs; since eggs are back in the good book as far as cholesterol is concerned (it gives you the good cholesterol, HDL), I have no problems with eggs being a main ingredient. However, raw eggs are a little risky for pregnant women so that is the only situation when shop-bought is the preferred option.

For the Russian salad, my twist to the classic was boiling the potatoes and carrots (separately) with a handful of bay leaves. I also had some peas, lightly boiled. When cooled, I cubed and mixed them with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. It brought back memories of my childhood, except it tastes just a little bit better this time.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Pho is a Friend

I am extremely fortunate that I have been experiencing some rather odd food aversions. At the moment, I cannot stand the taste of chocolate, ice cream and most confections; in fact most things sweet. In addition, I now find food rich in saturated fats very difficult to digest so I have been avoiding them too.

I crave strong but clean flavours so Vietnamese cuisine hits the spot perfectly. Besides, I have chosen to boost my iron intake through food rather than pre-natal vitamins which caused some serious digestive track frustrations (and let's just leave it at that). For these reasons, I turned to Vietnamese beef noodle soup frequently during my stay in Sydney for comfort, iron boost and to curb nausea induced weight loss. Now that I'm back in BA, I'll have to resort to DIY.

Pho or noodle soup is the national dish of Vietnam. The most popular being beef noodles soup – paper-thin slices of raw beef cooked in the residual heat of a bowl of piping hot and fragrant beef consommé with rice noodles.

The beef consommé is spiced with Vietnamese fish sauce (nouc mam), pepper, sugar, ginger, anise, basil, coriander and mint. The noodle soup is served with condiments such as bean sprouts, fresh mint leaves and lime wedges.

Pho is eaten anytime of the day in Vietnam; as breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack. It is low in fat and a perfect combination of flavours, protein and carbohydrate.

There are as many Pho recipes as there are bicycles in Ho Chi Minh City so I have provided here a basic blueprint so feel free to adjust to your taste.

250g flat rice noodles (medium width)
7 cups of beef stock
2 tsp fish sauce
a pinch of sugar
a pinch of black pepper
500g tender beef, sliced paper-thin (half-frozen beef is easier to slice)
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1 small bunch of coriander, chopped
a handful of basil leaves*
a small handful of mint leaves*
1 sprig of spring onion, chopped

Marinate the meat in a combination of fish sauce, black pepper and sugar.

Use fresh rice noodles when possible but if the rice noodles are the dried ones, soak them in cold water for 30 minutes or until softened. Boil water in a large pot and add the rice noodles. Bring to boil again; then drain.

Rinse and separate rice noodles, using cold water. Set aside. Do not overcook the noodles or they will break into pieces.

Divide cooked noodles in a two large soup bowls. Place raw beef slices on the noodles. Add coriander, basil, mint and spring onion.

Bring the beef consommé to a boil then pour the boiling soup on top of the slices of beef. It is now ready to be served. If you prefer your beef well cooked, leave the beef in the hot broth before serving.

Serve noodles with bean sprouts, chilies, basil, mint, coriander, and lime wedges on the side.

* Try to find Vietnamese or Thai basil and mint for this recipe as they are much more intense in taste and not as sweet.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Under The Influence

Let me start by pledging that this blog will not turn into a pregnancy/ baby blog although I may touch on subjects related to my current condition or frame of mind from time to time.

With my reassurance spelt out, today is such a time for me to share my own experience which hopefully helps to reassure older women who are trying to conceive but have been spooked by the media's concerted effort in telling them that they are already in the midst of reproductive Siberia.

Like so many of the women featured in documentaries made under the banner of investigative journalism such as the most recent I watched by BBC's Kate Silverton - "Right time to have a baby?", I took my own good time in settling down before reaching the conclusion that motherhood is a possibility.

Despite my advancing years, Guillermo and I insisted on waiting at least one full year as a married couple before trying to bring a life-long responsibility into our relationship. By the time we started trying, I read from all sorts of women's magazines and newspapers that conception would equate to winning a lottery. Worse still, these articles predict with such doom and gloom that even if I were successful in conceiving, I ran a very high risk of having a child with Down's syndrome or other birth defects.

Whilst the statistics quoted and anecdotal evidence featured on these television shows are real, the subliminal message seems to be a discouraging one which suggests that if women dare to go against/ delay the traditional role assigned to them as child bearers, they will suffer the consequences.

I felt harassed by this pressure from the media; deep down I suppose I was affected. Although I tried not to show it, I was nervous about the nuchal translucency test at week 12. Combined with a blood test, it gives an 85% statistically accurate estimate of the chances of the child being born with Down's syndrome or spinal bifida.

Before the tests, I was told that a woman my age has a 1:122 probability of carrying a child with these birth defects. The odds were certainly overwhelmingly negative.

Both Guillermo and I took much care in providing the geneticist with the most detailed and accurate data regarding our family history. When the full set of NT-plus test results came out, the geneticist told us that I have a 1:2415 chance in having a child with these particular defects. As far as he was concerned, I scored a gold star in the tests. I wept tears of relief.

Cynics may say I lucked out. Maybe they are right; we are fortunate that both sides of the family have no history of these defects. On the other hand, I also believe in the anti-aging benefits of a healthy lifestyle. In any case, for all the unsuccessful IVFs and other complications you may have watched on television, many women who are deemed to be over the reproductive hill do conceive naturally and become mothers of healthy children. The most important is to keep a positive frame of mind and refuse to be discouraged.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


As I was sitting drowsily in the transit lounge at Santiago airport, waiting for the last leg of our 20-hour long journey to get home from Sydney, I saw two well-dressed kids chasing each other among the crowd, the luggage. Screaming and laughing, the boy dropped himself onto the grotty carpet. He rolled on the floor while screaming his giggles and then put his hand which had touched the carpet and who-knows-what-else into his mouth. At that moment, I knew I was back in Latin America and very close to home.

It had been a long ten weeks, especially so since I was counting each day. A couple of days before we left for Sydney, I realised I am preggers. Given our earlier experience, Guillermo and I were both excited and a little worried.

Once we got to Sydney, I contacted my GP who put me in touch with the fantastic ante-natal unit at Royal North Shore Hospital. I was told to go in at week 10 for genetic counselling, week 11 to meet the midwife and have the doctor perform a low resolution ultrasound to hear the baby's heartbeat, and again at week 12 for 1st-trimester tests which included a high resolution ultrasound to see the baby. All the ultrasounds were conveniently performed on my belly.

To me, this arrangement was perfectly reassuring, and the wonderfully caring staffs at this public hospital were leagues above those people at the privately operated Medicus I encountered during my short-lived pregnancy in BA last year.

Guillermo's initial reaction to the medical arrangements showed our cultural differences. Before our first appointment at the hospital, he bemoaned "the system" had left me unattended to for 10 full weeks. My mother had to reassure him that if anything happened at that point, we would end up at the hospital anyway.

I was also quick to reassure him that I was much more relaxed in getting on with my pregnancy than having to endue rather unpleasant and intrusive ultrasounds, as I did in BA, from as early as week 5 to satisfy the curiosity of the GP at Medicus in Recoleta, then at my gynaecologist's and then back at Medicus in Belgrano, all within the first 10 weeks. They obviously thought they were doing me a favour in letting me see the blob that had not had the time to develop while I felt stressed that I was railroaded into unnecessary intrusions into the baby's early development.

Fortunately, Guillermo's opinion of "the system" changed completely once he met the faces behind it. He was extremely impressed by everyone he met at Royal North Shore; unlike our private medical cover (Medicus) which we pay good money for, we were never made to wait for our appointments, the doctor even came out to the waiting area to greet us before walking us into his office.

At none of the meetings did we feel we were hurried, we took the opportunity to ask loads of questions and they also showed much interest in understanding what sort of care I would be receiving back in BA from the second trimester onwards.

The midwife was especially serious when she reassured me that no oxytocin is used in Australia except in inducing a baby that is 10 days' late or in rare circumstances – lamentably, liberal use of this drug is a "substance abuse" which seems to take place in even the most prestigious hospitals in BA, unless the mother explicitly object. All for no other reason than the reluctance of midwives and doctors to hang around for nature to take its course.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

New Blogger Account equals New Problem!!

Guillermo and I had been pretty occupied (and at times, preoccupied) with various inminent changes to our lives...and more on those very soon.
This morning, when I tried publishing comments which were long overdued, I was given no choice but to upgrade my blogger account; and to my utter dismay, I have since have problems posting comments. While I try to contact the elusive customer service at Blogger for assistence, I am publishing comments from Yanqui Mike and Bonnie here...
"yanqui mike has left a new comment on your post "A Quick Hola from Sydney":
Dearest Cupcake,
I dearly hope you weren't referring to me. Because you strike me not only as a candidate for the most wonderful wife in the world but your observations are going to become a daily habit for me from now on. What a wonderful blog. Found you thru el rosariano. Come back soon. "
Hi Mike,
Thank you for the most flattering published comment in the short history of this blog. While our long summer break in Sydney has been fantastic, I'm really looking forward to going home to friends in BA.
Please also be assured that the reference was most definitely not directed at you but the ignorant but emotionally charged comment leaver who quoted you "a little too liberally" without much understanding of a true democracy, civil rights or issues concerning deportation. Thank you very much for visiting my blog.
"Bonnie has left a new comment on your post "What Is In An Education?":
Hi Miss C!
I hope you're really enjoying your time down there.I have a few points to make about the public vs. private debate in Australia.
First of all, I believe that Sydney (and possibly Melbourne and Brisbane as well) are not good examples of the standards of Australian schools, I believe that they are in fact microsystems that do not reflect accurately the state of the education system in Australia. This is because traditionally - as you've eluded - there is a lot more money floating around in these metropolitans.
Secondly, the education systems for primary and secondary education are state run and you will find many different variations from state to state. For example, the final exams for year 12 students in Queensland are (or were when I was there) very very different to those in New South Wales. In QLD, for entry into tertiary education, students are given an OP (overall position) score. The equivalent of this score in NSW is UAI (I believe). To get an OP score, students are graded across year 11 and year 12 and the best 3 scores for the chosen 6 subjects are taken to count towards the final score. Students also sit a QCS (Queensland Core Skills) exam. This 12 hour exam is not based on content from their classes but evaluates the skills that the students have learnt across their schooling lives to help them *work out* the problems. (As a side note - I personally really enjoyed this exam). I think it's definitely far removed from the HSC exams that the students must take in NSW where the exams are based on content from each of their classes. I'm proud to say that the QLD education system is well regarded as being one of the best education systems in the world.
Growing up in the country in Australia, my town was in a situation where the public school far exceded the private school as far as academic and sporting achievements were concerned. I went all the way through the public system and certainly don't regret a single moment of it - in fact I'm proud that my parents didn't spend more than they had to for my education. It's quite a strange phenomena but I can actually tell whether someone has gone through the private system in Australia when I meet them (although I wouldn't make claims that I'm 100% acurate). In fact, I believe these systems are producing 2 types of members of society. In general (and this is purely from my own observations and reflects my own personal opinions and in fact might be completely bollocks) I've found that those educated in the Australian public school system are more open, more tolerant and in some cases more sociable. I've found this especially where the student has been in same-sex education and not co-ed.
If I was living in Australia at the moment - I would not think twice about putting my child into public education, especially if it was in Queensland.But I don't live in QLD, I live in Cambridge - one of the oldest and most prestigious learning centres in the world and I too will face future decisions as to whether I should put my children into public or private education here. Unfortunately, I don't have first hand experience here and so definitely have some research to do when it comes to it.Enough of my waffling! I hope you are taking in plenty of Aussie sunshine and are really enjoying the food!"
Hi Bonnie,
Great to hear from you. Your comment is most timely as the Federal Education Minister, Julie Bishop, is proposing to standardise education across all states which I personally think is no more than a headline grabbing exercise during a election year which is hotting up to be a tough race for John Howard.
Especially under this current government which is best at being divisive and drawing out the worst in people (such as fears based on ignorance, selfishness and bigotry; and overt favouring of industrialist over the average Joe - not unlike what the Bush Administration is doing. All of which are very "un-Australian" principles for a government which frequently equates "Australian" to all the good qualities in a human being), I feel much more inclined towards an egalitarian education provided by our Labour dominated state governments.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

5 Things You Didn't Know About Me

Guillermo had been hogging the computer for weeks in preparation of his presentation to the Psychology Dept. of the University of Sydney. The presentation was yesterday and it was very well received; so finally I’ve regained some access to technology this morning.

Fellow Sydneysider Kathyrn at Lime & Lycopene tagged me for this meme some time ago. I thought long and hard to choose which 5 least mundane details about moi I could share in public…

And here we go:

1. Lesser known interest:
I love to Salsa! Dancing is a great way to relax; it is also one of the greatest forms of physical and coordination exercise - beats sweating it in a gym.

2. Lesser known vice:
I am a reformed clothes-horse, with a particular penchant for well made shoes. This very expensive habit (Manolo and Jimmy were my chief dealers) was only curbed after I met my husband who is more or less my height. On the positive side, my daughter, if I ever have one, would inherit a pretty amazing dress-up trunk, if I may say so myself.

3. Much earlier career aspiration:
I had wanted to be a dietician (a bit old fashion but it was the term used in my days!). My precise interest was the therapeutic value of food. I was probably 15 then, and it was an era when naturopathy was considered as "New Age". Later on, my UAI (stands for University Application Index, I think) and then fate guided (or misguided?) me down the path of investment banking instead.

4. Not so well guarded secret:
Regular reader of this blog might have observed that my inner geek is not so closeted anymore. I think my increasing seriousness about social and environmental issues has a lot to do with age (hopefully, it correlates with maturity) and the time we live in.

5. A well guarded secret:
For an advocate of a well-balanced diet, my great love for breakfast is not so much inspired by Rudyard Kipling but the mind numbing choices available if we broaden our interpretation of "breakfast" beyond cereal or egg and bacon with baked beans. Turkish and Indonesian breakfasts, just to name a couple, are interesting feasts of meat, fish, bread/rice/ noodles. My favourites include the Anglo-Indian Kedgeree (which is difficult to come by these days) and the Indonesian Nasi Goreng; however, the modern Australian offering of grilled Pide (Turkish bread) with tomato and avocado serves me just fine too.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What Is In An Education?

Recently released figures concerning the "pitiful state" of Australia's government spending on education among the Rich Nations' Club otherwise known as the OECD has added new sparks to the debate of private vs public education (primary & secondary).

Meanwhile, the real problem is in the inadequate public funding for tertiary education by a government completely flooded with cash but more concerned about buying votes through middle-class welfare than ensuring sustainable prosperity of the country beyond its elected term.

However, primary and secondary education remains a much more emotive issue because a larger number of parents/voters feel directly involved. Most of us are too wrapped up in our own lives and needs to sense the danger of collective complacency brought on by a natural resource based boom in our economy; should we neglect long-term investments in a well trained workforce with not just any tertiary education, but a high quality one, we would not be able to maintain a prosperous society when the supply of our natural resources run low. It should be a serious issue regardless of whether we have children.

Going back to the divisive debate of private vs public, we have numerous friends and relatives with children in both education frameworks on either side of the world so while Guillermo and I presently have no personal interest in this debate, we are nonetheless interested in the dynamics involved.

Guillermo and I were both privately educated but we have different ideas when it comes to whether ideologically (let's put financial considerations aside for the time being) we would send our own children to a private school...

His own experience and observations on his relatives who have gone to the two most prestigious (and expensive) schools in Belgrano R tell him that a private education does not necessarily equip a person with better knowledge or abilities to deal with life.

In plainer words, Argentine private schools are not necessarily there to provide a more academically focused learning environment; their focus is often on providing a protected environment where the privileged can mingle.

Given BA is an unapologetically class conscious society, he sees little merit in putting our children further up and deeper into a delusional ivory tower (the so-called Argentine middle class is largely a sand castle in the air where earning little more US$800 establishes one firmly among the top 5% earners).

There are also a large number of less exclusive private schools in BA which charge a much lower fee (below A$500 per month). However, their existence is more a testimony of the appalling public system; facilities in these private schools are often no better, if not worse than those of a good public school in an affluent country.

Since the Argentine public system is not really a viable choice, my husband concedes that he would be open to further investigations into private schools should we still live in BA when the time comes.

While I agree with him that an academic focus is very important, I would also like to put our children in a pleasant (preferably green and spacious) and synergic environment whereby we can feel, as parents, we are supported in guiding them to become worthy human beings with integrity, discipline, fairness, compassion and good manners.

It seems many parents with children at private schools in Sydney were trying to communicate similar sentiment in latest issue of The Sydney Magazine (Jan 25, Sydney Morning Herald). Reportedly, one father often reminds his four kids that they are privileged to be attending their schools (each child would have set him back a cool US$200,000 by the time they finish secondary school) therefore, he expects effort and commitment from them in return.

On the other hand, despite the Howard government, public education is still relatively healthy in Australia. The approach is somewhat flexible and progressive; it makes sure that gifted students are not "buried in the system".

To begin with, should a child be recognised by a qualified psychologist specialising in early intelligence as gifted as well as emotionally mature, the child can start attending primary school earlier than the statutory age of 6.

Within the framework, academically inclined children are grouped to attend class at a more suitable pace. In the last year of primary school, anyone who wishes to sit for a public selection exam may qualify to attend one of the selective public schools which consistently yield the best scores in the country, outperforming even the best equipped and increasingly academic private schools.

Australian public education is not only a viable choice but an appealing alternative if one's child is an early achiever. However, children who require special assistance and attention to blossom may need more than what the public system can provide.

The great divide, it seems, is that private education produces young adults with a rounded experience beyond academic achievements. However, there is no money back guarantee that private schools would provide the "soft skills" which parents feel lacking in the public system.

Throwing money at your children's education (in schools which often provide elocution classes) doesn't necessarily turn them into true gentlemen or refined ladies as hinted in those schools' glossy promotional brochures and DVDs targeting parents with "aspirations".

In that same article, one parent from a prestigious girls' school in leafy Wahroonga, not too far from where we are staying (at my parents'), told the Sydney Magazine reporter "Of course we have nice cars; we're that sort of school". I suppose that's just a plain and simple illustration that one can buy a status symbol of an education but one may still fail to acquire refinement.