Crazy Rich Asians: Grilled Stingray on Banana Leaf Recipe

Year Released: 2018
Director: Jon M. Chu
Starring:  Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh
(PG-13, 120 min.)


Rachel Chu: You know, you should have told me that you were like the Prince William of Asia.
Nick Young: That’s ridiculous. I’m much more of a Harry.

Don’t be put off by the title.  I was at first, expecting more silly and superficial summer fare typical of the season.  But this film has heart. 

Crazy Rich Asians" follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Wu) as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Golding), to his best friend's wedding in Singapore. Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick's family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life. It turns out that he is not only the scion of one of the country's wealthiest families but also one of its most sought-after bachelors. Being on Nick's arm puts a target on Rachel's back, with jealous socialites and, worse, Nick's own disapproving mother (Yeoh) taking aim. And it soon becomes clear that while money can't buy love, it can definitely complicate things.

Like Ryan Reynolds in 2009’s The Proposal, “crazy rich” Nick has chosen to make it on his own in New York with no mention of his family’s wealth or connections. 

Rachel, a fellow NYU professor, the daughter of a single parent, comes from very modest means.  She is, in effect, a self-made woman. Yet, rich as he may be, by making it on his own in New York as well, Nick is also in a sense self-made.  

The first scene shows us that Rachel is a force to contend with.  She is playing a game of poker with a world champion, but he loses to her.  The wider shot shows a college lecture hall, the audience members Rachel’s economics students.  Specifically, this is a lesson in game theory, where Rachel shows the real world value of academics, kind of like Indiana Jones did in his lecture hall. Her opponent was not playing to win, she explains.  He was playing not to lose, and being risk averse, he brought his own failure upon himself. 

Little does the game theory expert realize how this same situation will soon present itself to her.  

Several things set Crazy Rich Asians apart.  Yes, it is the first Hollywood film since 1983’s Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian cast.  But these actors all earn their parts through their talent, not their ethnicity.

For instance, there is great chemistry between Rachel and Nick.  She playful and feisty with him, complaining when he habiltually orders no dessert and then tries to eat part of hers.  So she reclaims her portion and then orders another for him.  

Contrast that to the 1950’s ideal soda fountain date with two young lovers sharing a malted milk with separate straws.  Rachel claims her own turf and then gets Nick his own as well.  An accomplished, confident, happy, and flirtatious feminist!  Who knew they still existed?

Another element to celebrate is the lack of guilt, social justice, or other political undertones to the plot.  Conspicuous consumption is center stage; yet it is only gently ridiculed. (That is Horacian satire rather than the more bitter Juvenalian satire we more often see on film today.) 

Awkwafina, playing Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s best friend from college who lives in Singapore, is rich but not super rich.  She is also "new money" as opposed to Nick’s "old money."  The gold appointments in her lavish family home are patterned after the Donald himself, while Piek Lin's car trunk is filled with shoes and gowns for all occasions – always ready for the impromptu social event.

Of course the bachelorette party Rachel attends is lavish to the extreme, almost a parody of those already somewhat garish events.  Decked out in a gold body suit, the bride-to-be has a very special event for her guests already soaking up the sun at a remote island spa.  The coup de grace here is a free shopping spree with racks of designer gowns rolled out like party favors, the super rich attendees fighting for them like New Yorkers in the bargain basement of Macy's. 

Back in New York, Nick has always downplayed his wealth, but he cannot keep up that façade on the trip home to meet the family. It all begins in the first class, very posh cabin.

Rachel Chu: So your family is rich?
Nick Young: We’re comfortable.
Rachel Chu: That is exactly what a super rich person would say.

A lot of the fun comes from Rachel’s college friend, Peik Lin, played with just the right light ironic touch by Awkwafina, who is an American rapper, actress and television personality.  Commenting of the lovely red dress Rachel has picked out with her mother – “Red a an important color in Asia,” Rachel's mother tells her tells her – Piek Lin counters, 

“Yes, red is a good color to wrap up money envelopes on Chinese New Year, but not for a dress.”  This is, after all, the New Asia.

Or when she quite frankly tells Rachel what Nick’s mother thinks of her:

“She just thinks you’re some like unrefined banana. Yellow on the outside, and white on the inside.”

But what really sets this romantic comedy apart from others is the depth and complexity of the main characters.  Film critic Peter Travers aptly notes Michelle Yeoh’s “layered performance” as Nick’s regal and rigid mother. We learn of her history of being an outsider, an unwanted bride to Nick’s father, and thus understand to some extent her controlling behavior.

At first blown over by the social dynamics of the Singapore group, Rachel learns to deal with an unaccepting possible mother-in-law, a regal grandmother who shuns scandal, and a bevy of beautiful social climbers who tease, mock and torment Rachel for nabbing Singapore’s most eligible bachelor from the clutches of their very well-manicured nails.

In the end, game theory gives her a winning hand, but Rachel does not want to win with any subterfuge.  She throws down her cards, so to speak, or to be more precise, her Mahjong tiles and leaves a winning hand behind.  But will Nick allow her to leave?

You probably already know the answer to that.  But go along for the ride, anyway.  After all, the road and not the destination is what it is all about. 

Not to miss.

–Kathy Borich
4 1/2 drums


When Nick and Rachel first arrive in Singapore, Nick’s best friend Colin and his bride-to-be take Rachel and Nick to a Hawker Centre, a sprawling outdoor Food Court where they all eat up a storm of delicacies.  Just watching them put away so many dishes with no diet guilt whatsoever is part of the movie’s fun.  

I have been to Singapore at least 4 or 5 times with my husband on business trips, and the Hawkers Food Courts have always been a highlight:

The exquisite blending of cultures – British, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian to name a few -- is reflected in the savory cuisine of this sophisticated city.

One way to sample it is at the many Hawker Centres, open-air food courts, hot, stuffy, and noisy, but with an array of wonderful delicacies. Lau Pa Sat, a massive antique wooden pavilion in the center of the business district, looks a lot like the old Victorian band stands from small town America, and indeed it is a symphony of taste and smell. 

There we feasted upon Indian Mee Goreng (Spicy Indian-style Fried Yellow Noodles), Satay Ayam (Skewered Chicken Chunks with Peanut Sauce), Teochew-style White Fish Marinated in Rice Wine, Stingray Steamed in a Banana Leaf, Sambal Kangkung (Stir-fried Spicy Greens) that are a cross between spinach and baby celery, and closed with Mango Pudding. (Kathy Borich)

I am choosing the Stingray Steamed in a Banana Leaf for our Crazy Rich Asians recipe.

The Kitchen Tigress sums it up best:  (The link shows her oven-baked version of the dish.)

I love banana leaves. Rice and curry taste so much better when it's on a banana leaf.

Banana leaves are fun, and I feel good using something that's disposable yet traditional and natural.

Who says only modern people are lazy?

Whoever first thought of using banana leaves as plates must have hated washing up, just like me!

The banana leaf in sambal stingray is the unsung hero. The sambal takes all the glory but even a good one would be even better with the banana leaf's subtle smokiness. Isn't the nicely charred leaf a perfect frame for the gleaming, red sambal? Sambal stingray without banana leaf just wouldn't be the same (though it's still better than no sambal stingray at all).

*Grilled Stingray on Banana Leaf

serves 2-4
1 medium ray wing (to get rid of any ammonia odour, if any, soak in acidulated water a few hours before cooking)
4 tbsp of sambal tumis belachan chilli
3 A4-sized banana leaves (soak in hot water, then dry off)
sea salt
2 tbsp of groundnut oil/unrefined palm oil/coconut oil

For the dressing
(adjust amounts according to your own preference!)
1-2 red chillies, chopped finely
1-2 shallots, chopped finely (reserve some, sliced, for garnish)
2 tbsp lime juice (preferably calamansi lime)
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp unrefined cane sugar

1. Rub ray wing generously with sea salt, set aside, rinse, pat dry. Smear skin side of wing with 1 tbsp of sambal tumis.
2. Heat 1 tbsp of oil over medium-high heat. Place banana leaf on pan, let sizzle, and then place the ray wing on it, skin-side down. Let it fry for a min or so, then cover for about 5-7 min.
3. Take out the stingray with the charred banana leaf, smear the other side with 1 tbsp sambal. Flip the ray wing onto a new banana leaf. (Now skin-side is up, i.e. sambal-smeared side is always down.)
4. Add 1 tbsp of oil to the hot pan again, and slide the banana leaf with the stingray on it. Cover to cook for another 4-5 min or so, till just barely cooked (it’ll continue cooking off the heat).
5. Meanwhile, make the dressing by combining the ingredients. Taste and adjust to your own preference!
6. Remove, serve on a new banana leaf (or the charred one for more visual effect, mine was too burnt and crackly), with an extra 2 tbsp of sambal spooned over, sliced shallots, and a squeeze of lime juice, plus the dressing.

Of course, you miss that smoky aroma from a traditional charcoal grill, but you still get a pretty good aroma from the charred banana leaves. And let’s not forget the star of the show – tender fish smothered with the all-important sambal.

Stingray has really fine, delicate flesh that comes away from the bone with no fuss at all. I weirdly like to eat the calcium-rich soft bones (or rather, cartilage) too, the same way I dig beef tendons. It’s especially delicious when it’s hot off the grill (ok pan), the succulent flesh dripping with belachan chilli, followed by the sharp zesty punch from the lime juice and shallots.

Mummy I Can

*For those who can't quite get their hands of some fresh stingray, several other fish can be used. Crab meat or scallops are often considered similar in taste.  But other fish would work as well.