Friday, March 30, 2012

The Best Hong Saoro

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I like to collect recipes from 'real' cooks wherever I travel.

When I was in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago, I asked Ahyi, Doo Ma's maid, how to cook hong saoro. Hong sao ro means red braised meat and red braising is a basic Shanghainese way of cooking meat in soy sauce and wine for hours, resulting in the most tender, fragrant and delicious meat you have ever tasted. I have posted several hong sao recipes, among them my MIL's hong sao yuen ti (red braised pork leg) and my favourite hong sao pork cubes, a recipe that is a cross between Shanghainese and Hakka, with the addition of red onions.

Ahyi is from Hangzhou, the place where Dongpo ro originated. There are two ways to cook hong saoro, Ahyi said. The first and most common way is to fry the pork, add 'old wine', spring onions, soy sauces and simmer without the addition of water (the wine, sauces and juices from the pork should be adequate if the fire is low. My Shanghainese MIL insists on adding a bit of water though). The second way is a bit more work. The pork has first to be boiled until chopstick-tender, cut into smaller pieces and then cooked the regular way.

The first thing I cooked when I got back was hong saoro. I just had to compare the results of both methods.

Method 1:

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1. Blanch cut pork pieces with boiling water. Sear the pork in a little bit of oil. You can fry them in a wok or frying pan and then transfer into a heavy based pot for braising or use the same pot but fry in batches.

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My scallions and spring onions go screaming from the garden into the pot. It's great to have some herbs growing at home so that you always have them on hand and they are fresh and free of pesticides.

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2. Add the spring onions or scallions (tied in a bunch), 'old or yellow' wine such as Shaoxin Huatiao. I use 2 tablespoons per 1 kg pork. You can add some white pepper if like.

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3. Add 5 tablespoons of dark soy sauce. I use Lee Kum Kee Premium Dark Soy Sauce.

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Oops. I forgot to add the spring onions earlier.

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4. Add 2 tablespoons of light soy sauce. That should be enough liquid to get started. When the liquid boils, lower the heat until it just bubbles gently. Cover and simmer for 2 or more hours, depending on the size of the pork pieces. Once in a while, stir to prevent sticking to the pot. When pork is very tender, add 1 thumb-sized piece of rock sugar (no substitute for this!), stir until it's dissolved. Now turn up the fire, remove the cover, to reduce the sauce until it's thick but not too thick either or there won't be enough sauce. You'll get better with practice.

I like to rest my braised meat as I find that they taste lots better if allowed to cool and imbibe the braising flavors. To do that, when the meat is tender, add the rock sugar, stir until melted and switch off the fire. Taste and season with more light soy sauce, sugar and wine if like but remember soy sauce might not be necessary as the sauce will be saltier after reducing the liquid. Rest it for about 45 minutes, then heat it up again, taking off the cover to reduce the liquid.

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Hongsao ro, Method 1

Method 2:

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1. Blanch the slab of pork belly with boiling water before boiling it in a pot of water until it is chopstick-tender. Takes about 1 hour or more. Don't let the pork become too soft or there won't be enough time to braise the flavors into the meat later.

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2. Cut the pork into smaller pieces.

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3. Put all the seasoning ingredients into a heavy based pot, including the spring onions (I forgot again) and boil 5 minutes. I used some of the liquid from Method 1 because I had added too much soy sauce and wanted to reduce the saltiness.

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4. Add the boiled pork cubes and simmer, covered, until tender. Check and stir once in a while. Season with more light soy sauce, wine and sugar to taste but remember the sauce will get saltier when reduced. Again, best to rest the meat before the finishing touch.

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Hongsao ro, Method 2.

So, which method do you think turned out better hong saoro?

I had my in laws and a couple of visitors from SH for dinner and--surprise--they all voted for Method 2. While the taste was the same for both ro, and the fat was buttery and soft for both, the meat cooked by the first method was dry and tougher. The meat cooked by the second method was moist and tender. The pork pieces also looked neater. Plus you get a pot of pork stock. There you are, I rest my case about hong saoro.

Red braising is a skill that gets better with practice. You'll notice more innuances about red braising each time you do it. You'll learn that 1) over-stirring can cause tough meat or break it up. 2) Over-reducing the sauce can lead to tough meat 3) Using high heat dries the sauce up too quickly and also makes the meat tough.

Sometimes my hong saoro is terrific, sometimes just very good but I find that recently, my hong saoro is more terrific than very good as I cook it quite often now. Even MIL is impressed but she still snorts at my sticking to Ahyi's advice of not adding any water. p.s. If you find that your pork is not giving out enough liquid, you can add some. I think pork nowadays give out too much water because the pigs are fed with chemicals to retain water so that they weigh heavier.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Old Jesse, Shanghai



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Old Jesse is a legendary restaurant in Shanghai which you can't walk in without a booking. I was told that this is not only old Shanghai cuisine at its best, but also the likeliest place to sight a celebrity, western and local, as this is the restaurant that Shanghainese would bring visitors for a taste of old school Shanghainese food. Maybe because we wanted a small table for 3, we were lucky to get an 8:30 pm table with only 2 days' prior booking. The main restaurant is in a basement and is so small that there are only 4 tables. I've not seen another restaurant this small anywhere. The ceiling is unfriendly for anyone over 6 feet. We were ushered out into the street into the shoplot next to the basement. Again, it was a room big enough for 1 medium and 3 small tables only but at least the headroom was comfortable. There is another room above the basement, also big enough for about 4 tables. Don't expect a posh restaurant; Old Jesse reminded me of typical Chinatown hole-in-the-walls in western countries.

Maybe because we were late, some of the dishes we wanted were not available. I wanted to try the scallion fish a friend had told me about, and caifun (Shanghainese veg rice) which I've never eaten in Shanghai but the fish had to be pre-ordered a day ahead and the caifun was out.

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Drunken chicken. The more popular chicken dish here is salted chicken and I should've ordered that because I found the drunken chicken rather mild. I like my drunken chicken very drunk.

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Winter melon soup with salted pork was ordinary, like home-made soup.

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Old Jesse's top dish is the hong saoro, red braised pork. We all agreed that this was way too sweet and we couldn't even finish this small portion. Shanghainese dishes are known to be highly flavored and sweet and Old Jesse's hong saoro is based on an old recipe that can be improved by reducing the sugar.

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Tender, melt-in-the-mouth sweet piece of soy-braised pork.

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Bamboo shoots with xuecai, the unsalted kind. Was good even though it was deep-fried.

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This is another popular Old Jesse dish (the other 3 tables ordered about the same dishes as we did, but more, such as eight jewelled duck and crabs and I especially remember a table of American expats who spoilt my meal because one of them talked loudly all through the meal. It was so annoying) and although I don't remember the prices of the other dishes, I remember the price of this dish very well because it was outrageously expensive to me, RMB168/MYR84/USD28 for a medium-sized dish of crab and crab roe powder tofu! While it was very tasty, the tofu decadently silky and the crab roe powder very fragrant, it was slightly sugar-sweet, which I didn't like, and this is the most expensive tofu dish I've ever had.

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In place of caifun, we had the fried niangow with veg. I liked this but found it a bit too salty.

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Seedless red dates stuffed with glutinous rice flour is a popular appetizer/dessert in Shangha. the name for this dish--very cute-- is "soft-hearted" (xin tai run), because of the soft slightly chewy center.

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Another famed Old Jesse dish is fish with 1/2 kg scallions. The other table had made prior order of the dish. I could only stare and imagine.

I don't know. I think Old Jesse's reputation has gone larger than life because of the need to prior book, necessary more because there are only 12 small to medium tables. While the dishes are good, and to be fair we didn't try many dishes, and their menu is authentically old Shanghainese dishes, unlike the newer restaurants that now include new unheard of dishes, I don't think the same food can't be had in other old Shanghai restaurants. After my meal there, I still don't get why this restaurant is always touted in blogs as the best Shanghainese restaurant in Shanghai. I wonder if the real Shanghainese think as highly of Old Jesse or if it's the non-Shanghainese (those not familiar with home-cooked Shanghainese food) who are more impressed.

Old Jesse
41 Tianping Lu
Tel: 6282-9260

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

KL In 48 Hours

I was in KL for two days. If you have been following this blog for some time, you'll know that KL is one of my least liked city. After this trip, I think maybe that Bangkok is not so bad after all.

Again, KL's taxi drivers take the prize for worst taxi service. I fail to understand why the government can't  get the taxi drivers to use their meters. That just tells so much about the government's efficacy. KL is a totally hostile city for walking and even short distances are best travelled by car. The standard unmetered fare is RM20/USD6.70, twice the cost of a metered ride. It is common to see tourists bargaining with taxi drivers.

I walked in the cold in Shanghai on streets that were straight and clean but in KL, I couldn't walk because it was so hot and the government just doesn't like trees. Even if there are trees, Kl is still not walkable because it's not a city built sensibly. Buildings are here and there, with a car park or other structures in between and no walkways are provided. If they are, the walkways are uneven and broken with deep open pits here and there. Rubbish is everywhere. KL is unbelievably dirty, even on Jln Bukit Bintang, the main shopping street. I am ashamed of our capital city.

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On our first night, the taxi driver driver dropped us at Petaling St because he said that was a happening place where we can eat wood-fired hokkien mee. We walked up and down Petaling St and it was filthy, just horrid. We finally sat down at a restaurant and ordered Hokkien mee and fried mee just because there were lots of Europeans eating there and we figured that if they can eat in such dirty places, so can we.

The next morning, I wanted to eat pork noodles at a shop (a dirty restaurant called Kedai Mei Sin) behind Park Royal Hotel because that's where I used to eat whenever I was in KL during my working days.

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The stall is now run by the son and the noodles aren't as good anymore. The sang yuk meen (pork noodles) in KK are tons better.


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From another stall in Mei Sin, assam laksa. This was bad. It's strange why nobody can make assam laksa as good as those Penangnites.


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This is beef noodles at Soong Kee in Lot 10. Nah, KK's beef noodles are tons and tons better!


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"Imbi pork noodles" at Lot 10. Not outstanding.


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Pig stomach soup. This was good, very peppery and thick.


We were around the Bukit Bintang area and wanted a nice place to rest our feet and perhaps nibble on some nice cakes. It was about 2:30 pm and none of the hotels had any afternoon tea. From The Westin to The Grand Millenium to JW Marriot to I can't even remember which hotel, there was no afternoon tea! Dim sum at the Grand Mliienium was made with pork (hooray) but they were just closing when we got there. We found ourselves in the Pavillion, a very nice shopping mall, and stepped into Ben's. I was thrilled that they served afternoon high tea, on those silver multi-tiered trays, for only RM48 I think. Scones, sandwiches, cakes. Then the waiter came and said they've run out of scones and sandwiches. I grudgingly ordered the moist coconut cake,

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This wasn't moist at all but it was still quite good.

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Tasty and cheap at RM2.50.

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Imported mochis. I found them too hard, even after 50 minutes of thawing.

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Dinner was buffet (we ran out of ideas) at The Westin Hotel. We swear after every buffet that we'll never have buffets again. We swore again.


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I don't get why this building was allowed to be built right up to the walk path. Worst of all, this is right on Jln Bukit Bintang. It also blocks off the entrance to Starhill. Amazing how some people can get away with anything.


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This was the best thing I ate on my KL trip: chili pan mee, something we don't get in KK. The pork oil, the el dente noodles, the crispy ikan bilis, the delicious sauce, the fragrant fiery fried chili flakes just made this an awesome dish. 


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The soup pan mee was ordinary after the dry chili pan mee. I was surprised to find sayur manis in KL pan mee.


The kick ass chili was SO good that we asked to buy it but the old man was adamant that he didn't have enough to sell.

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Fine, I thought, I'll figure out what's in the chili. See those thin bits of crystals? MSG. This is just dried chilies, deep fried until crispy, processed until fine and seasoned with salt and plenty of MSG.

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Would I go back to Restoran Kin Kin, recommended in food blogs and magazines, on Jln Dewan Sultan Sulaiman Satu? NO. The chili pan mee is delicious but look at the shop and the environment. I still can't believe I ate there. It looked like an area for drug dens. It very likely is. On the way out of the area, we nearly stepped on a smashed dead rat. I felt sick.

We decided that we had enough of exotic restaurants and ended up in the Inter Continental Hotel for dim sum. I won't bore you with the same old photos of ha gow and taro puffs but this was the final straw for us. The dim sum was very average, devoid of pork (dim sum without pork is not dim sum) and at the end of the meal, this came:

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Unless you are in an American Chinese restaurant, fortune cookies have no place in a good, authentic Chinese restaurant.

I harboured a desire to eat a meal of bak kut teh before going to the airport but I knew that Hub had enough. It had been a pretty rough food adventure this trip. We ended up eating KFC at the airport. It was good.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hi From KL

I am in Kuala Lumpur with Hub. Our interview at the American Embassy took less than 3 minutes. We took a 2 1/2 hours flight here.

"You two are husband and wife?"
"Yes"
"What do you do Sir?"
"I'm a (blahblah)."
"What firm?"
"(blah)"
"And you?"
"I'm a homemaker...but I was...a banker.." (waste of words for he already started on the next questions)
"How many kids? Where are they?"
"(blahblah)", I replied.
"You are going to the States for ONE month? One month? That's a long time. What will you do there for a month?"
("Er, work as a maid, a fruit picker, dish washer? nanny? pole dancer?" Wild thoughts) "Travel, travel with my daughter." (Grinned, tried to look humble, ignorant and innocent)
"Any friends, relatives, in the US?"
And so on. Anyway, he told us that our visas were approved but can only be picked up the next afternoon. Please, I said, can we have it same day? Sorry, NO. (All US Embassy staff and Immigration people--the Americans, not the locals--have that same polite standoffish no-nonsense attitude, have you noticed.) Aiya, how come the Americans are working like Malaysians? So slow one. My daughter got her visa approved on the spot  right after her interview in Shanghai.

Anyway, getting a visa to visit the States is not that hard. They don't ask for proof of financial competence or other documents but it's best to bring, just in case. Also, make sure to bring an extra photo. For those of us who have to travel to KL for the interview, it is inconvenient and costly. For once, I wished I was Bruneian or Singaporean. They are exempted from visas to most countries.

We received a few calls from friends about reports of our daughter's latest art installation in several local newspapers. We will be back tonight but here's a clip from Shanghai's English TV channel. ICS. Notice that they made several mistakes. My daughter's Malaysian, not Indonesian and she's been in SH nearly 11 months, not 1 1/2 years. Finally, she's going to a conference in the States, not a workshop. And yes, that's Doo Ma in the video. 89 years old and very cool.

video




Friday, March 23, 2012

Table No. 1, Shanghai

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Table No 1 is a restaurant by Jason Atherton, who is said to visit once a week.

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I was at the KKFood Fest closing ceremony last week and an Italian chef asked if I've eaten at Mr & Mrs Bund, probably the most famous western restaurant in Shanghai. I hesistated to reply. How do I tell him that I passed up the chance to eat at Mr & Mrs Bund because I wasn't feeling very presentable (red nose, wrinkly skin, same grey top and jeans for one week). He spent the next 5 minutes telling me about the food at Mr & Mrs Bund, his eyes shining as he spoke and I could see in my mind the food he was describing. He is a top chef in a 5-star hotel restaurant in KK yet he sounded like a little boy in a candy store. I suddenly wished that I had eaten at Mr & Mrs Bund.

But I made it to Table No. 1 instead and I am not sorry because I wanted to eat there ever since my daughter posted on her meal there. It must be our Malaysian luck because it was Restaurant Week in SH, and Table No 1 was having lunch deals at RMB115/MYR58/USD19 per person for a 3-course meal! They only had tables for lunch, so Yi grabbed the table for the third day of our trip. I've found that it's best to make restaurant bookings in SH. It's a city of 27 million people, most of them well-heeled it seems.

The restaurant is out near The Bund or Waitan in Mandarin, wai meaning outside tan meaning coast, seaside, beach. Yi's office is just 10 minutes' walk away. It was our first lunch with her in SH. We had dropped in to visit her in SH without notice and she was so busy we only saw her at night, when she came back from work nearly midnight. She was busy into her next project, a portrait of another famous Chinese.

She ran into the restaurant, late as usual, strands of hair all over her face. We were early to the restaurant and the locals hadn't come in yet. Most who were there were tourists and expats, obvious from the languages spoken and the amount of photos taken around the building. Table No 1 is the restaurant in The Waterhouse, a chic, modern boutique hotel that I can't afford to stay in.

I've looked forward to the day when my girl would be making enough money to treat us to a pleasant restaurant so this was an extra special lunch because this was it, Yi was paying. Lucky for her, we passed on the wine and ordered the special promotion lunch. The regular menu can be pricey. There's a special steak for RMB988. Maybe 5 years from now.

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Table No 1 is casual, just the way I like it but the waiters are always watching.

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How pretty is that! Yi's starter of salmon tartare with cucumber, quail eggs, radish and the tiniest little white radishes (not seen in photo) I've ever seen. Very light and refreshing but too small a portion.

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Hub's starter, ham hock and foie gras terrine. Very nice and delicate but I have to admit that I prefer foie gras in its original state, not pated ot terrined. I want whole foie gras!

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My starter of wild mushrooms a la greque, whatever that is, was yummy too.

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Yi ordered a little crate of bread and rolls, RMB48/MYR24/USD8. The bread was served with butter, pesto (not as good as mine) and solid lard! Yi's friend Chris and his dad refused to try the lard when they ate there half a year back. I dug into it.

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What do you know, there was pork floss inside!

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Not ordinary pork floss, but superb, gorgeous pork that was so flavorful and yummy that I couldn't stop eating it. Wish I can make that spread.

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Yi's slow cooked duck legs and hearts in mushroom-spiced sauce.

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"What's this, ma?!"
 "A heart."
"Ew!"
"Give it to dad, he eats anything." (I was like "ew" too but didn't want them to know)
Dad ate the heart.

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My roast young chicken was beautiful but a bit bland and dry. Came with a bowl of yummy fries.

I love how the photos turned out. I've learnt something: eat lunch if you want to take good food photos. And oh, sit next to the window, or the seat that gets the most light. The lighting in the restaurant was so perfect for photos that all the photos you see here are untouched, no contrasting or sharpening or whatever.

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Hub's seared sea bass with apricot soy. Nice, as nice as any good fish dish although it was a little overcooked.

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"EW! More hearts under the musrooms!"
"Ok, just give your dish to me. You can have my chicken."

Now, I had to eat at least one heart just to show I'm not chicken (or duck) and that as a foodie, I can eat most things. The heart was nice and tender, really quite tasty. The duck, oh the duck, was just perfect. Very tender, falling off the bone, succulent, flavorful and tasty. Best main of the three.

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This was my first Eton Mess and I felt a little bit let down. It was too neat and pretty. Come on, it should look messy! But you know what, this was seriously good. Yi and I were oohhing and ahhing over this. The meringue was super light, melt-in-the-mouth, not too sweet, and the raspberries and cream just made this one of the best desserts ever.

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Hub's lemon something. It was very good, unbelievably lemony--the curd, the cake, the cream--but it was the size of a tablespoon.

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My orange cake came with a very crisp piece of orange which I loved.

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Syrup-soaked cakes aren't my fave but this was still pleasurable to eat.

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It was such a wonderful surprise to come to the last page in a magazine (City Weekend, a magazine for expats in SH) and read an article about my own daughter. Surreal. She was sitting in front of me, licking her spoon and plate, strands of hair sticking out here and there. I told her she needed moisturizer and a facial. Hub took a real ugly photo of me. I shut up.
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