Salim took a tentative bite of the fried batter puff. If it was good enough for Commissioner Raja, it was good enough for him. Then he forgot all about the commissioner as the hot savoury mix of chili, onion, sardine, and – was it lime? – burst out of its crisp casing in his mouth. This was possibly the most sensational epok-epok he had tasted since his late grandmother’s death. Unlike the usual Chinese version, the pastry was thick and rich, and the savoury mix of seasoned fish, potato, and hard-boiled egg inside almost made him swoon. He looked across at Aunty Lee with something like devotion in his eyes.
Aunty Lee’s Delights in Binjai Park is known for its sweet and savoury kueh and fried tidbits. And her bottles of “Aunty Lee’s Shiok Sambal and Aunty Lee’s Amazing Achar and Krunchy Kropok”. But on this night it is the venue for a wine dinner, hosted by her stepson Mark, who fancies himself a bit of a wine connoisseur, pairing wines with local foods, more specifically Peranakan food.
Let’s meet the dinner guests, shall we?
The Cunninghams, Frank and Lucy, an old Australian couple, who “looked like retirees who were travelling to see the world and had chosen SIngapore as their first stop because of its clean, safe, English-speaking reputation”. But Aunty Lee’s nose sniffs out a secret that they are reluctant to share.
Harry Sullivan, a repeat diner, also an Australian, who loves being a white man in Singapore (he claims to be a hit with local women, for instance). He’s quite full of himself.
Mark Lee and his wife Selina (or Silly-nah as Aunty Lee likes to call her), the organisers of the event. Rather at odds with each other. Mark, the son of an old money family, had “grown up with that comfortable nonchalance toward money that a financially privileged childhood confers”. Selina, though, was an aspiring Tai-tai, or a wealthy woman who doesn’t have to work, and is thus resentful that her late father-in-law left all the money to his second wife, Aunty Lee. She’s bossy, he’s henpecked.
Rosie Lee, owner and chef at Aunty Lee’s Delights. Like her outfit of turquoise kebaya top, matching flared pants and sneakers with bright yellow laces, she is a mix of traditional and modern, experimenting and reverse engineering dishes of all sorts. She has two passions: food and news. She is best at being kaypoh (busybody). [I should add that “Aunty” or “Auntie” is often used in Singapore as a polite way of calling an older female, who might not necessarily be related to you. For instance, if I were to meet a friend and her mother, I would call her “Auntie”. Likewise for the term “Uncle”.]
Nina Balignasay is Aunty Lee’s domestic helper and sous chef in an unofficial capacity (as a maid, she isn’t supposed to be working outside of the home). She’s Aunty Lee’s eyes and ears and extra pair of hands.
Cherril Lim-Peters, a former flight attendant now the wife of a high-flying wealthy lawyer, is probably the only one there really interested in wining and dining. She is there without her husband Mycroft this time, and is quite delighted. Her sister-in-law Marianne was also expected but didn’t turn up either.
Laura Kwee who is supposed to help organize the dinner is conspicuously absent.
And Aunty Lee has the feeling that this has something to do with the dead body washed up on a beach.
As we – and police Senior Staff Sergeant Salim – soon find out, Aunty Lee’s nosy nose and connections everywhere (some are really Nina’s domestic helper connections) means that she is often the first to piece together the clues, all while cooking up a storm.
Aunty Lee is quite the character. She reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but with a greater focus on food. Of course she has her handy sidekick Nina to help with the snooping and cooking.
And oh, the food! Bubor cha cha (a hot coconut-y dessert soup with sweet potatoes, yam and more). Nasi Lemak (coconut rice served with fried fish, sambal chili). Epok-epok (spicy sardine puffs). All the good stuff that made me salivate a little, and think of home, while reading this book. So despite its not very exciting mystery, Aunty Lee’s Delights was quite a, er, delightful little read for me, full of the tastes and flavours of Singapore.
Check out the other tour stops:
Tuesday, September 17th: Olduvai Reads
Wednesday, September 18th: Lavish Bookshelf
Thursday, September 19th: Wordsmithonia
Monday, September 23rd: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, September 24th: guiltless reading
Wednesday, September 25th: Bibliophilia, Please!
Thursday, September 26th: Ageless Pages Reviews
Tuesday, October 1st: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, October 2nd: Kahakai Kitchen
Monday, October 7th: A Chick Who Reads
Ovidia Yu is one of Singapore’s best-known and most acclaimed writers. She has had more than thirty plays produced and is also the author of a number of mysteries that have been published in Singapore and India.