When Angelina Branca watched Crazy Rich Asians for the first time, she was thrilled to see the foods and flavors of her home, Malaysia, featured front and center on the big screen.
In the film, when Rachel Chu and Nick Young land in Singapore, they head to the Newton Food Centre for succulent saté and bowls of laksa. During Eleanor Young's Bible study, she puts out colorful trays of kuih talam pandan, a Malaysian gelatinous rice and coconut milk dessert. And, of course, there's a pivotal dumpling scene during which — no spoilers — tensions come to a boiling point.
But Branca, who co-owns the much-beloved Malaysian BYOB Saté Kampar in South Philly (1837 E. Passyunk Ave.), said she didn't conceptualize a Crazy Rich Asians feast until a close friend, who had watched the movie with her, requested it for her birthday.
"She wanted to try all the food in the movie," Branca said. "So I told her I would do it. Her entire family came up from Texas and really enjoyed the experience, as well. I had so much fun with it that I thought, 'Why not offer it to more people?'"
So Branca put together a three-course menu, which includes making dumplings by hand at the beginning of the meal; plates upon plates of street food meant to be shared among friends and family; and ends with sweet, creamy kuih talam pandan decorated to look like mah-jongg tiles, another reference to an important scene in the movie. The Crazy Rich Asians feast costs $48 a person and is available by reservation only.
When I brought my friends to try Branca's menu, I knew that communal eating was going to be a big part of the experience. Sharing food is integral in most Asian cultures, an expression of love and care meant to bring friends and family together. And, sure enough, within five minutes of our being seated, Branca appeared with dumpling wrappers, plump nuggets of dumpling filling made with pork, water chestnut, wood ear mushrooms, and chives, and a bowl of water.
"For Asians, wrapping dumplings is something we're used to," she said. "But for many Americans, this will be their first time experiencing that."
We dutifully rolled up our sleeves after Branca demonstrated how to wrap dumplings properly, crimping the edges skillfully. (We were not as skilled. My friend described Branca's dumpling as "the one that went to Harvard" next to our less impressive efforts.) The dumplings were boiled and served as our appetizer. While they were perfectly tasty, the best part was undoubtedly reliving all the childhood memories I have of making dumplings alongside my family.
For the main course, we tried all the kinds of saté the restaurant offers, including beef, goat, chicken in two different ways, pork and tofu. All of Branca's saté is marinated for 24 hours, grilled over coconut shell charcoal, and served with kajang, the house-made peanut sauce.
Curry laksa, the first Malaysian food to appear in the film, takes three days to make at Saté Kampar. Branca uses chicken and shrimp to make the broth and tempers it with sambal before adding the noodles and various toppings, such as shrimp, tofu puffs, and bean sprouts. We also tasted nasi lemak, Malaysia's national dish made with coconut rice, peanuts, anchovies, cucumbers, egg and sambal, as well as otak-otak, a fish souffle made fluffy with the addition of egg and steamed with betel leaf.
"My grandmother always added the betel leaf in for a signature flavor," Branca said. "So I started doing that, too."
But the two most memorable dishes of the feast were the rojak buah, a Malay fruit and vegetable salad with pineapple, jicama, green mango, and cucumber tossed in spicy fermented shrimp paste that may require a few bites to get used to, and chai tau kueh, stir-fried steamed daikon and rice flour cake with egg, bean sprouts, and soy caramel. Branca described soy caramel as the sticky, flavorful residue you get from the bottom of a container of soy sauce.
We also indulged in kopitiam, various coffee and tea drinks found across Malaysia and Singapore, at the end of our meal. (But be warned: The teh-ais, or iced tea with condensed milk, kept me up until 5 a.m., so if you're sensitive to caffeine, you may want to pass.)