Next Saturday, September 3, writer/journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan will be at the Decatur Book Festival to speak about her recently published book, A Tiger in the Kitchen. The vibrant story details a year in Tan’s life when — after being laid off from The Wall Street Journal where she covered the fashion beat — she decided to “slow her life down” and embark on an anthropological culinary journey back to her native country of Singapore to learn traditional recipes she grew up eating. (Some of these recipes appear at the end of the book.)
Whether recounting the many fabulous meals had in the country’s famed hawker centers (food courts) or through home-cooked repasts patiently prepared by female family members, Tan had a yearning to reconnect with the Singaporean culinary culture that she overlooked in her formative years while pursuing journalistic ambitions.
Shortly after she arrived in America to attend Chicago’s Northwestern University, Tan found herself glued to computers bewitched by pictures of Singaporean dishes that reminded her of home. “Singaporeans are the most culinary homesick people in the world” Tan tells me by phone borrowing from journalist Calvin Trillin’s commentary on her country’s dining culture. “By the time I decided to do this book project and return to Singapore,” she recalls, “there were a number of things that were happening in my life. I felt very far away so it really was time to go home.”
Tan enlisted the help of her “aunties” and maternal grandmother — the holders of the family recipes — on her culinary-cum-literary project. For a year she shuttled back and forth to Singapore from her Brooklyn home, rolled up her sleeves, prodded her family with questions and took studious notes on some of her favorite dishes like her family’s braised duck, which she admits she sometimes simplifies due to money and time constraints. “I really like this dish’s gravy. It also goes well with tofu or pork tenderloin.” Tan’s voice gets excited when she recounts when a young cousin helped with a family cooking project. “It was almost a sport to them,” Tan relays. “Kids at that age seem more into their video games and other electronic gadgets, so it was great to see my cousin show interest.”
Tan’s cooking experiences with her family consistently brings her back to the Malay phrase agak-agak (meaning “to estimate”); something she heard often from her aunties and grandmother when the author asked for their precise recipe measurements. In cooking, it’s the same concept that all professional or home cooks will tell you in all corners of the world when asked “how much of this do you put in?” Answer: To your taste, or a little of this and that until it tastes right.
The finishing touches were placed on A Tiger in the Kitchen when Tan exiled herself for seven weeks with her culled notes and recipes at New York’s Yaddo – a selective artist’s community located upstate on 400 sprawling acres. “I felt a great sense of duty to not slack off while I was there,” Tan states. “Writers such as Sylvia Plath and Patricia Highsmith came through there. And at daily communal meals the other artists staying there always ask you how your writing is coming along.”
A Tiger in the Kitchen is an important food memoir and relatable to anyone who feels something missing from their own lives — a life force link to their culture and the desire to pass it along as in Ms. Tan’s case. It is the author’s personal culinary road map that she gratefully shares. And whether she intended to or not, it channels her family’s recurring sage advice to just “agak-agak” – try a little this or that with your life, until it feels right.
by Gene Lee, Food and More blog