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This article was published 11/2/2011 (3907 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Tiger in the Kitchen
A Memoir of Food and Family
By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Voice/Hyperion Press, 304 pages, $15
New York-based journalist Cheryl Tan used to be hopeless in the kitchen, but not anymore. In fact, she has written an engaging memoir about a year-long cooking adventure in her native Singapore.
Not only did she master many of her favourite recipes, the way famed blogger Julie Powell did with the French cooking of Julia Child, but she bonded with relatives from her large extended family.
Tan has lived and worked in the U.S. for the past 16 years but she gives no indication of having been inspired by Powell's story. In 2008, she already knew how to cook North American style, yet she yearned for the ethnic Singaporean dishes of her childhood.
During a period of unemployment, she had the opportunity to travel to Singapore. So she sought out family members to give lessons in her late grandmother's traditional cookery.
Tan's writing style is frank and lively. She divides her book into 18 short chapters followed by a sampling of traditional Singaporean recipes. The book's aptly chosen title refers to the Year of the Tiger, in which Tan was born as well as her stubborn and aggressive nature.
After witnessing one of Tan's childhood temper tantrums, her aunt called her a "Tiger baby."
Interspersed within the narrative are details about the culture of Singapore, a tiny Southeast Asian country whose cuisine reflects a myriad of influences: British, Chinese, Malay, East Indian and European. Readers will learn about several Singaporean food-related customs, such as at weddings and other celebrations like the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts and the Moon Festival. On an interesting note, one dish called "gambling rice" was invented for card players who didn't want to leave their game; thus, the food is eaten with one hand.
Often Tan's adventures are presented as vignettes. Her first cooking experience in Singapore involved numerous steps in making pineapple tarts for the Chinese New Year. Never did Tan imagine that her aunt would assemble 70 pineapples to produce 3,000 tarts! On the other hand the curious dish, bird's nest soup, is easier to make than she expected.
One outcome of Tan's culinary journey is her newfound knowledge of family lore. From her aunt, a straitlaced vice-principal, she discovers some tantalizing secrets. ("Oh, did I tell you I was an opium courier for your great-grandfather? Or that he was a gambling addict?")
Throughout the book, Tan's self-deprecating humour adds an element of levity to the book. At the outset, she pokes fun at her North American cooking failures. "An Oreo cheesecake pie I attempted for Thanksgiving turned out so lumpy that one guest gently inquired if I owned a whisk. (Hello, if I needed one, perhaps the recipe printed on the back of the piecrust label should have said so?)
With Singaporean food, her culinary misfirings happen only occasionally. For her grandmother's chicken curry recipe, "the much more concentrated canned milk made the gravy incredibly thick; instead of it being like a thick soup, it was a little like ectoplasm."
This book about food, culture and ethnic ties is written with an openness that will endear Tan to her audience. Readers who enjoyed the memoir Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by food critic Ruth Reichl will also enjoy A Tiger in the Kitchen.
Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.