Reading Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians" by Emilia Morano-Williams

_MG_5541_web - ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay skyline, Singapore
Flickr via Alex Drop.

Getting a job has convinced me to spend less money. More books from the library, less clothing, more meals at home—the usual. Or my usual. It’s not the usual for the characters in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. The novel follows Singapore’s über-rich. It is an homage to consumerism and conspicuous consumption. And this makes it compulsively readable, Kwan’s ability to describe the relationships between Singapore’s various groups and how they perceive the world will keep even frugal folk flipping pages.

The story broadly follows Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young as they head to Singapore for the summer to attend the wedding of Nick’s childhood friend. What strikes Rachel as an innocent-but-terrifying trip to meet Nick’s family turns out to be a trial-by-fire as she learns that Nick’s family is an old-school wealthy Peranakan clan. They’re hostile to outsiders, especially ABC—or American Born Chinese (Rachel immigrated to the US from China as a child, but this distinction is lost on Nick’s family). Throw in a smattering of Malay phrases, Cantonese words and arguments over Singapore’s best satay stall and the story tempts us poorer readers with the delights of a trip to the steamy city-state.

Having grown up in this world, Kwan writes about it with authority and sympathy. This allows him to keep even the most Hollywood-villain characters from appearing as pure histrionic horrors. As the gossipy characters collude and collide, Kwan sprinkles in facts and phrases that offer the equivalent of intellectual tattle. Footnotes highlight clever phrases and explain names and locales the characters drop. It’s like getting a foreign copy of Vanity Fair, annotated so you don’t miss out on the gravity of the scandals.

But like most scandals, the gravity is illusory. It’s hard to feel anything other than irked when Rachel attends a bachelorette party filled with Mean Girls worthy pranks. Or when Nick’s cousin Alistair brings home Kitty Pong, Chinese soap star who wears see-through dresses sans underwear to family events. In The Guardian, Patricia Park argued that Kwan presents caricatures with the same bounty as he describes these limitless parties. But I wonder if these cartoon-worthy hijinks don’t demonstrate Kwan’s skepticism toward his countrymen’s behavior? Rachel becomes the book’s moral compass and her distance aligns her with the reader, encouraging them to question how modern consumption conditions our lives. Like watching satirical late night shows helps people cope with political chaos, reading about these personalities helps the frugal reader cope with the roller coaster of modern consumption.

The quick process of reading Crazy Rich Asians also parallels modern consumption, demonstrating to the reader the evanescence of material desires. Start the book on Monday, finish or Friday, or Sunday if deadlines keep you late at the office. Each chapter is a quick escape, no more than a few sitcom-esque pages. You don’t need to go shopping for an adrenalin jolt, just read. Crazy Rich Asians succeeds because it becomes the modern consumption it depicts.

Crazy Rich Asians offers an entertaining, pop culture imagination of Singapore’s upper-crust. It’s Gossip Girl, by way of Asia. While the reader realizes that these depictions are over the top, it’s still easy to come under their spell. And that spell is entirely delightful—whether we’re comfortable with that or not.

Slurp Up Khinkali—the Georgian Soup Dumplings you Eat with your Hands by Emilia Morano-Williams

"Khinkali" Georgian dumplings
Flickr via Robyn Lee.

Ines introduced me to soup dumplings. Specifically, she introduced me to Georgian soup dumplings, called khinkali, which are richer, meatier and sturdier than their Chinese cousins and, in my opinion, more delicious. Unlike thin xiao long bao, you grab khinkali with your hands and douse them with pepper, before biting a hole to slurp up the rich, meaty broth. They’re big and satisfying and easy to fall in love with.

Needing to make up for years of missed khinkali eating, I devoured them London, found them in Budapest and unearthed them in Kiev. New York, I figured, would continue the romance. After all, this is a city where you could easily embrace a dumpling-only diet without hopping on a subway. Unfortunately, apart from a smattering of restaurants stranded out in Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach, Georgian cuisine is woefully underrepresented. There are, however, a few places that serve them. At Apani you can order them by the piece to takeaway. If you prefer to sit down there’s Mtskheta. Not that I can vouch for either of these places—I haven’t made it out there. When the khinkali cravings strike, I make my own.

But let’s back up a bit. How did my friend learn about Georgian soup dumplings? Ines’s longtime boyfriend is from Georgia and he introduced her to them. In Paris, her hometown, she gets her khinkali fix at the city’s Georgian restaurants. France, and Paris in particular, has one of the highest percentages of Georgian immigrants in Europe—in 2013, there were approximately 10,000 living there. In Europe, only Turkey, Ukraine, Greece and the UK have more (admittedly, approximately 500,000 Georgians live in the United States,). When Ines wants khinkali, she doesn’t need to convince her boyfriend to make them. She just books a meal at one of the city’s smattering of Georgian restaurants and shows up with some friends to feast.

Tbilisi Theater
Flickr via Nicolas de Camaret

Although the precise ingredients vary across the country—Georgia is, after all, huge—the recipe for khinkali follows the basic dumpling formula: wheat-based wrapper (no egg) and a meat-y filling with a smattering of spices. Fillings range from lamb with a pinch of cumin to beef and pork with cilantro, chili and onion. The latter version is particularly popular in Tbilisi where they are called kalakuri, or city style. You can also find vegetarian versions with potatoes, mushrooms and cheese.

But you won’t know what’s inside until you try. Part of what makes khinkali khinkali and not pelmeni or xiao long bao is their distinctive top knot. This piece of pinched dough is called the kudi, hat, or k’uch’i, stomach. Whether or not this bit should be eaten and why is a hotly debated topic. Some argue that it’s undercooked, while others contend that not eating the top prevents you from overeating these delicious dumplings as you can track how many you’ve had. Personally, I’ll often toss back even this bit, the comparatively bland doughy chew serving as an antidote to the rich meaty filling.

Yet I find myself languishing in a soup dumpling-less world until one weekend in March when I decided to break out my rolling pin and make them myself. I was intimidated. My dumplings are gnocchi and ravioli or ordered out from the local Chinese restaurants. How could I make this recipe that was the domain of Georgian restaurants? Did people even make them at home? Turns out the answer is yes. And so, I decided, I could take on the mantle of preparing these doughy little beasts myself.

Preparing them is relatively simple. You start with the wrapper, a simple combination of flour and water, kneaded until smooth and left to rest for a bit. While that’s happening you make your meat filling, which is no more complicated than tossing together a meatball. Combine the meat of your choosing with some spices—I chose lamb because it’s my favorite and threw in some chili, parsley and pepper for good measure. The hardest bit is rolling out the wrappers, even bundling them up is easy as the top knot requires no more than a generous pinch.

As dumplings become a trend against a rise of populist sentiment, Georgian dumplings seem uniquely poised to help Americans better understand the nuances of Russian-inflected cultures. After the conflicts with Russia in 2008, Georgia has stayed out of the minds of most Americans. But the region has much to offer us, even if we never make a trip to Tbilisi or Batumi. Georgia boasts one of the world’s most ancient wine cultures, they have a rich folklore tradition—to say nothing of their amazing food. Georgian soup dumplings deserve a wider audience and you should make them and invite everyone over to discover the delights of khinkali.

Five Friday Reads 3.24.2017 by Emilia Morano-Williams

Icelandic Grocery Store
  1. "The Weird Things People Leave in Books" from Publisher's Weekly. You've probably left a ticket stub in a library book, but food? These librarians have found everything from shrimp to raw bacon in their books.
  2. "'London Bridge is down': the secret plan for the days after the Queen's death" from The Guardian. Queen Elizabeth II's death won't just be a national tragedy, but signal an end to an era of British supremacy.
  3. "A Guide to the Texture You Didn't Know Had a Name" from Lucky Peach. QQ is that dense, chewy texture that's similar to mochi or gnocchi. Finally, I have a word to describe my favorite texture.
  4. "From Chop Suey to Haute Cuisine: A Case Study in American 'Ethnic Food'" from LA Review of Books. Oliver Wang's review of From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express explores the history of Chinese food in the US and questions what it means to serve ethnic cuisine in the first place.
  5. "Printing the Ancient Way Keeps Buddhist Texts Alive in Tibet" from The New York Times. An inside glimpse at this traditional printing press in Tibet that is preserving not only Buddhist texts, but a forgotten art form.

What Dumplings and Thrillers Have in Common by Emilia Morano-Williams

Spinach dumplings

I avoid the news in the morning. Russia conspiracies and French elections feel extra jarring without a layer of work, wine and weariness to inure me. But the stories filter through. Usually in the form of thrillers and dumplings.

This isn’t a new form of alt-facts—I’ve simply noticed more discussion of thrillers and dumplings recently. It started with the James Patterson paperback I saw on my next-door neighbor’s stoop, which quickly morphed into a breadcrumb trail of Jo Nesbøs and Donna Leons scattered along my morning walk. I’d return home and peruse a dumpling showdown in New York Magazine before receiving a PR email about The Dumpling Galaxy cookbook and scrolling through Tasting Table’s newsletters filled with recipes for gyoza and gnudi. At first I thought this was all coincidence, but with each new instance, I realized that thrillers and dumplings illustrated how we were responding to political and social upheaval.

Back in February, around elect fell from Trump’s political position, The New Yorker Radio Hour ran an interview with Adam Davidson who mentioned that he read Alex Berenson's John Wells spy novels to cope with chaos in Washington. These are thrillers of the kind that seemed hoary when our president oozed rockstar-coolness and we felt we could overcome racial inequality. New York discussed this point in a feature discussing the novel in the age of Obama. They argued that during Obama’s tenure the liberal novel writing elite felt comfortable enough with the political situation to present realist novels that confronted the thorny social issues that we believed our cooler-than-cool head of state would resolve. Meanwhile Trump and the populist crescendo reminds us that we still need to fight for an equal society. And so we turn to thrillers.

It’s not just escapist literature helping us to cope. Food also offers comfort, though we’ve swapped the tacos and thai food we ordered with aplomb during the election cycle for tortellini and manti and the occasional knish. Within the space of a week, the food website Tasting Table published no less than six articles about dumplings with the tagline “Every culture has a dumpling.” Following Trump’s inauguration and the ban on arrivals from select Arab countries, this slogan read not as a declaration of deliciousness, but as an assertion of unity. If every culture has a dumpling, then there must be some essential underlying essence that we all share that drives us to make them. As thrillers always end neatly, a dumpling dinner concludes with no leftovers.

On one hand, dumplings aren’t a trend because we grew up knowing they were the a safe noodle-wrapped introduction to exotic cuisines. On the other hand, the food world’s recent focus on them parallels the thriller’s newfound superstar status among the literary intelligentsia. As political times turn uncertain, we’re looking for ways to comfort ourselves that still bestow distinction. The most popular thrillers aren’t tatty paperbacks—though as my morning walk proves they’re making the rounds as well. The most popular ones are writen by people with knowledge of the system like John le Carré. Then there's 1984, which has topped The New York Times bestseller list since the inauguration. Dumplings are similar. While a dumpling can a delicious deep fried samosa, it can also be a matzo ball in soup when we’re ill. They can offer consolation or a new way of cooking and being in the world.

Although thrillers and dumplings have so far been the harbingers of the Trump era, that doesn’t mean they’ll stay this way. Soon we might be seeing translations and noodles or science fiction and stir fries taking their place. The next four years are up in the air. But we’ll have to get through them somehow. Let’s hope they’re delicious and deep.