She chronicles it all in her charming memoir of cuisine and culture A Tiger in the Kitchen, guaranteed to send readers out, with taste buds salivating, in search of the nearest Singaporean restaurant or booking the next flight to the island nation itself. Tan spoke with Kirkus recently about the genesis of the project, food nostalgia and where to find gourmet feasts on the cheap.
Tell Kirkus about A Tiger in the Kitchen.
The book is a memoir about a year that I spent traveling to Singapore to learn about my family by cooking with them. It’s a coming-of-age story of sorts. I spent many years so focused on my career when I was a kid, studying to get into a good college, that I didn’t want to learn all these things that girls were generally taught in Singapore: how to be a good wife, cooking, cleaning. I never really learned, I stayed out of the kitchen as much as I could. But years later, I felt that there was a hole. I missed home, the food of my home, and my family.
What was the “a-ha” moment for you that sent you on this journey?
There was a point in my career when I was getting stressed out. I’d spent 10 years in journalism, working at the Wall Street Journal, which I loved. But I was getting burnt out by the daily grind. I found myself turning more and more to cooking as a way to relax. But I didn’t know how to make the food I grew up with, which made me feel like I’d missed out on something. I thought maybe I could take a break, take a trip home and learn how to make my grandmother’s pineapple tarts. I went home for a short break, followed the women in my family into the kitchen and helped out. I realized I wanted to do more, slow my life down a bit, learn from my family.
I wrote about this trip for The Journal, and the response that I got from [both strangers and friends] – that was kind of the a-ha moment. I received e-mails from all backgrounds. Everyone had a story to tell, about their grandmother’s sugar cookies or their dad’s sloppy Joes. Everyone has that kind of relationship and nostalgia with food. It made me think there were many more of those recipes, so why not take some time and go to learn them.
I wouldn’t have been able to go on this journey if I hadn’t been laid off. I have so many friends who have been impacted by the recession—and there’s always a sense of despair, a panic about not knowing what’s going to happen next. But I hope my story can provide a bit of comfort, encourage others to assess their situation, to have that high school guidance counselor moment and figure out what they really want to do and then just get out there and do it.
What can food tell us about a culture?
I’ve always believed that we are what we eat. And it’s the most basic thing. Food is something that everybody can participate in. It’s an indicator of where you are: the foods that are available to you, the dishes that come out of the ingredients there. They speak a lot about the very specific aspects of that culture. It says something very personal about your family, your life, where you’re from.
There are a lot of people couldn’t find Singapore on a map if they tried, but those in the know, particularly those who are culinarily inclined, rave about Singapore as one of the best places to eat on earth. Why is that?
Singapore has a very unusual cuisine, and it’s hard to find good versions of it outside of Singapore. The food is really unusual; it’s really one of the first fusion foods. It started in the 19th century when the British colonized Singapore and brought along with them other parts of their empire—India, Malaysia, China, Europe—all these cuisines meshed and resulted in an unique blend of flavors. It’s a real hybrid of different foods. You’ll find the best versions at hawker stands—street food—where you’ll sit in plastic chairs, right on the side of the road. For a few dollars, you’ll be able to feast on amazing food.
A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Voice / Feb. 8, 2011 / 9781401341282 / $14.99