Red Dot Juanderer: Rowena “Frog” Michaels
A HELPING HAND.
I am a Red Dot Juanderer. And this is my Singapore story.
British writer Rowena “Frog” Michaels moved to Asia’s most exciting culinary melting pot from Europe almost a decade ago together with her Singaporean-Caucasian husband (Simon Michael). Following their relocation, Frog has since employed and lived with Filipina helpers who look after their home — from as simple as preparing what should be served daily at the dinner table to bigger domestic endeavors such as taking care of her lovely children.
Her zest for writing, hunger for homecooked meals, and utmost affection towards her helpers ultimately gave birth to “A Helping Hand,” a distinct cookbook that invites a marriage of Western and Asian cultures carefully infused in each heartwarming recipe. Written in both English and Filipino, the cookbook, which contains Western & Asian culinary masterpieces, aims to help both the employers and their Filipino house helpers create magical family dishes for everyone to enjoy.
My Singapore Story:
I’ve been in Singapore for eight years now and I consider it home. I started my career in public relations and marketing and I always love the writing side of it. I also started a blog called changmoh.com (The Chinese-Ang Moh). I’m obviously Ang Moh (racial epithet for Caucasians living in Singapore), but I love doing local stuff here. The blog got quite big and I felt like I was discovering really good local gems. Interestingly, I was followed more by Chinese Singaporeans rather than expats. I also did freelance writing for Singapore Tatler, KrisFlyer, and the Telegraph.
Why Is My Nickname “Frog”?
My real name is “Rowena,” which is quite a popular girl’s name in the Philippines. I always felt “Rowena” is a name that’s too grown up for me. When I was little, my face was really small that I looked like a frog. I’ve always been called “Frog” or “Froggy” because I had really big eyes. It’s a nickname that I’ve been used to. When I started writing, I thought it was more fun to use “Frog” and so I kept it.
Why Write A Cookbook With Translations In Filipino?
Living in Singapore, food is always at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Food has always been in my mind and on my radar. I’ve been carrying with me these good family recipes, and some of which are excellent Chinese staples from Simon’s (my husband) family too, and all of them are now part of my cookbook.
I also realized that many helpers in Singapore can have an incredibly difficult time with their employers especially if they are suddenly asked to cook Western food and they’re not even familiar with the dishes. I can’t believe there hasn’t been any book that speaks to both the employer and employee in terms of cooking. It’s important to me that this book contributes to making lives better. These dishes in the cookbook are sort of staples that Westerners like to eat.
In my mind, I’m writing this book for a very difficult employer, and I also write for a helper who might be having a hard time. If the helper can cook something here from the book — and she initially thought she can’t do it — hopefully, the book gives her a sudden confidence boost.
Sometimes, some words get lost in translation especially when you’re cooking and a cook might use words like braised, boiled, and bain-marie — they are really complicated words. Even native English speakers might not know what these words mean. If you boil your chicken instead of roasting it, the results can be really, really different. I cater for a novice cook. But even if you are good cook, you can still use the book and just skip some of the steps.
I have two lovely ladies who are from the Philippines (Concon and Ginalyn). One of them really wanted to cook but struggles with cookbooks. Think of Jamie Oliver who’s massive but the language he uses — he says things like “whack it in the oven.” He uses really colloquial and complicated expressions.
I remember I was cooking in France, and I opened this French cookbook and started cooking. I speak French well but there were two words I didn’t understand in the book and my dish turned out disgusting. Concon, my helper, was with me in France then, and I had that light bulb moment to come up with this project: I can’t believe there’s no such book that is both in English and Filipino.
This book is fluent in English and Tagalog (Filipino) — and it sort of bridges both cultures.
Why Call The Book “A Helping Hand”?
I call Concon and Ginalyn as my helpers and this is a cookbook initially to help helpers. But also — who doesn’t want a helping hand in the kitchen?
I have 86 recipes in total. I have a chapter called “Singapore Flavours” and that has Simon’s great grand mother’s Mee Goreng recipe (which was also featured in the Straits Times). I’ve got chapters on Kids, Breakfasts, Light Lunches, Lunches/Simple Suppers, Starters & Dips, Dinners, Sides, and Sauces & Dressings. My Desserts chapter includes the Triple Layer Victoria Sponge. When I was in the photoshoot for this particular dessert, someone else’s helper baked it for me and she has never cooked this before. She was in tears after, saying: “I can’t believe I made this cake, and it’s beautiful.”
My Favorites In The Cookbook:
One of my favorites is the Roast Pork Belly. We’re having a dinner party tonight and we’re cooking it. In the UK, we normally have this for lunch and not dinner. If you serve it with mashed potato and apple sauce, and cut it into really little rectangles — it’s completely delicious and it feels like you are dining in a restaurant. My other favorite is the Aachi’s Chicken Curry which was taught to me by a lovely Sri Lankan lady, Sriya. The Pomegranate Couscous which is on the cookbook cover is also delicious.
How Did I Learn How To Cook?
My mother taught me. I feel like cooking is very much about confidence, practice, and enjoyment. I hope that my book gives these three things.
These books are intended to be bought by the employers for the helpers. In Singapore, a portion of the money from each book sale will be handed to the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Eocnomics (HOME). In Hong Kong, I’m supporting PathFinders, a charity that supports migrant mothers and helpers who become pregnant and are completely marginalized. In the Philippines, we support the Visayan Forum Foundation (VFO) and their organization aims to stop human trafficking and domestic servitude.
Uniqueness In Filipino Helpers:
I think being a helper is an incredibly difficult job. You are expected to do everything. And if you do it too well, some employers tend to complain. If you are too good to someone’s son, they might say: “ahh, my son doesn’t love me anymore.” This is ridiculous! The Filipinas I have met have incredibly happy, positive outlook, and are fun-loving. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve always had a brilliant relationship with my helpers. They are part of the family.
What Kind Of Food Would I Serve For A Dinner Of 10 Pax:
I’ll be having blinis — they are mini-pancakes with sour cream and smoked salmon on top. People can eat them when they arrive. We’ll also have roast pork bellies with cream spinach, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce on the side. For dessert, we’ll have something I’ve copied from a London restaurant: the Iced Berries with White Chocolate Sauce on top. It looks like a real party piece and it’s theatrical when you pour the white chocolate sauce into the iced berries.
My Inspiration As A Person:
My family is very important to me. I am inspired by art and food. You can find inspiration everywhere. In Singapore, if you smile at someone while walking down the street, you can easily strike random conversations with a total stranger. I love all that! I also try to give back in some small ways. If you can try to help at least one helper who’s having a hard time, that’s a good thing.
What Kind Of Cook Am I?
If I’m recipe-testing, I’m super organized. I might have all the measuring spoons on the table to get everything exact. I love experimenting, I do it very much like agar agar (a Singaporean coloquial term which means “a bit of this and a bit of that”) and I like chucking stuff in — you meet fun discoveries that way. But I also love baking because of the precision. I like being told what to do step by step. It makes you feel you’re in control. I am both messy and organized.
Filipino Words I’ve Learned Along The Way:
Concon and I are doing a Facebook page together in Tagalog (Facebook Page: Katuwang sa Kusina). In the page, we post videos of me reading Tagalog sentences written on the book. We’re trying to post one recipe a week. I know extraordinary words in Filipino now like sandok na kahoy, manok, lutuin, tubig, itlog and even, kilikili.
What If I Could Be An Animal?
I would be a whale. They are the most amazing animal. I would love that! They are quite big so they won’t get eaten by anything. They are majestic, playful, and strong. I personally love diving too.
About the Red Dot Juanderer:
We are constantly on the lookout for inspiring, aspirational, and relatable stories from our fellow Juans living and working in the Little Red Dot. If you know any Filipino in Singapore that should be our next Red Dot Juanderer, email us at [email protected] // Interviews and photos by Paolo Avis; Assisted by Jaypee Quitco.