Peranakan Cooking for Crazy Rich Asians

Our current Cook the Books Club pick is Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, hosted by moi, with a Movie tie-in to Food n' Flix, hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats.  The people featured in this novel are not just rich, but crazy rich.  Also, some of them, plain crazy.  But, happily for our purposes at CTBC, Singaporeans are food obsessed.  Lots of fabulous food is eaten, discussed and argued over, another local pastime.

This over the top romp mostly takes place in Singapore around the marriage of the century.  And two New Yorkers, NYU college professors, are heading off to participate in the extravagant event; Nicholas (the Best Man) and Rachel, his girlfriend, (who is clueless about his crazy family).  Even though Nicky's cousin Astrid has clearly warned him; "You can't just throw Rachel in the deep end like this.  You need to prep her, do you hear me?"  He doesn't see the need.  He has been raised not to talk about money.  His family are traditional and very private.  They don't do media interviews or seek publicity.

The wealthy people in Singapore are divided between the filthy rich old family Singaporeans, the recent  Chinese emigres "mainlanders", and assorted Malay royalty.  So we're given a look at the Asian jet set, with plenty of snobbery, greed, ridiculous spending, nasty gossip and rude behavior, but balanced out with large doses of humor and sarcasm, thanks to Mr. Kwan . In the end, it becomes quite clear that money may help, but it is not making people happy or nice. Kwan's novel is, at heart, a romance in the best sense, tried and true in the end.

The food was fabulous as well, with mentions of enticing street vendor snacks and meals, Malay, Indian and Peranakan (Straits Malay) cooking as well as elegant Chinese home and restaurant delicacies, even "Pacific Rim fusion molecular cuisine" makes an appearance at the Wedding banquet. I fondly remember the wonderful food we had in Malaysia and Singapore, quite a few years ago.  The street food from outdoor vendors was amazing, with crispy sweet banana fritters and spicy fried noodle dishes; not to mention great area restaurants serving Peranakan, Chinese, Indian and Malay specialties.

As Charmaine Solomon says in her Complete Asian Cookbook: "The most interesting food, because it is peculiar to Singapore, is the Nonya style of food - a mixture of Chinese ingredients and Malay spices, cooked in a way that is a perfect mingling of the two cultures.  This came about quite naturally, because when Chinese labor was recruited in the last century, it was only men who were allowed to leave China and come to the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore.  They married Malay wives and these alliances resulted in a singular and quite distinctive style of cooking, a cuisine that the Nonyas are proud of and cannot live without.  Nonyas are Straits born Chinese.  The women are 'Nonyas', the men 'Babas' and together they are known as 'Peranakan'."

This is cooking I especially appreciate as many of the spices are growing in my gardens. I posted a Malaysian recipe once not too long ago, so it's high time for another Peranakan meal!  In my Malaysian 2 Cookbook, I noticed many of the recipes instruct to pound some of the ingredients ahead and then fry before adding the rest.  Below you can see my "pounded" spices (actually whizzed in my food processor), with the curry leaves added on the side, ready to be fried.   This for my book inspired dish of Malay style Chicken and Sweet Potato Stew with coconut milk.

                     Malay Chicken and Sweet Potato Stew

1/4 cup flour
1/2 teas. cayenne pepper
1/2 teas. ground cinnamon
1/2 teas. ground cloves
8-9 chicken thighs
1/4 cup vegetable oil (about)
1 sprig curry leaves (10-12)
2 tablespoons curry powder of choice
2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups coconut milk

Mix the flour and spices on a piece of waxed paper and dredge the chicken in it.  In a large pan, heat the oil over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking.  Add the chicken pieces in a single layer, without crowding the pan, in two batches if necessary.  Fry until browned on each side (3-4 minutes per side).  As it browns, remove to a plate.  Set aside.

 Pounded ingredients:
1/2 inch piece fresh ginger
1 small piece turmeric
1/4 onion, chopped
2 cloves fresh garlic
3 dried red chillies (depending on the heat you want)
2 green chillies (ditto)

Lower the heat to medium and fry the curry leaves and pounded ingredients, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 2-3 minutes.  Add the stock. sweet potatoes and browned chicken.  Reduce heat to simmer and then add the coconut milk.  Cook for about 1 hour, covered, until the chicken is cooked through.  Remove from heat, mix well and serve with rice.

We enjoyed our reminiscences of Singapore and Malaysia with this meal, to which I added a side of fiddle leaf ferns and avocado, tossed with my special South East Asian style dressing. Very yummy, and it's good there were enough left-overs for another dinner.

This is my contribution to our Cook the Books Club online feast in celebration of the current selection: Crazy Rich Asians!  There's still time if you'd like to join the party.  Deadline is March 31st. Just read the book and post about a dish it inspires you to make.  Any questions, check the Guidelines tab at the above site link. I'll also be linking up with Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event, and with Heather at the March edition of her Foodie Reads Challenge.  Check out some good cooking and reading ideas..


Debra Eliotseats said...

I like it! I think it was Camille who wrote the characters were not crazy and not rich but CRAZY RICH (or something to that effect). I agree with you, too; some of the characters were a bit eccentric (to say the least). Thanks for hosting and thanks for letting me jump on board with FnF. Love the dish!

jama said...

I'm sure I'm the only one on the planet who hasn't yet read CRA or seen the movie. Love this post -- your description not only of the book but of Peranakan Cooking was so interesting, and the stew you made looks hearty and aromatic. Yum!

Beth F said...

Ha ha -- No, Jama, I'm in the same boat: I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but I need to change that. Your stew sounds so good, and with those warm spices it'd be perfect for our (still) cool weather.

Carole said...

What fun - I am waiting to see the movie. Cheers

Mae Travels said...

So delicious looking! Asian food has so many wonderful variations and fusions going for it. I have only read one of the books, and I'm waiting for the movie to be on Netflix.

best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I thought this was a fun joint effort between CTB and FnF. I enjoyed it and I love the inspiration for this delicious sounding stew.

Delaware Girl Eats said...

I had the opportunity to visit Singapore a number of times in the past and really enjoyed the Nonya style of food, especially at the hawker markets

Simona Carini said...

Thank you for the interesting quote regarding Peranakan. Great recipe: I like everything including the intriguing side dish of fiddle leaf ferns and avocado :)