New York City fashion writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan got more than a mouthful when she returned to Singapore to cook with her aunts. She got an earful too.
Opium addiction, illegal gambling dens, even a dash of bigamy — family secrets spilled over the stove during this prodigal daughter’s yearlong quest to learn how to prepare the foods she had taken for granted as a teenager.
Tan dishes about them all, as well as formalizing recipes for Southeast Asian specialties such as the pineapple tarts that inspired her journey, in “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family” (Voice, $14.99).
Staying weeks at a time over one lunar calendar year, Tan timed her visits to festivals for which treats such as Auntie Khar Moi’s pandan-skin mooncakes are prepared, from habit and instinct.
During one of Tan’s pilgrimages, a relative asked if she remembered her grandmother’s gambling rice.
“My grandmother was so poor she was running an illegal gambling den to make a little money,” Tan says.
“She was also very smart. She didn’t want her gamblers to get hungry and leave. So she made this one-dish rice meal, with garlic, shallots, shrimp and rice, and she’d pop it in a rice cooker and turn it on. It was great because the gamblers could hold a rice bowl in one hand and play with the other. It says so much about the culture of my family at one time. … I feel like food encapsulates a lot of people’s histories and personality.”
Such tales, and the response to them, have impassioned her advocacy for “culinary anthropology.”
“I wrote about the experience when I came back the first time,” Tan says, “and got so many emails from people who had stories of a recipe from childhood that they regret not learning how to make. The dishes that you grew up eating say so much about your family and where you grew up, the ingredients that were available, the climate where you lived. And everyone makes something differently.”
Her dual national identity adds layers of self-discovery to her mission. She moved to Illinois when she was 18 to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, north of Chicago, in pursuit of a journalism career.
As a girl she dodged the kitchens where the women would labor over what she recently discovered were complex dishes. Some are rarely made anymore.
“As a child I had underestimated the women in my family. I related to the men. It wasn’t till I went back that I realized how hard their lives had been. Generations before my mother, my grandmothers had awful husbands, but they still had to feed the family.”
Tan’s maternal grandmother and three children were confronted one day by her husband’s “whole other family from China.” (Forced out, into a one-room flat, Tan’s grandmother had to earn a living somehow; thus, the gambling den.)
Tan’s great-grandfather, who had been well-respected in Singapore, was an opium addict who used his young daughter as a drug courier.
“I wouldn’t have heard a lot of these stories if I hadn’t taken the time to go back. Toward the end of the year, my grandmother was really starting to lose her memory, mistaking me for my sister. I urge people to take the time, ask the questions you want to ask right now.”
A few of the recipes in the book might intimidate people. “But a lot of the ingredients are pretty easy to find in Chinatowns here. You can get pandan leaves in Asian grocery stores frozen or online. They’re very cheap. A bunch is, like, $1.29.”
Most of the recipes never had been written down before. Her aunts laughed at her, she writes in the introduction to the pineapple tart recipe, “the first 10 times I asked them for this one. The initial set of instructions they gave me for pineapple jam was ‘Aiyah, you just juice the pineapple, add sugar and then boil, boil, boil!’”
Some recipes can be adapted. “In the braised duck recipe, I love the gravy. I’ve used it in brisket for a seder dinner.”
Which touches on those dual-identity issues.
“Singapore is exactly halfway across the world from Chicago,” she said, where she landed when she arrived in the United States. “When I’m here I feel very Asian; when I’m there I feel very American. I realized, in modern society, you don’t have to choose. You can always be a combination of both.”
Her exploration also spoke to the family-career balance.
“I had to leave my family in order to pursue my career by going to Northwestern. I had wondered for years — it’s an immigrant thing — you wonder how the family you’ve left behind thinks of you, and you carry some sort of guilt. I didn’t fully understand that they understood my decision until I went back. During one of my trips, we went to China to find my great-grandfather’s village, which he had left to find a better life for future generations in Singapore. My dad said, ‘You were moving to the U.S. to find a better life. The journey continues.’”