Mystery novels are my intellectual comfort food, so when a series comes along that combines murder with my idea of actual, physical comfort food, it’s hard to resist!
Aunty Lee’s Delights is the story of Singaporean Rosie Lee, a middle-aged widow who runs a cafe more to keep herself busy than to actually turn a profit. With the aid of her Filipina maid, Nina, she has quite the tidy business, affording her time to indulge herself in both of her favorite pastimes: cooking and being a busybody (or kaypoh, as it’s known in the vernacular and lovingly explained for the reader unfamiliar with the local lingo.)
When a corpse washes up on a holiday beach, Aunty Lee (as she’s affectionately known) muses on it with Nina, but hardly expects the turn of events that puts herself and her beloved cafe squarely in the middle of solving the murder. Hosting a wine-tasting and dinner for her intermittently entrepreneurial stepson and his consistently obnoxious wife plunges Aunty Lee into a sociopolitical debate on homosexuality and into the thick of a murder investigation that soon uncovers more bodies.
Ovidia Yu’s debut mystery is excellent at evoking not only the multicultural mores of Singaporean society—flaws and all—but also the mouth-watering foods of the region. Having grown up in neighboring Malaysia, I lingered over the descriptions of the various dishes, thinking fondly of all these things that were once an everyday staple, but are now exotic specialties to be indulged in, only after determined effort to either track down where they’re served or the ingredients needed for me to recreate them at home. Despite the inclusion of a self-proclaimed easy recipe in the back, I didn’t seriously think about trying to make any of the dishes included…until my editor here challenged me to try the recipe in the back.
And challenge is the operative word.
I’m a competent cook, having learned (to my housewife mother’s never-ending chagrin) from a Canadian cooking show how not to be afraid of the kitchen, and further honing my skills through a stint in an Italian restaurant. But Straits food, the food of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, has always been a difficult beast for me.
I can make your standard rices and simple meat and vegetable dishes, but the real delicacies have been beyond me. However, when I read the recipe for Aunty Lee’s “Amazing Achar,” I told myself, “How hard can this honestly be? I mean, it says ‘easy’ in the description!”
I plunged into the challenge with vigor, going so far as to order from abroad the most exotic of the required components. Despite my experience with cooking, I’ve never actually pickled anything before, but simple pickles have always looked easy enough on the cooking competition shows I’ve watched.
Anyway, here’s the recipe so those of you better at cooking than I am can go ahead and get started laughing at me now.
Aunty Lee's “Amazing Achar”
Prepare at least a day in advance. The longer it stays in your fridge the better it will taste.
2 cups vegetables, chopped into thick matchsticks and bite-sized morsels. Use what you have and more of what you like. Traditional vegetables include cucumbers, carrots, Napa cabbage, red onions, hot peppers, cauliflower, and green beans. Leave the skin on the cucumbers and carrots but remove the seeds from cucumbers and hot peppers. For crunchier pickles rub a tablespoon of salt into your cucumber sticks and leave them to sweat.
½ cup your best vinegar (can be white vinegar, rice vinegar, or wine vinegar. Remember: the better the vinegar the better your pickles!)
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
For Rempah (Spice Paste):
1 red onion (chopped)
1 clove garlic
1 nub fresh ginger
1 nub fresh turmeric
2 dried hot peppers
1 tablespoon toasted belachan (fermented shrimp paste). Or use 1 teaspoon each of ginger and turmeric powder and 1 tablespoon of red chili pepper flakes, and substitute 1 tablespoon of anchovy paste for the belachan.
Final Touch Ingredients:
½ cup vinegar (see above)
Fresh juice of one large lime (or half a lemon)
Dash of salt and pepper
Small can of pineapple chunks
Crushed roasted peanuts
Toasted sesame seeds
How to Prepare:
Turn on your radio or television and turn off your phone.
Bring your blanching solution to a boil. Blanch all your chopped vegetables (except for the cucumbers) and lay them out to dry on kitchen towels, where the cucumbers can rejoin them. The more you dry them here the better they will absorb your marinade later.
Blend all your rempah ingredients into a paste. If using powders you may need a few drops of oil to bind them. Heat a pan with a little oil and stir-fry your spice paste over low heat until it smells good. This will take 10 to 15 minutes.
Add ½ cup vinegar, the lime juice, and a teaspoon of salt and suge. Bring the mixture to a boil then remove from heat immediately.
In a glass or ceramic bowl, add your pineapple chunks, peanuts, seseame seeds, and all your vegetables and mix well, pressing them down in the bowl. The marinade won’t cover the vegetables at this stage but the level will rise as your vegetables pickle.
If not eaten immediately, your achar should be stored in a glass container in the fridge. Stir thoroughly each time you help yourself.
First of all, for an “easy” recipe, this took me hours to prep. The individual steps themselves weren’t that difficult, just time-consuming and numerous, but the result was definitely worth the effort! Auntie Lee’s Achar is, indeed, amazing, with the right balance of tang and spice that adds extra kick to any rice dish. It keeps nicely in the fridge, so you can make a bunch to store, and I personally find it almost addictively delicious. Definitely a delight to rival the novel it accompanies!
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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.