Cooking the Books: Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials by Ovidia Yu

The second book in Ovidia Yu’s Singaporean Mystery series starring Rosie Lee—a cafe-owning widow affectionately called Aunty by all who know her—sees our intrepid, if unlikely, heroine caught up in the death of two people at an event she was catering.

Aunty Lee had prepared a delicacy that, much like the infamous fugu fish, could be deadly in less competent hands: a chicken curry flavored with buah keluak—a poisonous nut rendered edible only by fermentation.

At first, the authorities are quite happy to give in to pressure from the victims’ family and declare the two deaths a case of accidental poisoning, especially since the deceased were socially and politically well-connected. Aunty Lee, however, refuses to sit back and quietly take the hit to her reputation. She knows perfectly well that her dishes bring only delight, not death, and is determined to prove it by finding out who was really responsible.

Auntie Lee’s Deadly Specials builds on the groundwork laid in the first book, Auntie Lee’s Delights, and flourishes. Ms. Yu writes as if she’s really breaking into her stride here, with a murder mystery that is both well-structured and, continuing with the tone of its predecessor, socially conscious—though in a slightly less self-conscious way than previously.

There are also two recipes included here: one for a traditional-style dish based on the titular deadly special, and the other an innovative drink idea dreamed up in the book by one of Aunty Lee's partners. For the former, Ms. Yu recommends using candlenuts in lieu of buah keluak, but I opted for the even easier-to-source option of macadamias.

Aunty Lee’s Easy Candlenut Curry

This will make enough to feed four adults or two ravenous teenagers.
 

Chicken

1 onion (preferably red), peeled and chopped

1 pound chicken cut into even-sized chunks

2 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

1 cup chicken broth (or water and a bouillon cube)

Rempah Curry

5 candlenuts (or macadamias)

2 cloves garlic

Half an inch of peeled ginger

2 teaspoons curry powder

2 teaspoons coriander powder

2 teaspoons cumin powder

1 teaspoon chilli powder

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

1 teaspoon vinegar

Add a little oil as you blend the ingredients in a food processor to a smooth paste.
 

Salt (approximately half a teaspoon)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sugar (the secret ingredient)

1 cup coconut milk

Heat a little oil in a frying pan and fry the chopped onion. Add the blender paste and fry that, too, until it darkens and becomes fragrant.

Add the chicken and stir fry until the chicken is coated with the curry paste. Add the potatoes. Stir in the chicken broth, salt, pepper, and sugar. Let simmer on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. After the liquid is reduced, stir in enough coconut milk to the consistency you like (soupy or just saucy) and simmer for about 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Serve with bread or rice and Aunty Lee's Amazing Achar!

As with Ms Yu's first novel in the series, Aunty Lee's Delights, I found myself gritting my teeth at the vast difference between what “easy” means for both of us. However, I was very impressed by the taste of the spice paste as it came out of the blender. It had a mild nuttiness that balanced out the spices quite delightfully. Unfortunately, the end result wound up tasting like every other curry I've ever made. I'm not sure whether this was because I had to let the dish simmer longer (twenty minutes was not enough to cook my potatoes through, despite cutting them into fairly small chunks. Ordinarily, I parboil my potatoes beforehand, but felt I ought to follow Ms. Yu’s instructions to the letter here) and, thus, leached out the flavor somewhat. It was still delicious, just nothing out of the ordinary.

I actually had more reservations about the drink recipe, which were not helped by my discovery that chopping lemongrass is one of the most obnoxious pieces of vegetable prep I've ever had to perform in my life.
 

Cherril’s Ginger Lemongrass Doctail

This recipe makes 4 cups. (Two to drink right away, and two to put in the fridge to be chilled for later.)

5 cups water

An inch of fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped

3 big stalks of lemongrass (or 5 little ones) including the juicy white bulbs, washed and chopped

Honey to taste

Being the water to a boil in a pan. Add the chopped ginger and lemongrass and turn the heat down to simmer for at least 5 minutes. Stir in the honey to taste. Strain and serve.

Fortunately, the drink came out beautifully, tasting delicious both hot and chilled! The nice thing about lemongrass, despite how abominable it is to prep, is that it provides acid without that puckering effect that lemons can induce if not properly balanced. I'm not entirely sure if the end product was worth how labor-intensive it was (whereas the “Amazing Achar” from Book One was totally worth it), but it was still a very refreshing, tasty, and healthy beverage!

Verdict: the mystery novel itself betters its predecessor, but the recipes do not impress quite as much. Still, it’s as solid an addition to the Southeast Asian repertoire of the adventurous chef as the novel is to the library of the armchair-tourist mystery reader.

 

To learn more or order a copy, visit:

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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