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Crazy Rich Asians argue about satay

Then it was time for the satay. Rachel bit into the succulent grilled chicken, savoring its smoky sweetness carefully. The rest of them watched her intently. "Okay, Nick, you were right. I've never had decent satay until now.

 – Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians, chapter 14

I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did, perhaps because I felt rather lukewarm about the film a couple of years ago. The book's Hollywood-isation stripped it largely of its satire, turning it into a mushy, dramatic onscreen romance complete with makeovers, cringey caricatures and a grand gesture on an airplane (more original than an airport). It's such mis-adapting that has led to the wide belief that Jane Austen wrote "love stories", when what she actually exposed were the nuances of stratification and relationships through humour and irony. I bring up Austen because more than one critic compared Crazy Rich Asians to one of her works, but probably for different reasons, the comparisons actually make sense to me.


Kwan's narrative is heady, but there's a disdain throughout  he doesn't let us get too close to anyone, while also giving the characters just enough moments of redemption. Astrid fishes for coupons while simultaneously bidding on a multi-million dollar artwork; Rachel dislikes money but thinks Nick hopping on a private jet to visit her mom is terribly romantic; Araminta is far more interested in Astrid's outfit than her own wedding ball (see why the Austen comparisons are apt?); Nick wants to give up everything for love, but hiding out at his rich friend's fancy home, he isn't sure if he can.

Satay is part of the first meal that Rachel eats upon arriving in Singapore  the first meal of innocence, in a way, for she will soon realise that nothing (and no one) is what it seems. For now, it's a casual street food dinner with her boyfriend and his best friends, who are warm and welcoming and don't seem rich. At the airport, they discuss where to grab dinner. 

How about some satay?" Rachel suggested. "Nick is always going on and on about how you've never tasted decent satay until you've had it in Singapore. 
That settles it  we're going to Lau Pa Sat," Colin announced. "Rachel, you'll get to experience your first true hawker center. And they have the best satay. 
You think so? I like that place in Sembawang better," Araminta said. [...] "Personally, I've always liked the satay at Newton," Nick cut in. "Newton? You've lost your mind, Nicky. Newton is only for expats and tourists  there aren't any good satay stalls left.

I didn't realise how much satay was featured in the film

Nick's excited about satay

Rachel can't get enough...

...but she's up for sharing. She passes some to Colin...

...and she feeds some to Nick, because why not.

He won't let go. So embarrassing.

Who's next? Probably Araminta.

Araminta ends the conversation by saying, "Welcome to Singapore, Rachel  where arguing about food is the national pastime."

Gossip is probably another favourite pastime, at least among the characters in this book. There are so many wrong ways of being Asian, Chinese, rich; but very few ways of doing it right. Or rather, being born into the right situation. There are Mainlanders and Straits Chinese, new money and money so old no one has heard of it (unlike the movie, Peik Lin spends much of the book trying to figure out who the Youngs are). The first chapter introduces us to the term ABC  American-born Chinese (much like the Indian ABCD), obviously not ideal. At one point, Jacqueline Ling claims, "I want my daughter to mix with quality people, not the so-called Asian jet set in New York. All those pretenders are riding Amanda's coat-tails."  

The question of authenticity comes up repeatedly, and often plays out through food. Shortly after the satay scene, Rachel dines at Peik Lin's Versailles-inspired mansion, eating a "simple" lunch of 13 "typical" Malaysian and Singaporean dishes because "our new cook is from Ipoh." Later that evening, she finds herself in the midst of a buffet feast at Tyersall Park, the house with no number, with not just dishes but cuisines from different countries to choose from, a banquet of desserts, and a carefully guarded chocolate chiffon cake that no one can seem to replicate. In Malaysia, Nick gets Rachel to "go native" by eating nasi lemak, "Malaysia's most popular dish", with her hands, because "Malays believe food actually tastes better" when eaten thus.

In perhaps one of the most interesting scenes, Rachel and Nick are invited to afternoon tea with Nick's grandmother at her Pemberley-esque estate. At the beginning of the book, Nick boasts about her perfect, famous scones – which, of course, she doesn't actually bake herself  and there they are, complete with clotted cream, jam, lemon curd and a full tea service. She explains that the family picked up these "colonial habits" only after moving to Singapore, to entertain British guests and for her husband, who had lived in England. Ah Ma doesn't eat any of the foreign food, and accuses Nick of being seduced by Western ways. 

Rachel couldn't help noting the irony in what Nick's grandmother was saying. She looked and sounded like a Chinese woman in the most traditional sense, and yet here they were in a walled garden straight out of the Loire Valley having English afternoon tea.

This was the first time I've bought lemongrass and shallots, and the never-used skewers needed to be located. Though the ingredient list was pretty straightforward for the recipe, I've never quite tried creating this combination of flavours, and I enjoyed the aroma during blending, marinating and grilling. The chicken satay came out crisp on the outside, soft on the inside thanks to the husband's grilling expertise, garnished with toasted sesame seeds and a squeeze of lemon. 

I also made a simple, probably very inauthentic peanut sauce, but so what? As the closing scene of the book indulgently suggests, authenticity is probably elusive, and possibly overrated.
Can we go to one of those outdoor food bazaars that Singapore is so famous for? I want to eat a hundred sticks of satay while I am here.

And a familiar argument ensues. 


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  1. Delish! I had started reading CRA, but abandoned before 10%. Possibly because I'd already watched the movie so didn't have the motivation to continue!

    1. Hmm yeah, the book is much better and quite different in tone I would say. Plus no cheesy airplane proposal etc. at the end, that was just Hollywood being Hollywood.


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