Sunday, May 15, 2011

Singapore Books: A Tiger in the Kitchen

Chery Lu-Lien Tan is a Singapore native who moved to the U.S. to pursue an education and later, a career as a journalist. Like many other Singaporeans I've talked to who've moved away, she found that there was one thing she missed horribly, more than she'd ever imagined she would. The food. Singaporeans are pretty food-obsessed and when they find themselves transplanted into unfamiliar territory, with no access to chili crab, kaya toast, nasi goreng, roti, laksa, or pineapple tarts, it's apparently a pretty traumatizing experience. Tan forged ahead with her career, thinking often of the food of her homeland, but only eating it on occasion on trips back to S'pore, or when she found a New York restaurant owned by a Singaporean cooking up some of her old stand-bys. As she grew older though, she found herself thinking more of home, family, and the food of her childhood. She set out to learn the dishes she'd loved so much by spending time in the kitchen with her aunts, grandmother, mom, sister and cousins, and she wrote about the experience in A Tiger in the Kitchen. Over the course of a year, she made several trips home, learning to make bak-zhang, her grandmother's famous pineapple tarts (also a favorite of mine!), Teochew braised duck, chicken rice, and lots more. Of course, the quest was never all about the food, and although she did learn a lot about cooking, she learned even more about her family, her heritage, and ultimately herself.
It was strange to be an American in Singapore missing American food, reading about a Singaporean in America missing Singaporean food! I think that unique position made me especially empathetic with the author. It also inspired me to start thinking about the recipes I'd like to learn from my own family- like my mom's decadent baked macaroni and cheese, or my uncle's trash-can corn, or my great-aunt's homemade applesauce. The book was pretty good overall. I've definitely read better food memoirs (e.g. Julia Child's My Life in France), but this one was exciting because of its Singaporean perspective. I felt like I was rediscovering Singaporean food, as I've perhaps started to take it for granted in the past couple of years. As I turned the pages, I started to think of some of the things I've really come to appreciate here- tahu goreng, kacang pool, kaya toast, Chinese New Year cookies, bao. But beware! Reading it will make you hungry! I had to run out the door for a kaya waffle as soon as I read the last page!

This book was featured in a segment on NPR. Follow the link to hear the interview with the author, read more about the book, or to get her grandmother's coveted recipe for pineapple tarts.


  1. Oh, man. Reading this and listening to the interview on NPR made me all nostalgic for my food pics from our trip, and I had to go look at them again! Now I'm hungry, though, haha. :(

    Not to sound too much like a glutton either, but trying new foods and eating out are easily among my favorite things to do on vacation. Singapore definitely exceeded any expectations I had in that regard.

    Now to go daydream of that kaya toast...

  2. Mark, I thought of you a few times as I turned the pages, especially when I was reading about pineapple tarts. Remember those yummy pinepple cookies we had on the boat in Thailand? Those were pineapple tarts. Maybe me, you, and KT could try to make them sometime. They're so yummy.

  3. You know, I don't even think I realized those cookies were pineapple at the time. I just remember them tasting really, really good.

    But that sounds like a plan!