Aunty Lee's Delights

A Singaporean Mystery

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This delectable and witty mystery introduces Rosie “Aunty” Lee, feisty widow, amateur sleuth, and proprietor of Singapore’s best-loved home-cooking restaurant

After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai,” an idle rich lady. Instead she is building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean meals are graciously served to locals and tourists alike. But when a body is found in one of Singapore’s tourist havens and one of her guests fails to show at a dinner party, Aunty Lee knows that the two events are likely connected.

The murder and disappearance throws together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson, Mark, his social-climbing wife, Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore, and an elderly Australian tourist couple whose visit may mask a deeper purpose. Investigating the murder are Police Commissioner Raja and Senior Staff Sergeant Salim, who quickly discover that Aunty Lee’s sharp nose for intrigue can sniff out clues that elude law enforcers.

Wise, witty, and charming, Aunty Lee’s Delights is a spicy mystery about love, friendship, and food in Singapore, where money flows freely and people of many religions and ethnicities coexist peacefully, but where tensions lurk just below the surface, sometimes with deadly consequences.


Part 1

Introducing Death and Detectives


First Body

It was early morning and the rain had stopped. The grass was still wet. They walked across it to the sand and then right up to the water's edge. The beach was not private to the hotel but there was no one else there at that hour. The combination of dawn and low-tide debris gave the impression of old secrets washed up, ready to be revealed. A light breeze came across the water, bringing the smell of salt and distant decay as well as—this being Singapore—whiffs of industrial chemicals being fired and antimosquito fogging.

Tired as they were, being so close to the water cast its spell on them. Even if the sea before them was blocked from the ocean by Indonesia and East Malaysia and crowded with tankers and cruisers, it was still a boundary and a reminder that somewhere in the beyond surrounding them there was a vital ocean and living planet. Like many other city- and computer-bound people, the two were unfamiliar with the experience of being exposed to the wind, the waves, and physical space.

Holding hands and their footwear, they walked barefoot along the shoreline talking about the past and their future. They were not yet twenty-four hours into their newborn marriage and found it fascinating. The Sentosa beach might have been artificially constructed but it was all the more romantic for that, with the best-quality, daily swept sand and line of carefully placed shallow rock pools marking low-tide boundaries.

"Look, a hermit crab!"

"I already noticed you in Junior College, you know . . ."

"I noticed you before that. Why do you think I decided to go to Anglo-Chinese Junior College with Hwa Chong at my door step? My parents thought I was crazy!"

"Do you think we'll ever be here like this again?"

"We can come back every year if you like. Every anniversary."

"It won't be the same. You'll be playing golf and busy and maybe there'll be children—I mean, maybe not but—" She broke off awkwardly, embarrassed to have mentioned children. But he was equal to the subject.

"Of course there'll be children. Lots of children. Your parents and my parents can fight over who gets to look after them, but once a year, every year, we'll come back here, just the two of us, okay?"

"There's something over there!" she said then, squinting over the beach. It was the most romantic thing he had ever said and she did not want to spoil it just yet by pointing out that she expected anniversary trips far further abroad—Europe, or America, maybe. "Over there. It looks like a jellyfish; is it? It's huge!"

"It's not a jellyfish. It's just a plastic bag . . ."

"Yes, it's a jellyfish—I can see its body and its legs and everything. Can't you see? I think it's dead. Are there poisonous jellyfish around Sentosa?"

They smelled it before they saw it was no jellyfish.

She screamed. He was sick on the sand. Then they put on their gritty sandals and ran back to the hotel to call the police.


Aunty Lee's Delights

"Now they are finding bodies on the beach! I tell you, that place is bad luck! Do you know it used to be called Pulau Blakang Mati? That means 'Island of Death.' Before your time, of course, but everybody in Singapore will remember. Crazy, right? Go and build a tourist resort in a place called Island of Death."

"But now it is called Sentosa, right? And the meaning of Sentosa is 'happy peacefulness'?" Nina kept her eyes focused on her work. Now she was efficiently threading thin, diagonally cut slices of chicken thigh meat onto bamboo skewers, pressing them well together before returning them to their marinade.

"So? They can call it whatever they want—they still found a dead body there, true or not?"

"Ma'am, they also find dead body in the HDB water tank, in the Singapore River, in Serangoon Reservoir. You cannot say all these places got bad luck."

"I would say all those people had bad luck. But at least we know who they were, right? This one is supposed to be unidentified!"

News that an unidentified woman's body had been found washed up on a Sentosa beach in a plastic bag had not made it into any of the Singapore morning papers, but it had been the hottest news online and over the radio all day. For once, the radio in Aunty Lee's Delights had been turned on all day, switching between local stations for updates.

Aunty Lee's Delights was a small café shop in Binjai Park, less than five minutes' walk from Dunearn Road. It was well-known for good traditional Peranakan food and famous for the achar and sambals Aunty Lee had been selling out of her house for years. Aunty Lee's Delights was also equipped with the latest modern equipment. Though she was revered for cooking the traditional standards, strange dishes occasionally popped up because Aunty Lee loved experimenting. In her view, anything cooked with local ingredients was local food. In fact the shop was very like Aunty Lee herself. Another passion of hers was reverse engineering dishes (and occasionally people) to figure out how they had come about and how they might be better adjusted. She called her kitchen her laboratory for DIY-CSI, the television in there testifying to her two passions, for food and news.

Aunty Lee was a short, precise Peranakan lady of certain age and even more certain girth. The image of her fair, plump, kebaya-clad form smiling on jars of Aunty Lee's Amazing Achar and Aunty Lee's Shiok Sambal was familiar to most Singaporeans and probably anyone else who had been on the island for any extended length of time. Today Aunty Lee was wearing a turquoise kebaya top with matching pants so flared that she looked like she was wearing a skirt when not in motion. Her sneakers that afternoon were turquoise with bright yellow laces. Aunty Lee believed in tradition but even more in comfort.

Aunty Lee was also well-known and a bit of a headache to many of the island city's food suppliers. Through letters to the Straits Times, she had exposed several cases of food fraud ("organic" kailan that had been sprayed with insecticide, "free-range" chicken with the flaccid thigh meat of cage-bound animals). All thanks to her unerring ability to pinpoint when something was "off," in food or in life, and being kiasu enough to fixate on it. Kiasu, or fear of losing out, was a typical Singaporean characteristic and one that Aunty Lee embodied to the extreme.

All day Aunty Lee had been following news reports on radio and television and had even sent Nina round to the 7-Eleven to pick up the afternoon papers, but she hadn't learned any more about the body that had been found. She and Nina had overdosed on DJ chatter and music (which Nina had quite enjoyed when Aunty Lee was not changing channels hoping for more news), but all she had gotten were news updates without new information and speculations from phone-in callers. Was it the body of a gambler from the casino? An illegal immigrant dropped off a boat who had failed to swim in to shore? Or an unlucky sailor? Had it been an accident, a suicide, or—most exciting of all—murder?

Naturally Aunty Lee was all in favor of suicide or murder. She did not find accidents very interesting. To her, accidents were the result of carelessness and poor planning, and she had very little interest in or patience with careless and lazy people. She found them boring.

"They should let us know what is happening!" Aunty Lee said. "How can they keep people in the dark like that. It's not as though they are preparing for an election or something—a body on Sentosa is serious, it affects all of us. What if tourists start to worry and stop going to the Integrated Resort there to gamble? It's going to affect all of us!"

"They can also go to the other resort to gamble, ma'am," Nina said practically. Very little upset Nina Balignasay. "Anyway, nowadays they find dead bodies in Singapore quite often."

"Do you think they've found any more bodies? Turn on the TV again. Go to CNN. Sometimes, if it's big enough, Singapore news comes out there before it reaches Singapore."

"If they find more bodies, then it is more likely accident, ma'am. Maybe it is a boat sinking."

"Or a mass murder!" Aunty Lee said with relish. "One of those serial killers. After all, if you are going to go through all the trouble of arranging to throw somebody into the sea, why stop at one body, right?"

As she spoke, Aunty Lee was rapidly cutting up cucumbers with all the attention she normally paid to cooking, which was not much. She cooked the way some people drove—while carrying on conversations, applying lipstick, and texting messages—trusting the instinct that came with long practice and only focusing on the main task when something unexpected came up or went wrong.

Fortunately Aunty Lee did not drive.

"Who do you think it was? The news said unidentified female body. That means nobody reported her missing, right? What kind of relatives don't report a missing girl!"

"Her relatives may not know she's missing yet," Nina observed calmly.

In many ways Nina Balignasay was the opposite of Aunty Lee. Nina was slim, dark, and generally prided herself on minding her own business. Though she had not known how to cook or drive when she arrived in Singapore, she had since learned to do both proficiently, thanks to Aunty Lee's help-others-to-become-good-at-helping-me philosophy. And since keeping Aunty Lee comfortable was her main business, Nina's own powers of observation had also sharpened considerably.

She had also learned not to worry that her employer would lose a finger or an eye as she speed-sliced and waved her knife around to emphasize whatever point she was making. After all, Nina was nothing if not adaptable. She had been trained as a nurse in the Philippines (even if her nursing degree was not recognized in Singapore) and would have been able to stanch the bleeding. And she had learned it was dangerous—and pretty much impossible—to try to stop Aunty Lee from doing what she wanted to.

"You think so? How can relatives not know?"

"How often do you see your relatives, ma'am?"

Aunty Lee paused in thought. Though equipped with an extensive social network, she had few close relatives left alive.

"Call Mark," she said to Nina. "Call Mark and ask him whether that wife of his is around."

Mark Lee was the son of Aunty Lee's late husband and his first wife. Aunty Lee had gotten along fairly well with both M. L. Lee's children for years. Mark was already studying in Australia and Mathilda in the UK when their widower father finally remarried, and they had appreciated the energy Aunty Lee brought into their father's home and life even if the richness of her cooking gave him gout in two years. As Mathilda said, their mother had been dead for over fifteen years, so neither she herself nor Mark had showed any antagonism toward the plump, fair "aunty" who began appearing by their father's side at family and social functions. Indeed, when M. L. Lee married Rosie Gan, as Aunty Lee had been called before the marriage, his two children had congratulated themselves that there would now be someone to keep their father fed and occupied, thus freeing them to focus on their own families. "We don't have to feel bad about not staying in Singapore to keep an eye on poor old Pa!" as Mathilda said.

Mathilda had married an Englishman and settled in Warwick not long after the wedding, comfortably assured that her father was taken care of. However, things had changed after Mark married and M. L. Lee died of a heart attack—unrelated events that had taken place in the same month almost five years ago. Mrs. Selina Lee had never forgiven her late father-in-law for interrupting her Italian honeymoon by dying (they had been in the Prada café in Montevarchi waiting for her turn to enter the factory outlet when they got the news of his death) or for leaving all his earthly possessions to his second wife.

Aunty Lee privately believed that if Mark had married anyone other than Selina, M. L. Lee would probably have left a great deal more to his son than he did. The late M. L. Lee had had a bias against women with loud shrill voices like his new daughter-in-law. This was perhaps unfair to Selina, who had been deliberately louder (and shriller) in M. L. Lee's presence since his habit of not answering her convinced her that the old man was going deaf. Selina Lee was also convinced that Aunty Lee had stolen her Mark's inheritance from him. Aunty Lee knew that Selina had already been to two different law firms to try to find someone willing to help her contest the will. Aunty Lee might have told Mark that she would leave M. L. Lee's property to him and Selina, which would have made things much more peaceful, but she had not. Instead, she had already agreed to make several loans, of considerable amounts of money, as requested, which Selina now referred to as "presents" and which Mark had already lost in previous business ventures. Running a wine import business was his latest attempt at entrepreneurship.

"What do you want to say to Ma'am Selina?" Nina continued with what she was doing, making no move toward the phone.

"I don't want to talk to that Silly-Nah. I just want to make sure she's still alive. You are the one who said I don't know whether my relatives are missing or not!"

"I never say that, ma'am. Anyway, they will be coming here soon. And if Ma'am Selina is missing, Sir Mark will call the police, right?"

"Who knows?" Aunty Lee grouched. "If she's not there to tell him how to pick up the phone and how to dial, you think he'll know how to do it?"

But she left the subject. Of course, Aunty Lee would have done everything in her power to comfort her stepson if it turned out to be his wife's body that had just floated up onto that Sentosa beach. Aunty Lee would probably miss poor dead Selina, if such were the case—Selina made life more interesting, in the same way as chili padi spiced up a dish. But it was all wishful thinking. Selina, very much alive and still bossy, would soon arrive with Mark for that evening's wine dining event.

It was the dining portion of that evening's wine dining that Aunty Lee and Nina were currently preparing. Usually dinner was not served at Aunty Lee's Delights. The café specialized in lunches with an all-day snacks and tea menu that covered everything from late breakfasts to high tea, but it closed at six to allow Aunty Lee to get home for her own dinner. In the old days, dinner had been prepared throughout the day in the shop kitchen and collected, along with herself, by M. L. Lee on his way home from work. M. L. Lee had worked right up to the day of his death. Their Binjai Park bungalow, deeper in the estate, was a fifteen-minute walk from the shop. But even a fifteen-minute walk was not easy in the Singapore evening heat, especially with tingkats full of dinner.

Aunty Lee had not realized how much she missed cooking those dinners till the wine dining sessions began. Serving Aunty Lee's local Peranakan dishes accompanied by fine wines chosen by Mark had been Selina Lee's idea. But in spite of this, Aunty Lee enjoyed them very much indeed. She had cut herself off from social life after her husband's death, preferring to cook small dishes rather than make small talk. But she was looking forward to tonight's session; with an unidentified body, there would be more than small talk around the table.

"It could be some foreign diplomat got drunk and ran over somebody then dumped her body into the sea," Aunty Lee mused. "Do you know if the Romanian embassy sent over a new guy yet?"

"Even if the newspapers say 'unidentified,' it could mean that the police know but didn't tell them, right?" Nina suggested calmly. "Maybe they want to inform the family first."

"Maybe." Undeterred, Aunty Lee branched off on a new track. "And now also, just before Chinese New Year—must be somebody on drugs or on holiday . . . that's why nobody reported her missing yet. They didn't say where this woman is from, right? Tell you what, Nina. Go and phone them and ask whether it is somebody you know. Tell them a friend of yours is missing, then maybe they will tell you whether the woman is Chinese or Indian or ang moh . . . but make sure you sound upset, otherwise they will want to get information from you instead . . . Phone now before people start coming for the dinner."

"Ma'am. My hands are dirty now. And I got to finish making dinner before the people come."

"Maybe she went to Sentosa to gamble and lost all her money and she was running away from loan sharks and fell into the sea . . ."

"Yes, ma'am. Do you want me to put the pork on the sticks also?"

"Yes, Nina. Are there enough sticks? Good. Those loan sharks can be so terrible. But they should realize that if they go around killing people, they won't get their money back, right? Unless, of course, they killed her as a warning to other people who owe them money. But if I were a loan shark, I wouldn't kill somebody who really owed me money—I would pick somebody who didn't and just tell everybody she did. That would be enough to frighten them. So that poor girl could be a total stranger to them . . . but maybe it wasn't loan sharks at all. Maybe it was those expat traders who get drunk and beat up taxi drivers. Maybe it was a female taxi driver and she jumped into the sea to get away from them."

Aunty Lee was happy again, Nina thought. Aunty Lee was usually happy when she cooked, but today, despite the frustration of having no details about the body found, she was even happier than usual. Aunty Lee was bored, Nina realized. It was to occupy her mind that she had thrown herself into Aunty Lee's Delights after her husband died. Running the café and keeping the shop counter stocked up with Aunty Lee's "specials" had succeeded in distracting her for a while, but now that routines were established and running smoothly, Aunty Lee was clearly getting bored. Boredom was all very well. Everyone felt bored at times. But a mind that worked with the speed of Aunty Lee's meant boredom would be followed very soon by action and change.

Nina sighed inwardly; she did not want things to change. She was very happy working for Aunty Lee. There were far worse employers to work for. Nina knew that very well, having worked for some of them herself. And it had been Aunty Lee who rescued her, offering to take over her employment contract. "I could report them for what they did to you, of course. But then such things take a long time to get to court and then you won't be able to work or go home—why don't you come and work for me?" It had worked out for both Aunty Lee and Nina . . . and for Nina's former employers, who escaped being fined and blacklisted by maid agencies.

The menu for that night's wine dining gathering was chicken and pork satay, luak chye (mustard greens that had been pickling in vinegar, ginger, and sugar since yesterday—Nina had only to remember to mix in the mustard powder just before serving . . .), and the hee peow or fish maw soup made with prawn, fish, and meatballs. Of course the whole point of the wine dining dinners were for Aunty Lee's stepson, Mark, to introduce people to wines that could "go" with local food, but Aunty Lee had gleefully seized the opportunity to fire up her favorite recipes. Most visitors who came to Aunty Lee's Delights were there to shop for her sweet and savory kueh, fried delicacies, and, of course, the bottles of Aunty Lee's Shiok Sambal and Aunty Lee's Amazing Achar and Krunchy Kropok, which sold out as fast as Aunty Lee and Nina could produce them.

Aunty Lee's hand phone rang. It was on the counter and Nina, correctly interpreting Aunty Lee's "On it for me—make it loud-loud!," answered and switched it to speakerphone.

"Rosie, ah—are you there? Busy or not—" Nina recognized the grainy voice of Mrs. AwYong, an old friend of Aunty Lee's.

"Jin, how are you? Cooking lah. What's up?"

"Rosie, you were right! I found my watch—some more I found an earring and a part of a necklace and a bangle I didn't even know were missing!"

"I told you I was right!" Aunty Lee smirked. Nina smiled to herself. Aunty Lee knew she was usually right but she never tired of hearing others admit it. She grumbled (at least on the surface) when her friends jokingly gave her their challenging little problems to solve to "keep her brain active," but the truth was she adored them. These little problems were a legitimate way of putting what the late M. L. Lee described as his wife's outstanding talent for being "kiasu, kaypoh, em zhai se!" Nina could remember the old man saying kaypoh, meaning minding the business of others with as much energy as kiasu devoted to their own. Em zhai se literally meant "not scared to die" and effectively described how Aunty Lee drove everyone around her to despair through frustration as she pursued some triviality no one else could see any point in.

It was a good thing old Uncle Lee had been so fond of his little wife. Where any other man would probably have been irritated, M. L. Lee had been entertained. But then Aunty Lee, with her knack for understanding people (through the way they eat, she said), had probably known him better than anyone else. Nina guessed that Aunty Lee had seen he needed someone. That would go some way to explaining why she had chosen to marry a man so much older than she was. Because despite what people whispered, and what M. L. Lee's daughter-in-law frequently said aloud, Aunty Lee had had money of her own when she married her widower. Not as much as he had, of course. Few people in Singapore belonged in his class. But after years of catering for special events, Aunty Lee had been comfortable financially and her prowess in the kitchen was unchallenged. What woman could ask for more? Watching Aunty Lee now, Nina wished she knew.

"They were all in the bushes!" The voice coming through the phone shrieked with laughter. "I was so sure the maid took my watch—I even scolded her already—and all along it was the stupid dog! He was taking all my things out to chew. Now all so dirty and smelly already! Hey, did you hear about the dead woman they found on Sentosa? Must be somebody murdered their maid and tried to hide the body, that's why not reported missing!"

"Jin, you imagine such crazy things! I hope it's not your maid that they found there!"

Aunty Lee said little more, ending the call soon after that. Nina knew her well enough to guess her boss was turning over Mrs. AwYong's suggestion. And probably wishing she had thought of it herself.

"That woman always blames the maid first," she said to Nina. "Lost her things, blame the maid. Unidentified body found, must be the maid."

There was a note of apology in Aunty Lee's voice for Mrs. AwYong. But Nina knew only too well that most employers in Singapore regarded their live-in domestic help with great suspicion. That was another reason Nina constantly reminded herself how lucky she was to work for Aunty Lee.

"Did you taste the satay sauce yet?" Nina reminded her boss. Though Nina did most of the food preparation now, Aunty Lee still calibrated the final seasonings.

Aunty Lee moved across to taste the peanut sauce again. It was in the sauces and seasonings, as she constantly reminded Nina, that the real art of cooking was to be found. And it was no use asking for exact measurements either. There were no exact measurements; it was more a matter of training your taste to recognize the perfect pitch so that you could always rely on yourself to adjust the ingredients to hit precisely the right note. What good were recipes that gave you pounds and ounces—or worse, grams and liters—when how much a dish required depended on the quality and age of your ingredients?

Nina watched as Aunty Lee added a dash of coriander and a spoonful of tamarind pulp before giving the sauce a good stir. Selina had tried to suggest that Aunty Lee serve up more bland dishes, ones less likely to overwhelm the wines that were, after all, the whole point of the exercise. Aunty Lee had pointed out that true Peranakan food was always spicy—and suggested Selina phone in an order for delivery pizzas instead—with all the earnest, bland helpfulness of an old lady who was only trying to be helpful . . .

"They should be here soon," Nina said. "Shall I set the table first or wait for Sir Mark?"

"Put out the plates but not the glasses. He'll want to fuss with the glasses himself like he always does. I'm surprised he isn't here already, to let his wine 'settle and breathe' and whatever nonsense." Aunty Lee brightened. "Maybe he's late because that Silly-Nah is missing."

Nina, laying out the heavy white plates, did not answer. She suspected Aunty Lee would lose interest once the poor dead woman's identity was revealed. It would probably be in tomorrow morning's newspapers, which was why Aunty Lee was milking the mystery for all it was worth now. Again she thought it was probably because she was bored.

"Aunty, you should play mah-jongg," Nina said. "Or go on a cruise."

"She may have been on a cruise!" Aunty Lee agreed. "And fell overboard. But that doesn't mean it wasn't murder. We should take note of any of the women who registered for tonight's dinner and don't show up . . ."

Going by the previous week's wine dining event, Nina would not have been surprised if at least one of the guests did not return. This was no reflection on the food, which had been good. Selina had worried about how spicy the food was but Mark had not seemed to mind, and all their paying guests had enjoyed their dinner. It was only after dinner that things had got interesting, as Aunty Lee had put it. Laura Kwee, the friend whom Mark and Selina had brought in to help serve the wine, had drunk enough to be embarrassingly chatty. Nina had been rather uncomfortable. But at least Aunty Lee was looking forward to today's dinner with all the relish of a child getting ready for school after a long, dull vacation alone.

On Sale
Sep 17, 2013
Page Count
288 pages