I’ve been remiss lately about updating my “books” section of the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Despite the busy schedule, I usually read at least a few pages at lunchtime and then again at night before bed. I recently devoured Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (it took me all of 2 days to plow through that) and was wondering what to start next, when I got an email from Cheryl Tan, author of the cooking memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. She’s going to be doing a book event at Leopold’s in Detroit this Saturday, August 13th at 7pm and wondered if I might be able to help spread the word. Consider it spread!
After reading Cheryl Tan’s memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, I would venture to say that no one would be more surprised at the turn of events in the author’s life as Tan’s own girlhood or teenage self, if such a thing were possible. Born under the fierce and headstrong sign of the Tiger, she grew up in Singapore, moving to the States after high school to attend college and build a career as a journalist. As a child, she was pushed to achieve academically, but was never expected to learn “womanly” tasks such a cleaning and cooking- there were maids for that. Her paternal grandmother, however, was a powerhouse in the kitchen, not only doing the family’s daily cooking while she was alive, but churning out tarts and dumplings by the hundreds during holidays and festivals. The family recognized that Tanglin ah-ma (Tan’s nickname for her grandmother) was a great cook, but it was also taken for granted, and Tan simply didn’t possess any curiosity at the time for anything taking place in the kitchen.
Tan makes sure to emphasize the difference between an interest in cooking (or lack thereof) and an interest in food. Somewhat ironically, she echoes Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Singapore as “the most food-obsessed nation on earth”- in one passage, she tells how she’d visit the computer lab late at night in college to go online just to look at photographs of Singaporean food (surely one of the earliest instances of online food porn!) because she missed it so much. But it didn’t occur to her for several more years that she might actually be able to learn to create the food she so desperately craved.
Tan’s culinary exploits started slowly and humbly, with meatloaf and other dishes “built on the salty shoulders of a can of Campbell’s soup”, and evolving through her twenties as she met her husband-to-be and they began cooking together. She developed a fondness for baking, which she found calmed her after particularly harried days at work. 2008 brought about a turning point- her job was becoming increasingly unbearable, and stress-related health issues were signaling to her that she needed a change. She decided that she would spend a year traveling back and forth between the US and Singapore, spending time with her Aunties and learning to make her grandmother’s recipes. Her grandmother had passed away when Tan was a child, but fortunately, her father’s sister-in-law had spent years cooking with Tanglin ah-ma and knew how to produce all of the key dishes the family had grown up with.
Tan’s journey is an enjoyable one to tag along with, as we follow her from tentative observer to capable cook able to serve her family a multi-course meal (the ambitiousness of which would have sent even the most experienced cooks into a panic). In the beginning, she insists on measurements for everything, which her aunts laugh off: “Just agak-agak“, they insist, a phrase that roughly translates as “guesstimate” or “adjust as you go”. As someone who has observed and taken notes of my future mother-in-law making her Puerto Rican rice without measuring anything, this scene made me chuckle with recognition.
Although Tan displays the characteristic cockiness of an oldest child at times (and a Tiger at that), she also doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a sometimes unflattering light. She admits that anything still resembling the animal it came from makes her squeamish, and confesses that she messed up a batch of dumplings for being too stingy with the filling. The pressure she felt as a child to achieve is ever-present, as her family are all harsh judges of food and don’t hesitate to let her know when her efforts are “sub-par”. Still, she is willing to put herself on the line by exposing herself to their critiques for the sake of learning.
The book is a great read not only for food lovers, but for anyone interested in Singaporean and Chinese culture. Through Tan’s stories of her childhood and her interactions with her parents and older family members, we glimpse the chasm between the older generation and the new, the cultural gap between Singapore and mainland China, and the struggles of being a modern, Westernized woman in a culture that has contradictory expectations for women (Tan’s parents push her to succeed in her career, while her aunts all nag her about having babies!).
One of the things that struck me most about the book is exactly how much it can take to overcome the notion that one “can’t” cook, or the fact that it never occurs to many people to even try to learn. If it takes a major cathartic event for someone who grew up eating amazing home cooked food to want to learn, what will it take for the average American? How do we get the average person back in the kitchen, so that narratives like Cheryl Tan’s are the norm rather than the exception? I hope to be able to get her thoughts on this and other questions at her book event this weekend- hope you in the Detroit area can make it!
Disclosure: I received a copy of A Tiger in the Kitchen from the publisher for review purposes.