These are some of my favourite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.
You’d expect the latter to smell salty, meaty, flaccid – like what you’d smell if you unscrewed the red cap of the bottle on a table in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant and stuck your nose in as far as it would go. But real, fermenting soybeans smell nothing like sauce in a plastic bottle. Tangy and pungent, like rising bread or wet earth, these soybeans smell of history, of life, of tiny, patient movements, unseen by the naked eye.
For a foodie, Soy Sauce for Beginners starts out so tantalizingly good. I like a book that starts with smells. It hints of wonderful things to come. But perhaps I was expecting too much. Or perhaps I was expecting something else altogether. Soy Sauce for Beginners turned out not to be the foodie read I was hoping for.
“Real soy sauce is as complex as a fine wine – fruity, earthy, floral also can, lah.”
There are moments that make me wish that this book could have turned out the way I wanted it to. Such as when they do a soy sauce taste test, dipping crackers in it, and even pouring a dash of soy sauce into Sprite.
The mixture, Ahkong’s creation, was sweet and tangy and savoury – a comforting, full-bodied flavour like burnt sugar, or brown butter that contrasted sharply with the dancing bubbles on my tongue.
But really this isn’t a book about food or soy sauce, it is a family business drama, a search for belonging and identity. Ultimately it’s the story of a rich kid, Gretchen, whose marriage has failed (I use the word ‘kid’ although she’s 30) and she has returned from San Francisco back to Singapore, home to her alcoholic mother and her hardworking father and the major mishap that has the family’s soy sauce business teetering on the brink of failure.
This is a Singapore seen from the point of view of District 10 mansions, popular nightclubs, expensive restaurants and Mercedes Benzes. But sometimes Chen slips in an insightful quip like this one:
On the dance floor, the crowd sang and moved in unison, like the chorus line of a Broadway musical – a peculiar Zouk trademark that seemed to embody the mindset of an entire nation: even inebriated, at our most free, we all chose to mimic each other.
As we climbed the stairs to the VIP balcony, Frankie shouted over her shoulder, “How the hell does everyone know the same dance?”
“Repeat clientele,” James shouted back.
“Empowered conformity,” my mother would have said in her postcolonial-scholar voice.
(Ok maybe you have to be from Singapore to understand that one)
Soy Sauce for Beginners is a light and breezy read. Chen deftly ties up all her plot lines at the end although Gretchen makes predictable choices and her story doesn’t strike a chord with me. But Chen does casts an observing eye over the culture and lifestyles of Singapore which she clearly loves. And her book has made me intrigued about artisanal soy sauce – how different is it from the usual Kikkoman that is in my kitchen?
So part of me is hesitant to recommend this book. If you’re looking for a light and easy read set in Asia that won’t blow you away, well, maybe? It’s kind of like Sprite, that sweet bubbly forgettable soft drink. t don’t know about you but I want to come out of a book breathless, weeping, emotional, heartbroken even.
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This is my second read for Foodies Read 2015