Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials, Ovidia Yu
This is the second mystery to feature Rosie "Aunty" Lee, a lady of a certain age who owns a café in Singapore, Aunty Lee's Delights. There she cooks traditional Peranakan dishes, while also experimenting with new foods and techniques. She is nearly as interested in crime as she in cooking. I read the first book, named for her café, earlier this year and enjoyed it very much (my review is here). When I saw that a sequel was coming out in the fall, I put my order in. I had hoped to review this for the R.I.P. Challenge, but a streaming cold last week left me too exhausted in the evenings to write coherently.
The "deadly specials" of the title are a traditional dish called buah keluak, made from the seeds of kepayang tree, which I learned is a type of mangrove. The golf ball-sized seeds contain cyanide, as does the entire plant. But the seeds can be treated to removed the poison, in a complicated process that involves boiling and burying and digging up and soaking - essentially fermenting them. Once treated, they can be added whole to recipes, or made into a paste that is cooked within the seed's shell. Both the seeds and the dishes that use them take a lot of preparation, and there can be an element of risk if the seeds aren't properly treated.
As the story opens, Aunty Lee has been hired to cater a brunch for the Sung family, to celebrate their daughter Sharon's new partnership in her mother's law firm. Mabel Sung has specifically ordered buah keluak, which Aunty Lee serves in a chicken curry. Mabel prepares a plate of food to take to her son Leonard, who has returned from the United States seriously ill, some say dying. She is clearly distracted, as are her daughter Sharon and husband Henry, a doctor. Aunty Lee overhears some interesting conversations among the guests, including another doctor, Edmond Yong, and a prayer group whose members have had special surgeries, cosmetic and rejuvenating, in private clinics.
Then Mabel Sung and her son are found in his room, both dead, surrounded by buah keluak shells. As the caterer, Aunty Lee immediately comes under suspicion, though everyone else who ate her food is fine. The police close her café to look for evidence, even before a series of complaints are filed against her food by the Sungs and their prayer-group friends. Aunty Lee doesn't need the money from the café, but she does need the work and the busyness. With her assistant Nina, she begins to investigate the Sungs, asking questions about both the law firm and the prayer groups that Mabel ran. She wonders too about another death, that of a young man from China, who came to Singapore to sell one of his kidneys, part of a busy black market in organ trafficking.
I thought this was a very interesting mystery, both for its setting and its story. In an interview I read, Ovidia Yu compared Aunty Lee to Lucy Eyelesbarrow, from Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington. Here I thought she was more in the Miss Marple mode, deliberately playing a slightly-addled older lady who wanders around, asking questions and poking into things with Nina. Despite the accusations against her, she still has the police on her side, including Police Commissioner Raja and an officer from her local station, Senior Staff Sergeant Salim. They follow the letter of the law in shutting down her business, and then do everything they can on the side to help her.
I have not yet been to any of Houston's Indonesian restaurants. I am tempted to see if they have buah keluak on their menus. According to one website I found, it is an acquired taste, "a rich, earthy, botanically
bitter-yet-nutty flavour that’s almost reminiscent of a good single
origin dark chocolate." (You can read more here, including a recipe.) Ovidia Yu includes a simpler version at the back of the book, a curry using candlenuts or macadamias.
I have certainly acquired a taste for these books, and not to sound greedy, but I hope there will be more stories of Aunty Lee, Nina and the café to come.