Everyone seems to have a dish they remember eating as a child — a favorite dinner, straight-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies, the smell of mother’s apple pie — and just the thought can take you back to a certain moment in time. For Cheryl Tan, nothing compares to her grandmother’s pineapple cookies. In her new memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, Tan leaves the busy life as a fashion writer behind as she embarks on a personal journey to learn the special recipes of her childhood. The New-York-based writer recently shared how the year she spent with her Aunts and mother in Singapore taught her the history of their family and gave her confidence in the kitchen.
You were a fashion writer for the Baltimore Sun and the Wall Street Journal, living a busy life in New York City. What similarities are there between the fashion and food world?
I went from covering a world that’s about avoiding eating to one that’s all about eating. When I was covering fashion, I went to some of the best restaurants for lunches or covering events, but all everyone does is order a salad. Of course there are some common threads — in both industries you have very artistic people who are focused on the details. And I have always loved food.
In the early part of your book, you mention your lack of skill when it comes to cooking — from your failed coconut cookies to your need to follow a recipe. Do you feel as though you have mastered cooking now?
I wouldn’t say that I’ve mastered it, although I’m much more of an expert. Originally, I taught myself to cook. I was living all by myself, so I started clipping out recipes in the newspaper, or off Campbell soup cans. I became more experimental, but I was still glued to recipes. But after the year with my Aunts, Grandmother and my mother — watching them in the kitchen inspired me to be a little more confident.
What is the most important skill you learned in the kitchen?
Of course there were lots of little things, like how to chop quickly so your hands don’t get hurt. But the most important thing was just to be more free with cooking. I was always scared to be free with cooking, but my Aunts said agak-agak, which means guess-guess. Just taste, don’t be so wetted to precession. If it’s too sweet today, you’ll make it less sweet tomorrow.
What do you think is the biggest difference between Singapore kitchens and American ones?
In Singapore the main thing is the wok, it is the main cooking appliance. And in my Aunt’s kitchens, their fridges are packed with sauces and spicy condiments they’ve made themselves. They also like to make baskets to steam with, like for steaming fish. The wood gives the food a little more fragrance. When I was in Singapore I bought a few and brought them back here. Also, they cook so much that the backyard has been turned into an extension of the kitchen. There is a huge set of burners in the backyard and the tropical heat adds to the cooking.
You first came to the US to attend Northwestern University for college. When you were homesick, where would you go for Singapore food?
There really wasn’t anything close to it, but noodles are a very big part of Singapore cuisine, so I used to go to Penny’s Noodles all the time. It’s inexpensive, so I’m glad it’s still around.
What is a good dish for those of us looking to get a sample taste of Singapore’s food?
There are some really good restaurants in NY, DC and Menlo Park, CA. In NY, Café Asean and Taste Good in Flushing — that’s where the Singapore consulate caters its food. Malaysia Kopitiam in DC is great. In Menlo Park, Shiok. Beef Rendang is a good dish to try. It’s a coconuty, beef curry. It has all these spices in it, it’s really amazing when done well. The beef is so tender it practically falls apart in your mouth. Calling it a curry is not describing it well enough. There’s cinnamon, clove, star anise, lime leaf, blue ginger — a whole bunch of different spices so it’s a flavor bomb in your month.
What was the most unexpected thing you found in your year in Singapore?
Growing up in Singapore, I sort of knew there had been hardship in my family, but learning all the things the women in my family had been through was the most unexpected. History often tends to be told through the male perspective, and it was really great to hear my family’s history from the women. I learned that both my grandmothers were so incredibly poor and at one point ran illegal gambling dens. One of the dishes I loved was my late grandmother’s gambling rice. It was basically pork belly, cabbage, mushrooms, dried shrimp, all mixed together with uncooked rice that you put into a rice cooker. It’s a one-dish meal that they made for the gamblers– the men could hold it in one hand and gamble with the other. It really just shows what a good cook my grandmother was and also how smart she was.
Although your book touches on Singapore’s cuisine and food culture, much of the focus is on your family’s history. Do you think you could have found a medium other than food to tell the story of your family?
Yes, I’m sure there could have been another way to tell this story, but to me food was the most natural way. Food is a way of expressing love; it was a way to reconnect with my family. Despite language barriers or differences in attitudes or beliefs, the thing that draws families together is food. It was a way to spend time together and slowly draw out the stories.
And I have to ask this one: With the Tiger Mother book and Tiger blood drama, this year really seems to be the year of the Tiger. Why do you think that is?
It’s been interesting to read her [Amy Chau] take on the Tiger spirit. I was born in the year of the Tiger, and I’ve always thought it’s all about being aggressive, rebellious, and going out into the world and conquering it. It’s about saying yes, not saying no or stifling yourself. I feel like my book is very different from that. But I do feel like this is a very Tiger moment and I am certainly embracing it.
Go: Meet Cheryl Tan and learn more about A Tiger in the Kitchen at a three-course dinner inspired by the book on June 2 in St. Charles, IL.